Commentary on La Diaria's interview with Edgardo Lander

18 July 2017

Puerto Rican intellectual Enrique Toledo responds to Edgardo Lander's comments on the (Latin American) left's unconditional support of Chavismo and its lack of critical analysis (Original interview in English here). This response was originally published in Spanish by La Diaria.  The article was translated into English by TNI with the author's consent. Please find the original Spanish article on La Diaria here.

Published at
La Diaria

I recently read the interview with prominent Venezuelan thinker Edgardo Lander published by La Diaria on Thursday, March 23rd, 2017. In general, I disagree with Lander's line of analysis for reasons of both content and form. I believe that our colleague shows a tendency towards political reductionism and his analysis is coated in Eurocentrism, which leads him to overlook the complexity of the power relations in which Chavismo is involved.

In this commentary, I conclude that Lander's analysis is misleading in relation to what he is trying to achieve (to convince us not to support Chavismo unconditionally). It also tends to infantilise politics and the political, as it does not recognise the coloniality of power in the modern/colonial world-system.

Economic dynamics

The economic problems Venezuela is currently facing can be questioned just as much as its "major successes" are. If oil prices rose to 100 dollars a barrel when Chávez was in office (a generalised phenomenon in the global commodities market), it was due to the financialisation of commodities in the capitalist world-economy. In other words, the "golden" era experienced in Latin America throughout the entire first decade of the 21st century (which generated so much enthusiasm in so many people) was not because of the starling performance of Latin American economies, nor the redistributive policies of the leftist governments. Instead, it was because of the massive flow of capital from the North to the South seeking to extract profits from either the interest rates in the region that are higher than those in the United States (US), or by investing in primary sectors, securitising these earnings and using them to speculate. The economic "success" of the left, then, was concealing the economic coloniality hovering over their economies (which can be clearly seen in Venezuela and Brazil today).

Oscar Ugarteche published an excellent paper (Economía Unam, Vol. 13, Nº 38, 2016) in which he explains this new phenomenon in the capitalist world-economy in terms of the financialisation of commodities. It should be noted, however, that this economic upturn was also due to demand from China, fuelled by the growing US debt, which in turn was nurtured by the financialisation of the capitalist world-economy.

Chávez received this wealth - part of which was real, but the largest part was generated by financial speculation - and created institutions to redistribute it to the popular classes at the cost of expanding the bureaucracy of the nation-state. Yet, within the dynamics of the interstate system and the capitalist world-economy, should we expect anything other than the bureaucratisation of social relations (which Lander ignored) from the nation-state? Chávez' success in Venezuela was due not only to his charisma and having politicised the inequalities and the popular classes, but rather having put into place institutions that redistribute oil revenues to the lower classes through the bureaucratisation of social relations. This phenomenon is not unique to Venezuela. It also happened in the US (where it is called federalisation, or the expansion of the federal government's bureaucratic tentacles to the states), but with redistributive policies that did the opposite, precisely because as the market expands, the modern nation-state expands through the bureaucratisation of social relations. Bureaucratisation is what allows corruption to spread, as the state bureaucracy is precisely where a country's economic surplus circulates. This is not only a Chavista phenomenon, but rather a global one that Lander attributes exclusively to Venezuela.

Venezuela's economy has been assigned the role of supplier of commodities in the capitalist world economy. Chávez attempted to turn this around (just as Correa did, by using raw materials to develop his project to "change the production matrix") and gave very low interest loans to Venezuelan producers to increase production or the country's productivity levels. These producers, however, took advantage of the exchange rates to use the loans for imports, or turned to speculating on real estate because they obtained more profit this way than by producing goods and services. This shift of focus of the economy from production to interest-bearing capitalist markets occurred in not only Venezuela, but nearly all the economies in the world through the globalisation of the Anglo-Saxon financial system. The country's position as a supplier of raw materials in the world economy and the focus of the interest-bearing economy would have been maintained had the "right" been in government, as this dynamic is global, and not specific to the Chavista economic model. Lander attributes this situation entirely to a collapse that only 21st-century socialism experienced, thereby concealing the forces of the capitalist world-economy at work.

Geopolitical dynamics

As for the economic "collapse" (the shortages), Lander avoids discussing the US’s actions to undermine the Venezuelan economy and contribute to destabilisation. While Chavismo may exaggerate about foreign interference to cover up its own errors, Lander eliminates them from his analysis on the "failure" of the Chavista economy. The Chavista plan to build regional institutions (ALBA, CELAC, Unasur, the Bank of the South), sell oil in currencies other than the US dollar or via bartering agreements (to weaken the petrodollar system, which is fundamental), establish a new logic for regional trade (ALBA) and align itself with the Russia-China-Iran alliance does, indeed, represent a serious threat to the United States, not only in the region, but at the international level.

