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To Hell With Maduro and With Trump

Thoughts on Socialism, Venezuela, and Freedom

The Venezuelan system has been in crisis for some time. This crisis, like all crises, is no doubt overdetermined. It has global, regional, and domestic dimensions. And its primary victims are the ordinary people of Venezuela. If you have any doubts, I recommend a look at Amnesty International’s 2018 report, “This is no Way to Live: Public Security and Right to Life in Venezuela.”

The current political standoff continues to unfold. Both Maduro and Guaidó claim legitimate authority, and each has supporters within the (different branches) of the government and on the street — though the army appears to be firmly behind Maduro, and “the street” does not so appear. The Trump administration has weighed in, in gunboat diplomacy style, threatening military intervention and designating disgraced neocon war hawk Elliot Abrams as its official representative. Russia has warned against U.S. intervention. While almost every Latin American country has supported Trump’s moves, Mexico continues to try to broker a peaceful settlement. Meanwhile the EU is calling for new elections.

The situation appears very dangerous, in a geopolitical sense and especially in its implications for the already-suffering Venezuelan people.

Many on the Republican right — which is the Trump right — clearly see the crisis as a threat to U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere (“Make a Part of the Americas Great Again?”) and as an opportunity for a political “win” at a time when the administration is experiencing a crisis of its own. Indeed, the Venezuelan crisis, if “properly” framed, can be made to seem like further support for Trumpist claims about “security threats” south of the U.S. border and the need for decisive and indeed militarized responses in the name of “protecting the American people.” There is absolutely no reason to doubt that the Trump administration is seizing the opportunity presented by the crisis to enforce its will and bolster its power. And there is every reason to criticize this and to oppose it.

But it is not only on the far right that this crisis is being instrumentalized for very reactionary purposes.

Perhaps the worst example is the recent New York Times column by kind-of-Never-Trump conservative Bret Stephens, “Yes, Venezuela is a Socialist Catastrophe: In the Age of A.O.C., the lesson must be learned again.” The point of the piece is well summarized by its title: socialism is to blame for the Venezuelan crisis, and we here in the U.S. ought to fight it, in Venezuela but also here. The U.S., Stephens suggests, needs to be inoculated from socialism and, it would seem, especially from the socialism of “A.O.C.”

Stephens’s column is a despicable piece of red-baiting. It is also idiotic.

Saying “Chavez/Maduro is socialism,” period, is like saying that “Bolsonaro is capitalism,” period. It is true that Chavismo is a kind of “socialism.” (So too was Nazism.) It is also true that there are socialists here who have lionized “the Bolivarian Revolution” and said appalling things, like the statement Stephens quotes from Greg Grandin. (Stephens quotes from a 2013 Nation obituary to Chavez which bears this caption: “Yes, the Venezuelan president could be a strongman. But he leaves behind what might be called the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere.” Here is the Stephens quote: “the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough.” Here is the full quote from which Stephens excerpts without explanation:

Chávez was a strongman. He packed the courts, hounded the corporate media, legislated by decree and pretty much did away with any effective system of institutional checks or balances. But I’ll be perverse and argue that the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough. It wasn’t too much control that was the problem but too little.

The difference matters. But only a little. In my opinion, Grandin was being perverse here; the “logic” of his position has long haunted the left. (More below.)

But it is not true that this implicates “socialism” in general.

And the references here to AOC are as despicable as anything Grandin has ever said about Chavez because she is a democrat committed to the core principles of liberal democracy, and she has become a very articulate and visible spokeswoman for a range of anti-authoritarian policies. Stephens’ comments are designed simply to disparage her and what she symbolizes.

Indeed, while a few of AOC’s socialist colleagues in the House — elected Democratic legislators entitled to their opinions and elected because of them — have expressed strong opposition to the Trump administration’s stance, and she has re-tweeted one of these statements, she has been noticeably subdued about what is now going on. I regard this as a sign of her own political seriousness and maturity. But however one chooses to interpret this, it is defamatory to link her, currently the most visible symbol of left politics today, to the actions of Maduro, and even worse to imply that what she seeks to promote here would produce a similar result.

