[News] Authoritarianism in Venezuela?

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon May 22 12:35:56 EDT 2017


  Authoritarianism in Venezuela? A Reply to Gabriel Hetland

By Lucas Koerner – May 19th 2017


Venezuela is once again dominating international headlines as violent 
opposition protests bent on toppling the elected Maduro government enter 
their seventh week. The demonstrations have claimed to date at least 54 
lives <https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/13081> since April 4, 
surpassing the previous wave of violent anti-government protests in 
2014, known as “the Exit”. However, this time around, the unrest 
coincides with a severe economic downturn and a transformed geopolitical 
landscape defined by the return of the right in Brazil and Argentina as 
well as an even more bellicose regime in Washington.

Meanwhile, the international outcry at this latest violent effort to 
oust the Chavista government has been far more muffled than the last time.

With the notable exception of an open letter 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/13121> by LASA members, a 
UNAC/BAP joint statement <https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/13127>, 
  and other smaller protest actions, the US left has been largely 
passive vis-a-vis both the Trump administration’s escalating 
intervention against Venezuela as well as the systematic media blackout 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/13070>, preferring silence to 
active solidarity with Chavismo.

In this environment, some leftist academics have publicly broken with 
the Maduro administration over its response to the country’s current 
political and economic crisis.

In a recent piece 
<https://nacla.org/news/2017/05/03/why-venezuela-spiraling-out-control> for 
NACLA*, University of Albany Assistant Professor Gabriel Hetland parts 
ways with the Bolivarian government, citing concerns over Maduro’s 
“authoritarian” slide.

“Yet, while previous claims of Venezuela’s authoritarianism have had 
little merit, this is no longer the case,” he writes.

While we deeply respect Professor Hetland’s critical contributions to 
the debate on Venezuela, we at Venezuelanalysis 
<http://venezuelanalysis.com/>** – a collective of journalists and 
activists who at one point or another have lived, studied, and/or worked 
in Venezuela – firmly reject this charge of authoritarianism on both 
analytical and political grounds.

*Setting the record straight*

Hetland cites a number of recent actions of the Venezuelan government to 
bolster his claim, including the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s (TSJ) 
alleged “dissolving” of the opposition-held National Assembly (AN), the 
“cancel[ation]” of the recall referendum, the postponing of “municipal 
and regional elections that should have occurred in 2016”, and the TSJ’s 
blocking of the AN’s legislative activity in 2016.

There are of course a number of serious problems with this account.

To begin, several elements of this narrative are misleadingly presented, 
if not all-together factually inaccurate.

First of all, as Venezuelanalysis reported 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/13018> at the time, the TSJ’s 
March 29 decisions did not “dissolve” the Venezuelan National Assembly 
as was almost uniformly reported in the mainstream press. Rather, the 
rulings sought to temporarily authorize 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/13013> the judiciary to take on 
pertinent legislative functions, which in this particular case meant 
approving a pressing joint venture agreement between Venezuelan state 
oil company PDVSA and its Russian counterpart, Rosneft, which was 
critical for the former’s solvency. The ruling – which was based on 
article 336.7 of the Venezuelan constitution – provoked a rift 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/13014> within Chavismo, with the 
current and former attorney generals lining up on opposite sides of the 
constitutional divide. One can certainly criticize the since-reversed 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/13019> decision on constitutional and 
political grounds, but to present it as a “dissolution” of the 
parliament is just disingenuous.

This brings us to the question of the Supreme Court’s blocking of the 
opposition-majority legislature in 2016. It is undeniable that the TSJ 
did in fact strike down three of the four laws the AN managed to approve 
last year. However, it takes two to tango and Hetland severely 
understates the opposition’s own role in this protracted institutional 
standoff. It’s important to note that the AN did not “act beyond its 
authority” only “in some cases”, as Hetland describes.

