The longterm crisis  

The Venezuelan oil rentier model and the present crisis the country faces

Edgardo Lander

In this article I will not attempt to deal with even a cursory balance of the Bolivarian process with its very significant national and regional achievements and the many contradictions flaws and limitations that have characterized this attempt at a radical anticapitalist transformation. I will basically deal with the current intense crisis facing the country. To define my position as clearly as possible I start by stating that I have been a left wing intellectual and political activist all my adult life and critically backed the Chavez government during its first decade, until the political process of the Bolivarian Revolution started to present significant deviations from its original orientations.

Today, after more than a decade of profound political and social transformations, Venezuela is facing its most severe crisis since the civil wars of the 19th century. The significant accomplishments of the Bolivarian Revolution are all at risk. The economy is collapsing, poverty, undernourishment and death rates are increasing. Political polarization and violence could lead to a civil war. All this is seriously aggravated by increasing international isolation, due among other things, to the turn to the right of the governments of Brazil and Argentina, and imperialist actions like the recently imposed financial blockade and threats of military intervention made by Donald Trump.

The Venezuelan crisis is not new. The country has been undergoing a deep structural economic and political crisis for the last four decades. It is the terminal crisis of the oil based extractivist model and clientelistic rentier state that has characterized Venezuelan society since the second decade of the last century. However, in the form of a radical program of transformation that eventually was conceived as a socialist project, this extractive rentier model was actually given a new breath of life with the charismatic leadership of Chavez, the legitimacy provided by the 1999 Constitution and the high oil prices of the first decade of this century. Once again it seemed like oil prices could only go up and oil income was seen in the short and medium term as providing the resources required for the transformation of Venezuelan society. During then process no significant steps were taken in the direction of the transformation of the productive structure of the country. On the contrary, rentism deepened until oil reached 96% of the total value of exports. Today the country is more dependent on imports, even for basic food and medical supplies, than ever before.

Hugo Chavez holding a copy of the 1999 constitution

The social policies that substantially improved the living conditions of the popular sectors and the important initiatives in Latin American cooperation and solidarity carried out by the Venezuelan government were both made possible by an extraordinary commodity boom led by Chinese demand. As the oil rent was directed toward the excluded sectors of the population, there were profound improvements in their living conditions. Poverty and inequality were significantly reduced, access to food, health services, education and social security improved in qualitative terms. Politically, there were acute changes in popular political culture, widespread grass-root organizations and extraordinary levels of both social and political participation. Venezuela played a central role in the displacement to the left that took place in most of South America. For years the government had high levels of backing and legitimacy.

However, in 2013 and 2014 the two main pillars that sustained the Bolivarian process, Chavez´s extraordinary charismatic leadership and historically high oil prices were no longer there. Chávez died in March 2013. A year later the average price of Venezuelan oil exports had collapsed from over a hundred dollars a barrel to less than twenty five dollars. Thus the deep structural terminal crisis of the oil rentier state and society that had been in a certain sense postponed for a few years reemerged with greater, even dramatic force.

1. The economic and social situation

To analyze the current state of the economy in Venezuela, there is no up-to-date official information available. The government has decided not to disclose the statistical information that would confirm the depth of the current economic crisis. The calculations that have been disseminated by economic analysts, academic centers, business associations and international institutions present wide variations. Not all of them can be trusted.

Last year, the Venezuelan economy recorded its worst drop since the oil-strike/corporate lockout of 2002-2003, with a contraction that has been estimated between 10% and 18.6% and accumulating three consecutive years of decline in GDP. According to some estimates, the collapse of the Venezuelan economy has been such that per capita GDP in 2017 fell by 40%, from 2013 levels. Oil prices recovered somewhat from an average of 35 US dollars per barrel in 2016 to 42 US dollars per barrel in April 2017, still far from the average prices ranging between 101 and 88 dollars per barrel between 2011 and 2013. Not only have prices collapsed. According to OPEC, oil production has dropped to one million 972 thousand barrels per day by March 2017, nearly a million barrels less than those who were produced in March 2001. This decline has been attributed to inefficiency; corruption; lack of investment; and the fact that it is much more technologically complex and expensive to exploit the heavy and extra heavy oil that today constitute most of Venezuelan reserves. Light (imported) oil has to be mixed with this heavy oil for transportation and refining, thus significantly reducing profits. Oil labor union leaders claim that the country’s main refinery, one of the largest in the world, is working at less than 50% of its installed capacity due to lack of adequate maintenance.