What Bernie Sanders said about the Venezuela crisis last week seems right to me:

The Maduro government in Venezuela has been waging a violent crackdown on Venezuelan civil society, violated the constitution by dissolving the National Assembly and was re-elected last year in an election that many observers said was fraudulent. Further, the economy is a disaster and millions are migrating. The United States should support the rule of law, fair elections and self-determination for the Venezuelan people. We must condemn the use of violence against unarmed protesters and the suppression of dissent. However, we must learn the lessons of the past and not be in the business of regime change or supporting coups – as we have in Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. The United States has a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin American countries; we must not go down that road again.

It is quite stunning that Stephens could write his attack on “socialism” without even referencing this statement by Sanders, who is surely today the most prominent American socialist and the only one who received over 13 million votes in a presidential primary (by comparison, Trump won the Republican nomination with only 14 million votes). Sanders says nothing in defense of Maduro; he describes the regime as politically repressive and economically disastrous, and surely accords it no legitimacy; and while he rightly cautions against U.S. military intervention, he also indicates that there needs to be a political settlement, backed by the U.S., that advances support for “the rule of law, fair elections and self-determination for the Venezuelan people.”

There are serious arguments to be had about what is going on in Venezuela; what a proper U.S. policy ought to be; and how this matter relates to broader questions regarding the future of the American left. But these arguments can only proceed from a serious analysis of the situation. Such an analysis is presented by Rebecca Hanson and Tim Gill in their recent NACLA report, “ Venezuela at Another Crossroads.” Nothing in this report furnishes exculpation for the U.S. role in the region. But the report does make clear that the current situation is very different than the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez:

Protests against Maduro and confrontations with police have been documented throughout many working-class neighborhoods, including Catia, which has been a Chavista stronghold for almost two decades, in addition to sectors like La Vega, El Valle, Petare, and San Agustín. Marches against Maduro have vastly outnumbered those in support of him. Some sources have even said that participants at Chavista events are prohibited from taking pictures and videos due to low turnout. What’s more, President Maduro has encountered plummeting approval ratings. In a recent poll, for example, 63 percent of respondents said that they would support a negotiated settlement to remove Maduro from office.

The detailed NACLA report makes clear that the situation is complex and unfolding; that it has many deep and proximate causes; that it has many possible outcomes, and that it represents a serious legitimacy crisis for the Maduro regime. In other words, to describe it simply as a “coup” much less as a “U.S.-backed coup” is a gross oversimplification.

The Trump administration is surely using this crisis for its own purposes. This ought to be loudly criticized, and moves toward a U.S. military intervention ought to be strongly opposed. But this does not mean that the crisis ought to be reduced to a conventional narrative of “imperialism vs. anti-imperialism.”

I fear that the recent DSA Statement does this. The statement is rather long, and it offers a narrative in some ways complex. But its basic frame is also extremely simplistic:

Stop Dangerous and Counterproductive US Intervention in Venezuela: Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) categorically opposes any and all efforts by the US government to intervene in the domestic politics of Venezuela. The US has a long and bloody track record of actions to overthrow democratically elected governments, stop the spread of socialism, and maintain US imperial dominance in the region.

While the statement offers no specific endorsement of Maduro, it painfully bends over backward to allocate responsibility evenly between the brutal government and its opposition: “Both the increasingly top-down Venezuelan government as well as the fractious Venezuelan opposition, which has at times resorted to anti-democratic methods, bear significant responsibility for the current crisis and there are important critiques to be leveled against both.” While the government’s violence against protestors has been documented, it declares that “significant confrontations between government and opposition supporters have yet to materialize.” And if it leads with an anti-imperialist declaration, it closes even more strongly with a statement that with a few word changes could have been made about Cuba in 1959 or Nicaragua in 1979: “Solidarity with the people of Venezuela! Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution!”