 From quite literally the moment that the new AN was sworn-in in January 
2016, the body explicitly declared war on the Bolivarian institutional 
order crafted by Chavismo, with AN head Henry Ramos Allup promising to 
oust Maduro “within six months 
– a blatantly unconstitutional threat against a sitting president. A 
sampling of the legislation pursued by the National Assembly in 2016 
includes a law to privatize Venezuela’s public housing program 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/11965>, a law to return expropriated 
lands and enterprises to their former owners 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/11870>, a law forcing the executive 
to accept humanitarian aid 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/12038> into the country, the infamous 
Amnesty Law <https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/11887>, as well as a 
constitutional amendment 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/11948> retroactively shortening the 
presidential term by two years. We can add to this list the opposition’s 
attempted parliamentary coup <https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/12737>, 
in which it declared that Maduro had “abandoned his post” first in 
October <https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/12744> and again this 
past January <https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/12912> – which Hetland 
likewise neglects to acknowledge. Nor does he mention the reason for the 
legislature’s current “null” status, namely the opposition’s refusal to 
unseat three of its lawmakers from Amazonas state currently under 
investigation for alleged vote-buying in flagrant violation of the high 
court. Again, one may still criticize the TSJ’s blockage of the AN, but 
to understate the parliament’s systematic efforts to overthrow the 
Bolivarian government by any means necessary is quite misleading.

Hetland similarly omits the opposition’s own role 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/12875> in the suspension of the 
recall referendum (RR) process. As we noted, the opposition-held 
parliament came into office with the objective of overthrowing Maduro 
“within six months” – a goal evidently incompatible with the RR, which 
takes a minimum of eight months. Indeed, the RR was just one of the 
strategies in the opposition’s four-pronged plan 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/11880> to oust Maduro unveiled in 
March 2016, which also included the aforementioned constitutional 
amendment, a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution (which the 
opposition now opposes <https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/13111>), and 
heating up the streets to force Maduro’s resignation. As a result of the 
opposition’s own internecine divisions, it delayed 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/11999> in beginning the RR and 
made serious procedural errors, such as collecting 53,658 fraudulent 
signatures, which gave the government a pretext to indefinitely stall 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/12736> the process in the courts. 
There is no doubt that the Maduro administration dragged its feet on the 
RR process knowing full well it would likely lose, but this was hardly 
the one-sided drama presented by Hetland.

Lastly, the National Electoral Council (CNE) did in fact postpone 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/12727> the regional elections 
scheduled for last year, citing logistical conflicts with the RR 
process, a move which is indefensible on constitutional and political 
grounds. However, it’s worth noting that there is a precedent for such a 
delay: the local elections 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/1278> slated for December 2004 were 
similarly postponed until August 2005 on account of the recall 
referendum against then President Chávez the year before. Hetland passes 
over this important detail in his rush to indict Venezuela’s democratic 

Moreover, while it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize the Bolivarian 
government for delaying the governors’ races, municipal elections are a 
different story. Local elections are scheduled for 2017, meaning that 
they can be held any time before the close of the year. In suggesting 
that the government has postponed local elections, Hetland commits yet 
another factual error that serves to inflate his largely ideological 
case for the Maduro administration’s “creeping authoritarianism”, as we 
shall see below.

*Fetishizing liberal democracy*

Beyond these factual errors and misrepresentations, the main problem 
with Hetland’s piece is his implicit notion of “authoritarianism”, which 
he at no point takes the time to actually define.

Without going extensively into the genealogy of this term, it’s key to 
remember that authoritarianism is hardly a politically neutral concept.

As Hetland correctly observes, the charge of authoritarianism was 
dubiously leveled against the Chávez administration and other “pink 
tide” governments who were excoriated by Western commentators and 
political scientists for daring to challenge the hegemony of 
(neo)liberal capitalist representative democracy.

Indeed throughout the last decade, political scientists led by former 
Mexican foreign minister Jorge Casteñeda 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/6361?page=2&favtitle=The%2520Rightward%2520Drift%2520of%2520a%2520Latin%2520American%2520Social%2520Democrat> have 
distinguished between a “good” reformist, liberal left epitomized by 
Brazil’s Lula Da Silva that is willing to play ball with the Washington 
and transnational capital and a “bad” radical, populist left embodied by 
Hugo Chávez, which has opened up the liberal representative floodgates 
to direct mass participation in democratic governance.

