Venezuela And The Left

Self-determination is the principle that people should have a real say in shaping the decisions that affect their lives. The tenet is typically applied to political decisions, but in its most radical form it also applies to economic, social, and other decisions that impact people’s daily existence.

Applying this principle to Venezuela is less straightforward than non-interventionism. Many leftists argue that Maduro deserves support because he was democratically elected. According to this view, the principle of self-determination (at least in its minimal, representative democratic variant) is still in effect in Venezuela. Defending Maduro is therefore the same as defending self-determination in Venezuela.

But Maduro was not democratically elected. It is true, as leftists who support Venezuela’s government note, that Maduro was declared the winner of the country’s May 2018 presidential election. It is also true that many mainstream media claims about the election — that there was widespread fraud and vote rigging — have not been substantiated and resemble the innumerable unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud during the Chávez years. And it is true that Maduro lucked out when the opposition decided to boycott the 2018 election. Had the opposition united behind Henri Falcon, it is possible Maduro would have lost.

But all of this leaves out the crucial fact that Maduro banned Venezuela’s leading opposition parties and candidates — most prominently, Henrique Capriles Radonski — from running. Leftists would rightly denounce a right-wing ruling party that engaged in such tactics. And we must criticize Maduro for doing so as well. On top of that, Maduro’s actions are part of a pattern, since early 2016, of increasing authoritarianism. Examples include the government’s cancellation of a recall referendum against Maduro in October 2016; the one-year postponement of 2016 governor elections; the pro-Maduro Supreme Court bypassing, and thus essentially dissolving, the opposition-controlled National Assembly in March 2017; Maduro’s decision to call elections to a new Constituent Assembly in July 2017; outright fraud in the count for that election; and, most brazenly of all, the theft of the most closely contested race in the rescheduled October 2017 governor elections.

To this we must add the state’s use of repression, not only against opposition violence, but also against peaceful protest, with scores killed in 2017 and an estimated forty killed in the last week. The opposition’s own role in fostering violence deserves equal condemnation, as does US support of such violence.

But neither changes the fact that by holding onto power through authoritarian means, the Maduro administration has systematically blocked the Venezuelan people’s ability to express themselves politically. In the face of this, the Left should embrace the call for free and fair elections in Venezuela. Failure to do so is a failure to promote the principle of self-determination.

Elections are not, of course, the only or even the primary form of self-determination. One might ask whether the Maduro administration has rejected liberal democracy in favor of “revolutionary democracy,” in which workers and the poor exercise direct control over economic, social, and political decisions affecting their lives. Whatever the past plausibility of such an argument may have been, nothing of the sort is occurring now.

Workers and the poor did create institutions of popular power in recent decades (grassroots communes, food distribution networks, etc.), which Chávez helped promote and which continue to exist in some form. But the extent of popular power in Venezuela has diminished significantly in recent years, largely thanks to the crisis. As grassroots Chavista organizers told me in 2015 and 2016, economic woes (which the government bears primary responsibility for) have made it much harder to do grassroots work.

The weakening of popular institutions is also due to direct repression by the Maduro administration. A notable example was the state’s refusal to recognize the sweeping victory of commune leader Angel Prado in December 2017 municipal elections. Instead of heeding the people of Simon Planes, who elected Prado with a whopping 57.92 percent of the vote, the government placed Prado under investigation. (Despite his critiques, Prado has pledged to defend Maduro in the face of US aggression.)

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