End of a golden age?
Progessive governments and post-neoliberalism in Latin America
Franck Gaudichaud interviews Miriam Lang and Edgardo Lander
Following their participation in the international symposium that we coordinated last June on “Progessive governments and post-neoliberalism in Latin America: End of a golden age?” at the University of Grenoble, France, we thought it would be worthwhile going back over the Latin American context with the sociologists Edgardo Lander (Venezuela) and Miriam Lang (Ecuador). Both of them have a sharp critical view, very often at odds concerning the present scene, and both have participated actively in recent years in the debates on the initial balance sheets of the progressive governments of 1998-2015, in particular those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Miriam’s case and of the Transnational Institute in Edgardo’s case.
For example, they have written probingly on such topics as the problematics of development and the state, neocolonialism and extractivism, the lefts and the social movements, and both have tackled the difficult issue of conceiving roads of emancipation at times in which humanity is going through a profound ecosystemic crisis of civilization, challenges that mean, inter alia, re-inventing the left and (eco)socialism in the 21st century. – FG
Franck Gaudichaud: In the recent period there have been many debates concerning the end of a cycle of progressive and national-popular governments in Latin America, or rather their possible retreat and loss of political hegemony. What are your thoughts about this debate? From where you stand, can we say that this debate is going beyond the question of an end to a cycle? And what can we say about the present situation compared with the progressive experience from 1999 to 2015?
Edgardo Lander: This is indeed a very intense debate, especially in Latin America, because there had been many expectations about the possibilities for profound transformation in these societies beginning with the victory of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998. That was the point of departure of a process of political change that led to the majority of the governments in South America being identified with something referred to as progressive or left-wing in one of their versions. These expectations of transformations that will lead to post-capitalist societies posed severe challenges both in terms of the negative experience of the socialisms of the last century and in terms of new realities like climate change and the limits of the planet Earth that it was necessary to confront. To think about transformation today necessarily means something very different from what it meant in the past century. At a time when the discourse of socialism had practically disappeared from the political grammar in much of the world, it reappears in this new historical moment in South America. Based especially on the struggles of the indigenous peoples, some of these processes seem to incorporate in a very central way a profound questioning of fundamental aspects of what had constituted socialism in the 20th century. Centrally present in part of the imaginaries of the transformation were themes like pluriculturalism, different forms of relationship with the other networks of life, notions of the rights of nature, and conceptions of buen vivir that pointed to a possibility of transformation that could take into account the limitations of the previous processes and open new horizons to address the new conditions of humanity and the planet.
FG: So, we’re talking about the initial period, the beginning, in the early 2000s, when resistance from below was combined with the creation of socio-political dynamics more or less rupturist and post-neoliberal depending on the case, which also happened to emerge on the national electoral and governmental plane.
EL: Yes, in a period in which extraordinary hopes were developing that radical transformations were beginning in society. In the cases of Ecuador and Bolivia, the new governments were a result of the processes of accumulation of forces of social movements and organizations fighting neoliberal governments. The experience of the Indigenous Uprising in Ecuador and the Water War in Bolivia were expressions of societies in movement in which social sectors that were not the most typical in the political action of the left played protagonistic roles. It was a plebeian emergence, social sectors previously invisibilized, indigenous, peasants, urban popular forces, that came to occupy a central place in the political arena. This gave rise to extraordinary expectations.
However, over time severe obstacles appeared. Despite the high-flown rhetoric, important sectors of the left that had leading roles in those processes of struggle had not submitted the experience of 20th century socialism to sufficiently critical thinking. Many of the old ways of understanding leadership, party, vanguard, relations between state and society, economic development, relations with the rest of nature, as well as the weight of the Eurocentric monocultural and patriarchal cosmovisions were present in those processes of change. The historic colonial forms of insertion in the international division of labour and nature were deepened. Obviously, any project that aims at overcoming capitalism in the present world must necessarily deal with the harsh challenges posed by the profound crisis of civilization now facing humanity, in particular the hegemonic logic of endless growth of modernity that has come to overload the planet’s capacity and is undermining the conditions that make possible the reproduction of life.
The experience of the so-called progressive governments is occurring in times in which neoliberal globalization is accelerating, and China is becoming the workshop of the world and the major economy on the planet. That produces a qualitative leap in the demand for and price of commodities: energy resources, minerals and products of agro-industry such as soy. In these conditions, each of the progressive governments has opted to finance the promised social transformations via the deepening of predatory extractivism. This has not only the obvious implications that the productive structurerof these countries is not questioned but also that it is deepened in terms of the neocolonial forms of insertion in the international division of labour and nature. Also, the role of the state is increased as the major recipient of income from the rents produced through the export of commodities. Thus, over and above what the constitutional texts say about plurinationality and interculturalism, there is an overriding conception of the transformation centered primarily on the state and the identification of the state with the common good. This inevitably leads to conflicts over territories, indigenous and peasant rights, struggles for the defence of and acess to water, and resistance to megamining. These popular and territorial struggles have been viewed by these governments as threats to the national project presented, designed and led by the state as representing the national interest. To carry forward their neo-developmentalist projects in the face of this resistance governments have resorted to repression and are taking on increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Defining from the centre which are the priorities, and viewing anything that stands in the way of this priority as a threat, there is established a logic of raison d’état that requires the undermining of the resistance.