As Sara Motta underlines 
this binary is deeply colonial in nature: the “mature” and Westernized

“good-left” has learned from the alleged failures of revolutionary 
Marxism and embraced incremental reform, while the “bad-left” remains 
mired in the clientelism and tribal authoritarianism of the “pre-modern” 
past, rendering it hostile to liberal democracy.

This “good-left”/“bad-left” dichotomy is of course nothing new, 
amounting to a minor aesthetic rehashing of the 
“revolutionary”/“democratic” distinction applied to the Latin American 
left in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, which in turn is founded on 
the classic “civilization” versus “barbarism” divide.

Hetland, in lieu of questioning the liberal ideological criterion behind 
this colonial binary, preserves the distinction, announcing that the 
Maduro government has passed over into the dark realm of authoritarianism:

By cancelling the recall referendum, suspending elections, and 
inhibiting opposition politicians from standing for office, the 
Venezuelan government is systematically blocking the ability of the 
Venezuelan people to express themselves through electoral means. It is 
hard to see what to call this other than creeping authoritarianism.

In other words, “authoritarianism” for Hetland seems to amount to the 
quashing of proceduralist liberal democratic norms, including most 
notably separation of powers, threatening the political rights of the 
country’s right-wing opposition.

What we get from this formalist approach is a sort of Freedom 
House-style checklist <https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/12924> in 
which the pluses and minuses of global South regimes (freedom of speech, 
press, etc.) are statically weighed and definitive moral judgement 
concerning “democratic quality” are handed down. Venezuela is still not 
yet a “full-scale authoritarian regime,” Hetland tells us, “given the 
opposition’s significant access to traditional and social media and 
substantial ability to engage in anti-government protest.” In this 
point, Hetland’s conclusion is virtually indistinguishable from that of 
mainstream Latin American studies, which has long invented convoluted 
monikers such as “participatory competitive authoritarianism 
<https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/23326927.pdf>” to characterize the 
Bolivarian government.

The trouble with this perspective is that it ends up reifying these 
so-called authoritarian practices, casting them as the cause – together 
with the opposition’s regime change efforts – of Venezuela’s current 
crisis rather than a symptom of the underlying correlation of forces.

The Maduro administration’s alleged steamrolling of certain liberal 
democratic norms – particularly the postponement of regional elections – 
is undoubtedly quite concerning, precisely because it evidences the 
catastrophic impasse in the Bolivarian revolutionary process.

We at Venezuelanalysis have long been critical of the Bolivarian 
government’s top-down institutional power plays to contain the 
opposition’s efforts to oust Maduro, which we view as a conservative 
attempt to maintain the status quo in lieu of actually mobilizing the 
masses of people from below to break the current deadlock and resolve 
the crisis on revolutionary terms.

In this vein, we have critiqued those tendencies within the Venezuelan 
state which we see as consolidating the power of corrupt reformist 
“Boli-bourgeois” class fractions in the bureaucracy 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/12861> and armed forces, 
including direct military control 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/12080> over imports, the de-facto 
liberalization of prices, reduced social spending coupled with draconian 
debt servicing <https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/12120>, the 
Orinoco Mining Arc <https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/12122>, a dubious 
but since-modified <https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/13086> party 
registration process <https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/12929>, and a 
conservative turn <https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/11489> in 
anti-crime policy.

Yet Hetland is strangely silent regarding these reformist retreats and 
regressions over the past four years, which for all intents and purposes 
are far more serious than many of the above “authoritarian” abuses he 

It is precisely here that the charge of “authoritarianism” betrays its 
liberal ideological bias: by prioritizing the procedural violations 
affecting the bourgeois right-wing opposition, Hetland renders invisible 
the underlying dynamics of class warfare brutally impacting the popular 

Therefore, contra Hetland, the problem is not that liberal democratic 
norms have been undercut per se, but rather that the revolutionary 
construction of alternative institutions of radical grassroots democracy 
– the “communal state” in Chávez’s terms – has come up against decisive 
structural roadblocks <http://www.alainet.org/es/articulo/184922>.

