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What Should the US Do About Venezuela?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by María Alejandra Mora, via Wikimedia.

Image by María Alejandra Mora, via Wikimedia.

In Venezuela demonstrations against the government of Hugo Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro continue, and have left over a dozen dead. The demonstrators, who have mobilized under the Twitter hashtag #LaSalida, a reference to many’s demand for Maduro’s “exit,” have taken to the streets to voice their frustration with Venezuela’s economic malaise, shortages of basic goods, and stunning crime rate. Government supporters, who have mobilized in their own counter-demonstrations, accusers the student-led protesters of pursuing a coup against the — in his supporters’ view — democratically-elected Maduro. The government’s response has been harsh, with attempts to silence opposition social media and pro-government thugs on motorcycles firing into the crowds. Like many embattled regimes before it, the Maduro government appears determined to shred whatever legitimacy it once had outside of its die-hard supporters through pointless violence — but it is unclear if the unrest seriously threatens the government’s survival.

While President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have denounced the government’s tactics, others want the United States to take a more forceful stance. In a Monday speech Republican Senator Marco Rubio highlighted the Maduro government’s brutal repression of the demonstrations, terming the Obama administration’s reaction “shameful” and calling for sanctions against those responsible for the brutality. “They look for America to be on their side,” Rubio said of Venezuelans and Cubans. “We should be clear about these things.”

Another columnist referenced the Obama administration’s response to the violence as another reason why the the President can’t “command the respect of other nations.”

It’s right to be angry about the Venezuelan government’s complete disregard for its citizens. But hastily conceived actions motivated only by outrage, however morally justified, are not good policy.

First, it is important to understand that recognizing this nuance is neither an endorsement of the Maduro government nor a repudiation of socialism, as so many partisan international observers seem to believe. As Michael Moynihan warns, leftists’ sympathy for self-identified socialist governments and distrust of US “imperialism” is no excuse for voicing support for a government busy shooting down unarmed students in the street. The Maduro government is a chaotic wreck that has continued Chávez’s project of dismanteling Venezuela’s independent public institutions and market economy in favor of patronage channels the leader can control and a mild personality cult. Maduro’s response to student demonstrations has been to mobilize militias to attack demonstrators, brandish swords, shut down internet communications and expel foreign journalists — whose reporting he labeled “war propaganda” — and denounce his political opponents as fascists.

But this brutality does not erase the passions mobilizing both Maduro’s supporters and opponents. In a pro-chavista piece published in the Nation, George Ciccariello-Maher makes the point that “these protests have far more to do with returning economic and political elites to power than with their downfall.” This is somewhat true — the protests do reflect middle class concerns over those of the poor who were politically marginalized under the oligarchic two-party system that predated Chávez — but conveniently ignores protesters’ real concerns that populists like Maduro tear down the ladder of democratic institutions, not to mention economic stability, behind them. In a more measured piece for the Brazilian magazine Carta Capital, left-wing politician Jean Wyllys notes the contradictions of Venezuela’s political conflict, which is often lost on its observers. “Denying the social advances won by Venezuela’s poorest people during the government of Hugo Chávez is as wrong as denying the problems that the country currently faces,” Wyllys writes. “Saying that chavismo — which won repeated elections and referendums with absolute transparency and with international observers — is a ‘dictatorship’ is as wrong as not repudiating the regime’s authoritarianism.” [My translation.]

While Maduro’s victory in the 2013 election are difficult to call completely “fair” in the context of degraded democratic institutions, observers should not forget that though Maduro has apparently failed to forge the same charismatic appeal as his predecessor chavismo’s welfare programs and perceived representation of the poor has real democratic appeal.

All this isn’t to say that the US doesn’t have an interest in the conflict’s outcome. The economic reforms and rule of law the opposition claims to favor would be a real gain for both Venezuela and the entire region, which includes the United States. But that doesn’t change the fact that the US should not interfere in the conflict, either through harsher rhetoric or sanctions.

Like Chávez before him, Maduro appears committed to dismantling the remaining independent institutions essential to sustainable economic growth in favor of personalized patronage and political authoritarianism. But this authoritarian populism does not erase the problems associated with popular movements that throw out elected governments — if #LaSalida somehow does succeed in forcing Maduro out of power, it sets a dangerous precedent the opposition could very well come to regret. It is not clear that the US has much interest in this happening.

But more importantly, this type of domestic political conflict simply isn’t the US government’s business, and even if it was the US has very little practical leverage anyway. Like many, many of his counterparts around the world and Chávez before him, Maduro’s preferred method of delegitimizing his domestic opposition is labeling them tools of an interfering United States and not representatives of the Venezuelan people Maduro claims to speak for. Given that there is some truth to the government’s narrative that opposition represents the middle class over the poor, and Venezuela’s traditional elites over the beneficiaries of chavismo, overt US encouragement of the opposition is the best thing that could happen to Maduro.

Whatever the Obama administration does, or probably does not, choose to do, Venezuelan politics will remain contentious to years to come. No matter what happens in the coming weeks, the government will remain illegitimate in the eyes of a substantial fraction of the population. Venezuela will likely remain besieged by a brutally high crime rate, extreme political polarization, a failing economy entirely tied to the price of oil, and weakened public institutions in an era when those of many other South American countries have strengthened. The introduction of state violence into this mix does not bode well.

Without any real way to encourage nonviolence and accountability, harsher words and sanctions on Maduro government officials would simply express moral disapproval and further the government’s narrative of a malevolent United States that keeps Venezuelans poor.

Update: Daniel Larison makes a similar point.

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