President Nicholas Maduro remains in office for the next six years after securing another victory in the elections – but it was a victory wrought with controversy, protest and despair.
It has also become, or already was, the battleground for a discussion as to whether socialism can function practically or is just an implausible political theory.
Maduro’s victory was with a huge democratic deficit amidst a severe food depletion crisis caused by economic turmoil: just 46% of the electorate voted according to the National Electoral Council (CNE). Many opponents boycotted the elections while Maduro’s biggest remaining opponent Henri Falcon regarded the election as invalid and called for a rerun.
The suspicion across the international world of Maduro undermining democratic self-determination was made sharply clear when fourteen ambassadors were recalled in the immediate aftermath. Maduro’s opponents believe the election had been brought forward to capitalise on their organisational disarray due to many of them either being banned from standing or jailed. This comes during a period of an extreme hunger crisis where starvation and lining up has become the norm. Popular opinion is that this is due to the poor policies and corruption of the regime.
However in various corners of the western left criticisms of Maduro are thinly veiled attacks on socialism itself rather. Maduro is the political progeny of Hugo Chavez who was overthrown in 2002. Alongside the revolutionary Cuban leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, Castro was regarded as the vanguard of anti-imperialist socialism for some. Cuba and Venezuela became the twin pillars of resistance against the aggressive capitalism of the United States of America. To these countries western leftists expressed solidarity.
Yet this week as Venezuela collapses in a heap of state corruption and poverty – the very material conditions the ideology opposes – many of Venezuela’s cheerleaders are rather muted.
So why do so many western leftists insistently support regimes like Venezuela and others?
A supporter of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign cited an objection to American hegemonic control of the region as the primary factor for why the left staunchly backs these regimes. Wishing to remain anonymous he explained that the CIA “has wanted to destroy Venezuela’s socialist government since its inception,” and slammed the economic pressures he believed the Americans were applying to crumble the Venezuelan government, as well as seeking to incite Maduro’s military - who support the President - against him. The VSC supporter rejected the idea that it was about zealously defending socialism as an idea, conceding that though it did exist in the motives of some, that wasn’t what guided him.
“Most socialists who have any reading of history are comfortable criticising socialist governments, past or present, when necessary,” he explained. “Venezuela is a country with its own specific issues, primarily its strong dependence on the global oil market. Constructing socialism in Venezuela is different to constructing socialism here.”
The issue with this line according to some is that it completely absolves the regimes in Latin American countries of any responsibility for what they do and removes democratic values from these countries. Jack Galea, a Labour Students activist and of Latin American descent, believed that under this line of rhetoric where protesters are perpetually reduced to props for imperial interests, the government in question can’t be held to account. “It’s a given you’re going to express your right to protest if you’re a socialist, and if you deny others the same legitimacy to express discontent with the government then that doesn’t seem like socialism to me.”
Another theory as to why a number leftists vehemently defend socialist regimes with atrocious records is that for some introspection can mean the dissolution of an ideology where its causes and movements exist. The left has generally been suspicious of the means in which its movements are undermined by the right, whether through conflict or soft power approaches. There is a sense that socialism is impugned if an admission of error is made over Venezuela. And if it’s admitted there then what chance does it mean for their interests? The issues in Venezuela of a large state mired in corruption and mass poverty is the traditional media encapsulation of socialism. The right has sought to parade Maduro’s failings as the natural outcome of socialism which is a contentious assertion given its various successes – as well as glaring failures – across the world, not least its influences in creating institutions such as the NHS in Britain. Yet the absence of introspection would surely mean that the left is simply doomed to repeat the same mistakes if there isn’t a morsel of willingness in diagnosing its failures in places like Venezuela.
An example of the minimisation and deflection pursued by Venezuela’s former cheerleaders on the left is when John McDonnell more recently claimed the country is in crisis because it “isn’t a socialist country”. Some might regard this as leftist takfir where disownment removes the responsibility of learning from failures and making the legwork to correct the flaws in an ideology.
The left-wing author of Hired James, Bloodworth, believed that although this isn’t specific to the left it does reflect the temptation within politics to impose an inflexible system on the complex human life. “When events don’t fit within the prism of the ideology, it isn’t typically the ideology that gives way,” he explained to me. “People are usually sacrificed in order to retain the ideological mental scaffolding that appears to mean so much to some people.”
It points to a concerning discourse on the left where solidarity seems to tacitly mean support for the state apparatuses rather than the people themselves. Is this socialism or what happens when ideologues fail in introspection?