According to the recently published 2016 Consolidated Financial Statement of the state oil company (PDVSA), its net profits collapsed from over nine billion dollars in 2014 to 828 million US dollars in 2016. The company, the source of a lion´s share of the country´s income is, like the rest of the country, is in a deep crisis.

Different sources, both national and international, have calculated that inflation in 2016 was somewhere between 500% and 800%, higher levels are expected for this year. For a third consecutive year there has been a severe fiscal deficit. According to some estimates, public spending in 2016 had a reduction of around 30% compared to the level of the previous year. International reserves fell from 35 billion dollars in 2009 to 10.3 billion dollars in April 2017.1 Investment on fixed capital has been declining since 2013. The same trend is present in private consumption.

The total consolidated debt of the country, (i.e. domestic and foreign debts payable in dollars, loans obtained and bonds issued by the Republic and the state oil company, PDVSA), amount to 181 billion US dollars. This represents more than 80% of GDP, and is almost eighteen times more than the country’s total international reserves.1 All this, in spite of the fact that during the 18 years of the Bolivarian process Venezuela has experienced an unprecedented boom in oil prices. During this period the country received more dollars than it had received during all of the previous eight decades of oil exports. (See chart) This massive external indebtedness, as in previous experiences, occurred precisely in the boom years when oil prices were very high. Part of this debt is an illicit debt due to corruption. Left wing groups and intellectuals have been pressing the government to carry out a systematic audit of this debt, as was done in Ecuador, and in the mean time re-negotiate or postpone debt payments.

Even in the face of a threat of a severe humanitarian crisis, the Venezuelan government has given priority to paying the debt on time over the urgent needs of the Venezuelan population. In May this year President Maduro announced that in the previous 24 months, the government had allocated a total of 60 billion US dollars to pay part of the foreign debt.1 At the same time according to the Catholic charity Caritas International 54% of Venezuelan children have some level of undernourishment1.This is mainly a consequence of a drastic fall in resources available for imports in a country is more dependent than ever on food imports.

One of the most important historical distortions of the Venezuelan oil economy has been an overvalued currency that has made it cheaper to import most things than to produce them internally. This has at the same time operated as a barrier that made it difficult to export practically anything apart from oil. This is the so-called, but misnamed, Dutch disease. The country became highly dependent on imports, even for basic food: a port economy. The Bolivarian government did not even begin to fix foreign exchange rate distortions. It created new ones. In order to limit capital flight, over time it set up several different complex systems of foreign exchange controls that led to even more severe distortions and to the creation of several, both legal and illegal parallel exchange rates, at times as many as four. Today while the highly subsidized parity with which most basic food and medicine is imported is ten bolivars per US dollar, the parity in the parallel illegal market, which has a significant impact on the country’s price structure, fluctuated between 10,000 and 18,000 bolivars per dollar in August this year.1 Today is it over 22,000 bolivars per US dollar

The general deterioration of productive activity and public finances has had severe impacts on the living conditions of the population, especially in the areas of health, food and personal insecurity. This constitutes a reversal of many of the most important accomplishment of the Bolivarian Revolution. The levels of poverty, in term of monetary income, that had been quite significantly reduced between 1999 and 2012 are today worse than the levels that existed before the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution.

The drastic reduction of foreign exchange available to finance imports has created a generalized shortage of medicines and greatly complicates the treatment of chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. There has been a loss in the average weight of the population. There are frequent deaths in hospitals that are a direct consequence of the lack of the required equipment and drugs as well as undernourishment. Mortality rates for women giving birth and newborns have takes a steep hike over the last four years. There is today a severe country-wide malaria epidemic. About half of the total reported cases of malaria in the whole of the Americas correspond to Venezuela. According to the Venezuela Violence Observatory, in 2016 Venezuela had a homicide rate of 91 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, second only to El Salvador in the world.1 At least two million people have left the country in the last three years, specially young people, both professionals and unskilled workers, in search of a better future elsewhere.

The most important economic decision made by Maduro's government in recent years has been the decree creating the Orinoco Mining Arch. That is the opening of 112 thousand square kilometers, 12% of the national territory to large transnational mining corporations. Faced with the crisis of the oil rentier model, instead of promoting a national debate on alternatives to the predatory extractivist model that has characterized the Venezuelan economy for a century, the government has opted to push the country in the path of a new extractive-rentier pattern, now based on large scale mining. This megaproject, if carried out as the government has announced, would constitute a further step in the direction of the ethnocide of the already endangered indigenous peoples living in that area. It would have devastating socio-environmental consequences in both immediate and long-term terms, affecting part of the Amazon forest, destroying vast areas of extraordinary biological diversity and affecting the country’s main sources of water, as well as the hydroelectric dams that supply 70% of the electricity that is consumed in the country.

