The people of Venezuela have taken to the streets and the situation is spiraling out of control. The leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó is claiming he is the rightful president and that sitting president, Nicolás Maduro, is a "usurper". This is set against a backdrop of economic hyperinflation, food shortages and a mass exodus. Above all of this is America’s itchy trigger finger.
Selections of the left have leapt to Maduro’s defense. I understand why this is. He is running a socialist government, that has nationalised the country’s oil and is opposed to American foreign policy in Latin America. Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, attempted to build an economy that looks beyond capitalism to something fairer.
Venezuela offered some hope of an economic system that was different western neo-liberal capitalism (with its staggering inequality), Russian crony-capitalism (with its staggering corruption) or Chinese authoritarian capitalism (with its staggering lack of liberty). Venezuela, especially the Chávez government, had some interesting ideas about how to organise an economy differently, which drew the interest of the international left.
When Chávez died in 2013, I wrote an obituary that drew on my experience of meeting a Venezuelan woman in New York. She had an interesting perspective on the country. She said the poor in Venezuela where glad to have a socialist government, which provided more for them than many other poor countries.
However, she said what most people in Venezuela wanted was Western liberal democracy. I have my criticisms of Western liberal democracy, especially the economic system it rests on, but I believe strongly that people worldwide deserve the personal freedom that western liberal societies offer (at least in principle). I wasn’t about to tell this woman she was wrong about what Venezuelans wanted.
The Maduro regime is not a regime that I want to live under. It was repressed or jailed opposition candidates in the run to the recent presidential election, which is what led to calls that Maduro is usurping the presidency. There has been hyperinflation and food shortages caused by government mismanagement of the economy that has caused a lot of hardship for the poorest members of society.
That said, I am strongly opposed to the idea of Western military intervention in Venezuela. It will only make things worse and risk huge numbers of people being killed in a war that could last for years, if not decades. America - and the few countries that are deluded enough to still look up to America or desperate enough to depend on American’s good graces – cannot go around being the world’s policeman. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are that this doesn’t work.
The West is also very selective in how we enforce international law or the standard of democracy we are supposed to be supporting when we invade another country. The Democratic Republic of the Congo recently had an election where most of the independent monitors claimed that proclaimed winner, Union for Democracy and Social Progress candidate Félix Tshisekedi, committed electoral fraud. The African Union and Catholic Church reported that the Engagement for Citizenship and Development party’s candidate, Martin Fayulu, is the real winner. In Nigeria, Chief Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen has been arrested suspiciously close to the upcoming election he was supposed to be the adjudicator for.
Invading Venezuela, using the excuse that an election was unfair, is wrong unless the West is willing to invade Nigeria and The Democratic Republic of the Congo as well. There have been unfair elections in Russia and China, but we do nothing about them. The Yemenis and Syrian governments are inflicting terrible hardships on their citizens, but we are not invading those countries. Policemen aren’t supposed to be selective about how they enforce the law.
Military action would be a bad idea, but the left needs to acknowledge that something has gone wrong in Venezuela. The government is authoritarian and represses the freedom the left defends. It has brought economic hardship upon its poorest citizens, the people socialism is supposed to offer something better than harsh capitalism.
Venezuela doesn’t show that socialism doesn’t work. It shows that this variety of authoritarian socialism as practiced by Venezuela and in the USSR doesn’t work. The left needs to know authoritarian socialism when we see it, and call it out as against our values. Socialism should provide more liberty than capitalism. Not less.
There are rival traditions of anti-authoritarian socialism. From the works of Rosa Luxemburg to anarchist collectives in Kurdistan to Podemos in Spain and the criticism of authoritarian socialism written by George Orwell.
I hope that the lives of ordinary Venezuelans improve in the future and that they don’t have to suffer food shortages, hyperinflation and live under an authoritarian government. The Venezuela people need to establish the government that they want for themselves. An American or Western invasion won’t help them do this and will only lead to the suffering of more ordinary Venezuelans.
"Bandera de Venezuela" by Blog Viajes is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit here