Letter to a Friend on my Left

Over the past year I have sought to engage, and have been engaged by many friends and colleagues on the left. On the one hand, I have come to see the uncritical support of international leftists as significantly facilitating the Maduro government’s anti-democratic downward spiral (see, for example, this declaration from over the weekend). On the other hand, I am frequently contacted or publicly berated by friends and colleagues who feel betrayed by my criticisms of Chavismo, and even more, by my not engaging in blanket criticism of US foreign policy (see, for example, the short-lived Venezuela Dialogue blog, as well as this recent screed in Jacobin).

I recently had the following exchange with an old friend with whom I have discussed Venezuela, Chavismo and the regional impact of US foreign policy, for over 25 years. “Rolando” wrote to me on Facebook arguing, in essence, that the real problem in the region was the United States’ desire to impose its will on the world, and the problem in Venezuela was the US financial blockade which was causing immense suffering. He recommended that the US clean its own house before telling other countries what to do. He suggested that Venezuelans need to solve their own problems and decide for themselves what form of government they want and what direction it takes. He asked how I would like it if foreign countries started a blockade against the US or started dis-investing in the dollar to make it crash.

I responded as follows.

Dear Rolando,

I have known you for 25 years and know you care deeply for Venezuela just as I do. These are quite literally life and death issues for people we both know. I am sorry we do not agree in our assessment of the situation and what needs to be done. But I respect your opinion. The following points are where our views differ.

First, you seem to think that only those countries that do not have skeletons in their closets can participate in conflict resolution. I disagree because I think that would eliminate international pressure, engagement and mediation altogether since there are no such countries. It would effectively create a world of accomplices that the powerful of this world would absolutely delight in (remember that Westphalian sovereignty was originally an agreement among princes by which they agreed to respect each other’s territorial dominion which in turn allowed them to disempower their subjects). In fact, I think we already live in a world of accomplices as most governments prefer not to comment on or intervene in any way in what other countries do, precisely because they are afraid it would open the door to other governments interfering in their affairs. It is more an instinct of self-preservation than any idealistic commitment to representing and attending to their subjects.

I do think that the history of a country and its “moral” standing have a big impact on its effectiveness. This is why I have worked so hard in promoting Latin American countries to take the lead in engaging Venezuela. In fact I repeatedly proposed over the past year and a half, a “group of friends” not including the US, on the model of the Contadora Group that brokered peace in Central American in the 1980s (see here, here and here). And I have been a strong supporter of the “Group of Lima” since it emerged I used to say the US has no useful role in resolving the Venezuela conflict. But I have rethought that given the limited character of what the Lima Group can actually do beyond withholding recognition (which in itself is quite important). So I did not actively oppose the “debt sanctions” the US rolled out in September, like I did previous rounds of sanctions. But I might reconsider that because I think they are simply providing a huge red herring for people who want to deny the complete governance disaster caused by the Maduro government.

Second, the idea that the US is the main or even a main cause of Venezuela’s crisis does not withstand even cursory examination. US financial sanctions came into effect at the end of August. By chance, the recently released ENCOVI survey carried-out its fieldwork in August 2017 just before US sanctions and shows the extent of the devastation. Poverty, in the way the survey measures it, has increased from 48.4% 2014 to 87% 2017, which is astonishing. 80% of respondents said they had eaten less in the previous three months because can’t get enough food. 60% said they had gone to bed hungry at some point in the previous three months because they did not have enough food. 64% say they have lost weight in the past year, on average over 11 kilos.

This is not hard to understand. If you have a fixed exchange rate, emit enormous quantities of inorganic money and have price controls, the combination of inflation, scarcities and contraband is the only possible outcome. You do not need a conspiracy theory to explain something that is fully understandable by just looking at the Maduro government’s destructive policies.

The Maduro government is not the only government to preside over an economic disaster. What makes it different is that it has violated the people’s rights to choose their leadership. In the past two years the Maduro government has: for all practical purposes annulled the democratically elected National Assembly, suspended the presidential recall referendum, unconstitutionally called a Constituent Assembly, stacked the voting bases to ensure a government win, committed fraud in the ANC election (as denounced by Smartmatic, a company with everything to lose by taking the stand they did), changed the voting centers within 48 hours of the October governor’s elections causing mass confusion, committed old fashioned vote-count fraud in Bolivar State.

Now the unconstitutional ANC has moved up the elections, violating Venezuela’s electoral law (which says elections have to be declared 6 months in advance). On top of that all of the most popular opposition figures—Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles, Freddy Guevara, David Smolanksy, Ramon Muchacho, and more—have been disqualified, jailed or fled the country because of judicial pursuit. The most popular opposition party, Primero Justicia, has as well. I defended Chavismo for many years not because I thought their model of governance was particularly convincing, but because they had the support of the people and an electoral system that allowed people to express that support. But now Chavismo is transparently doing everything possible to undermine electoral institutions so that the people cannot throw them out of power.

So we have a situation in which 70-80% of Venezuelans revile their government but cannot change it. What do you think should be done? You can’t just say “let Venezuelans solve their own problems.” They have no way of doing so. 80% of the population is being held captive by the 20% that controls the institutions, the guns and the money. This is exactly the type of situation in which “human” rights, instead of “citizen” rights that depend on being a member of a nation, should predominate. And remember that the character of human rights is such that all people have the right and duty to protect them beyond national borders.

Third, as suggested above, I do not think the idea of absolute sovereignty, that you seem to be working with, is tenable. No Latin American government holds that position; all of them have signed on to the major human rights agreements and conventions. And in contrast to popular misunderstandings, Latin Americans were some of the key proponents of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the post-WWII era (precisely because they thought it would give some leverage against US interventionism). And Chavismo did not restrict human rights in the 1999 Constitution, they expanded them.

Fourth, as for my country, I agree with you regarding US support for Temer. It disgusts me, as does US recognition for Hernandez in Honduras. But those are different issues from Venezuela. I do not believe in trying to whitewash what is happening in Venezuela in order to counterbalance US influence in other countries. In other words, I am not going to oppose a particular Trump policy regarding Venezuela because of what Trump is doing with the Wall, the “Dreamers,” Temer, Hernandez or anything else. I think that kind of realpolitik “counterbalancing” dehumanizes Venezuelans, treating them as means to other ends and is insensitive to the very real and completely unnecessary suffering they are experiencing.

The only reason I would oppose a Trump policy regarding Venezuela is because I think it would worsen the situation. The only reason I would support a Trump policy regarding Venezuela is that I think it could improve the situation. I am not willing to use nor dismiss the plight of Venezuelans for other political ends, however noble these latter might be. I understand politics and coalitions, and how one battle might be sacrificed for a larger battle. But people’s basic human rights serves as a check on the play and conflict of politics. They point to the areas in which people must be treated as ends in themselves.

Fifth, I would very much like other countries to speak out forcefully against the policies of Donald Trump and take measures accordingly. I hope it happens soon. Most countries don’t speak out against Trump or take action because of economic and political interests. Once again political leaders prioritize their own elite interests above those of the people who are suffering from Trump’s policies.