Who’s to blame for the crisis in Venezuela? Can it be solved through negotiations? A response to Gabriel Hetland and “The Nation”

There is a certain trend of opinion amongst the liberal left, particularly in the US, which never felt very comfortable with the Bolivarian revolution. Now, in the midst of a serious and well-organised attempt by Washington to remove Maduro’s government, they insist on equally blaming both sides for the crisis, one which in their view can be resolved through “negotiations between the government and the opposition”. A chief representative of this point of view is Gabriel Hetland, who has written several articles on Venezuela for The Nation, Jacobin and other left-wing publications.

His latest article, “Venezuela’s Deadly Blackout Highlights the Need for a Negotiated Resolution of the Crisis”, sums up this argument neatly, so it is useful to analyse it in some detail. The article is full of inaccuracies and half-truths, but its main flaw is a mistaken analysis of the situation in Venezuela, one that avoids a class approach to the different forces involved, from which Hetland derives a completely utopian solution.

The devil’s in the details

Let’s start with some of the factual inaccuracies. The caption of the picture illustrating the articles reads: “People collect water from a leaking pipeline along the Guaire River”, the same line is then used within the article for effect. It is false. During the blackout there was lack of water supply as a result. People resorted to collecting water from springs coming down the Avila mountain. Some of these springs are canalised and then end up in the Guaire River. People were collecting water from two such springs on the side of the Guaire, not from a “leaking pipe”. Water pipes were actually not carrying water. This might seem like a small detail but it has a certain importance. The headlines in many of the newspapers claimed people were collecting water from the Guaire river itself, which is extremely polluted (El Nuevo Herald in Miami said: “Desperate Venezuelans collect rotten water in the midst of blackout”). The mass media exaggerates and sometimes publishes straight lies in order to fit into a narrative of “harrowing crisis in Venezuela” in order to justify the “need for foreign intervention” or in any case “regime change”. Hetland is not new to this business and should know he needs to check all the details he uses in his story.

Another one. In the opening paragraph of his article, Hetland seeks to draw attention to how bad and long-lasting the blackout was. He does mention how “power was intermittently restored on Sunday and Monday in parts of Caracas and elsewhere,” but then ends the paragraph with a mention of the New York Times headline: “... with The New York Times on Monday publishing an article titled “No End in Sight to Venezuela’s Blackout, Experts Warn.””. What’s the conclusion he wants the reader to draw? That the blackout is far from over, in fact we don’t know when power will be restored at all. There is just a small detail: it does not coincide with the facts. By midnight, 11 March, power had been restored in Merida, Zulia and Táchira, the last remaining states affected by the blackout. Hetland’s article carries the date of 13 March, when the blackout was already over and there were only a few smaller towns left affected.

In paragraph two, Hetland states “the most alarming aspect of the blackout is the lack of power in hospitals.” Of course, the lack of power in hospitals is alarming and very dangerous. However, all hospitals in the country have their own independent power generators that activate in the event of an emergency. A report by the opposition-aligned NGO, Médicos por la Salud published on 11 March in the evening a list of all 32 of the country’s hospitals, with a detailed explanation of their situation. In all of them, their own power plants were working with the exception of one where it was working intermittently. Heltand then adds: “To be blunt: People are dying, and more will die the longer the blackout continues.” To back up his assertion he links to a Reuters report, which quotes from “Medicos por la Salud”, saying that 17 people have died as a result of problems with electricity supply. When you then look at the NGO’s own report the picture is less clear. In the report about the state of hospitals, which I quoted above, of the 32 hospitals listed, all bar two are marked as “no deceased”, and the other two account for a total of three people dead. In a separate report by the same NGO about the number of people who died during the blackout, 24 are listed but no details are given as to the causes of death. So these could be people who would have died regardless of the blackout. Again, this might seem a small detail, but details are important, because they are what build a story. A story can be constructed in two ways. One would say: “Hospitals dealt with the blackout by using their own emergency generators, which greatly minimised the dangerous impact of lack of electricity”. The other says: “the most alarming aspect of the blackout is the lack of power in hospitals… To be blunt: People are dying, and more will die”. You are more likely to write the second if you rely largely or solely on material from Reuters and other such agencies, and you are also more likely to stray from the truth.

