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Posts tagged ‘Hugo Chávez’

Dueling Narratives in Venezuela

By Taylor Marvin

Last month Dorothy Kronick published a long piece on Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis at FiveThirtyEight. In keeping with the young publication’s self-proclaimed data-driven mission, Kronick attempts to explain Venezuela’s political conflict between supporters of the government, led by Hugo Chávez heir Nicolás Maduro, and the opposition, which is primarily supported by the middle class and the country’s traditional elites, through Venezuela’s economic performance and social metrics, such as poverty reduction and the infant mortality rate. Kronick suggests that the violent political divide between chavistas and opposition supporters is partially due to different measures of Chavismo’s success. “Chavistas compare the present to Venezuela’s pre-Chávez past,” Kronick writes, “while the opposition contrasts the current economic situation with more recent developments in the rest of Latin America.”

Under Chávez, first elected in 1999, and his successor Maduro, who was elected in April 2013 after Chávez’s death, poor Venezuelans have experienced real gains. Poverty rates have fallen, and the social works championed by the Chávez and Maduro administrations have brought healthcare and other forms of social welfare to the poor who form the bedrock of Chavismo popular support. However, at the same time Venezuela’s wider economy has decayed, a decay driven by the state’s reliance on the oil economy, political instability, and Chavismo’s erratic appropriation of private industry. To middle class Venezuelans, the argument goes, the last decade compares poorly to Venezuela’s neighbors, who have been able to fight poverty while not sacrificing political stability and sustainable economic growth.

Via Erik Loomis, a piece by Mark Weisbrot posted in Jacobin critiques Kronick’s analysis. Most interestingly, Weisbrot doubts the theory that Maduro’s supporters compare contemporary Venezuela’s development with its two-party-oligarchy past while his opponents judge it against the wider region: “Do voters anywhere in the world judge their government based on a comparison to its peers?” Weisbrot further argues that Venezuela’s economic performance under the Chávez and Maduro administrations is better than commonly believed, and faults Kronick for highlighting metrics unrelated to Venezuelans’ standard of living. Weisbrot also notes that Venezuela’s heavy foreign aid spending means that oil revenue that left the country did not do so to line the pockets of corrupt officials. “From an economic, human, and moral point of view, this is relevant,” he writes, closing the piece.

This exchange is interesting because of its intersection between economic analysis and identity politics. While limited both by space and FiveThirtyEight’s data focus, Dorothy Kronick appears to understate the role of social identity in Venezuela’s political conflict. Chavismo has always been driven by the state’s relationship with Venezuela’s common people. Chávez and, less skillfully, Maduro speak directly to Venezuela poor, in a racially diverse country look like them, and have devoted great effort to improving their lives in a very visible way. Not unreasonably, chavistas view the opposition as a remote elite desperate to recover their historical privileges at the expense of the masses. But that does not make the ‘truth’ of the opposition’s perspective false. Middle and upper class opposition supporters are not wrong to see Madruo’s administration as erratic, authoritarian, and totally unprepared to address the country’s economic problems and out-of-control crime rate, and its repressive response to student protests as vicious and brutal.

These two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Chavismo can enjoy mass support while still being autocratic and supplementing its ability to win elections with a deliberate campaign to subvert independent institutions. Similarly, the Venezuelan government’s anti-poverty measures have made a real difference in millions of lives, while also doing so in a clientelistic manner and are less sustainable and evaluated than conditional transfer programs like Brazil’s successful bolsa família.

At a time when many Latin American countries are strengthening democracy and growing their economies, it’s silly to dismiss the thought that the Venezuelan opposition sees the differences between the neighbors and their own country’s failing institutions and mass basic good shortages. But chavistas can draw a different lesson. Ideologically-aligned or at least allied administrations, such as Evo Morales’ in Bolivia, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and, more distantly, Cristina Kirchner’s in Argentina and the administrations of Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, all face some domestic opposition but have not seen the same violent mass opposition as in Venezuela. The lesson Maduro supporters can draw from this is that their own opposition is less willing to compromise — a reluctance, of course, driven by Chavismo’s own radicalism — than elsewhere in South America, a virulence that puts greater repressive actions on the table, so to speak.