2. Loss of hegemony and authoritarian tendencies

When Nicolás Maduro became president, in April of 2013, he did so with a much lower level of electoral support than Chávez had up to his death. He won the election with a difference of only 1.5% over Henrique Capriles, the candidate of the united opposition parties (MUD).

A fundamental historical break in the Bolivarian process occurred when, with the overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections of December 6, 2015, the opposition reached a qualified majority of two-thirds in the National Assembly (AN). This implied a radical change in the correlation of forces within the state. With this majority, the opposition in the National Assembly could appoint the members of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) and the National Electoral Council (CNE). It could approve organic laws without negotiating with government representatives. Instead of recognizing this severe defeat and initiating a deep self-critical reflection on its causes, the government attributed the crisis and the victory of the opposition exclusively to right wing and imperial economic warfare, and saw no need for any changes in its policies. These are real issues but they are not in themselves sufficient to understand the country´s economic crisis or the levels of discontent among the population. Key issues such as widespread corruption, the inefficiency of public management and an unsustainable exchange rate parity, which had created deep distortions throughout the economy, where once again set aside. Instead of giving priority to the preservation of the collective experience and combative spirit of the Bolivarian grass-roots, which represented the most extraordinary achievement of the Bolivarian process, it opted for remaining in control of the State by whatever means necessary. From this moment the government seems to recognize that it would not be able to remain in power if this depended on the electoral support of the population and abiding by the Bolivarian or Chavista Constitution of 1999. There are repeated appeals both to popular will and the 1999 Constitution, but in practice these become obstacles to be overcome. Consequently a series of decisions have been, decisions that taken together point in an increasingly systematic and coherent way in an authoritarian direction aimed at preserving power.

The serious violations of the 1999 Constitution and basic legal norms over the last three years are too many to be analyzed in detail. However, some of these need to be highlighted in order to understand how things got to where they are today. At the end of December of 2015, when the ruling government majority in the National Assembly had a few days before the new opposition majority took charge, leaving aside some required legal procedures, appointed new judges of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. Not only were these new magistrates, without exception, unconditional government backers, but several of them did not even fulfill the formal credentials required for the position.

The role of this court was to play in these new conditions of the country became clear soon after. At the beginning of 2016, based on a flimsy accusation of electoral fraud made by some members of the government party, this Court decided to invalidate the results of the elections in the State of Amazonas. It decided that the election of the four representatives of that state, mostly indigenous, and who had already been proclaimed by the National Electoral Council, was no longer valid. Thus the opposition parties ceased to have a qualified majority in the National Assembly.

In view of the fact that months passed without proper investigation to establish the veracity of these accusations and no new elections for that state were programmed, the state was left without parliamentary representation. Eventually the National Assembly decided to incorporate the questioned parliamentarians, and the Superior Tribunal of Justice declared the Assembly in contempt. From this moment on, its attributions were taken over by the Executive and this court. This was a critical moment in the rupture of the constitutional order, producing the concentration of powers that has allowed the government to take each of the subsequent steps in an authoritarian direction.

One of the main institutional strengths of the Bolivarian process and a very powerful protective shield against the attempts of the national and international right and the government of the United States to overthrow the government was the legitimacy provided by a highly reliable, transparent electoral system with multiple levels of controls and audits. During the multiple elections held up to 2015, this electoral system ensured that the results announced by the electoral body were, beyond any doubt, an exact expression of the will of the voters. However, after the defeat suffered in the December 2015 legislative elections, the government decided to sacrifice this protective shield in order to remain in power. This has had enormous political cost.

In October 2016, the CNE canceled the recall referendum of the President. All the requirements established by law had already been fulfilled. The recall referendum had up to that moment been celebrated as one of the most important democratic participatory achievements of the 1999 Constitution. The elections for governors that according to the Constitution had to be held in December 2016 were indefinitely postponed.

In March the Supreme Court of Justice ratified that the National Assembly was in contempt and, among other things, authorized the President to take further steps in opening up the country to transnational oil and mining corporations in conditions that were prohibited by the Constitution and several environmental, indigenous and labor laws through mixed public/private companies without the authorization of the National Assembly.

