Venezuela: “The Most Democratic Country in the Western Hemisphere”

EspañolGeorge Ciccariello-Maher has stepped up to defend the Venezuelan regime.

An assistant professor of political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia and author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, Ciccariello-Maher recently published an article in The Nation slamming the protests in Venezuela as an attempt “to return economic and political elites to power.”

Sadly, it no longer goes without saying that even if this were true, there remains no excuse for peaceful protests to be met with violent repression — whether carried out directly by Venezuelan state forces or outsourced to paramilitary groups.

George Ciccariello-Maher

In The Nation as well as in a prior interview with Democracy Now, Ciccariello-Maher assumes the position of the “useful idiot,” the ostensibly well-meaning foreign intellectual who offers good press to bad rulers. He is certainly not alone in this role. But his high profile among the anti-protest pundits, coupled with his insistence that Venezuela remains “the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere,” urges a detailed response.

Ciccariello-Maher agrees that economic volatility and social insecurity — two of the central issues for protestors — are “very real” concerns. Despite positioning himself as an expert on contemporary Venezuela, however, Ciccariello-Maher strategically avoids any discussion of why, after 15 years of revolutionary progress, Venezuela’s shortage of basic products is worsening and homicides are at an all-time high.

Using his scholarly status to delegitimize the protests rather than to analyze their causes, Ciccariello-Maher serves the Venezuelan regime well. He draws attention to “injections of funding from US government ancillaries” to opposition groups in Venezuela. But he ignores the tens of thousands of Cubans who have been sent to Venezuela to buttress an increasingly repressive government and, in turn, to ensure that shipments of highly subsidized Venezuelan oil continue to flow to Cuba.

Cuba’s mandatory military service means that these individuals arrive in Venezuela as doctors, social workers, and teachers with a solid understanding of the command structure of combat — a key asset to government loyalists in what some describe as an emerging “civil-war scenario.”

One may disagree with external funding and support for the Venezuelan opposition and/or with the role of the Cuban military apparatus in Venezuela. But it is illogical to imply, as Ciccariello-Maher does, that the former is an example of “foreign intervention,” while the latter is not. As Moisés Naím reminds us, Cuba has “a long history of intervening in Latin American countries, and in politically manipulating and physically or morally ‘neutralizing’ its opponents.”

Of course, Ciccariello-Maher has reasons to downplay the role of the Cuban state in organizing and systematizing Venezuela’s civic-military structure. His own book is premised on the claim that Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution is an organic, bottom-up, pre-Chávez phenomenon. He traces the roots of Venezuela’s revolutionary movements to the Caracazo of 1989, when a state crackdown on protests and looting in the wake of structural adjustment policies officially left hundreds (some say thousands) dead.

One of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of victims of the Caracazo in 1989.
One of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of victims of the Caracazo in 1989. Source: Primicias24.

Ciccariello-Maher is not wrong to draw attention to the Caracazo and its aftermath. Coverage of the protests then and now offers a stark indictment of both the pre- and post-Chávez status quo.

However, by invoking the Caracazo as an invective exclusively against opposition politicians — and, by extension, current protesters — Ciccariello-Maher simply reinforces his service to the sitting regime. As Andrés Cañizález has argued, the Caracazo exposes further contradictions in the “human rights” discourse of the government: “Chavismo, with 15 years of control over state powers and with the institutional capacity to seek justice, only uses the Caracazo as a political tool, and only then when it is convenient.”

Ciccariello-Maher says the memory of the Caracazo is a bulwark against any “naïve faith” in the state. Yet, he appeals to this naïve faith in claiming that the Venezuelan protests are designed to “return” economic and political elites to power, as if members of the current regime are somehow exempt from elite status.

It is difficult to believe that Ciccariello-Maher is simply unaware of the bolibourgeoisie, the upper-crust of the Bolivarian class. The bolibourgeoisie are rewarded for serving the proletarian cause with junkets to Miami, where they can discuss the importance of the anti-capitalist struggle while sipping champagne, taking in a polo match, or shopping for gold-plated iPads (see here and here).

Ciccariello-Maher recognizes that Venezuela is at a crossroads. Yet even as he urges Chavistas to press forward toward a more “radical” revolutionary society, he seems at a loss to define what this really means. He describes the Bolivarian process as “socialism in a capitalist society, thriving direct democracy in a liberal democratic shell.”

It is better described, in the words of Ludwig von Mises, as planned chaos.

Every successive intervention in the economy is evidence of the failure of prior intervention. Ironically, this means that central planning expands in proportion to its failure, not its success. If central planning were merely to replicate the will of individuals (and this, one assumes, is what Ciccariello-Maher means by direct democracy) it would be redundant. The fact that central planning overrules the will of individuals means that it must be backed by force.

Analyses that decouple political and economic factors ignore this tension, which explains why Ciccariello-Maher fails to grasp that ongoing shortages and repression are features, not bugs, of the policies chosen by the Venezuelan regime.

Fixing the price of a given product at a below-market rate encourages marginal producers to redirect capital and labor to more profitable outlets. Counter to the objective, this diminishes the supply of the regulated product. In the absence of repealing this policy, the state must fix more and more prices (first the prices of finished goods, then the prices of the factors of production to make these goods) in an attempt to paralyze capital and labor mobility.

In the words of Mises: “the program of this self-contradictory interventionism is dictatorship, supposedly to make people free.” Hence the absurd reality in Venezuela, where state security forces are dispatched to protect the supply of toilet paper while every twenty-one minutes someone is murdered in the street.

The problems of Venezuela run deep, and they will not be easily resolved. But these problems are exacerbated, not eased, by apologists for state overreach and repression who ignore that the poorest people in the most economically free nations have twice the average overall income of people in the least economically free nations, of which Venezuela is a prime example.

Efforts to delegitimize the protests and excuse the shortages and insecurity in Venezuela do not change this basic fact.

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