Gary was an Aussie living in Holland who had shown up early to my talk at Utrecht, eager to learn more about the Bolivarian Revolution. Weather-worn face with stubble forming a wannabe beard and sporting a gray Lenin cap, Gary was friendly and outgoing and one I recognized was going to be the first to raise his hand in the Q&A at the end of the talk. When I probed a bit to see what he knew about Venezuela, I was regaled with five minutes of regurgitated SiBCI propaganda. Deep sigh. Here we go again, I thought.
This happens all the time: I end up in a private conversation with a member of the audience and then suddenly I begin to hear a cascade of Bolivarian propaganda as the subject turns to Venezuela.
It’s so much easier talking to an audience that knows nothing at all, and knows it knows nothing, than it is to try to undo a worldview assembled by chavista media. And chavista media, as any Caracas Chronicles regular knows, has a powerful, extensive and deep hold on people around the world, but especially people on the Left.
But I’ve spent most of my adult life in the Left, hanging out in that no man’s land between the anarchists and the socialists. So it’s the Left I’ve been talking to, especially over the past four years that I’ve been supporting the Venezuelan opposition.
I know from my own process that you can’t expect people to change overnight. It took me a long time to get used to my new position after I came to see chavismo for what it is. It was an experience of X, Y, Z, and that doesn’t happen fast.
When I probed a bit to see what he knew about Venezuela, I was regaled with five minutes of regurgitated SiBCI propaganda.
Jumping the international talanquera carries many costs: people you’d come to see as friends and allies treat you as a pariah. As a writer, I soon found that places where I used to publish had limited tolerance for my apostasy. Counterpunch, where I’d published pro-Chávez articles for several years, soon stopped offering me a platform.
Gringo Chavistas tried to silence me. It backfired. The following year on the tour that my wife and co-editor, Marcy Rein, organized for our first book together, Until the Rulers Obey, I decided to use every occasion to speak out against the Bolivarians. I drove 12,000 miles around the US with Marcy, and then through nine or so countries in Europe giving talk after talk. It’s the least I could do to atone for having supported this awful regime for so long.
When I got back from that trip I got another anarchist publisher interested in Venezuela. They suggested a political memoir, which became Home from the Dark Side of Utopia, coming out in August of last year. On the tour for this book I tried to focus on anarchist community centers and anarchist book fairs, and what I began to discover fascinated me.
People like Gary popped up everywhere in anarchist circles: Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin and now here in Utrecht and Amsterdam.
At first I was puzzled: How could anarchists support a process led by a military officer?
As far back as 2006 I’d found this perplexing. I was in Montevideo then interviewing a young man named Pablo who was part of an anarchist organization that had split with the anarchists in Caracas (presumably the Libertario group) precisely over the issue of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Jumping the international talanquera carries many costs: people you’d come to see as friends and allies treat you as a pariah.
“Wait a minute,” I said, stopping Pablo in the middle of his explanation. I remember the moment vividly: we were sitting in a beautiful little café with varnished wood walls and a long bar with what looked like an early twentieth-century platinum espresso machine. A slight breeze was coming in through an oversized open window.
“You split with an anarchist organization because you support a socialist project led by a military man?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes,” he told me,” because we’re also anti-imperialists and we support a unified front against imperialism first and foremost.”
At the time I was sympathetic. Anti-imperialism mattered to me. But I didn’t know then, as I know now, that Chávez was simply trading one form of imperialism for another, or for others. And that the “Latin American Unity” he proposed was nothing more than smoke and mirrors while he signed deals with Chevron, Chinese, Russian, Canadian and US corporations. Entreguismo and deals with empires proliferated at the same rate as did the rhetoric to the contrary. As Damián Prat pointed out to me, never has Venezuela been more under the thumb of empires than it is under chavismo.
