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Progressive? Then Support the Venezuelan Opposition

For Venezuela's embattled opposition, the solidarity that much of the international left has shown with the regime created by Hugo Chavez, and now led by his successor, Nicolas Maduro, is a depressing spectacle.
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For Venezuela's embattled opposition, the solidarity that much of the international left has shown with the regime created by Hugo Chavez, and now led by his successor, Nicolas Maduro, is a depressing spectacle. Given that the vast majority of Venezuelan democrats, myself included, passionately adhere to the values that animate left-wing politics -- a commitment to social equality, respect for the environment, the promotion of democratic rights -- it is also bewildering.

Still, if we are to win the support of progressives around the globe, we have to ask ourselves why chavismo, as both an ideology and a movement, exercises such an attraction for those whom we would gladly have as our comrades.

It's true that too many progressives choose their loyalties by judging where a government sits geopolitically, rather than by assessing its domestic record. According to this logic, because the chavistas are opposed to American "imperialism," they are the natural allies of the left internationally.

By itself, though, this doesn't tell the full story.

As I see it, the support for chavismo amongst the global left rests on several dangerous misconceptions about the nature of the Venezuelan regime, and more generally misunderstands the culture of the democratic left in Latin America.

To begin with, the bitter experience of military regimes in Brazil, Argentina and Chile has left us implacably opposed to military involvement in politics. As Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerilla fighter and a leading intellectual of the democratic left in Venezuela, recently argued, it is the people who should give orders to the military, not the other way around.

What denizens of the left outside Venezuela need to understand is that, while the chavistas speak the language of progressivism, the political system that they've created cannot survive without the military as its foundation.

That's right: chavismo hasn't built its power in alliance with the labor movement, or the women's movement, or any of the other of the constituencies that form the nucleus of contemporary liberal politics, but the military.

Because of their intimate relationship with the military -- Chavez himself was a military officer before becoming president, styling himself El Comandante -- the state which the chavistas have built more closely resembles the former Soviet Union than the type of social democracy that has proven so popular with voters in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. And if any western state were to so fundamentally attack democratic rights in the way that the chavistas have done, I'm confident that progressives would be shouting from the rooftops.

In September 2012, the last election he fought before his passing six months later, Chavez stood on a platform that called for a massive increase in military spending. He also boosted the role and importance of the intelligence services. Almost one year after Chavez's death, Maduro's Enabling Law allows him to bypass parliament and rule by decree, while responsibility for domestic security is increasingly concentrated in a shadowy, unaccountable body called "Cesspa" (Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Motherland.)

Moreover, the increasing power of the military has permitted many senior officers to engage in corrupt, illegal activities, like drug trafficking, with impunity.

When the military controls politics to this degree, civil society is inevitably repressed as a consequence. Take Venezuelan labor unions. When 14,000 steel workers in Ciudad Guyana went on strike last year in protest at the huge bonuses paid to pro-regime managers, as well as the absence of a new contract, the Maduro regime bullied them into submission. At PVDSA, the ailing state oil company, the pattern is similar. Worker protests against the bungled decisions of chavista appointees, which have led to avoidable disasters like the 2012 fire at the Amuay oil refinery that claimed 39 lives, were dismissed by the regime as sabotage directed by the CIA.

The chavistas don't want a politically independent labor movement for the same reasons that Poland's ruling communists tried -- and failed ­-- to crush the Solidarity trade union in the early 1980s. I can remember how compromised many on the left were by their failure to declare, explicitly and unconditionally, their support for heroic shipyard workers in Gdansk. No one who cares about the left's future globally should want to see the same shameful errors repeated in the Venezuelan context.

That's why, instead of offering knee-jerk support to Maduro and his backers in the military, progressives who care about democracy should be aiding those sectors of Venezuelan society that continue to resist the chavistas. This includes the independent media, which is struggling against both regime censorship and the skyrocketing costs of production and printing caused by Maduro's exchange controls; the nascent environmental movement, which is trying to highlight the ecological cost of chavista mismanagement of the energy and agricultural sectors; and the various municipalities which rejected chavista candidates during last December's local elections. Among these, significantly, is the city of Barinas, located in Hugo Chavez's home state of the same name, and where his brother, Adan, remains governor.

After fifteen years of chavismo, Venezuela's democracy movement has seen through all the lies and distortions of this regime can muster. Thanks to its unsustainable economic policies, our people are getting poorer, not wealthier. Thanks to its destruction of the constitution and the separation of powers, our people are less free, not more so.

It is time for progressives around the world to understand these basic facts -- and act on them accordingly. With the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez's death falling on March 31, there will be few better opportunities.

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