The Two Lefts and Venezuela

Sandinistas, Solidarity and the Two Lefts

I feel it’s necessary to respond to Roger Harris/Chuck Kaufman’s recent article in Dissident Voice (and elsewhere), not because they inaccurately depicted my own personal political perspective on Venezuela (which, indeed, they did), but because I think it’s important to point out a very significant division in the Left in general that their article only obliquely refers to. This division is largely ignored, and I think it has profound consequences that need to be considered if we on the left hope to have any relevance in the future. I hope readers will bear with me on this rather long piece, but I think some detail is necessary to understand what the stakes are in clarifying a much-needed left position appropriate to the twenty-first century distinct from those of the 19th and 20th century.

Back in 2010 I interviewed former Sandinista Victor Hugo Tinoco in his office where he worked as a member of the Nicaraguan National Assembly, representing the Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS). At the time he told me that:

Two theses have developed in the struggle within the FSLN since 1990. There were those who developed the opinion that the struggle for social justice wasn’t compatible with civil liberties, so there had to be authoritarian thought married to the proposal of social transformation. And there were those who saw these [ideas] as complementary, that social justice can only be attained through a process that profoundly respects civil social and individual freedoms, and furthermore that social transformations are only sustainable over time if they are built and sustained on the basis of respect for civil rights and liberties.

Mr. Tinoco, in the first instance, was referring to the Marxist-Leninist tendency as it devolved into the authoritarian populism of the caudillo Daniel Ortega, the “Orteguista faction,” now essentially a family dynasty only slightly distinguishable from the Somoza family dynasty the FSLN overthrew in 1979 in that it has thus far been responsible for fewer politically motivated murders in the country. The second case, Tinoco was referring to his own party, the MRS, and other political forces, affiliated and not, like the Coordinadora Civil (Civil Coordinator), whose aim it is to educate Nicaraguans about citizenship and the need to participate in society and government and fight for their rights. Those forces, organized under the National Council in Defense of our Land, Our Lake and Our Sovereignty, are now engaged in a dramatic struggle against the Ortega regime to stop the development of a canal through their country which would take away much of their land, destroy much of their natural diversity, their communal life and bring no benefit to anyone but the Chinese corporations that are behind the project.

The contrast between these two lefts in Nicaragua is a fitting place to begin a discussion of solidarity in general, and the meaning of solidarity with Venezuela in particular, because I suspect that this is what Roger Harris, Chuck Kaufman and I have in common: we supported the Sandinista Revolution in the 1980s. We also for a time have accompanied the Bolivarian project, but from which, as they rightly point out, I “apostatized” from in 2013, broke ties with and denounced. As a matter of record, Chuck Kaufman apparently still supports the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega. As a matter of record, I don’t, and I have become increasingly more critical of that government since I first openly denounced it in 2010 (see my introduction to the Nicaragua chapter of Until the Rulers Obey, 2014).

There are other reasons I begin a discussion of Venezuela in Nicaragua. Through the past decade the Bolivarian government has supported the government of Daniel Ortega with oil money, much of which has gone into the Sandinista caudillo’s personal accounts, enabling him to buy newspapers, television and radio stations and luxury hotels and ranches for his family. As Carlos Salinas Maldonado points out in his 2009 article, Nicaragua se hunde en la miseria (“Nicaragua sinks in Misery”) 79% of Nicaraguans live on less than two dollars a day. After Ortega manipulated his way into the presidency in 2006, and with fraudulent elections in November 2008 managed to take 105 of 146 mayoralties throughout the country, most international donors turned away in disgust. But not Chávez. In 2008 he gave $457 in aid, which could have helped poor Nicaraguans significantly, but the money came with no strings attached. It’s likely that some of it went to Nicaraguans—as political patronage, of course. After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, right? But Ortega also bought himself a couple of MI-17 helicopters at $3-5 million a pop, which Maldonado quotes various news sources as saying are for the exclusive use of the presidential family.

Another reason for considering Venezuela and Nicaragua together is because they have very similar political systems: they are both populist hybrid regimes under the rule of caudillos who have centralized control in their hands by controlling or destroying most democratic institutions of the country. Moreover, the economic policies of the original Sandinista government and the Bolivarian government have very interesting, self-destructive similarities (I examined this in my article here), a subject to which I’ll turn later.

Finally, and connected with the latter point, Venezuela and Nicaragua both emerge from, and operate out of, the same sector of the left about which Tinoco spoke: the sector which disdained the idea of civil rights and believes there has “to be authoritarian thought married to the proposal of social transformation.”