In the case of Bolivia and Ecuador this has led to a certain demobilization of the major social organizations as well as divisions promoted by the government in the movements, which has resulted in fragmentations of their social fabric and weakened the democratic transformative energy that characterized them.
FG: In contrast to this analysis, and particularly to what you say about raison d’état, militants and intellectuals participating in those processes as part of the governments and members of pro-government parties argue that in the last analysis the only way to pursue an authentic post-neoliberal course in Latin America was, first, to recover the state through the social and plebeian mobilizations that overthrew the old party-based elites, and after overwhelming anti-oligarchic electoral victories begin using the state (but with links to those below) to distribute and reconstitute the possibility of a “real” alternative to neoliberalism.
Miriam Lang: Before getting into that, I would like to go over again what Edgardo said, because the term “end of cycle” suggests somewhat that we are looking at the whole region in light of the Argentine and Brazilian experience where the Right has indeed come back. However, a more appropriate reading would be to look at how the project of transformation has changed during the years of progressive governments and why now we are in all respects in a different situation than we were 10 or 15 years ago, including in those countries where there are still progressives in the government, as in Bolivia or Ecuador. I am referring to what some call the transformation of the transformations and also the diversity of political tendencies that make up those governments, in which the transformative lefts are not in fact necessarily hegemonic but where the processes have become successful projects of modernization of capitalist relations and insertion in the global market.
FG: After all, you both have a clear critical position on the international division of labour, commodities, the use of extractivism, the problem of the state (often authoritarian and clientelist even today), phenomena that have certainly not disappeared and have even been consolidated in various ways under the progressive governments. But you do not mention here the balsas familia [family allowances], the big reduction in poverty and inequality, the incorporation of subaltern social classes into politics, the reconstruction of basic service systems, of public health, the spectacular growth of infrastructures, etc. during the decade-long golden age of the progressive governments. In short, if I can act as a spokesman for the logic of García Linera, the Bolivian vice-president, you would be those “coffee-shop critics” that he denounces as not having a genuine empathy toward the popular sectors and their day-to-day living conditions. That is, to say the least, a classic argument of the progressive government supporters in their present debate with the critical left.
ML: Well, it depends somewhat on how each of us looks at the reality. If you look, for example, at the new constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador, the transformation project delineated therein goes much further than the reduction of poverty. The previous social struggles, whatever they sought, went much further than a small distribution of income. In saying that I do not want to ignore the fact that the day-to-day life of many people has become easier, at least in those years of high prices for hydrocarbons. But we also have to look beyond the poverty statistics. We can say that so many people have risen above the poverty line, and that’s great, but we can also take a closer look and ask what type of poverty are we talking about? In Latin America poverty is still measured in terms of incomes and consumption; this measures to what degree a household is participating in the capitalist way of life and possibly it says a little about the quality of life of that household. What it does not reveal is the dimensions of the subsistence economies, the dimensions of the quality of human relations, etc. To what degree were people able to really express their needs according to their context? To what degree have these policies of redistribution of income strengthened or expanded territorially the logics of the capitalist market in countries where a large part of the population, because of the enormous cultural diversity that exists, still did not live completely under capitalist precepts?
We could say that this diversity of ways of life constituted a significant transformative potential in terms of horizons for overcoming capitalism. And if we look at the ecological conditions of the planet, many peasant, indigenous, Black or popular urban communities, instead of being labelled as poor or underdeveloped, could have been viewed as examples of how we can consume less and be more satisfied. However, what has happened is precisely what I call the “mechanism of underdevelopment”; in the context of “ending poverty” they are told: your way of life, which requires so little money, is undignified, you have to become more like the urban, capitalist, consumerist population that has to manage money, and the form of exchange in the capitalist market, no other forms of exchange are valid. So-called financial literacy, which was part of the progressive anti-poverty policy, has helped financial capital to establish new credit markets among the poorest people and at much higher interest rates. And the famous introduction to consumption tends to occur in third-rate conditions. So in the end, we have populations that are indebted through consumption because needs have been generated for them that they may not have had in the past. So it depends a little on how we look at these things. It’s a problem of values and perspective, of how we want future generations to live. It’s not simply a question of democratizing consumption; the commitment was to build a world that is sustainable for at least five, six, seven generations to come, and I have serious doubts as to whether this form of erradicating poverty has contributed to those objectives.
EL: In the Venezuelan case, the use of the petroleum rent in a form that differed from how it had been used historically had huge consequences during the first decade of the Chávez government. Social spending came to represent something like 70 percent of the national budget. This public expenditure on health, education, food, housing and social security effectively signified a profound transformation in the living conditions of a majority of the population. Venezuela, which like the rest of Latin America has historically been a country of deep inequalities, not only reduced poverty levels quite significantly (measured by monetary income), but it also managed to sharply reduce inequality. The CEPAL [Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLA, a UN regional commission] has pointed out that Venezuela came to be, along with Uruguay, one of the two least unequal countries on the continent. This was a very major transformation, and it was expressed in such vital matters as a reduction in infant mortality and an increase in the weight and height of children. These are not in any way secondary issues.
On the other hand, this was accompanied from the political standpoint by processes of very broadly based popular organization in which millions of people participated. Some of the most important social policies were designed in such a way that they required the organization of the people in order to function. The best example of this was the Barrio Adentro Mission, a primary healthcare service providing broad coverage to the popular sectors throughout the country, and made possible principally by the participation of Cuban doctors. It was a program that held out the possibility of other forms of understanding public policies in a non-clientelist way that required the participation of the people.
With Barrio Adentro, important steps were begun to transform the country’s healthcare system. It went from a medical system that was fundamentally hospital-based to a decentralized regime with primary services located in the local communities. From a situation in which, for example, a child who was dehydrated in a Caracas neighborhood in the middle of the night had to be transferred, outside the public transit schedule, to the nearest hospital, where the family had to deal with the tragic scenes in the emergency wards, to a situation in which the primary care module, where the physician lives, is a short distance from the child’s home and at any time one can knock on the door and be attended to.
Barrio Adentro was conceived as a project that required community participation in order to function. The doctor, alone, especially if he or she was a Cuban who did not know the neighborhood or the city, could only work with support from the community. This meant, among other things, conducting a census of the community, identifying the women who were pregnant, the children with problems of undernourishment, the elderly, and in general the people with special needs. This was a conception of social policy completely different from some gift from above because it made the community a co-participant in its operation. There was in this dynamic an extraordinarily rich potentiality.
FG: So, has this constituent potentiality, disruptive of the process, been exhausted? Is that what you are saying?
EL: During the years covered by the Bolivarian process not only has the country’s productive structure not been altered but the country has become more highly dependent on petroleum exports. The public policies directed to the popular sectors have been characterized at all times by their distributive character, with a very limited drive toward alternative productive processes to petroleum extractivism. This dependency on high petroleum revenues imposed severe limits on the Bolivarian process.
The dynamic, motivating nature of the popular organizational processes of the public policies was exhausted for various reasons. First, because not all of the Missions (the generic name for the various social programs) were given the resources they had in such areas as the literacy program and Barrio Adentro. But also because the larger-scale organizational processes including the Communal Councils and Communes were processes in which there was always a strong tension between the tendencies toward self-government, autonomy, self-organization, etc., and the fact that almost all the projects that these organizations could carry out depended on transfers of resources from above, from some state institution. This has generated a recurrent tension between the political-financial control from above and the possibilities for more autonomous self-organization. These tensions have operated in quite varied ways, depending on the existing conditions in the location: whether or not local leaderships were present previously; whether or not the community had had experiences in organizing themselves politically prior to the Bolivarian process; and the political conceptions of the functionaries and militants of the PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela) responsible for relations between the state institutions and these organizations.
The fact is that there has been an extraordinary dependence on the transfer of resources from the state. Most of the popular base organizations had no possibility of autonomy because they lacked their own productive capacity. When the transfers of resources to these organizations declined with the onset of the present economic crisis in 2014, they tended to weaken and many of them went into crisis. Another factor in this weakening has been the creation of the Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción (CLAP) as a mechanism for the distribution of highly subsidized basic food products to the popular neighorhoods. In practice, these have become clientelist organizational methods dedicated exclusively to the distribution of food and lacking any autonomy, and they tend to replace the Communal Councils.
The policies of Latin American solidarity and cooperation have also been highly dependent on petroleum revenues. To carry out international programs like the subsidized provision of oil to Central American and Caribbean countries, or the financial support to Bolivia and Nicaragua, and various other initiatives taken by the Venezuelan government in the Latin American context, it was necessary to guarantee an increase in oil revenues in both the short and medium term. When Chávez passed away in 2013, petroleum accounted for 96 percent of the total value of the exports, and the country was more dependent on oil than it had ever been.
In the history of the Venezuelan oil industry, the first decade of this century was the moment in which there were the best conditions possible for Venezuelan society to debate, think about, and begin to experiment with other practices and other possible futures beyond petroleum. It was a privileged moment for addressing the challenges of the transition toward a post-petroleum society, a conjuncture in which Chávez counted on an extraordinary leadership and legitimacy. He had the ability to give Venezuelan society a sense of direction, and, with oil prices as high as US$140 a barrel, the resources existed to meet the needs of the population and take, albeit initially, steps to a post-petroleum transition. But the opposite occurred. In those years there was a repetition of the intoxication with affluence, the imaginary of the Saudi Venezuela that had characterized the time of the first Carlos Andrés Pérez government in the 1970s.