The socialist Left, I came to see to my dismay, didn’t care. Bereft after the collapse of Real Socialism, it had an insatiable thirst for the rhetoric, the words, the symbols. They mattered so much more than the grubby reality of Venezuela under the Bolivarian Revolution, the bolichicos and enchufados handing out rolexes and skydiving for fun.
I didn’t know then, as I know now, that Chávez was simply trading one form of imperialism for another, or for others.
There were a few honorable exceptions: some Trotskyists, and most anarchists and supporters of the democratic left still affirm principles over rhetoric. And let me also be clear: anarchists, by the very nature of their political stance, are overwhelmingly disposed to not like the Bolivarian government and to see all governments as some form of mafias, even if there are those Pablos you’ll also find in anarchist circles, especially in Latin America.
In any case, the bulk of the socialist left continues to be caught up in the phantasmagoria of socialist symbols and language which, in the case of Venezuela, they mistake for a “Revolution.” That helps explain why the Chilean students of the University of Santiago and the Federation of Students of the University of Chile (FECH), and anarchists like Pablo supported the government of Maduro against the Venezuelan students in 2014. But the petrodollars are also hard to pass up.
“Libertarian socialist” Michael Albert admitted in a February 20, 2016 fundraising email appeal that his “work” for Telesur had been sustaining his left journal, Z Magazine, since mid-2014. Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! and the Pacifica stations have toed a solidly pro-Bolivarian line, and their programming is popular among a whole range of the left, from anarchists to Stalinists, from liberals to revolutionaries. Whether it’s radical cachet (again, symbols) or Bolivarian oil money, or both, the Bolivarian Revolution is still rarely publicly questioned in socialist circles of the Left.
And while the “Bolivarian Revolution” had lots of cachet, until very recently it had even more oil money. Before he went “Galactico,” el Comandante easily outspent the “imperialists” in a propaganda war that by the time he died he had clearly won, buying “useful idiots” like Michael Albert, Eva Gollinger and others to regurgitate his propaganda into the socialist feed troughs. As Casto Ocando points out, the same year the US government National Endowment for Democracy (NED) funneled $53,400 to the opposition to help with the 2004 referendum, Chávez spent $553,699.43 “funding the Washington (DC)-based Venezuelan Information Office for salaries and expenses in order to improve his image in the US.” (Home from the Dark Side of Utopia, p. 302). From my perspective, it’s a toss-up whether chavista media hegemony has been more complete inside of Venezuela or abroad in Left media outlets.
The bulk of the socialist left continues to be caught up in the phantasmagoria of socialist symbols and language which, in the case of Venezuela, they mistake for a “Revolution.”
Where there has been an opposition point of view aired in left circles, it’s been mostly outside of the US in the old social democratic and liberal press like The Independent and The Guardian. For “discriminating” North American Leftists, these papers provide fresh, critical perspectives (even if they also often print Mark Weisbrot’s chavista pap) unlike anything found in the US.
The problem, again, is that in Europe, these papers are associated with the failed Social Democrats and neoliberal “Left” of the likes of Tony Blair and Francois Hollande, the “Socialist” former president of France. The Independent and The Guardian, in other words, are the European Left’s version of the “bourgeois mainstream capitalist” newspapers. And goodness, everyone knows you can’t trust the “capitalist” press, right?
Given this view of the press, where do Europeans like Gary go to get their news? Well, Amy Goodman, Z Magazine, The Nation (which just published this pro-Maduro propaganda piece on May 1st) and so on, of course.
Because what’s very clear on the ground in Europe is that the democratic, liberal, and even socialist, Left has been been discredited in much the way the old pre-Chávez Venezuelan social democratic Left (AD, MAS, etc.) had been discredited as a result of its support for neoliberal austerity programs and its disregard for the suffering of poor Venezuelans from the late 1980s on. We’re seeing the same phenomenon sweep over Europe today and populists are also rising to challenge neoliberal socialists like Hollande, in France, and other center-left politicians elsewhere.