This left is messianic and utopian (although they would adamantly, emotionally and fiercely reject such a characterization—which, I would argue, gives weight to the characterization) and is best exemplified by Marxist-Leninist communism in its many varieties (Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc.). This sector of the left believes in an apocalyptic revolutionary project that aims at the destruction of the capitalist economic system and the construction of a “socialist” system of production and the remaking of humanity in the image of the messianic (proletarian) class led by a vanguard party under the iron hand of the leader. It is essentially anti-liberal, and it conceives of “the People” in singular form, as having one “general will” (Rousseau). It conceives of the State (proletarian, of course) as the vehicle for this utopian project, which is why state power must be “taken,” and only those social forces that engage on the side of this project, under the direction of the (proletarian) State, ruled by the vanguard under the direction of the ruler, have recognition. The other social forces, in this conception, must be neutralized or destroyed, as must all forces that oppose, challenge or question this utopian project. “Truth” and “morality” for this sector of the left, is simply defined as that which advances the struggle of the self-appointed vanguard, and no more. Trotsky expressed much of this in his essay, “Their Morals and Ours” and Leszek Kolakowski did an excellent analysis of this worldview in the third volume of his magisterial work, Main Currents of Marxism (particularly on pages 192-200).

These were the essential features of Stalinism, and the other “isms” of Communism, and after the wholesale destruction of many communities, cultures and some 90 million people, the left that advocated for such a position became largely discredited—except on the left. At present, while very few people would openly or consciously advocate for this perspective, there are still, in my mind, far too many, who still do. Take a look around the internet at those sites that call themselves “socialist” or “communist” or talk to people at the next ANSWER demo and you’ll find many variations of this basic ideology. Most who come out of the socialist or communist left no longer openly, or even consciously, hold to these ideas, but the basic framework or mythos persists in habits of thought or as an unconscious framework or intellectual reflex or ideological tic. After all, very few of us do the subterranean work of periodically cleaning out the dead wood from the cellars of our unconscious, ridding ourselves of dead foundational ideas so we can reconstruct our thinking from the ground up. Mostly, we do what the Conquistadores did in the Americas and just build the Conquerer’s church on top of an “outmoded pagan” temple.

As I argue in my book, The Map or the Territory, this Marxist and Leninist ideology dominated the solidarity movement in the United States for nearly the entire twentieth century, and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty-five years ago, it lingers on, especially among the older generation of activists. While I don’t know either Roger Harris or Chuck Kaufman (H/K) personally and therefore can’t presume to know what they think, their arguments made in a recent article reflect, and are consistent with, this ideology. They say, for instance, that “We argue for the importance of recognizing the overarching influence of US imperialism and for the acceptance of using the state as an instrument of popular power by the international solidarity movement.” More significantly, however, they offer their full support to a government that explicitly advocates for a version of this ideology, the Bolivarian government of Venezuela.

Let me say here that many who held to Marxism-Leninism also were instrumental in the fight for social justice for workers and all oppressed people. They were at the forefront against racism and war and they were often the organizing force in many great broad fronts for a better world. I’m proud to have known many wonderful, beautiful committed activists of the highest integrity who were in Marxist-Leninist parties. Furthermore, I also identified with that left from 1981 to 2013 when what I saw in the Bolivarian project made me rethink my politics.

I now consider myself part of that “other” left that Tinoco referred to, which I would describe as the “social movement left.” This left sees “these [ideas of social justice and civil rights] as complementary, [and believes] that social justice can only be attained through a process that profoundly respects civil social and individual freedoms, and furthermore that social transformations are only sustainable over time if they are built and sustained on the basis of respect for civil rights and liberties.” The social movement left has a conception of the People that is plural and pluralistic, rejecting the very idea of a “general will” in favor of a belief that there are as may wills as there are people. This left, therefore, envisions an open and conflictive society where ideas are debated rather than imposed from above by a vanguard party or an iron-fisted ruler. While the left of social movements may (or may not) accept leaders and leadership, it has a very different conception of leadership: leaders shouldn’t occupy their positions forever and they serve rather than rule, or, as the Zapatistas would put it, they “rule obeying” (and yes, I would argue that the Zapatistas are part of “our” left).

