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Venezuela as a Latin American challenge

Venezuela is facing today the most painful and far-reaching crisis in America. Many interests are at stake. Español

Photo courtesy of Nueva Sociedad. All rights reserved. This article is published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original article here.

The Bolivarian Revolution led by Hugo Chávez did not promise a liberal democracy. Its purpose was to establish a majoritarian democracy that would have led to a participatory democracy. In a popular and anti-elitist turn, it was taking up what Laureano Vallenilla Lanz, a Venezuelan journalist and politician, described in his 1919 book Cesarismo Democrático. Facing what he considered a disabled populace, Vallenilla defended the country’s need for an ideal, charismatic caudillo who should concentrate power and guarantee order. Or, to put it from another angle, and in Antonio Gramsci's terms, in the face of the very severe instability derived from the 1989 Caracazo, Chávez appeared to many as the very expression of "progressive Caesarism."

Under Nicolás Maduro's administration, the uncertain aspiration for a majoritarian democracy led by a "good Caesar" turned into a "regressive Caesarism" and became an ochlocracy led by a "bad Caesar". According to Polybius (2nd century BC), an ochlocracy distorts democracy with its resort to demagoguery and illegality. In a more modern interpretation, what happens in an ochlocracy, rather than strengthening an organized people and the popular power, is that the masses are manipulated through different means as a tool and as the support base for the survival of the dominant group at the top of the government. As a result there is a setback in terms of some basic components of democracy - such as the protection of human rights - and authoritarian practices arise. In Venezuela, this has happened in the midst of an overwhelming economic crisis that is sweeping away the achievements that benefited the popular sectors, exacerbating social confrontation, and reinforcing an oil-based economy.

However, beyond this or that definition of the nature of the current regime, what the international community must deal with is the real, existing Venezuela and not that which its critics from different political perspectives are challenging, that which those who advocate a liberal democracy wish it to be, or that which is being defended by the supporters of "21st century Socialism”.

What this realism demands, from the outset, is an answer to the question: what the Maduro government does is the result of strong cohesion on the part of "Chavism" which is planning to perpetuate itself in power, in the midst of a context where there is a unified and legitimate opposition that is gaining momentum and there are disturbing fissures emerging in the armed forces? If the answer is yes, then there is not much that Latin America and the international community can do to stop a devastating train crash. If, on the contrary, what underlies the situation is the existence of intense struggles at the top, the belief in some official sectors that the continuity of the current government is unsustainable, the existence of conscious voices in the opposition who understand that it is imperative to gather support peacefully, and worries on the part of the military about the consequences that a deeply divided country would have, then, indeed, there is a small - very small - window of opportunity for the region to provide a political solution that would only be possible to the extent that Venezuelans themselves would make it so.

But if this were at all feasible, Latin America should overcome four obvious difficulties. First, leaders should prevent their own ideological preferences from hindering the positioning of each country: lucid and cautious minds are needed. Second, the Venezuela case cannot be merely functional to the internal electoral and/or political dynamics of each nation: a balance between internal motivations and external responsibilities is required. Third, it is dysfunctional for the region as a whole, in this juncture and beyond, to erode, by action or omission, forums such as the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), among others. And fourth, it is strategically counterproductive to isolate Venezuela, and to isolate the region from Venezuela, thus inadvertently contributing to the acceptance of a leading role by the United States. Washington, through more sanctions and threats, would create greater instability in the area: the whole of Latin America is in too delicate a situation to be playing with fire.

Were these obstacles to be overcome, two fundamental issues must be addressed. On the one hand, although change in Venezuela is essential, Latin America should not precipitate it. The idea of an immediate transition could even be dangerous. The election for governors is due in October and the presidential election in December next year. Efforts must be made to bring this latter date forward. On the other hand, if progress were made in finding a way out of the crisis, it should be acknowledged that the economic situation will not be resolved quickly or easily and, therefore, that Latin America will have to seriously commit itself to Venezuela’s future. We should accompany an eventual Venezuelan transition, so that it does not end up in more frustration; something that would exacerbate existing contradictions – expressing in essence the exhaustion of an oil rent-bound social, economic and political model.

Latin America already experienced – in the 1960s and for several decades - what happened after the Cuban Revolution. Yielding to Washington’s policy of isolating and punishing Havana and the absence of a minimal pragmatic regional agreement to avoid burning bridges with Fidel Castro had very unfortunate consequences for the region. The “continentalization” of the Cold War contributed to aggravate domestic cleavages in each country, and this combination was detrimental to the welfare, stability and autonomy of Latin American nations - an experience that should have taught us some lessons.

Concomitantly, there are regional interests at stake in Venezuela. Today, the country is facing the most painful and far-reaching crisis in America. The degradation of the current situation would be a catastrophic development for all Venezuelans and one that could have harmful effects for Latin America. At present, the international community knows how much the economy has deteriorated, how deep and intense the political polarization is, and how ineffective the good offices from abroad have been. Basically, the country is trapped in an unstable and negative situation. In this context, diplomatic inaction and aggressive rhetoric only guarantee a poorer defense of the national interests of the neighboring countries and of the more distant ones as well. Preserving Latin America as a zone of peace is an unavoidable must for the region.

Finally, in the case of Venezuela, it is essential to avoid what I call the "Bubulina effect". There is a character in the film Zorba the Greek, Madame Hortense (played by Lila Kedrova, who won a Hollywood Academy Award for best actress in a supporting role in 1964), who lived in a self-styled Ritz Hotel, a place that could have had some splendor in the past but was gradually deteriorating. She was known in the village as Bubulina. A good part of the villagers - in the island of Crete - was waiting for Bubulina’s death to loot the premises. And this is indeed what happens when someone shouts that she has passed away. I am using metaphorically this image to suggest that the worst thing that could happen at this hour would be for a good part of the governments of the region - and even beyond the region – to try and exploit the Venezuelan crisis: some of them, for a variety of internal reasons; others, in order to get closer to Washington, assuming that they would gain advantages of some kind; others, on the basis of strategic calculations regarding the country's oil wealth.

This is the time for the region to rethink what it wants and what it can do to prevent Venezuela from sliding into an abyss of unpredictable domestic and regional costs.

About the author

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is Full Professor and director of the department of political science and international studies at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires. He was previously professor at the Universidad de San Andrés, also in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-9

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian es Profesor Plenario y director del departamento de ciencias políticas y estudios internacionales de la Universidad Torcuato Di Tella en Buenos Aires. Previamente fue profesor en la Universidad de San Andrés, también en Argentina. Se doctoró en relaciones internacional en la John Hopkins University school of advanced international studies. Residió en Colombia entre 1981-98.

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