Hands Off Venezuela! Maduro, Bolsonaro, and Latin American counter-revolution

The government of Nicolás Maduro is under threat from an emboldened, radical Right.

Eyebrows were raised in the British media last month by Nicolás Maduro’s claim that former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos was responsible for the failed attempt on his life. Whilst many dismissed this as the paranoid crankery of a floundering dictator (or, as the Guardian and Times have done, implicitly support conspiracy theories that there was no assassination attempt), Maduro’s claims should not be ignored by the Left. That is because they speak to growing fears that the Right is increasingly coordinating its reactionary and counter-revolutionary activities at an international level in Latin America and beyond. Such fears are not only premised upon the demise of several progressive regimes which came to prominence during Latin America’s so-called Pink Tide, but also reflect concerns that the “global” Left has ceded its position as the pre-eminent internationalist movement to the New Right.

There is much in Maduro’s tenure as President to be criticised by the international Left. As George Ciccariello-Maher has argued, Maduro has failed to continue the radical promises and transfer of power to the communes outlined by Chávez in his 2012 Golpe de timón. Similarly, historian Alejandro Velasco has argued that both Chávez and Maduro have failed to tackle the powerful private sector. Nonetheless, it would be absurd not to recognise that Maduro has faced increasingly difficult conditions, including a collapse in oil prices, harsh economic sanctions imposed by the US and Europe, and near-global opposition to his rule. Whilst the Western media have pitched Maduro’s failings as the collapse of democracy and civilisation within Venezuela, the President has survived in elections which have been recognised as fair and lawful. This does little to assuage the various crises faced by Maduro’s regime, including hyperinflation and mass emigration.

Yet the Left should not be complacent about the role of the United States or the international Right in contributing to a destabilising narrative which proposes, ultimately, only to solve these crises through violent means. With the portentous first round victory of neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro, who is now almost certain to become Brazil’s next President on an explicitly anti-democratic ticket, the defence of democracy and anti-imperialism in Venezuela is a fundamental front in halting the rise of counter-revolutionary forces across the continent.

Santos, Uribe and Colombia

Tense relations between Venezuela and Colombia have long-term and more recent antecedents. In recent terms, the two Andean nations have been on divergent paths since Chávez’s 1999 election victory, and the rise of Álvaro Uribe in Colombia. Although a member of the ostensibly centre-left Partido Liberal Colombiano, Uribe’s two Presidential terms (2002-2010) brought about a rightward swing in Colombia. Uribe made a name for himself as a strong ally of the United States and George Bush, enacting Plan Colombia in line with US goals in the War on Drugs, and supporting the aims of the so-called War on Terror. As was seen in Peru in the same period, Colombia under Uribe embarked upon the liberalisation and privatisation of natural resources, at a time of high commodity prices. For his critics, he is an archetypal neoliberal: authoritarian, corrupt, and beholden to the US.

Juan Manuel Santos came to power in 2010 in Colombia as Uribe’s successor. Santos’ approach to Colombia’s internal conflict has seen a dramatic departure from Uribe’s approach - Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to make peace with FARC - but his peace treaty was defeated by the “No” vote, which Uribe campaigned for, in a referendum. In other ways, however, Santos has reinforced his image as the continuation of uribismo. In 2012, he supported calls for cases of the infamous “false positives scandal” (in which Colombian soldiers conducted around 1,500 extrajudicial executions in order to claim rewards from the government for tackling FARC) to be given to military courts, going even further than Uribe’s wishes. His implication in the wide-ranging Odebrecht bribery scandal further demonstrated the strong alliance between the Colombian state and international capital.

Santos’ Presidency has also seen a renewal of diplomatic tensions with Venezuela. In 2013, Santos hosted the leader of the Venezuelan opposition, Henrique Capriles, leading to accusations by Maduro’s administration that Santos and Capriles were plotting a coup. Since the accession of Iván Duque (supported by Uribe) to the Colombian Presidency, these tensions have continued.

Maduro alone?

