AntiNote: The following is an extended excerpt of a radio interview, edited for readability.
On 8 March 2014, Chuck Mertz of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) talked to educator and author George Ciccariello-Maher about the current dynamics in Venezuela.
Protest movements and struggles waged by dissidents against state prerogatives, wherever they happen, are always more complex than we are typically given to understand. But the ongoing cases of Ukraine and Venezuela seem to have reached, for a great many, new heights of incomprehensibility. Roles appear to be reversed, with reactionary forces engaging in tactics we are used to associating with revolutionary movements. Questions of legitimacy, authority, democracy, and violence nag at all participants. The temptation is strong to zoom out, chalk everything up to global realpolitik, and simply declare everyone a bastard.
In the Antidote Writers Collective, we nonetheless have been trying to identify people or groups in conflict situations with whom we most sympathize, and focus on their struggles—which are sometimes against both ‘state’ and ‘opposition’ forces in multivalent conflicts. We never expect complete consensus within our collective about these things; in the case of Venezuela it has been particularly difficult. The propagandistic nature of most (even alternative) media coming out of that country doesn’t help. The following interview provides a good deal more historical and geopolitical context than usual, and emphasizes emergent elements of Venezuelan society which are too often overlooked in today’s dichotomous discourse.
“Some people say anarchists are against all states. But at the same time, anarchists—and revolutionaries more broadly—are for building different kinds of structures: participatory, directly democratic structures through which we can govern our own lives.”
Chuck Mertz: On the line with us right now is George Ciccariello-Maher. Good morning, George.
George Ciccariello-Maher: Good morning, thanks for having me.
CM: George Ciccariello-Maher is an assistant professor of political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. George’s recent writing includes #LaSalida? Venezuela at a Crossroads – “The protests this week have far more to do with returning economic and political elites to power than with their downfall,” at the Nation.
So in #LaSalida? you write, “Ukraine, Bosnia, Venezuela: tear gas, masks, water cannons—ours is an age of riots and rebellions, of radical self-creation in the heady streets. Spain’s Indignados, the Occupy Movement, Mexico’s Yo Soy 132, and of course the Arab Spring.” Last week we talked with UPenn poli-sci prof Adolph Reed about what he describes as the long, slow surrender of American liberals in his March Harper’s cover story, Nothing Left. I realize Adolph was talking about the U.S. Left. But is there a “long, slow surrender of liberalism” going on here in the U.S. while around the world that’s not the case?
GC: I think we should pay attention to the way broad historical dynamics move very differently in different parts of the world. What the date 1989 means to us is mostly the fall of the Soviet Union, the victory of neoliberalism, and the beginning of a uni-polar U.S.-dominated world. But while leftists were certainly discouraged by the shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union, 1989 also marked the first massive rebellion against neoliberalism, in Venezuela, setting off a whole wave of anti-neoliberal movements. The Zapatistas had already existed, but they rose up in ’94. And this broad backlash to neoliberalism in Latin America has really provided for a very different Latin America than we had 20 years ago.
CM: I have never heard the uprising in 1989 referred to as the beginning of the revolt against neoliberalism. What I have always heard from every progressive is that it was the 1994 rise of the Zapatistas. Why do you think the 1989 situation is ignored, and all of the focus is on the Zapatistas?
GC: Part of it was that the Zapatistas were very savvy about the way they communicated—using transnational electronic networks to draw support—and also the rhetoric they used. They explicitly did not speak, in this post-Soviet world, of “building socialism.” They spoke in much more vague terms that could be incorporated into Left liberals’ imaginations, and that was a very strategic move.
It’s also because what’s going on in Venezuela is more complex. It was a massive uprising that took over many cities for almost a week, it’s called the Caracazo. We just passed the 25th anniversary of it last week. And at the end of this uprising, you had the massacre of somewhere between 300 and 3,000 people—we don’t know how many because a lot of them were buried in mass graves.
This begins the unwinding and the unraveling of not only neoliberal reform in Venezuela, but also of the two-party political system. And Chávez’s coup, his initial failed coup in 1992—in other words, the moment at which Hugo Chávez became a public figure of reverence in Venezuela—was initially timed to coincide with the third anniversary of this rebellion and this massacre.