No one in Venezuela thought it was possible to decree the shutdown of all the oil wells overnight. But government policies, far from taking steps, even timid and initial steps, to overcome dependency on oil, served to deepen that dependency. In conditions of an over-abundance of foreign exchange, with an end to any attempt to slow down capital flight, an absolutely unsustainable controlled exchange rate parity was established. This had the effect of accentuating the so-called Dutch disease, contributing to the dismantling of the country’s productive capacity.
The income distribution programs and the state political initiatives did improve the living conditions of the population and they helped to strengthen the social fabric, with plenty of experiences of popular participation. However, this was not accompanied by a project of transformation of the country’s productive structure. This marked the limits of the Bolivarian process as a project of transformation of Venezuelan society. It means that the broadly-based organizing processes that had involved millions of people were based on redistribution and not on the creation of new productive processes.
FG: Now, again referring to García Linera (as he sometimes summarizes more intelligently what other opinion-makers, followers, and what I call palace intellectuals are trying to say and write along these lines) – according to this Bolivian sociologist and government leader these tensions between state and self-organization, between government and movements, between the demand for buen vivir and extractivism, in the short term, are normal creative tensions in a long process of revolutionary transformation in Latin America. In his view, the radical left critics of the progressive processes do not understand that they are necessary tensions, and he alleges that they want to proclaim socialism by decree.
ML: One problem is that the progressive governments, to the degree that their members came from social movement processes and protests with a left-wing political identity, have taken on a sort of vanguard identity, as if they know what people need. So spaces for real dialogue and partnership with people of a diverse nature have been lost. And political participation has become a type of applause for whatever project the government leaders are proposing. That’s exactly where there is an impoverishment. There are many examples in European history that incline me to think this is an inevitable dynamic, one that we underestimate a lot. The lefts that come to lead in the state apparatus end up immersed in powerful dynamic characteristic of those apparatuses and they are transformed as persons, through the new spaces in which they move, because the logics of their responsibilities provide them with other experiences and begin to shape their political horizons as well as their culture. Their subjectivity is transformed, they embody the exercise of power. And then, if there is no corrective on the part of a strong organized society, that can complain, correct, protest, and criticize, that necessarily has to divert the project.
On the other hand, it is not so much a question of criticizing the time it takes to change things – because in this, I agree, profound transformations need much time, they need a cultural change and this can take generations. It’s a question of looking at the directionality that a political project takes, that is, whether it is going in the right direction or not, at its rhythm. And here I think the question of deepening extractivism and finishing off nature in a country simply cancels out other possibilities of future transformation. If we are closing off certain future options that mattered to us through more short-term calculations, or because of difficulties that occur at the time, then we cannot say it is a question of a temporary nature; it is a question of directionality. You can commercialize or decommercialize, but if you say first I am going to commercialize everything and later decommercialize, it doesn’t seem to me there is much logic. If you say I am decommercializing but I am going to take more time, however here they can see that I am taking steps in the direction indicated, that would be fine. So that way, I think there is a fundamental difference in the reading of the processes.
EL: In the critical debates on extractivism, one of the things I think is essential is, What do we mean by extractivism? If we think of extractivism simply as an economic model, or as Álvaro García Linera says as “a technical relation with nature” that is compatible with any model of society, it could be concluded that it is necessary to deepen extractivism not only in order to meet social demands but also for the purpose of accumulating the necessary resources to invest in alternative productive activities that can help to overcome extractivism. But if extractivism is undertood in broader terms, if it is understood as a relationship of human beings with nature, that it is part of a pattern of accumulation of global capital, a specific form of insertion in the world capitalist system and the international division of labour and nature, and that extractivism generates and reproduces some definite institutionalities, some state models, some behavioural patterns of the state bureaucracy; and if it is understood that extractivism generates social subjects and subjectivities, that it builds a culture, you necessarily reach different conclusions.
Suffice it to look at the hundred years of extractivism in Venezuela. We have established an extremely deep culture as a rich country, an affluent country. Since we have the biggest petroleum reserves on the planet we deserve to have the state satisfy not only our needs but also our aspirations as consumers. We imagine that it is possible to be a society with rights but not responsibilities. We deserve to have free gasoline. These cultural patterns, once they are firmly rooted in the collective imagination, constitute a severe obstacle to a possible transformation not only to overcome capitalism but to confront the crisis of civilization that humanity is now going through. These imagineries of ever-growing material abundance serve to sustain economist/consumerist conceptions of life that leave out a wide range of fundamental matters that we have to confront today. This blocks the possibility of recognizing that the decisions that are taken today have long-term consequences that differ absolutely from what is proclaimed in the official discourse as the future horizon for Venezuelan society.