The Left, simply put, proposes no realistic alternative to “socialism lite” than the failed Leninist program that has been re-tried and re-failed for a century now: nationalization, destruction of markets, centralization of power all implemented by an unaccountable vanguard who ultimately has to rely on repression, and more repression to keep the whole utopian project going. The purest version of that model is very much alive in North Korea, Cuba and now, to a great degree, Venezuela. Stepping into that void left by the far-left and the neoliberal-left are the populist-nationalists, and they’re changing the political landscape everywhere.
Before he went “Galactico,” el Comandante easily outspent the “imperialists” in a propaganda war that by the time he died he had clearly won.
My Dutch host, Jeremy, made this clear to me when I remarked that many of us in the US were inspired to see the Dutch people had rejected the populism of Geert Wilders and the Party of Freedom. “Yes,” he said, “but only by voting for a populist who adopted his ideas.” Indeed, some felt that the recent elections in the Netherlands was just a contest of one populism beating out another.
I arrived in France the day of their election where populist Marine Le Pen was to make a strong showing. My friend Isidor, who’d organized a presentation for me at the anarchist social center in Lille, described the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon as a “French Bolivarian” who, if he won, would join ALBA —yes, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America… In those elections the [neoliberal] Socialist Party managed to scrape together a measly 6% of the vote while the French Bolivarian came in fourth, trailing Le Pen by less than two points. A couple weeks later the urban liberal Left managed to pull together behind the “neither Left nor Right” Emmanuel Macron to trounce the populist Marine Le Pen and keep the French working class in their place.
That night in Lille Isidor had set up a viewing of a cut of the film my Venezuelan co-director, Arturo Albarrán, and I are still working on under the title of “In the Shadow of the Revolution.” A Mélenchoniste “Bolivarian” arrived and we had an intense discussion after the screening in French, Spanish and English. Again, the Bolivarian found our film “negative” and “one-sided” and he felt it urgent to “correct” the perceptions by detailing all the “advances” of the Bolivarian Revolution. But he found no allies and eventually one anarchist, who evidently knew no English nor Spanish, but gathered enough from the French translation to understand what was happening, stood up and told the Bolivarian that he didn’t care about “advances” since they were being carried out under a dictatorship. And he left. Nearly shivering with the cold since we showed the film in the unheated basement, we closed up the center, said goodbye to the Bolivarian and Isidor and a few others of us went out for dinner at a late-night Turkish restaurant for the best falafel in Lille.
I got a close-up of the European identity crisis precipitated by the influx of refugees and the deindustrialization driven by globalization when I was in Italy. There the populist Five Star Movement (no joke: it was started by an Italian comedian) is challenging the liberal democratic system that’s being blamed, and to a degree, rightly so, for these converging problems.
I rented a scooter to get around Rome and being so newly mobile I decided to check out a squat on the other side of the city that a Dutch anarchist had told me about. Halfway there I hit a traffic jam and I followed other scooters a quarter mile up to the front of it, winding my way through a maze of stopped cars. We were halted there by a line of policemen, and beyond them a group of dozens of tall dark African men who were yelling in a language I didn’t know, but knew enough to know it wasn’t Italian. Someone later suggested they may have been Senegalese refugees, but in any case, they were very angry. I suspected it had to do with something happening down a side street where I saw a policeman and a couple of African men near a blanket with some items that looked like the Chinese knock-offs African refugees all over Europe are reduced to selling to survive, should they be so fortunate as to arrive in Europe in the first place. The policemen waved the scooters through and I passed around the angry men and stopped the other side to look back at them. That’s when I realized I was trembling.
The Left, simply put, proposes no realistic alternative to “socialism lite” than the failed Leninist program that has been re-tried and re-failed for a century now.