What caused the blackout?

Of course, Heltand’s article is built around the blackout and so an explanation of the causes for it should be given. What does he tell us about it? He starts by saying there are two competing “narratives”, (a word I particularly hate), but “neither” he goes on, “ does justice to Venezuela’s reality.” In Heltand’s opinion: “The blackout and the broader crisis are not entirely the fault of Maduro, nor of the United States and the domestic opposition. The urgency of the situation demands recognition of shared responsibility for the crisis.”

telesur blackoutHeltand’s article is built around the blackout and so an explanation of the causes for it should be given. But he doesn't provide one / Image: TeleSUR

But then Hetland states that “only the most myopic analysis could ignore the government’s clear responsibility for the perilous state of Venezuela’s electric grid,” and goes on to give as an example: the scandal of the Tacoma Hydro Plant, a project that was never finished as a result of corruption. (Even here, he gets some facts wrong, by using a report that is now outdated). However, the question is, how does a non-functioning power plant relate to the current blackout? Everyone, government and opposition, agrees that something went wrong inside the control centre for the El Guri Hydro complex. The dispute is about what caused the fault. The opposition says it was a wildfire under the main high power line out of El Guri, while the government claims it was a cyber attack affecting the SCADA system that regulates the plant, which produces 80 percent of Venezuela’s power.

What is Heltand’s opinion about this? He does not say. Though he, of course, mentions the possibility of a cyberattack (quoting an article from Forbes), he does not go into any of the details and his conclusion is clear:

“Available evidence suggests that the blackout was not caused by sabotage, but by the electric grid being pushed to the brink by years of increased use and a lack of investment and maintenance.”

“Available evidence”? Perhaps Heltand knows more than everyone else, because so far, neither the government nor the opposition have provided much, if any, evidence to back up their stories. Their arguments are mostly based on circumstantial evidence. The opposition has not provided any evidence of the mysterious wildfire that they say affected the 765KV power line and then caused the El Guri system to shut down, which should be relatively simple if such a fire had occurred. Furthermore, Guaidó rejected the idea of a cyber attack, as he alleged that the El Guri Hydro complex was controlled “analogically”, something that is a straight lie. All of these things are being widely discussed in Venezuela, with claims and counter-claims being made. Heltand ignores all of this and simply claims that “available evidence suggests that the blackout was not caused by sabotage”, without even mentioning what is this “available evidence” he bases himself upon, or providing any useful links as a reference.

In fact, he has already decided on an explanation that fits his “narrative” and has written a story that ignores the available evidence. Just to cover himself, after having declared what the cause of the blackout is he adds: “getting to the bottom of the blackout is important; journalists based in Venezuela should investigate the possible causes”. Yes, Mr Hetland, getting to the bottom of the blackout is important, jumpìng to conclusions based on preconceived ideas does not help. “Journalists based in Venezuela” have already done a very good job of attempting to establish what actually happened, and this article in 15 y Último is perhaps one of the best efforts. It was published on 11 March, two days before Hetland’s article was published in The Nation.

The “path of negotiation”

However, the main problem with Heltand’s article lies in the conclusions he draws:

“Calls for military intervention must be rejected. One must recognize, however, the untenability of the status quo. The combination of Maduro’s repressive and inept rule and debilitating US sanctions has brought Venezuela to the edge of catastrophe. The longer the situation continues, the worse things will get.”

Yes, on one thing we can certainly agree. The situation in Venezuela is bad and has significantly worsened over the last four or five years.

But what is the “plausible path for resolving Venezuela’s crisis” that he proposes? First of all, he accepts the premise that a “peaceful transition” needs to take place and this must be through “free and fair elections”. Here we see how our liberal critic in fact accepts all of the premises of “regime change” on which US imperialism bases its current assault on Venezuela. Washington too says it is for a “peaceful transition” and above all for “free elections”. In fact, this is precisely what, nominally, they are trying to achieve with their policy of diplomatic pressure, sanctions and the threat of military intervention. Hetland therefore assumes, without explaining why, that the presidential elections in 2018 were not free and fair and that therefore Maduro is an illegitimate president, otherwise, why should there be new elections when he was just sworn-in in January? Our liberal friend finds himself firmly in the camp of the Venezuelan opposition and US imperialism. His disagreement with imperialism seems to be just tactical, he does not think that this outcome can or should be achieved through sanctions or military action. He seems to will the ends but not the means.