This led Luisa Ortega Díaz, Attorney General of the Republic, to declare that these decisions were against the model of the State enshrined in the Constitution and represented a "rupture of the constitutional thread". Faced with the widespread rejection of these decisions, the Court modified some minor aspects without altering their fundamental content.1

Since February 2016, President Maduro has ruled through decrees of Exception and Economic Emergency in conditions that clearly violate the Constitution. With this state of Exception, many constitutional guarantees can be suspended, and fundamental decisions for the future of the country like those related to the Orinoco Mining Arch can be made by presidential decree. This year the national budget was not submitted to the National Assembly as required by the constitution, thus denying these elected representatives the right to know and have a say in the management of public resources and on the orientation of public policies. This added a new layer of opacity in the management of public assets.

3. The Constituent Assembly

On May 1, 2017 President Maduro announced that he has decided to convene a new Constituent Assembly. In this same speech he declared the end of the Constitution of 1999, putting it in the category of a historical antecedent, a "pioneer" constitution. Immediately a great controversy was generated, in and out of Venezuela. In such an extremely polarized political climate, this debate has been full of distortions and half truths. According to the government the purpose of the Constituent Assembly was to guarantee peace in the country after months of violent street confrontations. Sectors of the Venezuelan opposition denounced that the real aim was to avoid upcoming elections (state, municipal and presidential) that the government would surely loose, and characterizing this as a coup.

It is necessary to recognize that, in the Constitution, the conditions for convening a Constituent Assembly are not totally explicit. According to Article 348: "The initiative to convene a National Constituent Assembly may be taken by the President of the Republic in the Council of Ministers…” There is, however, a clear difference between "convening", which the Constitution clearly attributes to the "people of Venezuela ... depositary of the original constituent power", and to "take the initiative of convening". Accordingly, although the President may take the initiative, the call as such, should have been made by the citizens through a consultative referendum, as was the case with the Constituent Assembly of 1999.

It is evident that the main difficulties facing the country today (scarcity, malnutrition, inflation, insecurity, recession, fiscal deficit, and an external debt that cannot be paid, etc.) are not normative problems that can be solved with a new legal order. The problems faced in relation to the 1999 Constitution are in their systematic violations, not in its content.

A further radical breach with the 1999 constitution and electoral laws occurred when the design of the electoral process was announced. In clear violation of the constitutional principles of proportional representation and the equality of voters the norms for electoral participation were carefully engineered in such a way that the government would obtain complete control of this new assembly in spite of the fact that the majority of the population did not back the government and rejected the call for a new constituent assembly. This was done by creating an original dual regime of representation, territorial and sectorial. Contrary to the way in which elections had always been held in the country, rural or small town municipalities, where the government has more electoral backing, were given an extraordinary over representation in the assembly. In some cases a rural municipality with less than 3000 inhabitants had the same number of representatives as a large urban municipality with over 700.000 inhabitants: a total of one. A sectorial mechanism of representation was defined in which students voted for students, workers for workers, etc. About five million voters were excluded as they did not belong to any of the social sectors thus defined. This created two types of citizens, first class that could vote twice (by territory and by social sector), and second class that could only vote once (by territory). As a consequence of the arbitrary and unconstitutional character of this process, only government backed organizations presented candidates and participated in the election.

The elections for the new constitutional assembly were a fraud. Before the elections the government and the government party clearly stated that whoever did not vote would lose their government employment, or the possibility of having access to public social programs such as subsidized food and housing. These public announcements were complemented by personal threats at work places and food distribution centers. The elections were carried out without any independent or opposition witnesses and the media was kept 500 meters away from the voting booths. Several of the most important control and audit mechanisms that had made the Venezuelan electoral system highly trustworthy in previous years were done away with. Even with the highly inflated levels of participation announced by the electoral council, almost 60% of the population expressed their rejection by not voting.

A new turn of the screw away from democracy and the 1999 constitution occurred when the new Constitutional Assembly was installed. It is, like in the old days of really existing socialism, a one-party assembly; every single one of its 545 members is a government backer. A one-party Constituent Assembly in charge of drawing up a new constitution in a country as deeply divided as Venezuela does not bode well for the future of democracy or peace in the country. The constituent process has revived some of the floundering popular support for the government, as it was presented as a radicalization of the process, a confrontation with imperialism and as a solution to the problems faced by the population. This however is likely to be short lived, as the government lacks de capacity or the resources to deal with these problems.