Along the highways in the bushes or tall weeds or off in a small copse you’ll see the camps where these new immigrants try to hide away from the authorities. They’ve come for the promises liberal societies offer, the fulfillment of which they are forever refused. The palpable anger and frustration of those denied and written off as a “basket of deplorables” is justified, and their ranks increasingly include not just immigrants but also native Europeans of the working class, excluded from the benefits of liberal globalizing capitalism. Ironically, those who most benefit from the liberal democracy of French socialism or Dutch or German social democracy are those of the urban educated liberal left. And that’s the divide the world over: in Venezuela, the United States, Turkey, and Europe, where the urban population continues to support the liberal, neoliberal and “Left” globalizers against the rural, or marginal urban working-class populations. Venezuela, it appears, was by strange irony the vanguard of this world-wide process we’re seeing unfold as liberalism implodes and populism rises to take its place.
I left Utrecht a few days after my talk there to a date in Amsterdam at a now legalized squat called Nieuw Land. Gary was so intrigued that he decided to follow me there to see the movie. I was glad to see a familiar face, even if I’d only met Gary a few days before. And now, I noticed that, whereas during my talk in Utrecht when Gary’s body language and facial expressions showed resistance and discomfort with what I was saying, he now seemed to be relaxed and receptive. It was the first showing of the film that I’d made with only minimal introduction, so I was happy to see that it was convincing and forceful. It should have been, given that it includes interviews with Margarita López Maya, Tamara Adrián, Felipe Pérez Martí, Damián Prat, members of Bandera Roja and union workers from Guayana, including Rubén González.
The objective of the film is simple: to show, as Damián Prat argues in the film, that “contrary to the [government] propaganda, the greater part of the modern and democratic Venezuelan Left, the immense majority, is in opposition to the government of Chávez” and that the Maduro government, as Felipe Pérez Martí argues, is “extremely right-wing.”
In the film, Bandera Roja member and union activist Feliciano Guzmán (and this is in 2013) went even further, calling it a “fascist military government… that doesn’t even rise to the level of being nationalist.” I should say that I’m probably more convinced by Guzmán’s description of the Bolivarian government than I am of Martí’s, but then again, it’s likely that Martí might now concur given present circumstances.
After presenting the movie there was another good discussion and a Venezuelan named Adrián who I’d met earlier in the day at the Climate March joined in to give background and respond to some of the questions from the audience. A dozen or so of us, including Gary, hung out around the bar until one a.m. discussing politics and Venezuela in particular.
Venezuela, it appears, was by strange irony the vanguard of this world-wide process we’re seeing unfold as liberalism implodes and populism rises to take its place.
I haven’t been met by throngs of people: in Glasgow, Scotland, only one person showed up, an extraordinary woman named Gehan who was just “curious about Venezuela,” and she and Molly, from AK, and I had a great conversation that made the whole experience luminous for me. Elsewhere the audience has been, on the small side, a dozen or so, while the largest has been a crowd of between thirty and forty.
I’m never too concerned with the numbers and I’m delighted to have the chance to argue with Bolivarians when the opportunity arises. Sometimes, like with Gary, I see a dramatic change in their perspective as a result of our discussions. Other times it seems to have made no difference at all. But I’ve also learned never to trust appearances.
Two years ago Marcy and I spoke at a fairly prestigious left-wing university in a large (40 or more students) class. The professor was a Bolivarian supporter and he kept reminding the class, in one way or another, that he didn’t share our point of view. Now, a week or so after the presentations I just gave in Holland, I got an email from that professor. It was short. He wrote, “When we met we disagreed strongly about Venezuela. Although there were some real gains in the early years of the revolution you were right and I was wrong about the future of Venezuela. It is a total mess there which you predicted.”
I could quibble with the professor about the presumed “gains” of the “early years” and argue that Venezuela was a “mess” two years ago, so, in fact, I “predicted” nothing —and I did tell him that. I take no credit for changing the professor’s mind, but could it be that my own honesty might have inspired him to get just a bit more honest with himself and take a second look at Venezuela from a slightly different angle? I hope so. In fact, I could hope for nothing more.