Venezuela’s battle for democracy

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.

7 thoughts on “Venezuela’s battle for democracy

  1. Spot on, Charles. I’m equally dismayed by these neo-Bolsheviks. On social media they’ve even adopted the slogan “hands off Venezuela”!

    This is no doubt the same element that mourned the toppling of a Ukrainian autocrat in 2014, insisting on seeing it as a Nazi plot.


  2. Some of the opposition from the left comes from “tankies” who have always been apologists for the authoritarian left. By and large, however, I think the driving force is the perception that the U.S is pushing for a coup, since these U.S backed coups in Latin America have a horrendous track record.

    John Bolton’s accidentally showing the media his idea for putting 5,000 troops in Colombia certainly didn’t help things. Neither does the fact that U.S sanctions are only making the starvation of Venezuela’s innocent civilians worse.


    1. Yes, I agree with that. But I think the longer and messier the transition is, the worse that problem becomes. The best outcome would be for the military and other Maduro supporters to quickly rally to the opposition and create some sort of national unity government that would hold elections. That would take a lot of the wind out of Trump’s sails.


  3. ok, i’ll bite.
    1) The question is, as ever, who whom. Maduro and the Bolivarians still have solid support among the poor, because many remain better off than they were, pre-98. not as much as during the oil price boom, but better nevertheless. The pro-Maduro rallies alternated with the anti-ones, last week, but the former were little reported.

    2) one can decide not to believe in class conflict. one can decide not to believe in vaccination and measles as well. they do their work whether you believe in them or not. Maduro’s base believe that his govt is on their side as a class, that they wld be worse off if the right won new elections. hence the more gradualist approach of the US, I’m presuming. they at least wld appear to believe in class struggle.

    3) it’s the high-handed determination of the US to unseat Maduro, and the obvious skullduggery involved that has turned many of us into defenders of it. If the US wants to not recognise leader of country X, fine; if they want to seat their favourite to carve up publicly-owned resources, nuh. Should a compromise solution emerge, it should be considered – but I suspect the US wld prefer Maduro to stay in power in that case, to heighten the tensions

    4) you can compare Maduro, Erdogan et al from above, and find them the same. One can note that wolves and poodles are both canines, but it’s not much of a guide to action. from below, there are other distinctions more important than authoritarian v democrat


    1. Thanks Guy, but I’m not convinced. Taking them in turn:

      1) Does Maduro retain significant popular support? Well, that’s an empirical question; it seems to me there’s not much evidence of it, but it’s not impossible. That’s why we have elections, though – to decide questions like that. I can’t gauge the exact balance of support from the other side of the world, but even at this distance I can certainly tell a dodgy election when I see one.

      2) Oh, I certainly believe in class conflict; I just don’t believe it’s the key to every political situation. I see no evidence that Maduro cares one iota for the interests of the working class, any more than, say, Vladimir Putin does. They’re in it for themselves and their cronies. I think the model you’re using, genuine (if flawed) representatives of the masses vs corrupt local elites backed by international big business, is quite valid in some situations – Honduras 2009, Maldives 2012, maybe even Venezuela 2002. But I think it’s a misreading of the situation today.

      3) I don’t think we disagree about the US’s motives, but the inference from that to support for Maduro escapes me. As you suggest, a quick transfer of power to the opposition followed by free elections is probably not what Trump would ideally like. All the more reason, then, to support it. As I pointed out, and as has become even clearer since, the idea that only the likes of Trump are backing the opposition is manifestly not true. And I’m really not impressed by the argument of “This dictator’s got the right enemies, so we can excuse the dictatorship.” That’s how one side got Ferdinand Marcos and the other got Fidel Castro.

      4) “There are other distinctions more important than authoritarian v democrat” – sometimes, yes. But there’s no sign of them here. Authoritarian vs democrat seems to do a rather good job of explaining Maduro; he’s sabotaged democracy in much the same way that a bunch of other authoritarians have in the last decade, with little regard to nominal “left” or “right” status, and he’s gotten the same support for it from most of the usual suspects (not Trump, of course, but that’s because he’s in America’s backyard).

      Generally, I think support for Maduro just risks dragging out the process and increasing the chance of violence and extended misery for the Venezuelans. What’s needed is for the military and other key props of the regime to abandon Maduro, reach a deal with the opposition for some sort of interim government, and proceed quickly to fresh elections. Anything that delays that, it seems to me, is a bad thing for all concerned.

      And I still want to bulldoze the whole of Fed Square, but that’s a discussion for another day.


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