In short, the statement seems to make two basic claims: that the current crisis is primarily a matter of U.S. domination of Venezuela, and that whatever might be said (or unsaid) about Maduro and his government, the legacy of Chavez must be defended, and the regime should be supported. What other meaning can possibly be given to the closing line?

I doubt whether “Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution!” is likely to do much to advance the political fortunes of DSA outside of a very few locales. But I am certain that such a declaration, now, is at best morally tone deaf and at worst morally derelict, and for the reasons well-stated by Bernie Sanders, and well-worth repeating in their entirety:

The Maduro government in Venezuela has been waging a violent crackdown on Venezuelan civil society, violated the constitution by dissolving the National Assembly and was re-elected last year in an election that many observers said was fraudulent. Further, the economy is a disaster and millions are migrating. The United States should support the rule of law, fair elections and self-determination for the Venezuelan people. We must condemn the use of violence against unarmed protesters and the suppression of dissent. However, we must learn the lessons of the past and not be in the business of regime change or supporting coups – as we have in Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. The United States has a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin American countries; we must not go down that road again.

The placement of the sentences in this paragraph are important. And Sanders has it exactly right.

Not so much Greg Grandin in his current Nation piece. To be clear, what his title says is true: the Right “is using Venezuela to Reorder politics.” This should be opposed. And what his caption says is also true: “The social-democratic wing of the Democratic Party must find a way to put forth a compelling counter-vision.” This should be supported.

But what he means by these things is problematic in precisely the way that the DSA statement is problematic: it centers on opposition to U.S. policy, and it implicitly supports the current regime, even if perhaps not its current leader.

It is worth quoting Grandin at length here:

We are seeing, sort of, the same kind of coming together witnessed in the run up to Panama and Iraq. “On Venezuela, Where Are Liberals?” wailed the headline for a New York Times column by Bret Stephens last year. They’re with you Bret, they’re with you. Representative Eliot Engel, who now chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, supports Donald Trump’s Venezuela position, promising to introduce legislation to back it up, and he’s backed by Florida Democratic Representative Donna Shalala. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted “America stands by the people of #Venezuela as they rise up against authoritarian rule and demand respect for human rights and democracy.” In Florida, Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost a contested governor’s race to a right-wing Trumpian (and who was himself was redbaited in that campaign and linked by Trump to Maduro), likewise tweeted out support of Trump’s Venezuela policy. NPR’s coverage was fawning. “This is the right call. Thank you, Mr. President,” tweeted Jeb Bush.

Notice how Stephens and Bush are lumped together here with Gillum, Pelosi, Shalala, and Engel.

The latter — the liberals — are supposedly with the conservatives in supporting Trump’s Venezuela policy.

But here’s the problem: none of the liberals quoted have in fact said anything in support of Trump’s policy in the quoted statements!

Here is Gillum: #Maduro is an illegitimate dictator — it’s long past time for him to go. So inspired by the tens of thousands of brave protestors who are making their voices felt around the world. Estamos contigo!”

Here is Engel: “We refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency. That’s why @RepEliotEngel@RepDWStweets@RepShalala, and @RepDMP are joining to introduce legislation to support the people of #Venezuela and hold the illegitimate President accountable for the crisis he created.”

And here, for emphasis, is the “offending” statement by Pelosi, as quoted directly by Grandin himself: “‘America stands by the people of #Venezuela as they rise up against authoritarian rule and demand respect for human rights and democracy.’”

None of these statements say anything about Trump. All of these statements center on the idea that Maduro is an authoritarian and illegitimate leader and Venezuelans deserve “respect for human rights and democracy.” It is simply dishonest for Grandin to surround these statements with statements by conservatives, closing his paragraph with Jeb Bush’s praise of Trump as if all of those quoted agree. But it makes sense in this way only: all of the statements do share in common an opposition to Maduro and to the regime, and all of the speakers regard it as very important to say this. But this does not mean that they all support Trump, or that they all support military intervention.