Based on this gilded imaginery of a land of infinite abundance, large-scale mining in the so-called Arco Minero del Orinoco, for example, is deemed necessary. Through a presidential decree Nicolás Maduro in early 2016 decided to open up 112 thousand square kilometers, a territory the size of Cuba, 12 percent of the national territory, to the major transnational mining companies. This is an area that forms part of the Amazon forest (with the importance this has in the regulation of global climate systems); an area inhabited by various indigenous peoples whose territories were to be demarcated under the 1999 Constitution and whose culture, and their life, is now severely threatened; a territory in which a major portion of the basins of the principal rivers in the country, the principal sources of fresh water, a territory of extraordinary biological diversity, and in which hydro-electricity dams that produce 70 percent of the country’s electricity are located. All of this is threatened in an opening that has been initiated by a call for tenders issued to 150 transnational corporations. It is being designed as a special economic zone that cannot comply with fundamental aspects of the Constitution and laws of the Republic, such as the rights of the indigenous peoples and the environmental and labour legislation. And this is for the purpose of creating more favourable conditions to attract foreign investment. That is how decisions are being taken that are designing a country-wide project that may have consequences over the next 100 years.
FG: Another essential subject for discussion, as I understand it, is the geopolitical problematic, and in this case the advances in regional integration connected to the assessment of the new strategies of imperialism and its interference on the continent. Left critics (Marxists, eco-social activists, feminists, etc.) are often criticized for allegedly underestimating the impact of U.S. intervention or destabilization, and for focusing essentially on an internal critique of the processes and governments. That is what the Argentine sociologist Atilio Borón, among others, says: a number of his writings argue that we have to understand that, moderate as the progressive governments are, they have opened a new wave of integration without the United States, and that this represents a giant step forward in regional history from a Bolivarian perspective. So what do you think about the state of Latin American integration, what are the advances and the limits as of now in this regard?
ML: Ten years ago there were real initiatives and important and encouraging proposals at a global level coming from Latin America, in the sense that regional integration was posed in a different direction from that of the European Union in its neoliberal constitution, especially in the idea that the Banco del Sur was to promote projects of sovereignty and sustainability and not of development in classical terms. Another example was the SUCRE. Unfortunately, these initiatives have not prospered throughout the decade, above all because of resistance from Brazil, which obviously has an important role in the region and is much more oriented toward its partners in the BRICS and prioritizes its interests as a world power.
EL: In the end, Brazil agreed that the Banco del Sur as such should be just one more development bank…
FG: If we look now at the deep crisis in Venezuela, a subject, a drama that has polarized the intellectuals a lot (as of course Venezuelan society), that polarization was presented to us in translation around two international appeals. The first, with Edgardo’s active participation, originated in Venezuela: “Urgent International Call to Stop the Escalation Of Violence in Venezuela. Looking at Venezuela beyond polarization,” that you both signed, the second, the response entitled “Who Will Accuse the Accusers?, by the members of the etwork of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity (REDH), which is quite hostile. One of the central arguments of the REDH members is that the crisis in Venezuela, in their view, is above all a product of imperialist agression and an insurrection of the neoliberal right as well as an “economic war.” They argue that we are in a regional context of a right-wing return, citing the [parliamentary] coup in Brazil, and that this obliges the left to close ranks behind the governments that are confronting this agression, setting aside “secondary contradictions.” The call that you signed, on the contrary says:
“we do not believe, as certain sectors of the Latin American left affirm, that we should acritically defend what is presented as an ‘anti-imperialist and popular government’. The unconditional support offered by certain activists and intellectuals not only reveals an ideological blindness, but is detrimental, as it – regrettably – contributes to the consolidation of an authoritarian regime.”
At this point, how do you read this debate, which was expressed in a number of other documents and exchanges that were sometimes clearly offensive on both sides?
ML: A short while ago a colleague told me that she thought geopolitical views tend to obscure the interests and voices of the peoples. And I don’t know if that is a secondary contradiction. It seems to me that the form in which this confrontation developed was very regrettable because it tended more to close off spaces for reflection than to open them. I think what we need at this point is precisely deeper thinking, spaces for debate and not for closure, if we are to find some solution to the Venezuelan crisis. And I have the feeling that the more alienated people are from the Venezuelan process the more need there is to affirm a sort of identity in solidarity, which is more a sort of anti-imperialist reflex that is fairly abstract, delinked from what goes on day to day in Venezuela. I think the solidarities that we need to build are different. They should not revolve around ourselves, our needs to affirm a political identity like a profession of faith, but be more a joint search for paths forward among concrete peoples. Solidarity should be with the actually existing people, who often do not have the same interests as the government.
And this brings me to a self-criticism, Recently, I returned to Venezuela and had an opportunity to chat with some sectors of critical Chavismo, and it was only then that I learned how that camp has been transformed in recent years. And how complicated it is to express solidarity, in a critical and differentiated way, in the hyperpolarized scenario that exists today. The call that I signed at best should have been given more thought, more discussion before it was circulated, and I should have taken more time discussing it with the various sectors of critical Chavismo before signing it, precisely in order to be more coherent with my own thinking. While I continue to think that it is necessary to defend democratic institutionality and certain liberal values, as the call does, we have to broaden and deepen them while at the same time defending them as results of past struggles. And above all, I think that external agression can never justify the errors that are being made internally.
