Julia Buxton and the Left's Retreat into Anti-Antichavismo

A tour into the mind of Julia Buxton, flag-bearer for a strain of the European left that's now ready to accept that chavismo is a disaster, but not ready to stop hating Venezuelans who've said all along chavismo is a disaster.

How is a good, committed first world leftist to react to the now-so-evident-you-can-no-longer-cover-it-up collapse of the Bolivarian dream? It’s a sticky situation, watching a socialist government lionized in unison by the international left devolve into a Hobbesian dystopia of hunger, kleptocracy and violence.

Buxton’s interview is one of the more amusingly schizophrenic attempts at damage control from someone with a long record of supporting Venezuela’s calamitous revolution.

For the most part, the bon pensant left has opted to pasar agachados, whistling casually as they amble away from the crime scene. “Why me? No never! This was nothing to do with me!”

But in a long interview in New Left Review, Julia Buxton tries a new and different tack: hey, maybe we can’t love the government (anymore), but thank goodness we can still hate the opposition!

Buxton’s interview is one of the more amusingly schizophrenic attempts at damage control from someone with a long record of supporting Venezuela’s calamitous revolution. The first half reads, well, it reads like a lot of Aporrea reads these days: a white flag offered up as a sacrificial gift to the no longer concealable onslaught of reality.

Yes, we’re told, the nationalizations were a disaster, carried out without a strategy, disorganized, chaotic and wholly divorced from any kind of credible plan to diversify the economy, or even run the pre-existing economy semi-competently.

Yes public sector financial management has been a calamity, running up enormous debts as oil prices rose and making not a semblance of provision for a downturn. Yes the outcome has been an economic cataclysm where people can’t find enough food to eat.

Yes exchange rate controls are profoundly dysfunctional and at the root of the problem.

Yes the country’s now one of the most violent in the world.

It’s true. It’s all true. “Unfortunate,” but true.

What’s really remarkable is the disconnect between Buxton’s clinical, morally neutral tone as she describes a government that has left millions hungry and her angry vitriol as she condemns the opposition.

Yet it’s only in the second half we get to the thing that really exercises Buxton, the true calamity for the country, the real wellspring of all the trouble: Venezuela’s truculent, truculent opposition.

What’s really remarkable is the juxtaposition between Buxton’s clinical, neutral tone in discussing a government that has left millions hungry and the angry vitriol she reserves for the opposition. Again and again, she goes out of her way to avoid value judgement as she discusses the revolution’s failures. But measured language escapes her when talk turns to people who’ve put in the work to try to stop this calamity. 

Q: Does the initiative now lie with López or Capriles in the opposition? What is the opposition trying to do with its parliamentary majority?

The new president of the National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, comes from neither Primero Justicia nor Voluntad Popular, but from the old AD party. His nomination for the role was quite extraordinary: if ever there was a discredited individual who symbolized the failures of the old Punto Fijo system, it was Ramos Allup. The different MUD parties stand on their own tickets, sometimes against each other. The main rivalry has pitted Voluntad Popular against Primero Justicia, and there was an alliance of sorts between VP and AD, which accounts for Ramos Allup becoming assembly president. Primero Justicia is the largest single party, followed by AD, with Voluntad Popular quite low down—primarily because it’s not really a national movement; its base is concentrated in Miranda and Caracas.

The MUD initially had a super-majority in the assembly, but that hinged on the support of three members who came from indigenous communities. It was then shown that those representatives had been heavily implicated in electoral fraud, along with a PSUV member, so all four were disbarred. That denied the MUD a super-majority, but they still have a commanding majority of seats. The great tragedy of their electoral success is that they have been single-mindedly focused on dismantling everything that has gone before, and they have adopted a confrontational posture ever since assuming power. Capriles had spoken of the need for dialogue, but then found himself isolated within the MUD, because Voluntad Popular and AD would not countenance any kind of negotiation with the government. As a result, he quickly backtracked. Having previously distanced himself from violent mobilizations against the government, Capriles has become more radical, in a bid to stop the old centre ground from coalescing around López. He is now the one urging more street protests, and even calling for the army to overthrow the government.

Q: Has the opposition concentrated on securing the release of López from prison?