This also creates a difficulty for leftists, especially ‘Western’ leftists, because they see someone in uniform and they get a little skittish. While these are serious concerns, they don’t necessarily apply to what was going on in Venezuela. This was an attempted coup against a radically undemocratic and repressive government, an attempt that was also widely supported by revolutionary movements that had been fighting for decades.
CM: It’s difficult to take a position—as you’re pointing out—when on the one hand you have this government that is incredibly corrupt, that is undemocratic, and on the other hand you don’t support having a military coup happen. How would you compare what took place in 1989 Venezuela to what is happening today in Ukraine?
GC: I think we can’t be formalistic about these things. We should be honest about the fact that some coups are good. We should be honest about the fact that some elected regimes are not worth maintaining. But this raises complex questions: how do we know when that is? It really has to do with the content of these regimes and the content of what we’re trying to build.
For example, take the anarchist position. There aren’t a lot of anarchists; there’s a very small sector of anarchists that actually support these protests in the streets right now. It’s a much more middle-class sector of anarchism with a very limited perspective on what’s going on. But then you have more revolutionary anarchists who say, listen, we are not defending this government—because we’re anarchists—but we’re defending what this government has opened up in terms of popular participation: council structures, direct democracy.
Some people say anarchists are against all states. But at the same time, anarchists—and revolutionaries more broadly—are for building different kinds of structures: participatory, directly democratic structures through which we can govern our own lives. That’s the content that we need to assess these kinds of situations. And when you get a situation like the Ukraine, this is not what’s going on—on either side. We have a power play between forces, and global forces intersecting with far-Right groups on the ground, and so the situation is very different.
CM: You write about this uprising against neoliberalism in 1989 in Venezuela: “25 years ago this week was hence known as the Caracazo, and irreversibly divided Venezuelan history into a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ Its importance is not limited to the resistance to imperialism that it embodied, however, but also the slaughter that marked its conclusion. Numbers often fail us in their false equivalence, but there is much that we can make clear. Some 3,000 were killed in 1989, many deposited unceremoniously in unmarked mass graves.”
This ‘before’ and ‘after’ 1989, this divided Venezuelan history—how much does it harden the two sides against one another? How much does the violence of 1989 still linger in the feelings that the two sides have against each other? And can this context and these memories lead to more violence in the future?
GC: 1989 was a watershed in many ways in Venezuela. If you’re talking to wealthy elites in Venezuela, this rebellion was a fearful moment in which the dark-skinned poor took over the cities that they considered to be theirs. In other words, it was perceived very much as an invasion. It was perceived as a moment of weakness and vulnerability in which the poor—so often segregated and kept hidden away, pushed aside into marginal neighborhoods and communities—took over the city. This was powerfully traumatic for the wealthy.
So a lot of the hatred and the fear that we see manifested by wealthy elites today in Venezuela stems from, and was certainly exacerbated by, this moment. But at the same time it would be a mistake to say that it divided the country between equal parts. Because this was a moment that completely discredited an existing government and discredited a series of policies that it had enacted, and discredited traditional political parties—leading to a landslide victory in a series of elections for Chávez, and for a new constitution. The vast majority of Venezuelans supported the new constitution, the vast majority supported Chavismo as a governing set of policies.
These days we have a much more complex picture; there is something closer to an even divide. Chavismo is still the clear majority, and there are reasons to think that it’s significantly larger than those holding opposition positions, but these questions are becoming more complex.
CM: Whenever I would have guests on to discuss the Chávez Revolution as it was happening, I would get emails from people saying this was a guy who tried to overthrow the Venezuelan government in 1992 via a military coup, so he can never be seen as somebody who embraces democracy. How is it that Venezuelans got past that point, to accept him as somebody who can actually bring more democracy than the government that they had?
“It’s different to establish a council through state intervention than it is to see one established on a grass-roots level, spontaneously, from below.”