This left is willing to join James Scott and give “two cheers” to the petty bourgeoisie and small businesses since it sees the idea of the centralization of economic power, nationalization of businesses, and the top-down control of the economy as being inefficient, tending toward corruption and destructive of local community businesses and of community itself. Finally, the social movement left would see as very much a mistaken idea to conflate the interests of governments and movements, as Harris/Kaufman do when they urge us to ask, “Do my statements empower and amplify the articulated priorities of the movements and governments I am in solidarity with…?” We have rarely, if ever, seen a convergence of interests between a government and social movements. That’s why we have no interest in “taking state power,” nor do we have any interest in “hegemony” to impose a utopian project of any sort; rather, the social movement left encourages diversity of opinion, critical thought, and an autonomous and independence from the state.

Given these two very different starting points, it’s no wonder that H/K and I would find ourselves on opposite sides of the struggle in Venezuela (and, of course, Nicaragua), and have very different ideas of the causes of the problems in the Bolivarian project.

Economic War, or Economic Suicide?

H/K’s account of what’s happening in Venezuela is completely consistent with the Bolivarian government’s narrative. I would expect that to be the case, given that their concluding questions suggest a belief that, as solidarity activists, they should “empower and amplify the articulated priorities of the movements and governments [they are] in solidarity with” rather than to think critically and analyze those priorities to arrive at their own conclusions. According to H/K the problems Venezuela face today, which they rightly indicate to “include crime, inefficiency/shortages, and inflation/devaluation” (I would add, corruption and cronyism, but we’ll get to that) are “problems inherited from the existing capitalist order and exacerbated by the sabotage of the opposition.” President Maduro himself would add that it is “US imperialism” and Venezuelan “oligarchs.” This is the narrative of “Economic War” and “sabotage.” If the reader needs to fill in the details, left websites overflow with versions of this Chavista narrative.

I believe this narrative shifts the blame from the victimizer to the victim, and the clear causes of all the problems in Venezuela today are the Bolivarian government’s policies, or lack of them. Let’s start with “crime.”

What H/K refer to when they mention “crime” is not a rash of purse snatchings in Caracas, or perhaps a few burglaries, a few cases of pickpocketing or even assaults. The word “crime” doesn’t quite capture what’s actually happening in Venezuela where since 2006 the capital city of Caracas has been at the top, or second place, as the murder capital of the world. According to a UN report in 2013, Venezuela had the second highest murder rate in the world, ceding first place to Honduras. We don’t know the precise number of murders (some put them at over 24,000 per year, but that number is disputed) since the government has quit giving statistics on homicides. In fact, as things have deteriorated most dramatically over the past three years, it has become increasingly difficult to get any accurate statistics from the government at all. But we do know that in 2006 Caracas had 130 murders per 100,000, double the rate of the next most violent city of Cape Town, South Africa. In 2012 the homicide rate in the country as a whole was 73 per 100,000. By contrast, when Chávez came to power in 1998 the murder rate was only 19 per 100,000.

Needless to say, all this completely contradicts the argument of “crime” being a “problem inherited from the existing capitalist order.” In the capitalist U.S. from 2001-2013, urban crime has declined and our homicide rate in 2012 was just 3.8 per 100,000. Perhaps H/K could explain why the murder rate has increased so dramatically? Could it be because Venezuela under the Bolivarians has become a major drug transshipment point, the trafficking being carried on largely by the military that effectively came to power under Lt. Col. President Chávez? It’s no longer an exaggeration to say Venezuela is morphing from a petro to a narco state. The fact that the nephews of first lady Cilia Flores are awaiting trial for drug trafficking is disturbing, but more disturbing is the fact that they were doing the drug trafficking out of an air hangar reserved for the military, and that their pilot was active Bolivarian military and they both had diplomatic passports. There has long been suspicion that as much as 80% of the drugs produced in Colombia pass through Venezuela and that the upper ranks of the military play a major role in this trafficking. Where there are drugs, there are turf wars… and that means greater homicide rates and more “crime.”

But more important at the moment, given the humanitarian disaster that Venezuela is entering with widespread shortages, hyperinflation, and a dramatic increase in hunger and misery, we should take a look at the other problems H/K and I agree are afflicting Venezuela to try to understand why the economy is collapsing. Again, Chavistas say it’s all due to “economic war,” “hoarding,” “trafficking in goods” and “sabotage,” and, like H/K, they expect everyone to believe it on the basis of the authority of Nicolas Maduro. The fact that the government rarely offers evidence to back its claims and even has to fake busts of hoarders to support its narrative is an indication of the credibility of its claims. Nevertheless, real “cadre” never question the vanguard or its leader: they are, after all, only there to “empower and amplify the articulated priorities of the movements and governments” they are in solidarity with.