The Assembly has declared itself to be a an absolute, supra constitutional, power that can, not only write a new constitution, but also act on any legislative, executive or judicial issue it might decide. The five existing branches of government must submit to its decisions. In its initial weeks, almost all its decisions have been taken by unanimity or acclamation with no debate whatsoever. Extremely authoritarian, repressive laws have been announced such as long term prison terms for “hate speech” in newspapers, radio, television and social media. Equally threatening is the announcement that opposition leaders would be accused of treason because of their appeals to international institutions. These threats are not only directed toward the right wing opposition, but against any opposition to the government. The spaces for the exercise of democracy are being significantly reduced.

4. The escalation of violence

In the years of the Bolivarian government the opposition has been heterogeneous, ranging from extreme right-wing groups that have had external political and financial support (basically from the US government and Uribismo in Colombia), to more moderate sectors that have sought electoral, constitutional, alternatives to the government. At present these differences subsist in spite of the appearance of unity that they gave in the last months of massive street mobilizations all across the country and the almost unanimous agreement to participate in the elections for governors now programmed for next month. This in spite of the fact that the National Electoral Council has completely given up on pretending to be a neutral trustworthy arbiter.

There have been extreme levels of violence during the last few months. At least 130 people were killed in street confrontations. This was the result of police/military repression as well as the action of armed, paramilitary groups operating on both sides of the struggle. In some particularly gruesome cases, some Chavistas were burned to death by extreme right opposition mobs. As was to be expected in such a polarized situation, international media coverage of these events has been highly distorted, as the Venezuelan conflict has been interpreted mainly through the lens of the Cold War. One sided accounts according to which the more than a hundred deaths are all the result of government repression, or the opposite characterization according to which these deaths are mainly the result of fascist armed groups are simply not true. The situation is more complex, as there have been extremely violent actions on both sides in these confrontations

Venezuelan society faces the grave danger that armed violence and terrorism could be normalized and installed as the way of processing differences. The danger is not only that violence overflows to levels undesired by leaders of government and opposition, but that on both poles of the current confrontation there are sectors that see violence as the only way to impose their agenda.

Some of the most senior corrupt government officials realize that if they were forced to leave the government, they would not only lose their present privileges, but would also find it hard to find a place in the world to enjoy their ill-gotten fortunes and could even end up in jail.

What some extreme right wing sectors want is not simply an electoral victory to replace Maduro, if this were to leave the 1999 Constitution untouched and the imaginaries of transformation of the popular Chavista base were kept alive. What they want is a complete crushing of the Chavista experience, of all the emancipatory dreams of the first decade of the Bolivarian process, in order to impose a long lasting political defeat that serves as a lesson and liquidates, once and for all, the aspirations and subaltern rebellious spirit of these years. This is considered to be a basic prerequisite for society to return to "normality", where everyone knows its place. The implications of this go way beyond Venezuela. For this they have always had the support of the United States government.

5. Corruption

A properly characterization of the mechanisms and dimension of corruption during the Bolivarian process is a pending task. In August 2013, Edmée Betancourt was removed from her position as President of the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) for denouncing that in that year more than 20 billion highly subsidized US dollars were given by the Foreign Exchange Administration Commission (CADIVI) to "briefcase corporations" for imports and productive activities that never took place.1 Almost a year later, after his separation from the Ministry of Planning, Jorge Giordani, a well-known bulwark of the governments of President Chávez, shacked the country with his letter Testimony and responsibility before history which confirmed and deepened what had been denounced by Edmée Betancourt.1

The severe lack of transparency in public finances makes it extremely difficult to determine the scale of corruption. According to several estimates, overall corruption over the last decade amounts to more than 300 billion US dollars. This covers a wide range of activities including illicit access to subsidized foreign currency, speculation with Venezuelan bonds (bought in bolivars, then sold in US dollars), overpriced imports, bribes and commissions in oil company contracts and large scale infrastructure works, as was the case in dealings with the Brazilian construction company Oderbrecht.

6. Popular movements and organizations in the crisis

Subaltern reactions to the profound deterioration of the conditions of life that have occurred as a consequence of the increase of insecurity, (due both to delinquency and police repression), runaway inflation, scarcity of basic food and medicines and the deterioration of public services, has not on the whole been what could have been expected. Many popular grassroots organizations that have involved millions of people in these years had become so dependent on public resources transferred by state institutions that they were weakened when these resources were no longer available. The crisis has led to a growing disenchantment with the government and the loss of expectations in relation to the future of the country. After years of mobilization processes and popular organizations guided by the values of cooperation and solidarity, the main reaction to the current crisis has been characterized by competition and individualism. Bachaqueo has become a significant component of the Venezuelan economy. The social and moral fabric of the country is seriously torn and families have split. This will take many years to heal. Massive looting have occurred in several cities across the country involving different combinations of extreme right wing anti-government political activism, popular protest due to lack of access to food and cooking gas, and delinquent organizations.