GC: The first thing is, the majority of Venezuelans supported that coup. They supported that coup because they were fed up, because the system wasn’t working. Because the way that the two-party system was constructed really prevented everyday people, and especially poor people, from having any voice and any relevance. So you had a great number of people that supported Chávez, and it was because of the coup attempt that he became massively popular.
He went on television in a live broadcast calling to lay down arms and said, listen, we’ve failed for now. When he said “for now,” that emerged as a promise that people rallied around. They said, you’re right, we didn’t seize power right now—but we’re going to in the future. And he became a sort of hero on the basis of this. And so it wasn’t so much a question of getting over something bad that had been done, as much as it was celebrating someone who was brave enough to take powerful, necessary steps against all odds.
And how this addresses the question of democracy is the fact that for decades prior to Chávez, people had been struggling in Venezuela—popular movements and guerillas and popular neighborhood organizations—for a different kind of democracy. And that’s been one of the calling cards of this Bolivarian Revolution—not a simple affair, certainly: the attempt to build a more participatory and more direct democracy.
So you have the proliferation of popular assemblies in the neighborhoods. Assemblies that had existed, again, prior to Chávez, prior to being recognized by law, but which now had become a part of Venezuelan political life. Some 40,000 directly democratic local assemblies. Then there’s the consolidation of these assemblies into broader structures known as communes, which also incorporate workers’ cooperatives and worker-owned factories and nationalized factories, all under the aegis of this participatory democracy. And so the attempt is really to think through and develop a way of getting past the more egregious elements of liberal representative democracy, and to build something completely different.
CM: You write how the anti-imperialism and anti-neoliberalism movements struggled forth in Venezuela, “building popular assemblies in the barrios, and making increasingly militant demands against a flailing state which responded with targeted killings and the occasional massacre. The mayor of greater Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, who today positions himself as an opponent of repression, himself presided over the murder of dozens of students in the streets in the early 1990s, not to mention the notorious 1992 prison massacre.” Are those events remembered? And if they are, then how does a person like that become the mayor of Caracas?
GC: They absolutely are remembered by Chavistas and revolutionaries, and so it really underlines the deep irony of some of this opposition’s political leadership. Here’s someone who stood firmly for the old order, who represents the old order in every way. Someone who, as I said, presided over massacres, and yet today is on the streets attempting to lead these protests and claim that their human rights are being abused.
And then you have the other leaders of this opposition: María Corina Machado was very friendly with the Bush regime. She met with Bush in the White House. During the short coup against Chávez in 2002, she signed the decree that essentially dissolved all legitimate constitutional powers.
And then there’s Leopoldo López, who is currently in prison on charges of threatening violence. Here is someone who engaged in large amounts of violence during the coup as well, and led witch-hunts for Chavista ministers. Someone saying he was proud of the coup. These are people that are not democratic. We should be clear about that. They’re people who represent the most elite segments of Venezuelan society—the white rich elites who hate everything Chavista, and hate everything that’s dark and poor.
CM: You point out how these grassroots movements, these direct democracy movements started up in 1989, and these communal organizations were working really hard together and they continue to work together. My impression was that they were always simply—not necessarily pawns, I don’t want to say that—but supporters, knee-jerk supporters of whatever Hugo Chávez did. But you point out in your article that’s not necessarily the case. How do those organizations of direct democracy differ from the Chávez Administration?
GC: In one sense they differ fundamentally, because they pre-dated it. These are people getting together on the neighborhood level and starting their own assembly to discuss and debate and make decisions about how the neighborhood is run. You have a whole series of initiatives like this that pre-date the state policies of the revolution.
And what the government does is, in many ways, laudable. It’s a good thing that they attempt to incorporate these existing assemblies into the revolution, as a motor for revolutionary progress and direct democracy. I argue in my book that that’s a good and necessary step. In 2006, they officially recognized communal councils.
But something’s always lost at the same time. It’s different to establish a council through state intervention than it is to see one established on a grass-roots level, spontaneously, from below. So there’s a tension that exists in these councils—not all of these councils work well, not all of them are radically independent of the government. It’s true that the way that people identify with the process, and the way that people identified with Chávez especially, is problematic. There are certainly people who are willing to support anything Chávez said, but this cannot be disentangled from the fact that the reason people supported Chávez was because they saw him as standing for their interests and for their liberation.
