Will the Chavistas Please Stand Up?
In a recent reflection on a Black Lives Matter protest, Burt Likko remarked that he was uncomfortable with one of the speakers who wanted to “dismantle the system.” Some of our left-wing commenters came to the support of such an action, remarking that the system was so rotten it had to be destroyed/restructured wholesale.
This is a recurring conflict between lefties and liberals. Proper left opinion stipulates that liberal’s nibble around an issue because they inherently support the existing economic/social/political/whatever system and thus fail to see the necessity for revolution to alter the course of history and actually change the state of things. Incremental and institutional change is seen as reformist at best and defeating at worst.
What my left-wing counterparts often avoid is how disastrous revolutionary change can be. Case in point: Venezuela. Via The New York Times:
The courts? Closed most days. The bureau to start a business? Same thing. The public defender’s office? That’s been converted into a food bank for government employees.
Step by step, Venezuela has been shutting down.
In recent weeks, the government has taken what may be one of the most desperate measures ever by a country to save electricity: A shutdown of many of its offices for all but two half-days each week.
But that is only the start of the country’s woes. Electricity and water are being rationed, and huge areas of the country have spent months with little of either.
Many people cannot make international calls from their phones because of a dispute between the government and phone companies over currency regulations and rates.
Coca-Cola Femsa, the Mexican company that bottles Coke in the country, has even said it was halting production of sugary soft drinks because it was running out of sugar.
Last week, protests turned violent in parts of the country where demonstrators demanded empty supermarkets be resupplied. And on Friday, the government said it would continue its truncated workweek for an additional 15 days.
“There’s been plenty of problems, but one thing I haven’t seen until now is protests simply to get food,” said David Smilde, a Caracas-based analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, referring to the demonstrations last week.
The Atlantic argues why this isn’t just another run-of-the-mill recession:
Developing countries, like teenagers, are prone to accidents. One pretty much expects them to suffer an economic crash, a political crisis, or both, with some regularity. The news coming from Venezuela—including shortages as well as, most recently, riots over blackouts; the imposition of a two-day workweek for government employees, supposedly aimed at saving electricity; and an accelerating drive to recall the president—is dire, but also easy to dismiss as representing just one more of these recurrent episodes.
That would be a mistake. What our country is going through is monstrously unique: It’s nothing less than the collapse of a large, wealthy, seemingly modern, seemingly democratic nation just a few hours’ flight from the United States.
In the last two years Venezuela has experienced the kind of implosion that hardly ever occurs in a middle-income country like it outside of war. Mortality rates are skyrocketing; one public service after another is collapsing; triple-digit inflation has left more than 70 percent of the population in poverty; an unmanageable crime wave keeps people locked indoors at night; shoppers have to stand in line for hours to buy food; babies die in large numbers for lack of simple, inexpensive medicines and equipment in hospitals, as do the elderly and those suffering from chronic illnesses.
Prior to these predictable turns of events, Chavez and his revolution in Venezuela had won the hearts of would-be revolutionaries in the West. Magazines like The Nation and Counter-Punch, along with left-wing newspapers like the Guardian often published a weekly article celebrating Chavez, his economic program and brash personal style. Prominent scholars and activists like Cornel West and Noam Chomsky expressed support for changes being made to Venezuelan society. My friends and comrades were also infected with this revolutionary enthusiasm: looking back at Facebook feed in the mid-2000s reads like an official propaganda program of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Now that the country is falling into disarray, there is silence from those who once championed Hugo’s cause. The always-splendid Nick Cohen put it best:
Venezuela stroked [western radical’s] erogenous zones. Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro were anti-American and “anti-imperialist”. That both allied with imperial powers, most notably Russia, did not appear to concern them in the slightest. Venezuela, cried Seumas Milne in the Guardian, has “redistributed wealth and power, rejected western neoliberal orthodoxy, and challenged imperial domination”. What more could a breathless Western punter ask for?
The show is over now. Their fantasies fulfilled, the western tourists have left a ruined country behind without a guilty glance over their shoulder. Venezuela looks as if it has been pillaged by a hostile army, though there has been no war.
I wish I could say that Venezuela was the first time western leftists played weekend radical at the expense of others. Unfortunately, the left has a long history of supporting and apologizing for some of the worst regimes and political systems this world has yet seen. Walter Duranty, writing for The Nation” in 1936, called Stalin’s purges a little “tidying up.” In the magazine’s April 22nd issue that same year, they stated, “There can be no doubt that dictatorship in Russia is dying and that a new democracy is slowly being born.” Mind you, a million lives were destroyed the very next year by the Soviet Union.
I suppose, at my core, my temperament is one of a liberal. Perhaps it has to do with my upbringing, my gender, or my ethnicity. Maybe it has to do with the privilege apparent in my life as a middle class American. All of that may explain why I am reluctant to jump impetuously into revolutionary zeal, but I would argue that a cursory reading of the death and destruction wrought from 20th century revolution is a far better motive. Yes, revolutions can be necessary: had their not been violent resistance to the status quo, we may still be struggling as serfs on our lord’s fiefdom as our ancestors did hundreds of years prior. I am not pacifist who sees history as one of gradual, incremental change existing only in established institutions. But if I am going to commit to radical change, I would like more than a vague promise of success that often graces the lips of my leftwing counterparts. The stakes are too high to upend the system without a clear vision of an alternative from those who seem to hop from one revolutionary movement to the next as fleetingly as they change underpants.