Ultimately support for or opposition to Maduro’s administration is more a question of politics and identity than data. Even more uncertainly, it rests on inherently-uncertain counterfactuals and predictions about the future. Would Venezuela — whether the country as a whole, or specific segments of society — be better off today if Chávez had never come to the presidency? Will it be worse off at the end of Maduro’s term than today? If an over-reliance on oil is one of the greatest long-term challenges facing Venezuela, what’s to say that this same resource curse — which is not limited to leftist governments — would not have metastasized under another administration? Will Maduro ever leave power at all, or will he be forced from it before his term is completed in 2019? If Maduro is not forced out now will a military coup depose him in the future, making a coup driven by opposition politicians and technocrats today ultimately preferable to a more violent one in the future?

Data can help us make educated guesses about these questions, but can’t definitively answer them, and the business of politics is more driven by the narratives that inform people’s engagement with them. These narratives are the real long-term costs of Venezuela’s political conflict. When politics becomes this contentious, with such violently high stakes, someone will always be the loser. If Maduro is forced from power now or even fairly loses the 2019 election, chavistas will, not unreasonably, see it as the work of a classist — ‘that bus driver‘ — and elitist opposition who played dirty rather than lose their privileges. If the opposite occurs, the opposition will watch their country being run into the ground by negligent ideologues who would rather dismantle democratic institutions than risk losing power.

Both these narratives are, in a way, true.

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.

Chávez and Regional Leadership

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Agência Brasil.

Photo by Agência Brasil.

While 2014 may be Latin America’s “year of elections” — with El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, and others all going to the presidential polls — 2013 was also a momentous year, marked by the death of Hugo Chávez. Venezuela’s president for over a decade, Chávez mobilized support from among the historically disenfranchised and defined himself as an opponent of both the United States and Venezuela’s traditional elites. Designating himself as the region’s voice of opposition to US “imperialism”, Chávez positioned himself as the vanguard of the wave of left-leaning governments elected across Latin America in the last decade, co-opting the wider turn towards the left as an extension of his own socialist “Bolivarian Revolution”. Combined with Venezuela’s oil wealth — and oil-funded international largesse — this ideological positioning allowed Chávez to claim a personal position as a leader of the Latin American left, a claim buttressed by his close personal relationship with the previous generation’s leading regional ideologue, Fidel Castro.

In an end of the year reflection the Christian Science Monitor writes that after his March 5th death “the region’s leftist movement lost its ideological and economic center of gravity” and asks which leader will replace Chávez as a Latin American figurehead:

“Who could fill Chávez’s shoes as a regional leader? Some point to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as the person to watch. This year Ms. Rousseff showed she wasn’t afraid to stand up to the US over allegations of National Security Agency spying, and she speaks to diverse leaders across the region. Thus far, however, she hasn’t shown an interest in taking on the role.”

But it isn’t clear if the “regional leader” of Latin America is a role that necessarily exists at all. In Latin America Brazil hosts the largest economy and is the only country with a reasonable hope of taking a leadership role in the global system or ever securing a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but is divided by language from the rest of Latin America. Mexico, the region’s next largest economy, is beset by domestic criminal violence. Pundits talk of Germany’s Angela Merkel, and to a lesser extent France’s François Hollande, as the leaders of Europe, but only because this designation conflates Europe the region with the European Union, where Germany enjoys an institutional policy-setting role. In the absence of an interstate union like the EU, the entire notion of a “regional leader” makes less sense — no one speaks of a Middle Eastern or African regional political leader because of these region’s vast size, disparate societies, and fractious members. While Latin America is more culturally and politically homogenous than other global regions, with its population of over half a billion people and two major languages elevating one of Latin America’s national leaders to a leadership role across the entire region stems more from the desire for neat regional hierarchy than any real need for the role to exist.

Hugo Chávez’s self-appointed distinction as a regional leader drew from his own desire to take, or more accurately create, the role. As I wrote in March, Chávez’s leadership position in Latin American politics “was forged by Chávez’s narcissism, and there’s no reason for it to necessarily exist now that he is gone.” With Chávez absence, there is no requirement that another head of state will seek to take this regional leadership mantle in the same way that he attempted, regardless of whether they have the charisma, ideology, and political and economic capital to back it up.

Hugo Chávez Post-Mortem

By Taylor Marvin

I have a Hugo Chávez post-mortem up at UC San Diego’s Prospect Journal, where I wrote while in school. In the piece I argue that the most damaging aspect of Chávez’s legacy isn’t his frequently-decried leftist politics, which he never pursued in a systematic or ideologically consistant way. Instead, Chávez’s enduring legacy is his deliberate dismantling of Venezuela’s civil institutions:

“Of course, subsuming the institutions of the state into a single man is fundamentally unsustainable, because all men die. Now that Chávez is gone, his populistic legacy leaves neither a durable autocratic state or the public institutions necessary for a return to full democracy or economic growth beyond the petroleum sector. Chávez’s political allies and anointed heir appear set on continuing the brand of charismatic populism he perfected. No matter the direction Venezuelan politics goes, the post-Chávez era’s legacy of institutional decay will likely negatively shape Venezuela for years to come.”

