Sunday, 13 August 2017

Venezuela: What Is Going On There, Why, And How Does It Affect Us?

"Venezuela is a socialist disaster area," proclaims the right wing press. The situation is grim but all is not as it seems, whataboutism notwithstanding. Let's take a closer look.

Venezuela, officially the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, is a federal republic located on the northern coast of South America. It is bordered by Colombia on the west, Brazil on the south, Guyana on the east, and the islands of Trinidad and Tobago to the north-east. Venezuela covers 916,445 km2 (353,841 sq mi) and has over 31 million (31,775,371) people. - Wikipedia.

A former Spanish colony, it has a history of violent repression by a series of warlords until comparatively recently. Since then it has had a series of democratic governments, most recently led by Hugo Chavez and now Nicolás Maduro. It also has massive reserves of petroleum oil.

Three things we should be paying attention to are socialist rule, foreign interference, and the Venezuelan narrative's affect on our own political discourse. Let's dig in.

Socialist rule

Whenever anything goes wrong in a country ruled by a socialist government, apologists are quick to shout, "They're doin' it wrong!" despite the fact that key tenets of socialism, i.e. state ownership of property and the means of production, and the denigration of the "bourgeoisie" are being applied. The trouble is, they're being applied selectively and nastily. When that's not enough, they either claim that complaints are exaggerated or bleat about external forces subverting the rule of law. Yeah... about that, it's complicated. Okay, it's looking bad for socialism, innit?


Bolivia's estimated 2012 gross domestic product (GDP) totaled $27.43 billion at official exchange rate and $56.14 billion at purchasing power parity. Economic growth was estimated to be at about 5.2%, and inflation was estimated at about 6.9%. Bolivia was rated "Repressed" by The Heritage Foundation's 2010 Index of Economic Freedom. Despite a series of mostly political setbacks, between 2006 and 2009 the Morales administration has spurred growth higher than at any point in the preceding 30 years. The growth was accompanied by a moderate decrease in inequality. A surplus budget of 1.7% (GDP) was obtained by 2012, the government runs surpluses since Morales administration reflecting a prudent economic management. - Wikipedia

Not bad for a former Spanish colony. What is Bolivia doing right, given that the CIA thinks they're a bunch of G-D commie pinkos? Well at first blush it seems they've liberalised their socialism, i.e. they are actually doin' it wrong by allowing nasty old capitalism in, but without oppressing people. Case in point:

Two concessions to foreign private companies in two of the three largest cities – Cochabamba and La Paz/El Alto — were prematurely ended in 2000 and 2006 respectively. The country's second largest city, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, relatively successfully manages its own water and sanitation system by way of cooperatives. The government of Evo Morales intends to strengthen citizen participation within the sector. Increasing coverage requires a substantial increase of investment financing. - Wikipedia

Decentralisation and personal freedom appear to be the keys to success here; disorganised control-freakery is at the core of the problems in Venezuela. This truth should be the heart of any argument against Jeremy Corbyn's Labour trying to turn the UK into Venezuela: the conditions here are not the same and they're assuming he'd have absolute power, not a series of checks and balances to rein him in.

Foreign interference

There's a fair amount of evidence that foreign interference is afoot. How much of it there is, who's behind it, and what is actually involved appears to be up for debate. Read through this Abi Wilkinson thread:

As the argument rages back and forth you can see that "failed ideology," "low oil prices," "corrupt administration," and "foreign interference" are not the whole story. There's this:

If that's true the Right can just shut the Hell up now. Put a sock in it. They don't have a leg to stand on RE: human rights abuses if they're selling that regime the weapons to carry out the abuses with! This might have consequences if the Yanks stick their oar in:

Mind you, it does appear that they've been doing that already:

Maybe it's a masculine thing; they've got to wave their wieners to make themselves look all big and tough and stuff. Personally, I'm not impressed. Okay, so there appears to be foreign interference to restore the status quo to "Screw you, peon!" Assume that's true. Why is this not happening in Bolivia? Is it because Bolivia is playing ball with the eeevillll capitalists? Or is it because the Morales regime is governing the country in the interests of its people instead of trying to advance an ideology (at least on paper) while turning his country into an oppressive dictatorship.

I'll let the actual socialists have the last word on the subject:

Behind a façade of governmental unity, another struggle is developing, but none of the groups are fighting to continue the revolutionary project or to reconstruct the mass movement that saved it after the attempted coup and the bosses’ strikes of 2002–3.