Certainly, there might be an element of truth in the Bolivarian narrative, and each element might play a minor role in the country’s economic difficulties, but, as any economist worth his or her salt will tell you, none of these are the reasons for Venezuela’s economic problems, but rather the results. The real causes of the disaster Venezuela is going through today include government corruption and incompetence; unworkable economic policies, especially price and currency controls; and the absolute refusal of the government to take responsibility for the disaster it has created.

Price controls and currency controls are part of an economic program implemented in Venezuela in 2003. Currency controls were put in place ostensibly to prevent capital flight and to protect national industries after the PDVSA “oil strike” (or “lockout”), and price controls were imposed to protect the poor from the impact of inflation in basic necessities which would be inevitable if the actual value of the currency decreases from its official, set rate. Initially controls of currency and prices stabilized the economy as capitalists found it more difficult to take their money out of the country and the price of basic necessities remained stable.

Price and currency controls can be made to work as temporary measures. Over time, however, unless all the controls are very stringently enforced, the economy becomes extremely distorted as the “decreed” price becomes utterly unrealistic in the market, and soon there arise two black markets: one in currency that is artificially overvalued, and another in the marketplace where products are artificially undervalued. What’s interesting is how Venezuelans, both those in power, and those without power, deal with these extreme distortions of the market.

In the case of Venezuela, “stringent” is an unknown word in government circles. The difference between the official rate, set by government decree, and the market rate, that is, what people in the real world of buying and selling with that very currency determine its value to be, began to diverge early on. With increased state expenditures, especially on social and development programs so crucial to keeping Chávez and his people in power, the government “monetized” debt, that is, it ran the money-printing presses 24-7 to cover those internal obligations. The Venezuelan Central Bank, for instance, increased money supply by 70% in the year from November 2012–2013 and has since then presumably continued a similar policy, essentially guaranteeing inflation. The government relied even more heavily on price controls to keep inflation down, but always with decreasing success: after all, everyone knows that, according to the law of supply and demand, the less there is of a thing, the more valuable it becomes, while the more you make of a thing, the lower the value goes. The same thing goes for money.

Price controls led to scarcity as those price-controlled items increasingly became attractive as contraband, and hence disappeared from store shelves, or appeared in disguised form, on the shelves. Rice, for instance, was a controlled item, but flavored rice wasn’t. As a result, price-controlled regular rice disappeared from the stores and was trafficked to neighboring countries as contraband where it could be sold at market prices at a good profit, and it was replaced by flavored rice that was increasingly unaffordable since it wasn’t included in price controls.

But price controls also led to scarcity by destroying national production. As inflation hit the prices of non-controlled items related to production like insecticides, fertilizers, tractor or factory parts, inputs for manufacturing, etc. it increased the costs of production beyond the controlled price of the commodity. Gradually, farmers, manufacturers, industrialists, small craftsmen and all other productive members of the economy found they couldn’t afford to produce rice, corn, milk, cheese, or just about anything that was under price controls. As a result, Venezuela began to rely even more heavily on imported products. When it costs twice as much to raise a chicken than you can [legally] sell it for in the market due to price controls, it becomes more profitable to traffic them. As one Venezuelan complained to me, “they import chicken from Brazil and subsidize it so that the price is lower in Venezuela than it is in Brazil. So it’s no surprise, then, that this food then becomes contraband, sometimes returning to its country of origin to compete as a lower-priced ‘import’…” Despite Maduro’s closing of the border with Colombia last year to stop the trafficking, it now is reaching “alarming levels” and traffickers themselves talk of the involvement of the National Guard in the business.

There was another element to the growing scarcity, besides goods trafficked out of the country, “disguised” price controlled items and overpriced inputs that destroyed national production. This related to the fact that currency control effectively centralized imports and put it all in the hands of the notably incompetent and corrupt government. Let’s look at how this works.