Here we must be unequivocal: liberal democracy is not absolute nor 
universal, and its relation to revolutionary processes is always 
mediated by context. To impose these norms on the Cuban Revolution, for 
instance, in its context of genocidal imperial siege is the height of 
absurdity and political irresponsibility. Given these circumstances, 
Cuba’s model of revolutionary democracy – despite all its faults and 
limitations – is no less legitimate than other democratic socialist 
projects that have made strategic use of elements of liberal democracy, 
such as Chile and Nicaragua in the 70s and 80s or Venezuela and Bolivia 

The Bolivarian process is, however, fundamentally different, as it is 
premised on an electoral road to socialism in which the existing 
bourgeois democratic order is approached as a strategic space of 
counter-hegemonic struggle. In this context, the suspension of certain 
liberal rights such as elections or specific opposition freedoms would 
only be acceptable under exceptional circumstances in which the 
Bolivarian government were actually taking revolutionary measures to 
resolve the current crisis and commanded unquestioned legitimacy among 
its social bases.

Despite the undeniable spiral of political and economic violence driven 
by the opposition, Venezuela is unfortunately not going through an 
equivalent of a “special period” insofar as the leadership of the party 
and state has thus far failed to go on the offensive against endemic 
corruption and take the fight to the local and transnational capitalist 
enemy as was the case during crucial revolutionary turning points in 
Russia, China, and Cuba.

Given this reality, the message coming from some sectors of Chavismo 
that there can be no elections under conditions of warfare – 
a legitimate argument in other contexts including Nazi-besieged Britain 
– is questionable at best. Nonetheless, this counterfactual is useful 
insofar as it demonstrates that liberal democracy is a wholly inadequate 
yardstick for evaluating revolutionary processes, confounding far more 
than it clarifies, as in the case of Hetland’s critique of 
“authoritarianism” in Venezuela.

*Throw them all out?*

In this diagnosis of causes of the current crisis, our position 
coincides with that of the vast majority of Venezuelan left-wing 
movements whose chief grievance is hardly the litany of “authoritarian” 
practices against the right-wing opposition enumerated by Hetland, but, 
on the contrary, the reformist and at times outright 
counter-revolutionary policies being pursued by the Maduro government.

The same is true for Venezuela’s popular classes – the social base of 
Chavismo – who don’t particularly care that the Supreme Court has 
blocked the National Assembly and the president has been ruling by 
emergency economic decree since February 2016. According to independent 
pollster Hinterlaces, around 70 percent 
<http://www.eluniversal.com/noticias/politica/hinterlaces-poblacion-evalua-negativamente-gestion_646518> of 
Venezuelans negatively evaluate the opposition-controlled parliament, 
while 61 percent 
<http://hinterlaces.com/61-no-confia-en-que-la-oposicion-resolveria-actuales-problemas-economicos/> have 
little faith that a future opposition government will address the 
country’s deep economic problems. Rather, the majority of Venezuelans 
want the Maduro administration to remain in power and resolve the 
current economic crisis 
Their discontent flows not from Maduro’s use of emergency powers 
– contrary to the international media narrative – but rather from his 
failure to use them to take decisive actions to deepen the revolution in 
lieu of granting further concessions to capital.

Despite the setbacks, retreats, and betrayals that have characterized 
the past four years since the death of Chávez, the mood among the 
Venezuelan masses is not a uniform rejection of Venezuela’s entire 
political establishment as Hetland suggests in a sweeping generalization:

If any slogan captures the current mood 
<http://venezuelablog.tumblr.com/post/160047747376/protests-and-lootings-in-venezuelas-popular> of 
the popular classes living in Venezuela’s barrios and villages it is 
likely this: Que se vayan todos. Throw them all out.

While Chavismo has undoubtedly bled significant support over the past 
five years and the ranks of independents, or ni-nis, has swollen to over 
40 percent of the population 
the PSUV remarkably remains the country’s most popular party, actually 
increasing <https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/12866> its support from 27 
to 35 percent since January. Similarly, Maduro still has the approval of 
approximately 24 percent <https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/13053> of 
Venezuelans, making him more popular than the presidents of Brazil, 
Mexico, and Chile – a fact consistently suppressed by international 
corporate media. These poll numbers are nothing short of incredible in 
view of the severity of the current economic crisis ravaging the 
country, speaking to the partial efficacy of some of the government’s 
measures such as the CLAPs 
<http://hinterlaces.com/53-se-ha-beneficiado-con-los-clap-en-2017/> as 
well as the opposition’s utter failure to present any alternative program.