...As the economic and political crisis deepens, it’s become obvious that neither the government nor the opposition will offer any real solutions. While Maduro betrays the revolution by courting the bourgeoisie and sliding backwards into neoliberalism, right-wing forces have brought in violent mercenaries to try and disrupt the country even further. As these two groups struggle for power, ordinary Venezuelans are watching the gains of Chavismo slip away. - Being Honest About Venezuela, by Mike Gonzalez for Jacobin

There's the problem: they've slid back into the selfish factionalism that left their country in a mess for so long before. Their problems will end when they care more about the country and its people than in personal enrichment.

The Venezuelan narrative

The Venezuelan narrative is, not to put too fine a point on it, a political football with facts cherry-picked to suit each of two purposes:

  • to promote neoliberalism as the only economic policy set worth bothering with
  • to present Socialism itself (and the recipients of the benefits thereof) as being under threat from its enemies

Pundits on both sides of the aisle have been merrily what-abouting as if their lives depend on it where the failure and violence are concerned, not because they particularly care about Venezuela but because they're at war over ideology and it's not clear as to which faction is winning.

How this affects us

Throughout the Western Anglophile world there's a debate over wealth inequality and the provision of tax-funded services including healthcare and education — or not. Whoever wins the debate affects the policies that will govern us going forward and there's a lot at stake.


The main reason we've got see-saw and boogeyman politics is because the neoliberals have painted themselves into a corner. They promised us that if they had their way we'd all benefit, but that's not true; the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. As a result, their arguments boil down to "It's not my job to pay for Terry in East Anglia's cancer care. He needs to pay for his own treatment, the cigarette-smoking sponger." What they won't tell you is that even if we do get "our own money" back via lower taxes, health insurance companies exist to make a profit and don't like paying out. Faced with a choice between eating and paying the rent and paying for healthcare when you're feeling okay, most people go without. This is our future if we let the neoliberals win:

A crisis is building over the prices of new transformative therapies for cancer, hepatitis C virus infection, and rare diseases. The clinical imperative is to offer these therapies as broadly and rapidly as possible. We propose a practical way to increase drug affordability through health care loans (HCLs)—the equivalent of mortgages for large health care expenses. - Buying cures versus renting health: Financing health care with consumer loans, by multiple writers for Science Translational Medicine

No, thank you. The neoliberals aren't finished yet. The new angle is that providing tax-funded services will bankrupt the nation. Since their ideology is predicated on low taxes, any attempt to raise taxes is immediately written off as unfeasible:

Economists have pointed to figures that show that increasing corporation tax (and income tax for high earners) actually reduces the tax yield, as companies and individuals will find ways to avoid paying.

Paul Johnson, director of IFS, said: “They are looking at raising an awful lot from companies and high earners. The chance of getting £50bn are pretty small. It seems to us is that if they were able to raise that amount that would take tax burden in the UK to its highest level in 70 years." - Labour manifesto would 'bankrupt Britain' with £250bn debt and biggest tax burden since 1950s, by Gordon Rayner and Steven Swinford for The Telegraph

In case you're not getting the point, here it is: low taxes are always good (despite lower revenues) while higher taxes are always bad, particularly when they're on the rich, on the grounds that they might fly the coop if we ask for a bit more.


Socialism's claim to be the underdog is actually validated by the likes of  David Dimbleby calling out the right-wing press for basically monstering Jeremy Corbyn. That said, socialism is no more of a vehicle to deliver prosperity than neoliberalism, given that they're two sides of the same coin. The liberalised version of socialism that I have all the sympathy for is the one that actually works in practice: you get to have and hold your cake and eat it. So does everybody else. Indeed, the more liberal the socialism the better it works out for everyone. We need personal freedom and businesses need to make a profit. It's okay to own property, as long as you don't hoover it all up and hoard it to the detriment of the public good. Indeed, you know when they're doin' it right when the predominant arguments from the right are based on selfish greed rather than "Are you noticing all this plight? Roll 'em up!"

Which brings me to Middle-out, my preferred solution. We need to not only "notice all this plight" but do more than merely roll 'em up. This means implementing policies that give everyone an opportunity to join the ranks of the aspirational. It means the market is our servant, not our master. We're more than merely economic units whose value is predicated on our earning and spending power. We can reduce the wealth gap without wrecking the economy but we'll have to get off the damn see-saw first.


Venezuela is the green smoke and projection, not the man behind the curtain. The causes for its decline are many and varied but ultimately rest on the shoulders of those who hold the reins of power — and abuse it. While I'm not a fan of socialism per se I don't see a need to lie about it when it's got enough negatives of its own already. I believe that if we viewed the world through a liberal/authoritarian lens rather than a left-right one we'd be halfway to a better world, but as long as ideological considerations rule the roost, good luck with that.

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