Now, it is true, those statements by leading Democrats — at least those quoted — do not express opposition to Trump, and they do not express opposition to military intervention. I wish they did. I think it is important to press these leaders to be more assertive on this.

Grandin places these liberals — and perhaps even all liberals? — on the side of Trump, and places himself, along with a few others, on the side of “the Venezuelan people”; this narrative is both politically counterproductive and ethically wrong.

Republican leaders and Nancy Pelosi are about as close on this issue as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were in 2016. Failing to see this is not a road to a better foreign policy for “the social democratic wing of the Democratic party.” It is a road to political sectarianism, isolation, and weakness.

It is also a road to what can only be described as complicity with oppression. Think about it. Grandin is saying that it is wrong for Gillum to be expressing solidarity with the protestors of a dictator, and it is wrong for Pelosi to support “respect for human rights and democracy.” What? Here Grandin and the DSA statement would seem aligned. For them, “solidarity with the Venezuelan people” means solidarity with the regime. “Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution!”

Grandin notes that Sanders has not taken this position: “Bernie Sanders botched his response, leading by accepting the premise of Trump’s intervention, that Maduro’s presidency was illegitimate, before noting that the United States ‘has a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin American countries; we must not go down that road again.’ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s response has also been muted.” But he fails to draw the proper conclusion: that these politicians — socialists who actually have some measure of political influence and even power, and thus also have a sense of political responsibility — are consistent in having the courage of their convictions.

Grandin chooses to read Sanders’s opening sentences about the oppressiveness of the Maduro regime as “accepting the premise of Trump’s intervention.” But that is absurd as a matter of logic. For Trump’s intervention is not an entailment of what Sanders says, which is precisely his point. And what Sanders says in those sentences is not about Trump; it is about Maduro, a dictator who has agency and bears responsibility for his actions. And what Sanders says about Maduro is true. It does not cease to be true because Trump seeks to use and abuse it for nefarious purposes.

To make this clear, I’d like to requote what Sanders says, this time with specific references omitted:

The government of X has been waging a violent crackdown on X civil society, violated the constitution by dissolving the National Assembly and was re-elected last year in an election that many observers said was fraudulent. Further, the economy is a disaster and millions are migrating. The United States should support the rule of law, fair elections and self-determination for the X people. We must condemn the use of violence against unarmed protesters and the suppression of dissent.

This is a statement that the left should oppose? Even if it continues with a clear expression of opposition to military intervention as a means of supporting democratization?

Any left that regards such a statement as wrong, or even merely “botched,” is a left that does not deserve to have power.

The clear statement of support for democracy offered by Sanders, and the subdued response of AOC, who refrained from jumping out ahead of this with slogans about “imperialism,” both give the lie to Bret Stephens. And Bret Stephens has a lot more influence than do the anti-imperialists of the left. Which is why his statement is much more dangerous. I do not for one second believe that the drafters of the DSA statement have the slightest desire to follow the example of Maduro or even of Chavez. But their visceral anti-imperialism, and their reflexive sympathy for post-colonial “subaltern masses,” has unfortunately led them to a position that is, ironically, a mirror image of the Trumpist one that they so revile. And so everything is filtered through a U.S.-centered lens. For Trump it’s about “greatness.” For them it is about “imperialism.” But for both, it would seem, it’s the United States of America first.

Donald Trump, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Elliot Abrams have contempt for freedom. But Nicolas Maduro and his fellow leaders of “the Bolivarian revolution” are no less contemptuous. And contemptible.

A plague on both their houses.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. A Senior Editor at, and regular contributor to Public Seminar. His new book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, is published by Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can purchase it here. Follow Jeff on Facebook.

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