The international community and Venezuela

Imperial attempts to undermine or overthrow the Bolivarian government have taken many forms, such as political and financial support for the most radical sectors of the opposition, backing for the April 2002 coup and attempts to isolate the country internationally. More recently, Barak Obama, just before leaving office renewed an executive order which declared that Venezuela was an "unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States"2 In a report submitted to the Committee of the Armed Forces of the United States Senate in April this year, Kurt W. Tidd, Chief of the Southern Command, said that:

"Venezuela faces significant instability in this next year due to widespread food and medicine shortages, political uncertainty and deteriorating economic conditions. The growing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela could eventually force a regional response."

In August 2017, Donald Trump threatened Venezuela with a United States military intervention in the following terms:

"We have many options for Venezuela and by the way, I'm not going to rule out a military option..."

"We have many options for Venezuela, this is our neighbor …. We're all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very very far away, Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and dying. We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary."

A further step was taken in August 24 2017, when Donald Trump ordered a financial blockade of Venezuela. This wide range prohibition includes new public debt and bonds issued by the Venezuelan government, dividend payments or other distribution of profits to the Government of Venezuela from any entity owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by the Government of Venezuela, as well as the purchase, directly or indirectly, by a United States person or a person within the United States, of Venezuelan Government securities.

In contrast with previous sanctions applied directly to high level government officials, this financial blockade is expected to have a serious impact on the whole of the population. In the current conditions of severe crisis that the country is going through, including a significant external sector deficit, the government has had tremendous difficulties in accessing international financial markets. As a consequences of the highest “country risk” in the Americas, it can only obtain new loans at very high interest rates. Today it lacks the resources to import the basic food and medicine required by the population. This blockade could lead to a country default and in any case will make access to external financing more restricted and expensive. The economic war that has been denounced by the Venezuelan government in the last few years has arrived with force.

The response of the Venezuelan government to this increased regional and international isolation has not been to seek to recover its legitimacy and increase democratic participation. On the contrary, it has opted for more state and party control,

International right wing parties, the main right wing global media (The Miami Herald, El Tiempo of Bogotá, El País in Madrid, CNN, Fox News, even supposedly liberal newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post or so-called responsible media like the BBC, as well as many governments in all of the Americas and the European Union have made the Venezuelan government world public enemy number one, at times competing with North Korea. They all claim to speak and act in the name of the defense of democracy in Venezuela threatened by an authoritarian government. The Venezuelan government has certainly taken a path that substantially distances it from the democratic constitution of 1999, but that in no way explains the hysteria of the so-called international community around Venezuela. Where were all these defenders of democracy when the Brazilian right wing overthrew the democratically elected government of Dilma Ruosseff? Why is there no outcry in this so called “international community” over the fact that in recent decades, according to the UN, more than 30 thousand people have disappeared in Mexico.2 How many headlines and sanctions are produced as a response to the systematic murderous war on drug users by the Rodrigo Duterte government in the Philippines? Why do the governments of the United States, the UK and Spain have such warm relations with the Saudi regime in spite of its totalitarian character and its genocidal attacks on the population of Yemen? Are massive and lucrative arms deals part of the explanation? The geopolitics of oil? Why don’t democratic concerns apply in the Arab World? Is Israeli apartheid compatible with democracy?

Venezuelan has become part of the new axis of evil (along with North Korea and Iran) for other reasons. The Bolivarian process was the most radical attempt to transcend capitalism in the XXI Century. This experience not only had a huge impact in the so-called turn to the left that occurred in most South American countries. The Venezuelan experience became a reference, a ray of hope, for people as far away as Palestine, India and the Philippines. Even though the current Venezuelan government has strayed from these imaginaries of profound societal transformation, in spite of its corruption and authoritarian tendencies, it is still seen by much of the left and many social movements worldwide as a subversive symbol or reference. From a global elites’ perspective, this needs to be exterminated. This has little to do with concerns about democracy. This self-proclaimed international community has been promoting regime change in Venezuela even if this might lead to a civil war. This has made an internal negotiation of the deep divisions in Venezuelan society less likely.