Ultimately Hugo Chávez’s tenure can’t be understood through the liberal vs. conservative framework many American commentators insist on applying. American conservatives should admit that their threat-inflating insistance on denouncing Hugo Chávez and his Cuban ally as a hemispheric threat politically empowered Chávez, because his appropriation of disparate Latin American left-leaning governments into an imagined Bolivarian Revolution required a similarly-imagined American threat to define itself against. On the other hand, American liberals should recognize that there is nothing contradictory about admitting that while Chávez’s celebrated social programs aided the neglected poor, they were by design political tools that failed to engage the poor in a sustainable or empowering manner.

Chávez and Leadership of the South American Left

By Taylor Marvin

Agencia Brasil image by Ricardo Stuckert, via Wikimedia

Agencia Brasil image by Ricardo Stuckert, via Wikimedia

Does Hugo Chávez’s death herald the end of Latin America’s resurgent left? Recently Alvaro Vargas Llosa argued in Foreign Policy that Chávez’s passing indeed did — in his de facto leadership role as the dominant personality among South America’s leftist national leaders Chávez was irreplaceable. In Vargas’ telling Chávez’s unique personal charisma and access to Venezuela’s vast oil wealth allowed him to assume this leadership position, leaving “a power vacuum that will be difficult for Chávez’s political heirs across the hemisphere to fill.”

But claims that Chávez’s death represents a major blow to left-leaning politics through the continent both overestimate Chávez’s personal influence and the unity of these leftist governments. It is certainly true that Hugo Chávez was the public face of Latin America’s modern leftist governments, much more than Chávez’s longtime partner Fidel Castro. Castro was the venerable elder, politely respected, but largely irrelevant; Chávez the ambitiously energetic younger with the deep pockets to grease the patronage channels Castro could not. But it’s a mistake to understand Chávez’s leadership position as a practical one, rather than the symbolic role it actually was. As Colin M. Snider recently noted, Latin America’s left-leaning leaders are a disparate group that share between them as many distinctions as similarities, and certainly aren’t a unified bloc existentially dependent on Chávez’s continued leadership. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff leads a government perceived as significantly more technocratic than Chávez’s populist regime, and enjoys growing international clout largely unavailable to Venezuela. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa are populists and were strong Chávez allies, but it’s difficult to argue that either’s domestic appeal will be somehow less politically viable now that Chávez is gone.

But despite Chávez’s undeniable regional influence, there’s no reason to think that his absence leaves an unsustainable vacuum. This symbolic leadership position was forged by Chávez’s narcissism, and there’s no reason for it to necessarily exist now that he is gone. Hugo Chávez aspired to a position of international leadership, and when one wasn’t available  he rhetorically co-opted otherwise disparate left-leaning Latin American governments into a nominal “movement”. Certainly various leaders, Morales and Correa especially, both supported and politically gained from this co-option, their electoral successes weren’t dependent on it, primarily because the narrative of South America’s leftist resurgence has always been stronger than it’s actual significance. This perception gap is driven by politics — both supporters and detractors of this so-called resugence have an incentive to rhetorically paint it as either more revolutionary or more threatening than it actually is. South American politics are becoming more open and competitive, and the United States’ influence over the region is certainly diminishing. But contrary to the claims of leftists and their opponents, the successes of left-leaning leaders in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina is more likely a cyclical trend than a long-term revolution. Chávez may have taken advantage of this swing, but despite his self-congratulating rhetoric he did not create or sustain it.

But while South America’s recent leftist electoral successes doesn’t comprise any unified movement that will suffer terribly at Chávez’s absence, it’s also unlikely that his outsized figurehead position will be filled anytime soon. Chávez wasn’t able to position himself as one of the most influential leaders in Latin America simply because of Venezuela’s oil wealth. While the largess oil revenue made possibile certainly bolstered his influence, Chávez became the symbolic figure that he was because he wanted it, and had the personal charisma and combative style to back up this ambition. Even among successful populist politicians Chávez’s ability to draw — and polarize — international attention is rare. The global importance of Venezuela’s oil certainly gave Chávez a platform, and he would not have been as internationally visible if he was the leader of another country. But there is no reason to think that another left-leaning Latin American leader will soon have the capability or ambition to replicate the Chávez brand.