The left in the Americas and the Problem with Losing the Moral High Ground on Venezuela

Photo: The Tico Times

“Where have you gone, Progressives of the New World?  A nation turns its lonely eyes to you, uh, uh, uh.”

Given how the Venezuelan situation is reverberating throughout Latin America and Southern Florida, I find the timid attitude of the Latin American left, and of U.S. democrats, to be both baffling and outrageous.

As a Venezuelan, this ambivalence is unacceptable. For instance, the role of U.S. Democrats and the Vatican was pivotal for the collapse of a recall referendum that could have ended this situation democratically in 2016. Some argue that Obama and Bergoglio opted to throw Maduro a lifeline as a way to stabilize the peace process in Colombia (in which chavismo mediated on FARC’s side). Whatever the reasons, Venezuelans are suffering the consequences.

But beyond mad, I find myself increasingly intrigued. In sharing standard brands and themes with chavismo, the left should be most interested in separating explicitly and credibly from their brutality. This should also be the easiest moment to do so, given how overall attitudes on chavismo have shifted from where they were 10 years ago.

So why don’t we see the Latin American left and U.S. Democrats being, at least, as aggressively outspoken against chavismo as the Uribes and the Trumps of the world?

One rough explanation would be that they’re chavismo’s ideological allies. They won’t go against someone who’s doing something they’d like to do in their countries. If you’re thinking about expropriating land, capturing monetary policy, concentrating political power and repressing dissent, then you’re probably less willing to reject chavismo openly.

In sharing standard brands and themes with chavismo, the left should be most interested in separating explicitly and credibly from their brutality.

This does not describe most U.S. Democrats –I find much more of Chávez in Trump’s personalism. Nevertheless, Democrats have been super timid about condemning chavismo: Bernie Sanders, who outspokenly supported Chavismo at least until 2011, opted for the “of course I have an opinion, but I have no comments” alternative during the last democratic primaries.

Hillary, towards the end of her campaign against Trump, did bring the issue up in an attempt to rally the Latino vote – without saying much about Obama’s ongoing policy or what she would do differently. It was too little, too late: In Florida, where Republicans won by a narrow margin, Cuban voters (who are representative of Venezuelan voters on this issue) didn’t support Hillary as strongly as other Latinos.

The case looks different in Latin America, which is worrisome given the string of elections happening this year. The front running candidates in Mexico and Colombia, both with populist platforms against markets and economic integration, have already presented the idea of a Constitutional Assembly – literally the first thing Chávez did as president. This logic of supraconstitutional control over the nation was the core chavista strategy during these long 20 years. In the context of the ongoing populist swing worldwide, the fact that these are the front-running candidates suggests that the chance of the Venezuelan experience coming about elsewhere in the region is real.  

But do these candidates represent the left in their countries? In Mexico, only José Antonio Meade, PRI’s technocratic candidate from within the incumbent government (which is highly unpopular, but very anti-chavista), seems a viable option from the center-left.

The case looks different in Colombia, where there are a number of moderate left wing candidates in open race. As you can see here, their positions are of the “chavismo was a result of previous governments” kind – that is, way too shy.

The front running candidates in Mexico and Colombia, both with populist platforms against markets and economic integration, have already presented the idea of a Constitutional Assembly.

This is in direct contrast to what the right is doing. The right has all the incentives to be opportunistic on the left’s ambivalence, and the fear that news from Venezuela instills on their citizens. This worked for Trump and Piñera, it worked in Colombia during the peace process, and it worked in Mexico against AMLO. Sadly, if left unaddressed, the politics of fear work.

The Colombian case is particularly interesting. Uribismo milks the cow of “those not with me are all ‘castro-chavistas’” with impunity. The answer from center-left commentators is frequently to disregard the accusation, even as a joke, an attitude at peak display in La Pulla’s latest video on Venezuela. Distasteful and alienating, the gist of her argument is that, because Colombian institutions are so mighty and solid, the threat is not real over there – that is, the whole thing is a fabricated non-issue, and Colombians should better focus on something else.

Without engaging with her Venezuela no es Cuba kind of thesis, the point is that dismissing the fear that comes from “mírate en este espejo” leads to all the wrong political prescriptions.

First, acting dismissively hands the moral high ground on this existential issue to your adversary. Second, if you are a candidate from the left, it’s clearly strategic for your rivals to highlight your ambivalence, turning the election about an ideological crossroad. Third, Venezuelans in your country and back home, for whom this is just too personal and painful, will become suspicious of your silence and will start supporting the right. Fourth, these dynamics will nudge Venezuelan political leaders to ally with the Right and endorse their candidacies. Overall, you’ve allowed the Right the chance to define you in the worst possible light, lending credibility to accusations by alienating Venezuelans against you.

So, say you are a center-left candidate who wants to see your country develop into a more prosperous and fair nation. While you would never think of going full-commie, you do think it’s important to expand public goods and services for everyone, especially the poor. You think what’s going on in Venezuela is appalling, yet you find yourself on the receiving end of these unfair and manipulative attacks.

How do you go about it? Don’t dismiss the issue and own the attack head on. You might want to:

  1. Be outspoken and specific about rejecting chavismo, about your stance on what your country and the region are doing about it, and about how you would deal with it if you become president. This would make it costly for your potential presidency to ally with chavismo, further lending reassurance to your voters and to Venezuelan observers;
  2. Be outspoken and specific about how you’ll address the Venezuelan refugee crisis. Reshape the debate into an anti-discrimination issue. Show solidarity and empathy, which is a great way to get support from Venezuelans, and a credible way of implying that you would never do what chavismo did;
  3. Try to build a consensus platform on Venezuela across campaigns, underscoring how the emergency calls for a unified stance agreed by all camps. This will allow you to regain control over the issue and insulate you from future attacks, letting the debate to flow into issues you want to address;
  4. Rescind any campaign connections with chavismo’s allies within your country. This is key for credibility: these connections open a huge flank, because they underscore where your policy commitments will be as president. Letting these guys loose may shrink your initial base, but it will get you closer to the median voter. This was consequential in the recent Chilean race;
  5. Accuse candidates that do indeed represent a threat. The Petros and AMLOs of your country shouldn’t agree with your consensus platform on Venezuela, so it should work as a credible mechanism to separate yourself from them.

As Drew Westen puts it, in politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. The Venezuelan crisis presents the region with a deeply normative juncture that elicits some of the strongest human emotions: The sadness of loss on those of us who have lived through these last 20 years, and the fear of loss of those who worry about a similar future for their families. In this dramatic context, silence speaks louder than words.

People vote for the character of candidates, and platforms should be signals of that character. Only a clear resolve on this sensitive topic will prevent your rivals from defining your character for you. Respect our loss, and respect the fear of your people – because, in the words of Master Yoda, “fear of loss is a path to the dark side.”

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I work in development economics for countries with governments that want to deal with (some of) their issues. I think I'm a fiscally-responsible progressive. I've thought a bit about the Political Economy of oil in Venezuela, and I worry about the politics of the things that need to happen. I think Rómulo Betancourt, Adolfo Suárez and George Washington were exemplary politicians. What I miss the most about Venezuela: My family, my friends, my weather, my food, my band, and teaching in my university.