The “authoritarian threat” represented by the Maduro government has become a useful tool in the hands of Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government in Spain to attack Podemos, by the conservatives in the UK to put in doubt the democratic credentials of Jeremy Corbin, by Donald Trump to show his followers how tough he is and by the Mexican right in their attempt to describe Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who heads opinion polls for next year’s presidential election, as a radical leftist threat to the country.

Venezuela, with the largest reserves of hydrocarbons in the planet and extraordinary mineral and water resources, has become a central battleground for contemporary inter-imperial struggles. With the shift to the right and the geopolitical re-alignment with the United States of the governments of Argentina and Brazil, Venezuela became politically isolated. It remains as the main Latin American territory of the global geopolitical dispute between the United States defense of its backyard and China's and Russia's quest to turn the country into a bridgehead for its global projects in that continent.

Today for transnational corporations, the problem is not that a left wing or nationalist government limits their access to the country’s abundant energy and mineral wealth. The government has opened up the country for foreign investment in oil and minerals in extremely favorable conditions for these corporations, as has been the case in the Orinoco Oil Belt (Faja Petrolífera del Orinoco) and the Orinoco Mining Arch. Since this type of investment is not profitable in the short run, many foreign corporations are waiting to have more legal security in order to proceed with their announced investments. In spite of the fact that the Orinoco Mining Arch mega project has established extremely favorable conditions for foreign investors, several of these norms were approved by presidential decree and constitute a clear violation of the constitution and several environmental, indigenous and labor laws. These norms and the new contracts with global corporations have not been approved by the National Assembly as required by the constitution, so there is no guarantee that they will be recognized if there is a new government. According to many left wing critics, this is one of the main reasons why the Maduro government decided to convene a new Constituent Assembly: to provide the solid constitutional, legal framework and political stability required to attract these investments. A new law proposal for this very purpose has been introduced by Maduro a few days ago. This is not likely to be successful since, in the present conditions, the Constituent Assembly is not seen as legitimate by the majority of the Venezuelan population or by the “International Community”.

On the left side of things, international intellectuals, parties and social movements are not contributing to the creating the conditions for a non-violent way out of the present crisis. In the same Cold War framework that characterizes the dominant perspectives from the right, much of the international left continues to identify the Bolivarian process as a popular anti-imperialist struggle and tend to provide the Maduro government with unconditional solidarity. This in spite of the government’s ultra liberal policies of special economic zones to attract foreign investments; in spite of a deepening of the extractivist model that is the source of most of the country’s problems; in spite of its refusal to deal with its responsibility in climate change as a major oil producer; in spite of the fact that during the Bolivarian process there has been a consolidation of the country’s historical insertion in the capitalist colonial division of labor and nature; in spite of the fact that indigenous people continue to be severely impacted by neo-developmentalist policies in their ancestral territories; in spite of the increasingly anti-democratic, authoritarian and repressive tendencies that today characterize the Maduro government. This uncritical solidarity contributes to block the possibility of self-critical analysis of the problems of the Bolivarian process since it actively contributes to re-enforce and legitimize its most negative tendencies. Opinions have consequences. No matter what the Maduro government does, it is interpreted by some in the international left as a bright anti-imperialist move. As if by magic, the same policies that are loudly denounced if carried out by right wing or neoliberal governments, somehow become acceptable if carried out by “progressive” or “leftist” governments. Right wing extractivism is considered to be a pro-imperial policy that has severe socio environmental consequences, threatens indigenous and peasant communities and signifies a renunciation of national sovereignty in favor of transnational corporations. Resistance movements in these conditions are celebrated. On the other hand, the same policies when carried out by friendly governments somehow have a radically different meaning and resistance movements are accused of being part of an imperial anti popular agenda. With this Manichean approach to reality, there is no way to learn from experience. The reasons for each problem or failure always lie elsewhere.

All this does enormous harm to transformative anti-capitalist movements and projects around the world, as it feeds into right wing propaganda that defines anti-capitalist alternatives as, by nature, necessarily authoritarian and corrupt. It seems like the left has great difficulties in drawing lessons from the long term consequences of not being able to criticize the Soviet Union, in spite of its authoritarian, repressive nature, because it was confronting US imperialism.

Venezuela is today a critical battle ground, not only in geopolitical inter-imperialist confrontations, but also a privileged terrain in the confrontation of ideas, in alternative critical debates about how to advance in the direction of a democratic post-capitalist society that overcomes the patriarchy, anthropocentrism, racism, as well as the state of permanent war that characterize the world system today. A reflexive, critical debate of the Venezuelan political process is indispensable if this experience is to contribute to the construction of another possible world.