This polarization that has occurred in Venezuela and in other countries as well, which does not allow any grey shading beyond black and white, is very negative and very harmful to the transformation. It makes it very hard to express solidarity without causing damage on one side or another. As a feminist, I also feel that the form in which this whole debate is taking place is extremely patriarchal, plagued with simplistic binaries, agressive logics and self-gratifyng egos while what we should be doing is building links and other forms of doing politics, that is, accompanying ourselves in the search for alternative roads.
FG: In fact, it seems that a certain dialectic of critical thinking has been lost in this debate. Concerning the polarization in Venezuela, the unconditional defenders of Maduro argue that the polarization is principally between the right wing allied with imperialism vs. the “people” and the Bolivarian government. This analysis is based, of course, on concrete aspects of the coordinates of the present conflict but leaves no space for understanding the tensions, differentiations, and contradictions internal to Chavismo as well as within the popular camp.
ML: There is a kind of artificial construction of a unity between government and people, as also occurred often in relation to Cuba, for example. That is, the Cuban people is one, and only one, and the one that speaks for the Cuban people is necessarily their government. As if there were no relations of domination and conflicts of interests in Cuban society. Between men and women, but also between state and society, or between Blacks, Mestizos and whites, or between countryside and city. From this perspective, which unifies government and people in a single symbolic bloc, nothing really emancipatory can arise. Finally, the challenge before us is reducing or overcoming these relations of domination, if I understand the task. In this dichotomous construction, polarization, war-like logics reappear, a cultural legacy that has been borne by the left since the Cold War, and that now in this historical moment has enabled us to avoid many of the things we need to learn. It is a legacy that was somewhat partially overcome by the ’68 revolt with its cultural impact on societies, but is now suffering a reactualization that I feel is quite distressing.
FG: Edgardo, on the military logic and the situation in Venezuela. How can an attempt be made to confront the Venezuelan crisis from below and from the left? Personally, I did not sign either of the international appeals, because I genuinely felt that neither responded at the time to the urgency of the situation, to the necessary denunciation of imperialist agression, the right wing and its openly coup-oriented sectors and, at the same time, on the other hand, was capable of issuing an open, clear critical analysis of the authoritarian drift of Madurismo; but away from not only the formal defense of the 1999 Constitution but also from the necessary recovery of the forms of popular power, the experiences of self-organization, the communal project that was still alive, notwithstanding everything, in the interstices of the process….
EL: Obviously, there has been a sustained offensive by the Empire, by the United States. From the beginning of the Chávez government there were attempts by the government of the United States to undermine this process for reasons that were both geopolitical and economic. We know that Venezuela’s oil reserves, and its gold, coltan, uranium and other abundant mineral reserves in the south of the country are essential for the United States, either for itself or to limit access to them for its global rivals. Since 1999, Venezuela has represented a point of entry for changes in the continent, and that is why the US also supported the 2002 military coup and the 2002-2003 business lock-out in the oil industry that paralyzed the country for two months, with the express intention to overthrow the government of President Chávez. We know that groups and parties of the Venezuelan far right have relied on permanent advice and funding from the State Department. The financial blockade and the explicit threats of armed intervention formulated by Trump can not in any way be taken lightly. There have also been important interventions by Uribism and Colombian paramilitarism. This type of aggression is part of the panorama of the current crisis in Venezuela, and no one from the left can avoid it or put it in the background.
Now the problem of the Bolivarian process is: What is it that we want to defend? and How should we defend it? Do we have to defend any government with a discourse confronting the United States? Or are we to defend a collective process of a democratic, anticapitalist and anti-imperialist nature that points to a horizon that responds to the profound civilizational crisis we are going through? Do we have to defend the increasingly authoritarian government of Maduro, or do we have to defend the transformative potential that emerged in 1999? Today, the preservation of power for the Maduro government, clientelism and the threats of cutting off access to subsidized basic goods (in conditions in which for a high percentage of the population this is the only way to have access to food) play a much more important role than the appeal to popular participation. And, in the background, a matter for debate is what do we understand today by the left? Can we think of the left without questioning what was socialism of the last century? When forces that sought to overcome bourgeois democracy ended up being authoritarian, vertical, totalitarian regimes. … Today, in Venezuela, we have to ask ourselves if we are moving in the direction of deepening democracy or if the doors to direct participation of people in the orientation of the country’s destiny are closing.
