by Greg Grandin
Coups and countercoups. Crackdowns. Economic crackups. Seven cents for a tube of toothpaste and $755 for a box of condoms. As a result of the latter, Bloomberg says, “Venezuela has one of South America’s highest rates of HIV infection” (disturbing, and, Bloomberg didn’t mention, exactly the same rate of HIV infection as in the United States). Falling oil prices. The arrest of an opposition leader. Washington plots. Human Rights Watch tweets. South America rallies.
What is going on in Venezuela? I have no idea. I’ve been too busy trying to track down the cameraman who accompanied Bill O’Reilly to El Salvador, where he didn’t report on the El Mozote massacre. So I asked a trusted panel of experts. Here’s what they say.
Above all, Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of history at Pomona and author of The Enduring Legacy, a history of the Venezuelan oil industry, insists we have to keep perspective. Mexico, where the bodies pile high and the country is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportion, gets a “free pass” by the United States. Not so much Venezuela (where things might be bad but not 83,000-corpses bad).
Tinker Salas, whose timely Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know will be published in April, writes:
Reporting on Venezuela in the US, and depictions of the country by the Washington political establishment would lead anyone to believe that the country is once again on the verge of a precipice. The recent death of a student in Venezuela is tragic. But unlike in Mexico where impunity reigns, the policeman responsible for the student’s death was immediately arrested which didn’t stop the state department and Secretary of Kerry from issuing a rebuke [Editor’s Note: compare Venezuela’s Interior Minister Carmen Meléndez response to the killing of Kliver Roa with recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland….) In the current context, the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela is depicted as losing popular support and purportedly relying on repression to stay in power (again, compare with Mexico). Sensational headlines typically focus on the lack of toilet paper and condoms as a way to ridicule the country and the political leadership that was elected after Chávez’s death. In Mexico, where over 50 percent of the population lives in poverty, and millions of poor and indigenous people lack access to food, or basic services, deplorable conditions go unremarked. Millions either emigrate or become displaced, and the tens of thousands of deaths are blamed on the drug cartels, thus absolving the US ally and financed government of responsibility. Most reporting seldom acknowledges the fundamental political and social change that has occurred in Venezuela in the past fifteen years or the empowerment of millions of people. The future in Venezuela is unclear and the crisis deep, and dissatisfaction has grown, yet the government still retains support.
So what is that base of the government’s support? Sujatha Fernandes, who teaches in the sociology department at CUNY’s Queens College and the Graduate Center and is the author of Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela, points to the barrios, where despite the economic shortages and long lines for basic goods:
many of those poor barrio residents who make up the stronghold of the Bolivarian process are aware of the destabilizing role being played by the opposition on many fronts and are not the core of those expressing discontent. And speaking to ordinary Venezuelans, one does not get the sense of major economic calamity, despite hardships. The bonds of solidarity that have developed in recent times have given rise to such innovative responses as a barter economy.
Anthropologist Naomi Schiller, who has done extensive field work in the barrios, looking at community-media activism, puts the current crisis in context: “There have been few periods where Bolivarianism hasn’t been deeply embattled.” And the crisis takes its toll:
Constant pressure has narrowed spaces for reflection, constructive criticism and redress. In the midst of the economic crisis, state funding for community media initiatives has been greatly reduced. Catia TVe, a prominent community television station in Caracas, has cut its staff by half. The steadily diminishing reach of their minimum wage pay means that everyone must hold down multiple jobs. As elsewhere in Venezuela, new disparities have emerged between those who have access to dollars—via family abroad, through international travel, or other channels. But rather than abandon the project of building Bolivarian socialism, many barrio-based media producers continue to make television and radio towards the aim of constructing a more just and equal social order, seeking to do what they can with very limited resources.
And despite the ongoing crisis, those citizens who are organized in social movements and “politically mobilized, such as those who work in community media, continue, for the most part, “to blame the opposition and the continuous meddling of the US government:”
Even while they are frustrated with corruption and mismanagement and skeptical of some claims put forth by the Maduro government, they remain convinced, that if the opposition should gain power, their social and economic conditions would be far worse. Chavismo has always been internally divided, with multiple conflicting currents—some more committed to participatory democracy and building a communal state than others.
Despite more than a decade of upheaval, the current moment, Schiller believes does “appear to be the most severe crisis that Chavismo has attempted to weather.”
Over the years, poor Venezuelan Chavistas, Schiller says, echoing Fernandes, have proven remarkably resilient and active in taking control of their lives, to the best of their ability. Supporters of Chávez and now Maduro are often depicted as “unproductive ‘clients’ who expect handouts in the form of subsidized food and irrationally cheap gas prices” (tropical versions of Romney’s 47 percenters). But, she says, the “Bolivarian movement has been built by people who have used state funds to educate themselves, build alliances, participate in local governance, feed their neighbors, make their own media, and care for the sick. They have sought to transform oil dollars into thriving communities.” That model might no longer be sustainable.
But not everyone in Venezuela is “organized.” Daniel Hellinger, a professor of International Relations at Webster University, who is the author of a number of books and of a monthly newsletter, Caracas Connects, points out that both planned destabilization and real popular discontent can exist simultaneously: “economic mismanagement and economic sabotage are not two mutually exclusive hypotheses about the sources of long lines.” Still, “disapproval of Maduro does not automatically enhance the position of the opposition:
As long as the people in the barrios do not join protests, the Maduro government will most likely not fall. But whether the Chavista base in the cities will turn out and vote for the PSUV in [scheduled National Assembly elections] December, despite the party’s superior organization, is much more problematic…. While the government may ultimately come up with hard evidence against [Caracas mayor Antonio] Ledezma, concern about his arrest [on charges of sedition] is not limited to the opposition. ‘Criminalization of dissent,’ as some commentators call it, is increasingly of concern to the left wing of Chavismo too.
Hellinger also points out that “arrests of security personnel and talk of coups on the part of the government”—however real the plotting might be—could backfire, “simply by making a coup more plausible.”