But what we see is a caricature that says any organization that supports Chavismo is not independent enough. The reality is that a lot of these groups are incredibly independent. If anything the Chávez government, and now the Maduro government, have a difficult task: to contain some of these more radical groups who want to be more combative and provocative towards the opposition. You have the collectives—that everyone in the opposition is very frightened of these days—that are radical popular-democratic and often communist militias, that emerged out of the self-defense of their local neighborhoods.
They are incredibly independent, and they often express this independence in combative ways. So it’s not the case that popular organizations in Venezuela are blindly faithful. They are the more critical segment of this process. They’re the ones who point to corruption, they’re the ones who point out the inefficiencies and the ineffectiveness and the limitations of the process. But they don’t do that as a way of supporting protests like these, that seek to reinstall the old order and the old elite into power. Rather their demand is that this revolution be more effective, faster, build more communal power, build more direct democracy, really put the people in charge.
CM: So are these opposition protests in Venezuela having more success in the Western media than they are on the ground in Venezuela?
GC: Yes, infinitely more success. Because even at the height of these protests, when they had the day of national protests on February 12th it was about 100,000 people in the entire country, maybe 10,000 in Caracas. And that’s a generous estimate. For Venezuela these are not large numbers.
And then there were a couple of deaths on the first day that are probably the responsibility of government forces—and almost every single death after that has been very questionable, if not the direct responsibility of those protesting in the street. People have been beheaded by wires that were put there on purpose to behead motorcyclists. Two days ago, two people—a National Guard and a Chavista motorcyclist—were both shot from above by protesters.
The more that these protests turn into what they claim not to be—very violent efforts to shut down the city and impose their will on the majority that still supports the government—the less support they’re going to have. So the numbers have really dwindled.
“Economically, Venezuela has gone from being one of the most unequal countries in the hemisphere to being one of the most equal. That’s the sort of thing that these opposition groups would see reversed. They would see a return to neoliberalism.”
CM: On Thursday the BBC ran a story headlined UN Experts Seek Venezuela Probe into Abuse Allegations. In that article, they reported that “a group of UN-appointed human rights experts has asked Venezuela for prompt clarification of allegations of abuse against anti-government protesters. The six independent experts said that they were deeply disturbed by allegations of cases of arbitrary detention of protesters. They also asked for urgent clarification on a report that some detainees had been beaten and tortured. At least 18 people have been killed since the protests started a month ago.” So does the Maduro government—and did the past Chávez government—at times act like the previous leadership they overthrew?
GC: The police in Venezuela are very problematic despite all the efforts to transform them. And the security forces have certainly done things over the past month that shouldn’t have been done. There’s a video on the first day, when one student was killed and a revolutionary collective member was killed, showing a SEBIN official—a government intelligence official—firing into a crowd.
What they’re not reporting in regard to that UN probe is that five members of that intelligence unit have been arrested and the government has come out and said they weren’t supposed to leave their barracks and they weren’t supposed to have their weapons out like that.
More than a dozen members of the National Guard have been arrested to investigate possible abuses. There have been videos of things that are certainly unpleasant. You see the video of the woman getting hit by the helmet of a National Guard troop. These things are awful and should be investigated.
But to put a little bit of perspective on this: people who lived through the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s think it’s really incredible that anyone is referring to this as human rights abuses. Because they experienced human rights abuses—often at the hands of the people running these protests. That is not to justify anything that goes on today, but it’s to put it into a little bit of perspective.
Also to put it into perspective: many people have been shot by members of the opposition protests. People have been killed at the barricades for trying to cross them: two by barbed wires—one beheaded—and a couple more stabbed when they tried to cross the barricades. These things are not being reported as human rights abuses.
And I raise the question of why it is that there is an outcry over human rights abuses today in Venezuela when there were more than a dozen people killed during the agricultural strike in Colombia last year and no one seemed to care. The Mexican government is engaged in human rights abuses left and right and no one seems to care.