At first that was very nearly their sole demand. They introduced an amnesty law in April which was quite extraordinary, going completely against the grain of how we understand transitional justice. It granted absolution for any political crime dating back to 1998, including terrorism, drug trafficking and attempts to overthrow the elected government. It was designed for the benefit of a small group, fewer than fifty people, who were serving sentences for those political crimes. The law was rejected by the Supreme Court. The whole approach of the opposition has been so confrontational and out of touch with popular concerns. Ordinary Venezuelans want to see concrete measures to address crime and insecurity, and to alleviate the economic crisis. Instead, the opposition has spent months debating how they can get López out of prison, and what is the most appropriate strategy for ousting Maduro. The only real way to address shortages or any of the other serious problems Venezuela currently has is through dialogue. The solutions proposed by the opposition to deal with the economic decline are based on liberalization and resort to the IMF—something that has absolutely no traction within Venezuelan society, and which has alienated a lot of people. That helps explain why Maduro still retains the support of approximately one quarter of the population, in spite of the catastrophic economic situation: they believe they have more to lose if the opposition takes power than if Maduro stays on.

It’s hard to know where to begin with the obfuscations, the regime propaganda served up as dispassionate fact, the nonsense and the plain lies.

But let’s begin with Buxton’s complete disinterest in the circumstances surrounding the appointment of the new Supreme Tribunal in December 2015. It’s our first clue that while she’s can make a certain amount of sense with regard to what government has done to the country, she’s basically a SiBCI vehicle when it comes to what the government has done to the opposition. Maduro’s outrageous, unconstitutional packing of the tribunal with diehard loyalists isn’t even mentioned. But the rank propaganda lie about electoral fraud that has been used to deny the opposition the 2/3rds majority the voters gave it is passed off as fact. Buxton’s determination to maintain some of the trappings of academic neutrality, just falls apart at the sight of MUD’s now overwhwlming popular support.

And it gets worse.

“The great tragedy of [the opposition’s] electoral success,” Buxton tells us, “is that they have been single-mindedly focused on dismantling everything that has gone before.” 

Think about that for a second.

Buxton has just spend the first half of her interview detailing how one wrong-headed government decision after another has turned Venezuela into a dystopian nightmare of queues and hunger. You might think she would take a moment to say thank goodness there’s someone around single-mindedly focused on dismantling the decisions that has turned a petrostate into a pauperstate. You might think they could plausibly claim an electoral mandate from the people who had just overwhelmingly elected them to do just that to do, well, just that.

But no, somehow it doesn’t work that way. Undoing decisions she acknowledges have been disastrous is, we’re told, “a great tragedy.”

The charge that the opposition has made the release of Leopoldo López very nearly its only demand, in isolation to the documented fact that the government offered López himself his freedom in return for delaying a recall vote, is enough to demonstrate Buxton’s tendentiousness. And that’s before we even get to Buxton’s word-salad contention that there’s “absolutely no traction” for trying to address a crisis she admits was caused by mindlessly destructive state-takeover of large parts of the economy by reversing the thing she admits caused it.

If none of this seems to make any sense to you, it’s because none of Buxton’s position makes any sense.

Here we see the European left absolutely lost in the labyrinth of its own debunked certainties: Buxton rues that the revolution wasn’t institutionalized in a way that would make it permanent even as she accepts that the revolution’s policies have driven the country to misery. She brutally excorciates the people who, like her, point out that the revolution has led the country to misery but who, unlike her, want to do something about it. She supports the political imprisonment of people like Leopoldo López — never stopping to note that his own prosecutor accepts the evidence against him was false — but then seamlessly on to noting that although López and other opposition leaders constantly fight about everything, those other leaders spend their every waking moment trying to think up ways to get López out of prison, where she thinks he belongs. If none of this seems to make any sense to you, it’s because none of Buxton’s position makes any sense.

It’s all enough to make you suspect Buxton is less worked up about what the opposition stands for and more concerned about who they are:

The leadership consists of men like Henrique Capriles and Julio Borges, who were educated at Harvard or Oxford, and seemed to have a bright and wonderful future ahead of them in Venezuelan politics before they were steamrollered by Chavismo.

You know this kind of rhetoric: for Dr. Buxton (MA, PhD, London School of Economics), and the left, the thing that really disqualifies the opposition is that it’s led by people who went to the kinds of elite universities she went to.

There’s some screwed up colonial shit at play here: of course Julia Buxton is entitled to a world-class education, she’s English! But if you aspire to actually lead a Latin American country and be responsible for tens of millions of people’s livelihoods, well, then you better settle for what they teach at la Bolivariana.

Then again, you probably shouldn’t listen to me: I went to the LSE too.

In the mental gallinero vertical that passes for Buxton’s understanding of Venezuela’s recent history, the people who really deserve opprobium aren’t the people who’ve brought the country to ruin, but the people who’ve been thrown in jail for calling for protests to denounce that the country was being brought to ruin.

See how that works?

Then again, you probably shouldn’t listen to me: I went to the LSE too, and if there’s one thing Julia Buxton knows for sure is that that right there disqualifies me from talking about Venezuelan politics in the first place.