On the one hand, Maduro’s claim reflects his increasingly isolated position in continental politics and beyond. Hugo Chávez sought to build relationships with a wide range of Leftist leaders, many of whom came to prominence during the so called Pink Tide. Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), the Kirchners (Argentina), Castros (Cuba) and Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) were key allies for Chávez between 1999 and 2013, whilst others participated to varying extents in his attempts to advance the causes of regional integration, internationalism and anti-imperialism in Latin America (see: ALBA, BancoSur).

At present, however, Chile and Argentina have elected right-wing Presidents, whilst Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Morales and Correa have all been accused or charged with corruption. There is little indication yet that Mexico’s new Leftist President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will provide assistance to Venezuela. Within this light, it is perhaps not surprising that Maduro may feel a little paranoid.

Although Colombia has taken a leading role in criticising Maduro regionally, the influence of the US should not be downplayed. Since the George W. Bush era, the US has supported the Venezuelan opposition, and exerted pressure through the Organisation of American States. As has been highlighted elsewhere, this pressure has been continued by the Trump administration with a unilateral financial embargo which “make economic recovery in Venezuela nearly impossible”. In the face of these blatantly imperialist efforts, however, there is little appetite for support for Venezuela across the continent.

The Right in the ascendency

During the 2000s, in the midst of the Pink Tide’s first wave, Álvaro Uribe was one of very few Right-wing Presidents in Latin America. The continent’s experiences of dictatorship, reactionary state violence, and neoliberal reforms (particularly during the 1970s and 1980s) appeared to dissolve as democracy and centre-Left politics swept the region. An era of genuine continental co-operation seemed possible, but almost two decades later and the Right is once again coming to power across Latin America. Many of the Pink Tide states have seen investment in social programmes and gradual reductions in inequality, alongside some important advances in social rights; but little that, ultimately, can’t be undone if the Right returns to power. In Argentina, arch-neoliberal Mauricio Macri has gone about asset-stripping and gutting the state, resulting in an austerity-driven recession. (Without any sense of irony, it seems, Macri has this month said that he will be reporting the Venezuelan government to The Hague for “crimes against humanity”.)

In Brazil, meanwhile, the impeachment of Rousseff has been followed by an extremely worrying lurch to the right. In March, activist Marielle Franco was murdered; and for the upcoming second round of the Presidential election at the end of October, hard-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro is continuing to run a Steve Bannon-inflected campaign. Bolsonaro has made a name for himself in recent years with reactionary statements: claiming that white Brazilians should make no apology to the descendants of slavery; by dedicating his vote in favour of impeaching Rousseff to a former colonel implicated in her torture; and by claiming that military personnel will form part of his new government if elected. He boasts of riding a ‘conservative wave’; one that is not merely plugged into the continent, but the world at large. Worrying times indeed.

What next?

In this context, Venezuela remains, for many, a last bastion of hope; not only against resurgent US imperialism, but also against a rising wave of the New Right which threatens to take the continent back to the lost decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

This puts Venezuela in a dangerous position. As Alexander Main has highlighted, rhetoric around a potential military intervention has been ramped up in the past couple of years, contributing to a situation in which Venezuela has become “nation non grata”. Political violence has never been too far in the distant past, with the 1989 Caracazo and failed 2002 coup against Chávez within living memory. Yet the more recent attacks on Maduro and increasingly febrile atmosphere, combined with international rhetoric, appears to be drawing the situation to a head. It has been estimated that over 100 people have died in recent protests in Venezuela with 27 of these the direct or indirect result of the actions of protestors. It appears clears that both internal and external opposition to Maduro are intent on exacerbating the situation to a point where international opinion is firmly in favour of intervention.

This puts the international Left in a difficult position, but the risks of neutrality (or not taking action) are huge. Resistance against US-led counter-revolution – or as Gregory Wilpert puts it, “active solidarity with the Bolivarian socialist movement” – is crucial. On September 11 2018, it was 45 years to the day since the 1973 coup against another socialist Latin American President, Salvador Allende. The Chilean coup was a moment in which reactionary Latin American elites, the US government and an emerging international network of neoliberal technocrats joined forces to block the Chilean road to socialism, a moment which would become the symbolic beginning of a global wave of counterrevolution. Neither for the Venezuelan people, nor for the international Left, can such a moment be allowed to happen again.