CM: Consortium News writer Robert Perry wrote this week that there is a “shadow foreign policy,” the foreign policy that is enforced around the world by USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. How responsible are USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy for the situation in Venezuela, and how much do those organizations actually promote democracy, in your opinion?
GC: These opposition parties, the parties that López and Capriles come out of were essentially the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID and the International Republican Institute, which used the veil of being non-governmental organizations to hide the fact that they really do work for the United States government. They funnel funding into opposition groups. Obama, just like Bush, provides direct funding, millions of dollars annually—hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade—to this Venezuelan opposition. Despite the fact that these are some of the same people who participated in an anti-democratic coup against Chávez, and they’re trying to do the same thing again.
This is not a secret. Under Obama, this is a line-item in the budget that goes to these opposition groups. So the role of these organizations is absolutely fundamental.
CM: There’s this perception that everything in any situation around the world is about the U.S. The Left is likely saying this is U.S. intervention into Venezuelan politics in an attempt to hand the country over to big oil. The Right is likely saying that this is the U.S. trying to bring democracy to a socialist country because we’re so nice, and we’re trying to just be good guys. Maybe the Right is saying that the only reason the uprising hasn’t worked in Venezuela yet is because Obama’s not doing enough to support the uprising, or because he’s weak. Everything’s about the U.S. How much is this about Venezuela, and how much is this about the U.S.?
GC: The background for what’s going on is U.S. intervention and imperial interests in Venezuela. The funding is there, the interest is there. But at the same time this Venezuelan opposition is among the most reactionary group you could imagine. U.S. aside, these are groups that are doing their best to return to political power because they were displaced fifteen years ago. And they will do anything to do that, because when they return to power they can start siphoning off the oil again for themselves, and live the life of luxury they think they deserve at the expense of the Venezuelan poor.
Economically, Venezuela has gone from being one of the most unequal countries in the hemisphere to being one of the most equal. That’s the sort of thing that these groups would see reversed. They would see a return to neoliberalism, a return to the pro-capitalist policies that take this oil rent, run it like a private corporation that doesn’t belong to the Venezuelan people, and then contribute to the undermining of popular struggles.
CM: One last question for you, George, and as we do with all of our guests, it’s the Question from Hell: the question we hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate your response.
This week I was in a Twitter fight with somebody. I was just using their verbiage and I asked, “so the choice that people in Venezuela have is an incredibly corrupt government or a new government that would sell off the entire country to foreign corporations?” And the person told me that I would not be able to say that in Venezuela, I would be arrested.
The other thing that I often get is, “you don’t understand what Chávez was about. He took my parents’ land that they owned for generations and generations, just stole our land from us.” So George, is the Chávez Revolution all about land-grabbing and government censorship?
GC: There’s some amazingly mythical elements of opposition discourse. It’s worth pointing out that 90% of the Venezuelan media is still in private hands. Some of these private outfits no longer preach the open overthrow and murder of the president—which, let’s be clear, that’s something they did in 2002 around the coup, and they weren’t arrested. These private media have adopted a more moderate tone, but the government doesn’t control the vast majority of the media. This is something that the opposition can’t get their heads around, because the media outlets are not simply parroting their extreme perspectives.
With regard to land distribution, the Venezuelan government has distributed a large amount of land to poor campesinos and peasant groups. But unfortunately—and I say unfortunately—this has not been expropriated land, for the most part, from the wealthy landholders. It’s often been taken out of public lands that were not being used for any particular purpose. If this revolution moves forward, I would hope there will be more land expropriation, I would hope that there will be more efforts to nationalize private corporations, because that’s really going to be a measure of this actually being a revolutionary process.
The fact that elites who own massive tracts of land—not through any kind of legal ownership in the past, in fact through generations and generations of theft—that these people are upset about this suggests that this process is at least pointing in the right direction.
CM: George, a real pleasure having you on this morning’s show. Thank you so much for being on our show this morning.
GC: Thanks for having me, it’s been great.
Transcribed and printed with the permission of This is Hell! Radio. Listen to the full interview here.