How do you solve a problem like Maduro?

How do you solve a problem like Maduro?

Photo Credits: JAMIE CHEN / AGGIE

So long, farewell? Or is Maduro not the problem?

Since National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of Venezuela last month, news of Venezuela’s escalating political and economic crisis has been difficult to avoid.

While writing this piece, I attempted to avoid it for just a little while, choosing to rest my exhausted mind and clean the muck off of my geopolitical-deep-wading boots by visiting a favorite Facebook group of mine called “Pretentious Classical Music Elitists,” where I giddily clicked on a post that read, “Most pretentious opinions of Brahms?”

To my disappointment and bemusement, the first comment said, “Maduro was democratically elected and Guaidó is an [sic] US puppet.”

This comment sums up one of two general interpretations of what is currently playing out in Venezuela, the other being that President Nicolás Maduro is an oppressive authoritarian dictator who must be ousted, while Guaidó is Venezuelan democracy’s only hope. Well, which is it? As BBC asked, is Maduro a dictator or a defender of socialism?

Many elements of both arguments ring true, creating an exceedingly difficult situation for the international community to properly handle. Nations are divided over whether to support Guaidó and the Venezuelan opposition or Maduro, who was elected to a second term in 2018. However, a collapsing economy, massive protests and allegations of increasingly autocratic behavior from Maduro have made it difficult for nations and individuals to remain neutral.

It’s interesting to note the change in rhetoric from Gustavo Dudamel, the world-renowned charismatic conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of Venezuela’s most successful and well-known expats. In the past, Dudamel has proudly not talked politics and been criticized for not distancing himself from the government. However, Dudamel chose to speak out in May 2017, saying “enough is enough,” after a young violist was killed in street protests by Venezuelan security forces.

In July 2017, Dudamel followed-up with a piece in the New York Times criticizing the Venezuelan government’s call for a national constituent assembly that would have the power “not only to rewrite the Constitution but also to dissolve state institutions.” Maduro promptly cancelled a tour Dudamel had planned in the United States with the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, adding, “I hope God forgives you.”

In his piece, Dudamel expressed great “anguish and pain” over at least 90 protestors being killed during the 2017 protests (dozens more have been killed this year, and the UN reports that security forces killed hundreds in 2018). It’s easy to sympathize with Dudamel’s sadness over these killings, but a different quote of his from 2017 stands out most to me because of its relevance to today’s conversation about Venezuelan sovereignty. Dudamel says that the government’s call for a national constituent assembly “exacerbates the existing conflict and social tensions” and demonstrates that the Venezuelan Constitution “has not been respected.”

This quote is particularly interesting because Dudamel identifies where all the ambiguity lies today: what actions best respect the Venezuelan Constitution and Venezuelan sovereignty? This ambiguity is what has caused split opinions within the United States over whether Maduro should stay or be removed from power. While the United States government has now formally recognized Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela, many Americans think that this move compromises Venezuelan sovereignty.

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On Friday, Feb. 8, there was an event held in Sacramento called, “Hands off Venezuela! Rally against Trump’s Coup,” hosted by eight different groups, including the Party for Socialism and Liberation and ANSWER Coalition. A national march is planned for March 16. During the week before the Sacramento event, ANSWER Coalition organizer Patricia Gorky spoke about the groups’ objectives and reasons for being against U.S. intervention in Venezuela.

“Venezuela as a country has been so demonized that even people who consider themselves very liberal or progressive are aligning themselves with the likes of Trump, Pompeo and Bolton,” Gorky said. “We must explain that the Venezuelan people have the right to choose their own leaders, and that the U.S. needs to immediately lift the sanctions and blockade they have slammed onto the Venezuelan people.”

It’s true that the long-running demonization of Venezuela has made it easier for Americans to find themselves siding with those who want Maduro out, but these people must remember that U.S. policies, not just “EVIL SOCIALISM,” are largely responsible for the current economic crisis. Thus, U.S. actions in Venezuela are most likely motivated far more strongly by American corporate and economic interests than Venezuelan democratic interests. However, people who support Maduro need to keep in mind that even if democratic socialism is good for Venezuela, Maduro and his authoritarian tendencies may not be.

In other words, people holding these opposing opinions have much to learn from each other. Unfortunately, the tendency toward swift and decisive decision-making has already left no room in the polarized media conversation for learning, or for my view that you can support democratic socialism in Venezuela while being skeptical of both Maduro and U.S. intervention. While this triad of opinions is rhetorically and realistically impractical, I hold them because they account for what I see as gaps in the arguments of both sides. Nonetheless, these opinions also lead me to the conclusion that U.S. intervention is not what is best for the Venezuelan people.

First, how could democratic socialism be good for the country when the economy is tanking, with inflation at over 1 million percent? Again, it’s crucial to remember that since the grass roots Bolivarian Revolution began two decades ago, there have been many successful social policies, and that much of the economic crisis has been caused by outside influences. Gorky helped make this case.

