Last year I worried at some length about how reliable the far left would ever be as allies in the struggle against authoritarianism. If you were concerned then, you should be more concerned now, given the last few days’ worth of commentary about Venezuela.
To understand how troubling this is, it’s necessary to recap some of Venezuela’s recent history.
President Nicolás Maduro was first elected in April 2013, to replace the late Hugo Chávez. He beat his centre-right opponent very narrowly, 50.6% to 49.1%, a margin of about 225,000 votes. A wiser leader would have taken that as a sign that he shouldn’t behave as if the country endorsed him unequivocally and that he needed to try to build consensus.
Maduro chose not to take that path. Nor, to be fair, did his opponents; as I said at the time, “Venezuela’s basic problem is that neither government nor opposition really accepts the other’s legitimacy.” But Maduro’s failure was more significant.
Despite the government’s authoritarian approach, democracy survived for a while longer. In December 2015, elections to the National Assembly (there is full separation between executive and legislature) delivered a landslide win to the opposition, which won 112 seats to the government’s 55.
From there, things went downhill fairly quickly. Maduro went from obstructing the new legislature to flatly refusing to recognise its legitimacy. Attempts to organise a recall referendum for the presidency were blocked, and in 2017 a tame supreme court deprived the National Assembly of its powers.
Having already stacked the electoral commission (which by law should have been appointed by the National Assembly) with his supporters, Maduro went on to convene a one-sided Constituent Assembly, and then last May held early presidential elections. With leading opposition candidates either disqualified, under arrest or in exile, he was unsurprisingly re-elected with a little over two-thirds of the vote.
During this time, Venezuela’s economic and security situation steadily worsened, with hyperinflation leading to economic collapse, spiralling crime rates, food shortages, epidemics and the departure of waves of refugees.
Maduro was inaugurated for his second term on 10 January. The National Assembly declared the election void and nominated its speaker, Juan Guaidó, as acting president. He has subsequently been recognised by most of Venezuela’s neighbors and by other countries including Australia and the United States.
The European Union, while not specifically recognising Guaidó, expressed its support for “the national assembly as the democratically elected institution whose powers need to be restored and respected” and called for “an immediate political process leading to free and credible elections.”
Russia, China, Cuba and the like have backed Maduro, but his support among democracies is virtually non-existent: only Bolivia and South Africa seem to have recognised his inauguration.
So far, this is a familiar if depressing story; democracy has been subverted in similar ways in a dozen or more countries during the same period. (It has also made a few unlikely recoveries.) But large numbers of people who would never sympathise with these other autocrats rally behind Maduro.
Why? Because he claims to be on the left, rails against the US, and engages in something that could broadly be called “socialism”.
I don’t for a moment suggest that all leftists have fallen into this trap. On the contrary, some of the most devastating critiques of the Maduro regime have come from the left. (Here’s a particularly good one from Edgardo Lander a couple of years ago.) Indeed, that’s part of the point: the idea that criticism of Maduro’s authoritarianism is somehow confined to the right or to allies of the US is transparent nonsense.
Yet many people who would otherwise be picked as friends of democracy have fallen prey to this nonsense, describing Guaidó’s actions as an “attempted coup”, making absurd comparisons to democratic countries and carrying on for all the world as if Maduro was a legitimately elected leader in good standing.
It’s a deeply depressing spectacle.
It shouldn’t really be necessary to say this again, but these are not good times for democracy. It needs to be defended against its enemies, regardless of which tribe they come from. To suggest that Maduro is somehow not one of those enemies is just ludicrous.
But even Guy Rundle, although he criticises the Maduro government, complains that “the right are trying to represent Venezuela as a people against an isolated dictatorship – rather than a matched social and class struggle.”
Class struggle? Seriously? Sometimes an autocrat is just an autocrat.
It gets worse: many of those on the left who are backing Maduro are also enthusiastic in their support of the “yellow shirt” movement in France. If you find you’re supporting protests to try to bring down a democratic government, but opposing protests to try to bring down a dictatorship, you really need to rethink your position.
Of course, wanting to get rid of Maduro doesn’t commit one to supporting just any means at all for doing so – and certainly not to the highly improbable notion of armed intervention by the US.
But that’s no excuse for not giving Guaidó and the opposition the maximum degree of moral support. In fact, the more the Venezuelans can be encouraged to dispense with Maduro on their own, the less likely it is that Donald Trump will be tempted down the path of adventurism.
PS: I’ve now read Anne Applebaum’s piece on the subject in the Washington Post, which is very good: she particularly stresses the similarities between Maduro and such autocrats as Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “These kinds of leaders are hard to place on an old-fashioned left/right or pro-American/anti-American axis, but they clearly conform to an important contemporary pattern, and it’s important that we recognize them for who they are.”
Max Fisher in the New York Times also has a very helpful backgrounder.