Dear fellow leftists: Maduro needs to go. Now.
The excuses have been all but spent by now. Since 2014, Venezuela has suffered one of the most brutal economic crises that any modern country has ever endured in peacetime. Living standards in what was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations have plummeted to the point that people are now suffering undernourishment and hunger. The fortunate ones have left the country, triggering the largest refugee crisis ever seen in the Western Hemisphere, with 3 million people estimated to have fled in the last few years according to the UNHCR.
Amid this chaos, the Maduro regime remains obsessed with remaining in power at all costs. In 2016, following the election of a majority-dominated National Assembly, Maduro effectively sidelined the legislature and has ruled by decree since. That same year government-controlled electoral authorities cancelled a recall referendum under bogus pretenses. This effectively denied the opposition and the people the legal means to remove him even though it was the very constitution passed by Chavez in 1999 that allowed a recall vote. By then the Maduro regime was all but eager to incarcerate its opponents, and suppress dissent by force. This slide into authoritarianism was complete by the time of the sham May 2018 elections, which were neither free nor fair. This is the failed state that some of you insist on defending, while at the same time complaining whenever the right uses Venezuela as the scapegoat for their distorted definition of socialism.
The excuses have run out
Let’s go one by one with the three main excuses that hard leftists give in supporting the Maduro regime.
1) The economic war: The first, and by all accounts the most idiotic, is the claim that the US has been waging an “economic war” against Venezuela and that this has been the main reason why its economy has collapsed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The US remains, as it has been for decades, the main buyer of Venezuela’s oil, and its banks hold most of Venezuela’s debt. The US is also the source of a third of all Venezuelan imports. All of this would seem puzzling if this were a country committed to breaking Venezuela’s economy as many hard leftists seem to think is the case. Yes, it is true that the US has waged economic war against its socialist opponents: the (illegal) embargo against Cuba is a prime example. But just because the US has done that to one socialist country does not mean it has done it to all.
Hard leftists often bring up the supposed sanctions that the US has imposed on Venezuela. In fact, the US has not imposed a single economic sanction against the country until 2019, against the Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA. All previous sanctions were targeted against individuals in the Chavez and Maduro administrations, not against Venezuelan companies or the country as a whole. As a Congressional Research Service report updated in February clearly states (emphasis mine):
“For more than a decade, the United States has employed sanctions as a policy tool in response to activities of the Venezuelan government or Venezuelan individuals. These have included sanctions, including targeted sanctions against almost 100 individuals, related to terrorism, drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, antidemocratic actions, human rights violations, and corruption. Most recently, on January 28, 2019, the Trump Administration announced sanctions on Venezuela’s state-oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PdVSA.”
If you want to continue promoting the economic war argument without evidence, at least don’t do it on national television where you end up looking like a foolish, ignorant ideologue as former London mayor Ken Livingstone recently did in a car crash BBC interview.
2) The 2002 “US-led” coup d’etat: Hard leftists continue to bring up the participation of the US in the failed 2002 coup d’etat against Chavez as evidence of the US’s continued attempts at destabilizing the country (which in turn has led to the economic crisis). Let’s start by recognizing an obvious fact: the US has always seen the Chavez/Maduro regime – and every other populist leftist regime in Latin America – as being counter to its political interests. But it does not logically follow that there has been a campaign of destabilization for the past two decades because of this.
For starters, it is necessary to clarify exactly what the US’s role in the 2002 coup was. There is considerable evidence to suggest that US intelligence services were very well aware that a coup was being plotted, and that the Bush administration was prepared to support the coup plotters had it succeeded (which it nearly did). However, there is simply no evidence that the US had an active or leading role in it, or that it provided material assistance. So it is false to equate the US’s “support” of this coup with its support of other coups such as the one in Chile in 1973 against its socialist president, Salvador Allende, which leftists frequently quote as evidence that the US will do anything in its power to stop the spread of socialism in its backyard. In that case, the CIA had actively waged a campaign of political destabilization for years and also provided material support to Agustín Pinochet and his generals both before and after the coup. The failure to accept that a) not all coups are the same and b) not all foreign involvement in coups is the same demonstrates the same lack of historical contextualization that the left usually accuses the right of.
Even an article that exposes the extent of the US involvement makes it clear that the US merely had a passive role in the coup (emphasis is mine):
“Furthermore, the CIA documents make no mention of any attempts to have Chávez forcibly resign from office. The CIA warnings indicated as early as March 5, 2002 (which is the date of the earliest document provided) that a coup was on the rise and even hinted that prospects for a successful coup were limited. The CIA rightfully felt the opposition was too disperse and divided to successfully overthrow Chávez. But the concept that Chávez had “resigned” as the White House and State Department “confirmed” on April 12, 2002 was merely a set-up, a false claim made with the intention of deceiving the U.S. public and the international community.”
Furthermore, it has been 17 years since the 2002 coup. Claiming that the 2002 coup somehow caused nearly two decades of political destabilization and led to the country’s current economic predicament is scraping the argumentative barrel. It ascribes no agency whatsoever to the Maduro in committing his crimes. Sadly, that has not stopped supporters of the Maduro regime continue to describe the current efforts to remove him as another coup d’etat. Which is rather strange terminology to use given that his last election was a sham and he is therefore an illegal president. One whose toppling by say, a renegade faction of the Venezuelan military, could hardly be morally or legally questionable.