Venezuela plays a pivotal role in Latin America in de-Westernisation (that is, the questioning of the privileges of Western countries, which they have enjoyed for 500 years, by the state).1 This is due to its economic strength and because it is the country that secures the petrodollar system with the largest oil reserves in the world. In the hypothetical case where the US does not buy oil from Venezuela, it still needs Venezuela to sell oil in dollars so it can continue dominating the global financial system by maintaining the US dollar as the main reserve currency. The Western press's media campaign against Venezuela brutally manipulates the situation in the country and it seems to me that Lander commits the same sin as the media: he reduces the narrative on the situation in Venezuela to only what Chavismo does, which leaves the relations between external forces and forces within Venezuela hidden. Russia recently sent its only aircraft carrier to Venezuela (after being in Syria), which is no coincidence in light of the geopolitical situation. This global geopolitical scenario is invisible in Lander's analysis.

On the political situation within

Lander also forgot to say what the opposition has done. The Assembly is in contempt since the beginning due to accusations of irregularities in the election of three deputies from the state of Amazonas. These three deputies gave the opposition an absolute majority in the Assembly, which would grant it additional powers (including the power to change the Constitution). The opposition adopted the logic of 'all or nothing'. The Court stated that as long as these three people continued to stand, the Assembly could not be constituted and, therefore, it could not legislate. As the opposition was following the "all or nothing" logic, it ignored the Court (is this not a show of disregard for the judiciary?). The Court declared it in contempt and forbid it from legislating until the three deputies from the Amazon region were removed (January 9th was when it obeyed the Court). Still suspended for contempt, the opposition attempted to oust Maduro by initiating an impeachment process, which is not accounted for in the Constitution, or by declaring the position of president vacant for abandonment of duties for derisory reasons. The current situation in Venezuela is marked by disruptions in the constitutional order (which are not necessarily violations) generated primarily by the opposition, ever since the attempts to overthrow Chávez in 2002.

The Venezuelan Assembly is run by the pro-coup sector (the president of the Assembly appeared in the Wikileaks documents asking the US embassy for help) and the opposition is not placing its bets on politics (that is, moving projects forward through alliances and negotiations, or pushing for electoral solutions, such as winning again in the state of Amazonas). Instead, it has adopted an "either you or us" logic. Pure anti-politics.

By ignoring the opposition's actions, Lander obscures the dynamics of the power relations within the country, which leads him to attribute a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for the instability in Venezuela to Chavismo. But the worst part of his analysis is when he equates democracy to republicanism. If the separation of powers is violated, does it mean that there is less democracy? This interpretation is pure Anglo-centric liberalism and it is the same kind of manipulation that the secretary of the Organization of American States uses against Venezuela. Was the ousting of Dilma in Brazil or of Lugo in Paraguay democratic because it was constitutional and upheld republicanism? Lander's Eurocentric analysis of his own country is lamentable. It would have been better to ask: has there ever been democracy in Venezuela? Has the experience with Chavismo brought with it a process of democratisation? And, if it has, is there any possibility of taking this process further? The reduction of democracy to republicanism is a kind of Eurocentrism – something that is inadmissible for a decolonial thinker.

Criticisms of the left

Comparing Chavismo to Stalinism is the height of Eurocentrism and an exaggeration that reveals that Lander's analysis is essentially political, and not analytical. Such an affirmation is completely ahistorical and, again, ignores coloniality in the dynamics in Venezuela.

When a nation-state feels that its own institutionality-existence is under threat, its rationale is to defend itself, suspend "rights" or ignore them even more, establish a state of emergency, arrest people (the "seditious"), strengthen the security apparatuses and doubt the loyalty of its citizens. Is this not what a Western state does when it feels it is being threatened in the same way (e.g. the Patriot Act), while justifying its actions as being necessary to defend the "rule of law" or "modernity"? What happens when a non-Western state does the same thing, especially one from the misnamed Third World? Its intentions are rapidly questioned. This is precisely part of the US's plan: make the states of the misnamed Third World believe that their institutionality is vulnerable in order to provoke the same reactions that the US would have. The difference is that the US has the privilege of being assumed to have "democratic intentions" and to be “concerned for rights". When a governing group of a state from the misnamed Third World does this, on the other hand, suspicions are quick to surface due to its inherent "uncivilised" and "barbarian" nature - ideas that are propagated by Western media. Venezuela is being exposed to this brutally racist logic and Lander ends up legitimising it by not giving visibility to the international power relations and privileges of the people of the North in relation to the South.

By drawing comparisons between Stalinism (which was never a popular movement, in a country that was never a colony) and Chavismo, Lander adopts the logic of coloniality. He adapts the reality of the North to that of the South. This is unacceptable for a decolonial thinker. One cannot compare Stalin to Maduro (not even close), the people of Venezuela to the Russians, the period between the world wars with the current geopolitical situation (and the US's re-Westernisation plans for the continent), much less reduce the left of 21st-century socialism to the left of the socialist international. What Lander does is morally question the pro-Chavismo left to undermine its legitimacy by using arguments that are Eurocentric, ahistorical and totally out of context. While it is clear that we must be critical of Chavismo’s actions (which we must not confuse with those of Maduro), we must do so by using serious arguments that examine the complexity of the situation further, offer lessons and expand the options for the left, precisely so it can continue to be the left - but one that is flexible, relevant, critical and avant-garde.