In Venezuela, in 1999 a Constituent Assembly (CA) was held with very high levels of participation, a referendum was organized to decide whether a CA was to be carried out, the constituent members were elected with high participation, the results were approved by a majority of 62% of the votes, enormous resources were spent to modernize the electoral system, establishing a totally digitized, transparent system with multiple control mechanisms, and audit. A reliable electoral system, virtually fraud-proof, as has been recognized by numerous international organizations and electoral experts around the world. But, in December 2015, the opposition wins the parliamentary elections with a large majority, and the government is faced with the dilemma of respecting these electoral results and remaining faithful to the constitution of 1999, or on the contrary, doing everything possible to remain in power, even if this meant ignoring the will of the majority of the population or sacrificing the electoral system that had conquered such high levels of legitimacy. It clearly opts to remain in power at all costs.
Step by step decisions are made that define an authoritarian drift. The holding of the recall referendum in 2016 is prevented, the election of governors in December that year is unconstitutionally postponed, the attributions of the National Assembly are not recognized and these are usurped between the Supreme Court of Justice and the Executive Power. As of February 2016, the President begins to govern by way of a state of emergency (“economic emergency”), expressly violating the conditions and time limits established in the Constitution of 1999. Assuming powers that under the Constitution are attributed to the sovereign people, Maduro issues a call for a National Constituent Assembly, and electoral mechanisms are defined to guarantee total control of that assembly. A monocolour National Constituent Assembly is elected, its 545 members are identified with the government. This assembly, once installed, proclaims itself supra-constitutional and plenipotentiary. Most of its decisions are adopted by acclamation or unanimously without any debate. Instead of addressing the task for which it was supposedly elected, the writing of a new draft Constitution, it begins to make decisions referring to all areas of public powers, dismisses officials, calls elections in conditions designed to prevent or make very difficult the participation of those who do not support the government. It approves what it calls constitutional laws, which in fact results in the abolition of the 1999 Constitution. They adopt retroactive laws, such as the decision to outlaw those parties that did not participate in the mayoral elections of December 2017. The participation of left-wing candidates different from those decided by the PSUV leadership is prevented. Meanwhile, the National Electoral Council fraudulently blocks the election of Andrés Velázquez as governor of Bolivar State. …
What is at stake here is not the formal defense of the Constitution of 1999, but the defense of democracy, not a formal bourgeois democracy, but the opening towards the deepening of democracy that the 1999 Constitution represented. Without any single milestone defining a clear break with the democratic constitutional order created in 1999, that democratic constitutional order has been sliced up step by step, successively, like a salami, until we find ourselves in the current situation, which is no longer recognizable.
FG: Then, in light of this very complex panorama where progressives experience brusque or gradual setbacks, where the critical or radical lefts fail to emerge as a massive popular force, where the actually existing replacement electoral forces are, at the moment, aggressive neoliberal rightists, even insurrectional in some cases, such as Venezuela, how can we think of concrete alternatives in this end to the hegemony of progressivism and the rebound of a late neoliberalism? From the perspective of buen vivir and ecosocialism, from criticism to the limits and contradictions of progressive governments, from popular or decolonial feminism, how are we to imagine utopias with concrete perspectives for Our America?
EL: In Venezuela, the only source of optimism for me at this moment is the fact that the crisis has been so deep and has impacted the collective consciousness in such a way that it is possible that the charm of oil, of rentism and of the Magical State as beneficient provider is slowly beginning to dissipate. All the left-right political debate in recent decades has operated within the parameters of the oil imaginery, within this notion of Venezuela as a rich country, owner of the largest oil reserves on the planet. Politics have revolved around the demands that different sectors of society make on the state in order to access these resources.
I am starting to see signs, still lamentably weak, of an acknowledgment that it is not possible to continue on that path. There is the beginning of an acceptance that a historical cycle is drawing to an end. People are starting to scratch their heads, and now what? I have had relations for years with what is the most continuous and most vigorous process of popular organization in Venezuela, CECOSESOLA. This is a network of cooperatives operating in several states in the center and west of the country that links a wide network of agricultural and artisanal producers with urban consumers, as well as a splendid cooperative health center and a funeral cooperative. I have been impressed by the presence of topics such as the recovery and exchange of seeds in everyday conversations. The recognition of a before and an after the beginning of the current crisis.
Recently, when someone in a farming community came down from a nearby town, he was told to remember to bring back a can of tomato seed. That was an every day occurrence. These were seeds of imported, selected and hybrid tomatoes that did not reproduce, that were not necessarily transgenic but they were sterile after the first sowing. With the economic crisis, that access to seeds is abruptly cut off. Ancestral peasant practices are resumed. They begin holding meetings between farmers in which it is asked, who has seeds of what? Indigenous seeds that were only preserved on a small scale begin to be exchanged – potato seeds, tomato seeds, etc. This opens up new possibilities. We are going to wake up from this dream (which turned out to be a nightmare) and think about the possibility that we are somewhere else, in another country, in other conditions and life goes on but now it is taking a new path.