3) Maduro or a US invasion: Hard leftists are right to worry about the consequences of a US-led military intervention, especially an outright invention. Only the most radical among those who oppose the Maduro regime would welcome a US invasion given the risk of even more civilian deaths and further destruction of the country’s economy. But just because the US has rattled its sabre about the possibility of military action does not mean all actions taken against the Maduro regime equate to support of a military option. This is a false dichotomy which hard leftists have conveniently used to justify no action at all against Maduro.
The fact of the matter is that a US invasion of Venezuela is such a last resort that the odds of it happening are minuscule. This despite the involvement of notorious US foreign policy hawks like John Bolton, or the recent appointment of special representative Elliott Abrams; a man who has a deplorable record of complicity in Central American human rights abuses and genocide during the Reagan administration, and who should be barred from ever holding an public post. It certainly hasn’t helped that US-friendly far right regimes like that of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have even contemplated the setting up of US military bases along the Venezuelan border, an idea that is unlikely to happen in practice. No more proof is needed that much of this is diplomatic bluff than Bolton’s infamous yellow notebook that had “5,000 troops to Colombia” scribbled on it. In plain sight for the media to see. Surely you realized that this was deliberate, right?
But even if you believe that the possibility of an invasion is not minuscule, the fact is that one should not support the Maduro regime merely because the possibility of an invasion exists. This knee-jerk opposition against US imperialism at all costs is the fundamental argumentative fallacy of the hard left’s simplistic worldview. One that sees the US/West/Israel as being the root of all evil in global politics. This “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality is one that results all too frequently in hard leftists supporting despicable authoritarian regimes like that of Maduro and his allies, Russia and China, countries that stand pretty much against every value that leftists hold dear. And if you think that Venezuela is merely a pawn in a global geopolitical struggle, why would you want Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China to emerge victorious? How will the world be better? This does not help the leftist cause in the least, particularly when the right accuses our side of not being committed to democracy and consequently, that socialism is a slippery slope to authoritarianism.
There are also those who insist that this is not the time to call out the failure of the Chavez/Maduro regime because the threat of US invasion is so real. Actually, this is precisely the time to do so, because once the window of opportunity for removing Maduro closes, it may be years before the opposition has another chance; years in which this criminal regime will continue to profit out of the Venezuelan people’s misery and continue running the economy to the ground. This argument sounds disturbingly like the right not wanting to discuss gun control after a mass murder. I’m surprised the hard left doesn’t note the similarity.
Fact: Maduro leads an illegal, criminal, authoritarian regime that has brought ruin to Venezuela. He is not a democratically elected leader and he has no intention of bequeathing power peacefully. Calls for a “negotiated solution” are merely excuses for Maduro to remain in power at a time when the international community needs to do everything possible short of a military invasion to remove him. If it makes you, dear leftist, uncomfortable to side with the US – and particularly to side with the Trump administration – then I’m afraid you will have to bear with that discomfort. Is your ideological posturing more important than alleviating the Venezuelan people’s suffering? If it is, you do not deserve to inhabit the same moral universe as the leftists with common sense; leftists who understand what is so problematic about your support of Maduro, whether it is stated openly or implicitly under the guise that you are merely opposing a US invasion or that you want a diplomatic solution. Indeed, you are no better than right-wingers who have eschewed all their moral (especially religious) values in support for Trump and use all mental gymnastics available to avoid appearing as the hypocrites that they are.
Being against Maduro also does not imply ideological support of the (right-wing) opposition. Venezuelan conservatives have a terrible history of economic policymaking and a record of doing little to resolve the social inequalities between the country’s mostly white elite and its mestizo/mulatto majority (let alone the indigenous and black minorities who are at the bottom rung of the socio-economic pyramid). Indeed, the reason why Chavismo was so successful is because it prioritized the latter in the allocation of economic resources, although in no small part due to its own interest in setting up a clientelistic relationship with the poor and working classes that would help him continue winning elections (which until 2014 worked). Unfortunately, leftists must accept that after the disaster that has been Chavismo, the left in Venezuela is likely to be wiped out as a political force for decades. This is the price one pays for bad government. Hopefully whatever right-wing government succeeds Maduro is also conscious of their side’s failings in the past and helps rebuild the country for the benefit of all, not just the elites.
In the meantime, Venezuelans deserves better than their despotic government receiving the tacit support of supposedly well-meaning leftists, particularly leftists writing from the comfort of their iMacs in Washington or London or Mexico City and who pay no price for their support of Maduro. It is telling that all my former Chavista Venezuelan friends have no longer supported the regime for years; only the foreigners remain adamant that this bastion of Latin American leftism be defended at all costs against US imperialism and golpistas (“coup plotters”) from the right. Don’t make Maduro’s Venezuela the hill you choose to die on.
(The author was the lead analyst for Venezuela for the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2016-17)