How does he think this can be achieved then? “The only real hope for Venezuela’s future is the path of negotiations between the government and the opposition.” This is completely utopian and ignores Venezuela’s recent past. In fact, over the years, there have been many negotiations between the government and the opposition. The current attempt by imperialism is not the first. Already, in April 2002, the opposition carried out a US-backed coup, barely three years into the Chavez government. When President Chavez was returned to power by a mass movement of the poor, what did he do? He called on the opposition to the negotiating table. How did they respond? By immediately starting to prepare for another coup, this time in the form of the sabotage of the oil industry and a bosses’ lockout, which lasted from December 2002 until February 2003 and nearly crippled the economy. The opposition does not want negotiations, they want to crush the Bolivarian Revolution by any means necessary. If they think they can achieve this via negotiations, they will not object, as long as their objectives are guaranteed.

Guaido meeting Colombia Image Flickr The White HouseHetland says: "The only real hope for Venezuela’s future is the path of negotiations between the government and the opposition.” This is completely utopian / Image: Flickr, The White House

The most recent attempt at negotiations was the 2016-17 talks in the Dominican Republic, brokered amongst others by the former social-democratic president of Spain Zapatero. The main demand of the opposition in those talks was precisely “free and fair” early presidential elections. When it seemed that an agreeable compromise had been reached and even a date for the elections had been fixed, then the opposition, under pressure from Bogotá and Washington, decided to walk out of the talks. Zapatero was fuming and he advised the government to go ahead with the elections on the agreed date. The election, in which a section of the opposition (led by Henri Falcon) participated, did take place, Maduro won and Zapatero, who acted as an observer, vouched for the process. But, all of this appears to be a closed book to Hetland.

And who is the government supposed to negotiate with? Throughout his article and in other writings, Hetland insists on establishing a difference between “radical sectors of the opposition” or “sectors of the far-right opposition” and the opposition as a whole. In practice, on the ground, such a difference does not exist. The current coup attempt led in Venezuela by Guaidó is backed by all the opposition parties represented in the National Assembly. The 2016 violent riots, which Hetland mentions in his article, were also part of a joint and united campaign by the opposition as a whole. The bulk of the opposition, under pressure from Washington, boycotted the presidential election and expelled Henri Falcón from the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable) for taking part in it.

In any case, how are these negotiations going to happen? The government has said repeatedly that it is prepared to negotiate (even with Trump), but the opposition has rejected any advances. Hetland suggests that perhaps the EU’s International Contact Group could make this happen. This is either naïve or seriously dangerous. The main EU countries are completely subordinate to Washington’s strategy on Venezuela. It was Spanish president Sanchez who issued an eight-day ultimatum to Maduro to call presidential elections. He was then joined by France, the UK, Germany and the majority of EU members, who went on to recognise Guaidó as the “legitimate president” of Venezuela. The ICG was only created in order to destroy Mexico’s independent initiative to find a negotiated solution. When the ICG representatives arrived in Montevideo, the Uruguayan government, under pressure, abandoned its independent position and left Mexico on its own.

You cannot have half a revolution

To add to Hetland’s mythical unicorn of a “democratic opposition” he then adds that, once the US is removed from the equation (how? By whom?) then we can hope (hope springs eternal in the liberal breasts) for “a growth of a much broader opposition movement, one in which the voices of the popular classes could have much more weight.” This is perhaps the crux of the matter. The main problem in Hetland’s approach is the lack of any discussion of the class nature of this conflict.

The Venezuelan opposition, and behind it Washington, represents the interests of the country’s oligarchy: the rich and wealthy families that have ruled Venezuela for over a 100 years and playing a subordinate role to US imperialism. Their mass base of support is mainly drawn from the middle-class and upper-middle-class areas in the east of Caracas and other major cities. Chavismo has its roots amongst the working class, the poor peasants and the urban poor.