FG: Miriam, what Edgardo says is interesting but he describes, for the moment, very small embryos of popular power, which may seem inoperative in the face of immense regional challenges, financial globalization, world chaos. …
ML: Of course, that is, it depends a little from where you are looking at it. I think that here, for example, in Europe, what we have to do is start to become aware of the effects that the intensive consumption lifestyle, which everyone assumes is completely natural, cause in other parts of the world. It seems to me that the scale of destruction that this causes, not only in environmental terms but also in the social fabric, of subjectivities, is much more important than what is assumed in Europe, where it all remains practically invisible, camouflaged by consumer environments that are pleasant and anaesthetizing.
EL: Or the belief that the standard of living of the North does not depend on extractivism in the South.
ML: Some of us call this the imperial way of life, which automatically assumes that the natural resources and cheap or enslaved labour of the whole world are for the wealthiest 20 percent of the world population who live in the capitalist centers or the middle and upper classes of the peripheral societies. And if it’s cheap, that’s good. It provides a sensation that the planet is going to collapse ecologically and socially because of the enormous quantity of gadgets that are produced, which nobody really needs except “the markets” for everything that capitalism suggests as artificially constructed needs. So, here in the capitalist centers there is a very important task of reducing the amount of material and energy that is expended. For example, the movements around degrowth have a good perspective in terms of cultural transformation, where because of the discomforts with neoliberalism that you mentioned before, people rediscover other non-material dimensions of the quality of life, and also the wealth of self-production of clothes, or honey, or other things.
FG: Yes, here in France too, there are currently a lot of alternative rural networks, collective self-managed experiences, areas to defend (ZAD), alternative currencies, etc. but they are still very small.
ML: Of course, they are small networks for now, but the important thing is to transmit to more people these imaginaries of different kinds of well-being, so that the change is made not by force, or not by the crisis, but by the desire itself. So that people can feel, experience in their own flesh that there are other dimensions of the good life that can easily compensate for having less materially, and that a decrease does not have to be experienced as a loss.
EL: Nor as a sacrifice to stop having things. …
FG: In fact, here, there is more and more talk about the necessary conquest of a cheerful sobriety and voluntary austerity in the face of consumer waste. It is an interesting, powerful concept that can be connected to buen vivir and ecosocialism.
ML: I feel every time I go to Europe that there is a lot of discomfort with this super-accelerated lifestyle that prevails here. I have many friends who get sick, if not physically, they get sick psychologically, from stress, depression, burnouts, panic attacks. The dimensions that this acquires are hidden quite systematically in the dominant discourses that continue to associate wellbeing with economic growth, and much more so in what is perceived from the global South. Seen from Latin America, here in the central countries, everything is necessarily a wonder. Then, to visualize these discomforts and make visible the other forms of life that already result from them, would be an important step. Because in the South, curiously, everyone believes that it is better to live in the city, while in Germany or Spain, on the contrary, there is an increase in the numbers of ecological communities that go to the countryside. In other words, it would be a step to help break this hegemony of imitative development, which forces the South to repeat all the mistakes that have already been made in Northern societies, such as clogging cities with cars, for example. But some of these errors, as in the division of labor between men and women here in the North, are being overcome also by the new generations, Now, from my generation on down, it has become more normal to share the tasks of care not only in the couple but beyond the couple, perhaps in the building, in the community where a reduced space for coexistence, can be generated.
This is also another important element, building community against forced individualization, both in the countryside and in the city. I do not mean the community understood as the small ancestral peasant village, fixed in time, but political communities in movement, which incorporate their tasks of care as collective tasks and then reorganize life around what life reproduces, and not around what the market or capital demands. And I think we should make visible all the efforts that are already being made in this sense, where people live relatively well, both in the North and in the South. In the South, in part, they will be ancestral communities, but there are also new ones, while in the North they are usually newly constituted. It’s about changing monolithic thinking and looking at the things that exist, you do not have to invent everything from scratch.
For example, there is a view that urban suburbs are hell, in the global South above all. But if you are going to look closer, there are many logics there that are absolutely anti-capitalist, the logic of not working, of giving priority to fiestas, of exchanges not mediated by the logic of money. … Maybe it’s not the model. Anyway, there is no model and there should not be, that is very important to emphasize. We are not, after 20th century socialism, going to have a new unique recipe which we will all enroll in and follow, but rather it is a question of allowing that diversity of alternatives, so that they can be built from each culture and context, from the people who are involved in them. Buenos vivires in the plural.
We also have to generate a culture of alternatives that allows us to err, to make mistakes, to learn from mistakes. These spaces of social experimentation in which we say good we are going to try that, it does not work, we are going to try something else, but in cohesion and without competing, according to the principle of cooperation and not competition. A book called The Future of Development states that the percentage of the world population actually inserted in the circuits of the neoliberal globalized market is barely half, and that the rest is still in what we would call the margins. That provides hope, it also means that half the world population is in something else, beyond the dominant model, so we should start looking around.
FG: Very good, thank you very much.
Transcription of interview by Alejandra Guacarán (Master LLCER, Université Grenoble-Alpes. Revision, correction and updating by FG, EL and ML.