We’ll say a manufacturer needs screws to make widgets, but screws, due to price controls, are no longer being made in Venezuela because the screw manufacturer can’t compete with cheaper screws imported from Colombia. So the widget maker needs to import screws. But he can’t pay the Colombian manufacturer in bolívares since international transactions have to be made in the reserve currency of the world (U.S. dollars) or, in this case, Colombian pesos. But with currency controls, he has only two options: either he can change his bolívares on the black market, where the screws would cost him an arm and a leg, buying dollars at 900 bolívares or more; or he can try to get dollars through the government at 6.3 bolívares to the dollar. Either way, he now stands before the gates to two parallel hells. The process of getting dollars from the government is a nightmare even Kafka couldn’t write his way out of, and it’s far from guaranteed that, after submitting all the forms with dotted “i”s and crossed “t”s, that the government will approve. And even with the approval, it might take a very long time to receive the money. Meanwhile, production could come to a full stop, making it necessary for everyone to look elsewhere for widgets. They could, after all, be imported… and probably at a lower price! But to import them, the widget import agency needs foreign exchange to pay for the widgets…

Now if you have a direct line to the government, if, for instance, you happen to be in the PSUV, or know someone in government, or be, yourself, an important person in government, this whole process suddenly can become very simple, and very easy. In that case, the approval, and timely delivery of your dollars are suddenly streamlined and practically guaranteed.

Price controls, especially when managed by a corrupt and incompetent government, became a convoluted way of “solving problems” that resulted in exacerbating them, and currency controls became the “seedbed for corruption in the country” which has been used as “an assault mechanism on the public treasury for the benefit of a few” (Carlos Tablante and Marcos Torre, Estado Delincuente: Como actúa la delinquencia organizada en Venezuela, foreword by Baltasar Garzón, Caracas: Cyngular Asesoría, 2013, p. 130). That is to say, the corrupt officials who had surrounded Chávez all those years, were invested in keeping the currency controls so as to make their huge fortunes. As the discrepancy between the black market and the official rate grew, so did currency arbitrage, that is, the buying of money at one rate, and selling it at another, higher, rate. Officials would set up shell companies, get dollars at the official rate of 6.3 bolívares, then sell those dollars on the black market for ten, twenty, one hundred and more times as many (at the time of this writing, January 2016, the cheapest dollars can be bought for 6.3 bolívares, and that dollar can be sold for over 940 bolívars on the black market).

That this is a problem rampant among the Chavista hierarchy, the military and business people privileged to get cheap dollars—and the most common profile of one engaged in currency arbitrage is someone who is all of that—is certain, as one example will suffice to demonstrate. Of currency speculators, obtaining cheap dollars through shell companies ostensibly for needed imports one of those named was Number Two in the government at the time, Diosdado Cabello. A military man of the Chavista hierarchy with many businesses, Diosdado was fingered by none other than rojo rojito (redder than red) Chavista talk-show host Mario Silva in a private conversation Silva had with a Cuban intelligence agent, later obtained and released by the opposition. Among Cabello’s many lucrative activities, some argue, is drug trafficking, which is increasingly taking up the slack for needed foreign exchange as oil prices drop.

Honest Chavistas, including Felipe Pérez Martí, former Minister of Chávez who actually helped design the currency controls, now argue against them. Martí says that the “controls are designed for the corrupt” politicians. According to Nicmer Evans, one of Chavismo’s most astute and serious intellectuals and member of the left opposition, Marea Socialista, some $259 billion has been taken out of the country through the controls themselves, facilitated by the Bolivarian bureaucracy (Boligarchs) and their favored (Bolivarian) capitalists. If any explanation is needed for the troubles Venezuela faces today, and will surely face for many more years, one need look no further than the currency controls and the way it has enabled the Boligarchy to strip the nation of its wealth.

In this dysfunctional economy where the elite have decreed a system of robbery for themselves with currency controls, those without access to dollars have been forced to make their living working the price controls in contraband and smuggling of goods, or by becoming “rent chasers,” getting scholarships or grants from studying or otherwise engaging in government social programs. Increasingly, productive activity in Venezuela has been coming to a halt.

And this is why I say that the Bolivarian “Revolution” has already failed. What Harris/Kaufman don’t want to admit, and what they hide behind the term “inefficiency/shortages” is that the country is facing a humanitarian disaster, and it dates back much farther than the current drop in oil prices. It is the direct result of Chávez/Maduro’s policies since Chávez began taking on debt in 2007, when oil was at its historic highs. Why? To pay patronage, win elections, to throw it in the big pot of FONDEN so his cronies could steal it all. And never putting anything away for the inevitable day oil prices dropped through the floor. After all, that’s what all the more intelligent rulers did: the Saudis, the Russians, all the others knew this day was coming, but the Bolivarians, in a delusory state of utopian mania, wasted the golden moment that could have really made a big difference in the country. And now hunger and misery loom.