His comparison with Cuba is more acceptable, even though here too, his argument is ahistorical. However, we must not forget (regardless of all of the legitimate criticisms one may have of the Cuban government): would Fidelism have lasted until today and still have the possibility, as it does now, to continue to defend its original popular demands and join the de-Westernisation process without the practices of coercion and persecution that it institutionalised to defend itself against the global geopolitical dynamics? It clearly would not! Would the Cuban government have been different without the constant threat of being overthrown by the US? Yes, it clearly would have. The responsibility (understandable, but not acceptable) for the Cuban government's repressive practices lies with the government itself. Nevertheless, we should not remove the US from the equation for its role in triggering such practices. We should not ask a modern state to do what it cannot do. When under threat, a state alters the rule of law in its own favour, and not its citizens.

The point is that threats to the institutionality of a nation-state from the South that is not aligned with the US generate major benefits for the West. They lead such a state to adopt a firm response to defend itself and, since it is a modern state, the "rule of law" is unfortunately for the state, not for its citizens. When the US does this, it activates the coloniality of power while questioning the intentions and human integrity of the rulers of the state in the South to protect the "rule of law". Remember: the "regimes" are in the South; the "rule of law" is in the North.

Therefore, Chavismo's actions to defend the institutions of a state that is truly under threat from internal and external forces (which Lander so carefully conceals) are understandable. However, being understandable does not mean being acceptable. It is up to the "left" to reflect on how to confront concrete threats without getting to the point of institutionalising coercion and persecution in order to maintain the Chavista political project on course (which is to politicise the popular classes, recognise their dignity and the structural nature of their exclusion, create regional organisations that strengthen the region's weight in the world at the expense of the influence of the US, and build other institutional means for non-capitalist trade and investment).

Utopias undoubtedly mask the dynamics of coloniality. However, I believe that this not the case of Venezuela, as Chavismo cannot hide its errors (even if it wanted to). On the contrary, they are magnified by global coloniality, which is spread by Western propaganda machines. This is precisely what Lander did: shine the spotlight on Chavismo's errors to conceal global power relations.

Political infantilism

Lander's conclusions are, in the end, short-sighted. You cannot expect a state to be what it cannot because of the dynamics of the global interstate system, the capitalist world-economy and the epistemological structure that reproduces and legitimises them. The Chavista state is a state organised for the purpose of de-Westernisation. One cannot expect more than that. Do not ask an apple tree to give you oranges. However, one can use the apples to obtain other things: there are several avenues of the Chavista project that would be interesting to take and that have yet to be developed. At the moment, the alternative to Chavismo is the political project of the "right" (which would not significantly alter the financialisation of the Venezuelan economy). What could this alternative possibly offer? Options do exist. The state will surely withdraw from many social areas that the market will not want to take on, leaving space for new initiatives to emerge at the local level. But it is more likely that the state will exit the scene only to be replaced by the logic of the market, which now has state coverage (which was left by Chavismo, in its day) reconfigured by the re-Westernisation of the state.

In sum, the analysis of the well-respected Venezuelan thinker is reductionist and out of context. He calls on the left from Latin America and abroad to stop lending legitimacy to Chavismo while basing his call on essentially Eurocentric and unfounded arguments. His accusations against Chavismo are exaggerated and disproportionate and fail to take into account the internal and external power relations and their dynamics in Venezuela.

Criticisms of the unconditional solidarity of the left

One must not confuse criticisms of the Maduro administration with those used to criticise the Chavista political project, nor should one use the limitations of the Chavista political project to delegitimise the actions of the Maduro administration. This is precisely what the Western media and the OAS do, but they do it on purpose to confuse and delegitimise a plan that attacks Western privileges.

Even so, this difference is not clear for Lander and, as a result, his call for the left to cease lending unconditional support to the Venezuelan government ends up questioning the very political project of Chavismo. His plea asks the left to stop being the left. While this may be a political option for Lander - to no longer or not want to be leftist - it is not a political option for the left (to cease being itself). He does not provide options for the left to continue to be the left and for the Chavista project to pursue other paths. The call for the left to end its unconditional support to the Venezuelan government, as Lander proposes, does not make much sense in political terms for the left itself.

Furthermore, the Chavista project is genuinely Latin American; it does have its limits, but it is ours, and it offers an important geopolitical vision (something that is not very common in the region). When I say genuinely Latin American, it is because it addresses Latin American problems from a Latin American point of view, or, at least, from "lo criollo" (or the historical experience of European descendants and mestizos in Latin America). And although being criollo is where its limitations lie, it continues to present legitimate problems and solutions that must be discussed from the perspective of the indigenous and black peoples. In this calculation, Maduro would be removed from the equation because the Maduro government is not the Chavista project. Lander does little to clarify this important point, despite being a decolonial thinker.

In sum, this time, the interview with well-respected Venezuelan thinker Eduardo Lander has little to offer the left, the adherents of decoloniality and people who are seeking to understand both the internal and geopolitical dimensions of the complex situation in Venezuela.