The opposition supporters have an irrational hatred, a primal fear, of the chavista masses. During the violent opposition rioting in 2016, a young man, Orlando Figuera, was burnt alive and died as a result. His “crime”? Being dark-skinned and therefore looking both poor and like a chavista. Certainly, in this opposition, the voices of the popular classes have no weight. For good reason, most of the Venezuelan poor and the working class have a healthy class instinct, and they reject an opposition that they correctly see as representing Los Amos del Valle, the age-old oligarchy, abiding by the interests of imperialism.

Maduro at palace Image public domainThe Maduro government's policy of attempting to compromise with and make concessions to the ruling class has eroded popular support for the Bolivarian Revolution / Image: public domain

The Maduro government has had a policy of attempting to compromise with and make concessions to the ruling class. This has eroded popular support for the Bolivarian Revolution. What “progressives” need to discuss is the root cause of the crisis in Venezuela, and on that basis, discuss a solution that benefits the country’s working people.

The frightful economic crisis from which Venezuela is suffering was triggered in 2014 by the collapse in the price of oil, and has been aggravated by some of the government’s policy decisions (deficit financing, paying the foreign debt), widespread corruption and US sanctions. But its root cause are the well-meaning attempts of the Bolivarian government to regulate the capitalist economy (through price and foreign exchange controls, and robust labour and trade union legislation) in order to protect the interests of the many. This does not work. Capitalism cannot be regulated. If such a thing is attempted, capitalists resort to any measures necessary (legal or illegal) to circumvent such controls, establish systems by which they end up benefiting from them (foreign currency speculation, black marketeering, hoarding) and generally resort to sabotage (investment strikes and capital flight). Venezuela is a textbook case of this.

There are therefore only two solutions to the untenable status quo Hetland talks about. One resolves the crisis in the benefit of the capitalist class and imperialism. That is the one advocated by Guaidó in his “Plan País”, with the backing of the US. It involves privatising state-owned companies, opening up the public sector to private capital, and above all “opening up” the oil industry (which is what John Bolton demanded). This would mean making the poor and workers pay the full price of the crisis. That is the opposition’s programme, and it certainly does not give any weight to “the voices of the popular classes”.

The other solution would be based on pursuing genuine revolutionary policies in the benefit of the majority, a return to the tasks that Chavez announced but left unfinished: a socialist economy and a “communal state”. A socialist economy would require the expropriation of the multinationals and the main capitalist groups in Venezuela, as well as the latifundia, in order to create a democratic plan of production under workers’ control to satisfy the needs of the majority. A communal state would imply putting power in the hands of workers committees, peasant committees and neighbourhood councils, so that the people can rule.

Hetland seems to perceive only a handful of actors in Venezuela: the US, the far-right opposition, a mythical “democratic” opposition and the Maduro government. However, there is also a chavista revolutionary movement, which is not the same as the government. This can be found in the El Maizal, in organisations like Alexis Vive, in the few remaining experiences of workers’ control and in the tens-of-thousands of poor and working-class Venezuelans who have come out in the last few weeks to oppose imperialist intervention, but you will not find it in the pages of the mass media in the US. They are in different degrees critical of the Maduro government as a whole or at least of some of its worst aspects (corruption, bureaucracy, etc), but they know full well that the coming to power of Guaidó, on the back of an imperialist intervention, would be a major disaster.

What progressives in the US should do is, first and foremost, oppose the imperialist policies of their government (including sanctions and military intervention). This should be done, not just through writing articles but by organising a mass campaign in the streets and a mass education campaign amongst students and workers. That campaign must distance itself from and challenge the main premises that imperialism is using to justify its intervention. It does not mean suspending criticism of the Maduro government, but that criticism should be made from the point of view of the interests of Venezuelan workers and peasants, not with a view to pleasing liberal academics in the USA. Of course, such a campaign needs to offer an analysis of what has gone wrong in Venezuela, but that analysis needs to be firmly based on a class perspective, not on the utopian idea that EU-brokered talks can somehow resolve the conflict between the interests of the Venezuelan workers and poor and those of the oligarchy and imperialism.