“Under Chavez there have been major improvements in the quality of life for the country’s poor,” Gorky said. “The Gini-coefficient (measuring the income difference between the rich and poor) has been lowered and social improvements in the form of health, education, alimentation, sports, culture and on a range of other fields have been significant.”

Gustavo Dudamel wrote of how the government has recently expanded the reach of El Sistema, the government-financed classical music education program, increasing the number of children participating from 500,000 to 700,000.

Gorky says that these good efforts have occurred despite long-running campaigns by the U.S. to sabotage Venezuela’s socialist government and economy — campaigns that they think the U.S. media has neglected to properly cover.

“Today in the news the corporate media is in a tizzy because Venezuela blocked ‘aid’ coming from Colombia, never mentioning that such aid is a pittance compared to what the Venezuela has been deprived of by the economic war against it being waged by the U.S. and its own billionaires,” Gorky said.

Gorky says that this is part of a long pattern of the U.S. “clearly” trying to overthrow Venezuela’s government, citing U.S. sanctions and alleging U.S. involvement in past coup and assassination attempts against both Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez. Jamier Sale, another organizer for ANSWER Coalition, said that this continued U.S. intervention is directly tied to U.S. economic interests, supporting my argument that the current U.S. actions are probably not primarily about democracy.

“The U.S. is attempting a coup because it has economic interests in Venezuela’s oil and gold reserves that are among the largest in the world,” Sale said. “Continued U.S. interference in Venezuela is preventing the economic benefits of these natural resources from going to the Venezuelan people.”

Sale also explained why U.S. meddling of any sort is bad for Venezuela, regardless of whether Maduro should or shouldn’t be president, and why the U.S. needs to recognize Venezuelan sovereignty.

“For other nations to recognize Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly, as the president, after Maduro was elected would be like if other countries suddenly decided to recognize Nancy Pelosi as the President of the U.S.,” Sale said. “I think that even Americans who don’t like Trump would not want that type of confusion to happen here.”

Gorky says that Guaidó represents a “violent right-wing” and that he has “plans to privatize Venezuela’s vast oil, gold and gas wealth and hand them over to Exxon.” Gorky also discussed the “manufacturing” of Guaidó and dismissively referred to the “opposition” with quotation marks, saying that the “disillusioned” Venezuelans are just the “tiny elite” of “rich and wealthy capitalists” who can no longer “make exorbitant profits off of the backs of the Venezuelan working class.”

But it’s dangerous to dismiss opposition when there clearly are other reasons for being disillusioned with Maduro. For example, many family members and political allies of Maduro have been either accused or convicted of colluding with cartels while the U.S. Treasury has said that Maduro’s government is using the drug trade to enrich itself. While many have been skeptical of the allegations of rigged national elections due to insufficient evidence, clearer corroboration has emerged on the local scale, which could suggest a fraudulent pattern. Additionally, Maduro’s special police force, the FAES, has been extrajudicially killing dozens in nightly raids to crush dissent in poor neighborhoods. And at hospitals across the country, the government has “enforced a near-total blackout of health statistics” and “culture in which doctors are often afraid to register cases and deaths that may be associated with the government’s failures,” especially regarding children dying from malnutrition.

For these reasons, it is reasonable to be against Maduro but still for Venezuelan socialism and sovereignty. Both Sale and Gorky did qualify their support for the Bolivarian Revolution by saying that what’s important is not whether they support one Venezuelan candidate over the other, but that Venezuelans, not the U.S., chose their leader.

Nonetheless, Sale and Gorky did say that allegations of “authoritarianism” and “human rights abuses” from Maduro are hypocritical, citing “authoritarian” U.S. military, policing, incarceration and environmental practices, as well as the fact that the U.S. seems to be singling-out just Venezuela for “authoritarianism.”

“I think it’s hypocritical to focus on potential human rights abuses in Venezuela as a pretext for intervention when there are things just as bad or worse happening in Columbia, in Brazil, in Mexico,” Sale said. “We should work through these problems in the UN. That’s what it’s there for.”

This is a very convoluted situation, and it’s easy to get stuck debating whether the U.S. is merely facilitating to help “repressed” Venezuelans chose a new leader, or if the U.S. is actively ousting the leader Venezuelans already chose. The impossibility of answering this question again leads to the conclusion that the U.S. is more motivated by economic interests, and that a hands-off approach from the U.S. is probably what’s best for Venezuelans.

Guaidó could offer a ray of hope to Venezuelans dissatisfied with Maduro’s socialist government, but Guaidó himself may be more representative of a far-right opposition that could inflict new problems on the country. So regardless of the implications for the Venezuelan people and rule of law, the U.S. seems to be teeing up another coup-like maneuver. Whether you support this or not, it’s hard at this point to argue that democratic objectives are motivating America as much as the economic one of bringing the U.S. back to [Latin American] dough.

Written by: Benjamin Porter — bbporter@ucdavis.edu

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