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Eve's Review

Maduro's Government and the Left

"Venezuela, the Present As Struggle"

Cira Pascual Marquina and Chris Gilbert

Monthly Review Press, 377 pages




Eve Ottenberg

Nicolas Maduro's government in Venezuela poses a unique dilemma for some on the left. They have criticisms of it, but decided against voicing them too obstreperously now, for the obvious reason that that could aid and comfort a mortal enemy – the most powerful military empire of all time, namely the United States, which appears ready to impose a ruthless, savage, fascist capitalism in its perceived backyard of Latin America. Maduro's government has failings and falls short of the high bar set by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. But that is irrelevant. Fanatical fascists and radical right-wingers have Maduro in their sights, precisely because he, with his watered-down socialism, is the duly, legitimately elected leader of Venezuela. So leftists see Maduro making mistakes, and they bite their tongues.


Take privatization of state-run enterprises. Take campesino protests. Take workers' struggles to control factories. Take police murders of young men from the barrios. On those counts the Maduro government disappoints the left. It compromises. It cedes ground to the right. But it is under siege. And it's better than the only alternative on offer – a gangster opposition headed by a ridiculous pretender, Juan Guaido, crowned in absentia by regime-change maniacs in Washington.


Maduro does still pursue a form of socialism. And Venezuela's economic crisis is by no means all his fault. The chief cause was the collapse of the price of oil some years back. Had oil remained at $100 a barrel, as it was in Chavez's day, Venezuela could have avoided recession. But then came barbaric U.S. economic sanctions. The Trump regime's effort to kill the Venezuelan economy, to punish it for its socialism, overthrow its elected leaders, install puppets and rob it of its oil, all intensified the damage done by the oil price plunge.


These twin economic catastrophes clobbered average people. Sanctions alone are estimated to have killed tens of thousands of Venezuelans. The Trump regime besieged the country to steal its resources, the biggest oil reserves on the globe and to destroy its example of socialism once and for all – an assault based on creaky, criminal, hubristic, imperial reasoning that famine and destitution will cause Venezuelans to rebel against their leaders. That won't happen. People know who's making their lives miserable: the U.S. empire. And Trump's homicidal sanctions are all the more monstruous, as they come during a pandemic, compelling desperate Venezuelans to scrounge for essential medicines. Biden doesn't look likely to take a more civilized approach, but time will tell. Perhaps the new president will allow humanity to temper policy during the lethal covid plague, and lift Trump's murderous sanctions. Not likely, but one can hope.


Amazingly, the 35 revolutionaries interviewed by Cira Pascual Marquina and Chris Gilbert in their new book, "Venezuela, the Present As Struggle," still find cause for optimism. Some seem eager to work with Maduro's government to promote specific aspects of socialism. Those interviewed include communards, feminists, campesino leaders, internationalists, barrio organizers and intellectuals. All share the interviewers' critical perspective, expressed at the outset: dismay at Maduro's accommodations with capital, "leaving two bleak options on the table: imperialist restoration or bureaucratic stagnation…choosing between the quick versus the slow suffocation of the socialist revolution." But despite this dire choice, they don't succumb to pessimism. Their aim is to nudge the government in a more democratic, more truly socialist direction.


"Venezuela, the Present As Struggle" presents the commune as "the building block for socialism." The authors also argue that Chavismo corrected "Zapatismo's renunciation of state politics," but clearly they want the state responsive to the communes, which "is where the revolution really begins," and which, they hope, ultimately will abolish the state. But this is a time when Venezuela's colectivos, the book argues, are being rebranded by imperialists as terrorist organizations. Faced with this deviously calibrated reactionary slander, the supposedly socialist state sits on its hands. Or worse.


One commune organizer tells the interviewers that government security forces harass the communes, while the government installs "the logic of corruption, bureaucracy and clientelism…doing the work of the Right." Another activist from the Surgentes Collective, a human rights organization, describes a project of 70 farming families who distribute food to over 1200 urban families weekly. It is a great success. It demonstrates how campesino farming benefits the barrios. (It's also worth noting that campesino farming is far more environmentally sustainable than the agro-industry sort.) Other leftists stress the need for economic democracy and decry "the farce of representative democracy." One accuses Maduro's son of trying to criminalize campesino efforts.


A leader of the Campesino Struggle Platform, Andres Alayo, discusses the revolutionary Land Law of 2001. Since then, "oligarchic violence has led to the deaths of some 350 to 400 campesinos." He sees life and the democratization of land on the campesino side and a culture of death and terror on the other, big, land-owning side. Describing how from 2006 to 2010 the state ended the 19th century plantation model by seizing tracts of land, Alayo laments the more recent dwindling and dismantling of state agricultural enterprises. This decline has occurred since Chavez's death. Alayo makes the case against turning state enterprises over to private investors – but that is the trend. He also argues that small farmers and communards have proved "that they can produce and deliver," so why does the state now privilege large capital? Why indeed.


On different topics from varying walks of life, each of these 35 people interviewed warn of capitalism's inroads, encouraged by the government. They all criticize, some less cautiously than others, Maduro's tilt toward capitalism as an exit from the economic crisis. Because the bitter truth is that this inclination is gratuitous. Socialist farming has worked in Venezuela. Socialist factory production has worked in Venezuela. The colectivos have worked. All simply need to be done on a larger scale. There need to be more of them. Privatizing state assets is a failed course of action. And it sabotages socialist gains. Everyone interviewed in this book proposes alternatives to the rush toward capitalist investment.


But all 35 appear to agree, some only implicitly, that with the right-wing resurgent, it is time to close ranks. Half a loaf is better than none. These leaders and intellectuals are willing to sacrifice and support Maduro's government against a rapacious imperial aggressor from abroad, who seeks to foment fascism at home. The government would do well to respond constructively to their concerns. Instead it appears to take such supporters for granted, or, worse, to undermine them.

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