Edgardo Lander is a professor-researcher at the Department of Latin American Studies at the School of Sociology. He is a consultant to the Venezuelan commission negotiating the Free Trade Area of the Americas. He works in the Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences, and member of the Editorial Board of the Venezuelan Journal of Economics and Social Sciences, Central University of Venezuela.


1. Una versión anterior, más reducida de este texto, escrita conjuntamente con Santiago Arconada Rodríguez fue publicada como: “Venezuela: un barril de pólvora”, Nueva Sociedad, 269, Buenos Aires, mayo-junio de 2017.
2. Se trata principalmente de las estadísticas que deberían ser dadas a conocer por el Instituto Nacional de Estadística, el Banco Central de Venezuela y el Ministerio de Hacienda. Algunas estadísticas básicas tienen dos años o más sin ser divulgadas.
3. World Bank. Venezuela Overview, Washington, 6 de octubre, 2016.
4. Ricardo Hausmann, “El colapso de Venezuela no tiene precedentes”, Prodavinci, Caracas, 31 de julio de 2017.
5. Ministerio del Poder Popular para el petróleo. Precios del petróleo, Caracas, 30 de abril de 2017. []
6. OPEC, Monthly Oil Market Report, 12 de abril, 2017, p. 55.
7. Centro de Refinación de Paraguaná opera un 42 por ciento de su capacidad, La Patilla, Caracas, 17 de agosto de 2017.
8. Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. y sus filiales (PDVSA), Estados Financieros Consolidados, Caracas, 31 de diciembre de 2016.
9. “La inflación en 2016 cerró en casi 800%, ” Informe, Caracas, 21 de enero de 2017. []
10. “En 30,8% cayó el gasto público del gobierno el año pasado”, El Universal, Caracas, 24 de enero 2017, [ -cayo-gasto-del-gobierno-ano -pasado_636539]
11. Oly Angélica Millán Campos, “La situación actual del problema de la deuda”, la Asamblea Regional anual del Comité para la anulación de las deudas ilegítimas”, CADTM AYNA, Bogotá, abril de 2017.
12. Idem.
13. Ministerio del poder Popular de Petróleo, Comunicado del encuentro para el refinanciamiento de la deuda externa, Caracas 13 de noviembre de 2017, []
14. “Cáritas: el 54% de los niños en Venezuela tienen deficiencias nutricionales”, Web de El Nacional, Caracas, 28 de agosto de 2017.
15. Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Salud, Boletín Epidemiológico, Caracas 25 al 31 de diciembre 2016.
16. Idem.
17. “2016: OVV estima 28.479 muertes violentas en Venezuela”, Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia, Caracas, diciembre de 2016.
18. Plataforma ciudadana en defensa de la Constitución, “El hilo constitucional que sigue roto. Por el restablecimiento de la Constitución”, Aporrea, Caracas, 14 de abril de 2017. []
19. Presidenta del BCV: Parte de los $59.000 millones entregados en 2012 fueron un “empresas de maletín”, Aporrea/AVN, Caracas, 24 de mayo de 2013. []
20. []
21. Esto es básicamente la compra o robo de productos básicos altamente subsidiados por el Estado para su reventa a precios especulativos y el contrabando de extracción, sobre todo a Colombia.
22. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. Notice. Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to Venezuela, Washington, 13 de enero de 2017. []
23. Posture Statement of Admiral Kurt W. Tidd Commander, United States Southern Command before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee March 10, 2016. []
24. Ben Jacobs, “Trump threatens ‘military option’ in Venezuela as crisis escalates”, The Guardian, Londres, 12 de agosto 2017. 12 de agosto de 2017.
25. Donald Trump, “Executive order. Imposing additional sanctions with respect to the situation in Venezuela”, Washington, 24 de agosto 2017.
26. José Silva, “MUD apoya las sanciones económicas de EEUU hacia Venezuela”, El Universal, Caracas, 28 de agosto de 2017.
27. Sergio Ocampo Arista, “Podría haber más de 30 mil desaparecidos en México: ONU”, La Jornada, México, 9 de agosto de 2017.
28. En su visita a las Filipinas en noviembre del 2017, Trump declaró que tenía una “gran relación” con Duterte. Oliver Holmes, “Trump hails ‘great relationship’ with Philippines’ Duterte”, The Guardian. Londres, 13 de noviembre 2017,