Likewise, despite growing disillusionment with the government and hints 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/13033> at a possible rupture, the 
fact is that the overwhelming majority of Venezuela’s social movements 
and left-wing political parties continue to back Maduro.

What’s more is that this left unity in support of the Bolivarian 
government has only hardened in the face of the ongoing opposition 
onslaught and in anticipation of the National Constituent Assembly to be 
held in the coming months.

However baffling on the surface, this staunch defense of the Maduro 
administration actually makes perfect sense for at least two reasons.

First, as any Chavista who has lived through the last six weeks of 
right-wing terror can attest to, the choice between the continuity of 
Chavismo in power and an opposition regime is not a matter of mere 
ideological preference – it’s a question of survival, as there is no 
predicting the extent of the political and structural violence the 
opposition would unleash if they manage to take Miraflores. This is in 
no way to deny or downplay the fallout of the current economic crisis, 
for which the government bears a great deal of responsibility, but there 
is no doubt that an opposition government would take this economic war 
on the poor to new levels of neoliberal savagery.

Second, the existence of the Bolivarian government embodies the 
lingering possibility of transforming the inherited bourgeois 
petro-state as part of the transition to 21st Century socialism. While 
there is cause for skepticism about the real possibilities of pushing 
forward the democratization and decolonization of the Venezuelan state 
in this conjuncture, there has been an outpouring 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/13123> of grassroots support for the 
National Constituent Assembly which could serve as a vehicle to retake 
the revolutionary offensive and institutionalize radical demands from 
below <https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/13125>.

This broad-based consensus of critical support for the government on the 
part of Venezuela’s left stands sharply at odds with Hetland’s “plague 
on both your houses approach”, which, in Steve Ellner’s terms 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/13126>, ends up “placing 
opposition and Chavista leaders in the same sack” as equally undesirable 

While there is indeed tremendous anger and frustration with the 
government – which may in fact translate to a crushing electoral defeat 
for Chavismo in the next elections – the prevailing sentiment among much 
of Venezuela’s popular classes in the face of the opposition’s present 
reign of terror remains “no volverán” (they shall not return).

*The role of solidarity*

All of this brings us to the position of international solidarity 
activists with respect to Venezuela.

We wholeheartedly agree with Hetland that it is the duty of each and 
every self-respecting leftist and progressive to “reject any and all 
calls for imperialist interventions aimed at ‘saving’ Venezuela”.

Nevertheless, while anti-interventionism is urgently necessary, this 
begs the question, with whom are we supposed to be in solidarity?

Hetland calls on us to stand with “the majority of Venezuelans who are 
suffering at the hands of a vengeful, reckless opposition, and an 
incompetent, unaccountable government.”

The end result of such a “plague on both your houses” approach is a 
refusal to take a side in this struggle – in a word, neutrality. This 
posture flows naturally from Hetland’s liberal framework of 
authoritarianism, which necessarily posits the Western intellectual as a 
disembodied arbiter – occupying the Cartesian standpoint of the “eye of 
God” in Enrique Dussel’s terms – uniquely capable of objectively 
weighing the democratic virtues and deficits of Third World regimes.

In contrast, we at Venezuelanalysis stand unconditionally with 
Venezuela’s Bolivarian-socialist movement, which at this conjuncture 
continues to critically support the Maduro administration.

We take this stance not out of a willful blindness to the Bolivarian 
government’s many faults and betrayals, but because we (and particularly 
our writers on the ground) know that for a great many Chavistas the 
choice between radicalizing the revolution and right-wing restoration 
is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

* /A version of this article was submitted to NACLA, but no initial 
response was received. The editor elected to go ahead and publish at 
<https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/venezuelanalysis.com> in the 
interest of a timely response. UPDATE: NACLA did ultimately respond to 
our submission on the afternoon of May 19, but by that time, the article 
was already published. /

/** Written by Lucas Koerner on behalf of Venezuelanalysis’ writing and 
multimedia staff as well as VA founder Greg Wilpert./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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