Let me correct that last sentence. Hunger and misery have been the reality since before the price of oil dropped. According to an August 2014 joint study of three of Venezuela’s most prestigious universities (University of Andres Bello, Central University of Venezuela and University of Simon Bolivar) when oil was still selling at over $100/barrel, the poverty rate, including the extremely poor and the poor, was at the time 3% higher than it was in 1998, the year Chavez won the presidency. According to the “Poll on the Conditions of Life in Venezuela 2014” (ENCOVI, for its name in Spanish) poverty in 2014 was at 48%, compared to 45% in 1998, but most significantly, extreme poverty rose from the pre-Chavez figure of 18.7% to 23.6%. Certainly those figures are far, far higher today.

What does this look like today? I can tell you what it looked like a few days ago when I called my friend Jose, who teaches at the University of the Andes and works hard to try to feed a family of five. Currently it takes over ten minimum wage salaries to feed a family of five according to news reports. But, in fact, Jose tells me it’s far worse than that. He makes 20,000 bolívares a month, and that buys food for his family for only four days—if they don’t spend a single bolívar on anything else. Our mutual friend who has been teaching at the same university for over fifteen years and who has a PhD makes 30,000 bolívares a month working full time. The day I talked to Jose he’d been to the house of every family member trying to find one place where he could find food to feed his family. This is not, as Lisa Sullivan says, “to slander everything that took place in the past 15 years in order to justify critiques today” but rather to say everything that took place over the past fifteen years has brought Venezuela where it is today: on the edge of disaster.

One would think that Harris/Kaufman would make note of this if they were really concerned about the people of Venezuela and not simply concerned about making the criminally incompetent and corrupt “revolutionary” Bolivarian government look good. It pains me to say that the people at Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College seem to be more concerned about the coming disaster and how to respond to it humanely than Harris or Kaufman or just about anyone else in the international solidarity left allied with the Bolivarians. In a study published in the summer of 2015 they saw evidence that the “Barack Obama administration is sincere in respecting the sovereignty of nations of Latin America and the Caribbean, and allowing the region to address its own governance issues.” I recognize that for the people reading this, that sounds like pure propaganda, but I think they should read the study itself: it’s far more accurate and clear-headed in its analysis than the Harris/Kaufman duo and certainly much more informative. In their conclusion they write:

Despite the grim scenario painted by the forgoing analysis, it is not in the U.S. strategic interest to intervene in Venezuela. Doing so would probably cause more serious damage to U.S. relationships in the region, and to its strategic position globally, than it would benefit stability and law and order in the region. Nor, in considering the lives that would be lost and the chaos potentially unleashed by such an invasion, is it clear that U.S. intervention would generate a net benefit from a humanitarian standpoint. Intervention would also likely drive other nations of the hemisphere into a deeper embrace of extra-regional powers such as China and Russia, and would move the region one step further from democratic self-governance.

I have no interest in defending the United States government, much less the U.S. Army or any of its affiliations. Nor, at the same time, do I want to go down the road I lived on for so many years, the one that Harris/Kaufman and others like them still live on, where everything the US does is bad, and everything anyone waving a red flag with a star on it does is good. The Cold War is over and communism lost. Next it will be capitalism’s turn as the impact of climate change clarifies for the world that infinite growth is as much a myth as the final victory of the Proletarian Revolution. If we hope to have any impact on our world as these crises hit, we’ll need to be far more honest, far more rigorous in our analysis, far more clear-headed about the dangers of utopian panaceas and the need for real practical solutions to concrete problems than either Roger Harris or Chuck Kaufman are.

Meanwhile, consider how the interests of the people and the interests of the “socialist” governments have diverged. In both Venezuela and Nicaragua, a new political class rules with all the images, rhetoric, slogans, and even ideology, of the Marxist-Leninist socialism of the twentieth century. Now it’s been rebranded as “Twenty-first Century Socialism,” but the independent social movements aren’t fooled: the students who came out against the Bolivarian government in February 2014 are as clear about that divergence of interests as the Nicaraguan movements fighting the Sandinista government with its neoliberal brand of developmentalist “socialism” in partner with corporate interests from Communist China. They know, in the words of the song by Basque band, Negu Gorriak, that “the hangman has a thousand faces,” and when you face him in the street, more often than not, he’s dressed as a socialist.

Clifton Ross can be reached at clifross1(at) His most recent book, Home from the Dark Side of Utopia (2016, AK Press) is a memoir of his experiences among revolutionary movements in the Americas, including the Bolivarian process of Venezuela. Read other articles by Clifton.