'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Chavez and the Arab Revolution (Part 1) 

Predictably, the Libyan rebels have rejected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's offer to negotiate a truce between them and Muammar Gaddafi. After all, he refuses to condemn Gaddafi for his use of violence against the Libyan people, providing him with qualified suppport.

Instead, Chavez emphasizes the prospect of a US invasion to seize control of Libyan oil reserves. It is not a ludicrous notion, that the US and the EU want to establish a military presence in the country so as to exert influence over a post-Gaddafi regime in regard to the exploitation of Libyan oil reserves. But if that is his real concern, shouldn't he advise Gaddafi to depart as quickly as possible so as to enable the rebels to take power without any purported US assistance? Furthermore, the US did invade Iraq for this purpose, and it hasn't worked out nearly as well as planned.

More generally, Chavez has personalized the situation, resulting in a political debacle that may permanently reduce his authority within and without Venezuela. Instead of recognizing similarities between the aspirations of the Arab masses, and those in South America who put people like him, Morales, Lula and Kirchner, among others, into power, he has decided to give priority to his personal relationship with Gaddafi, saying that he would be a coward if he condemned his friend. Protests throughout North Africa and the Middle East have highlighted themes that should be familiar to Chavez and South American leftists, such as demands for greater inclusion within existing political and economic structures and dismay at the impoverishment that has resulted from the implementation of neoliberal economic policies, even if they are not as prominent a feature as they have been in South America. Yet Chavez implies that Gaddafi is closer in spirit to the South American left than the rebels.

This was always the peril of Chavez's realpolitik foreign policy, a policy that sought allies to resist US threats to the sovereignty of Venezuela in the most unsavory of places, in Iran, in Libya, even in Belarus and Zimbabwe. While I personally question to effectiveness of such a policy, even on its own terms, I don't criticize Chavez for undertaking measures that he felt necessary to preserve the power of the left in Venezuela. The problem is rather different, as explained by Louis Proyect:

Now it should be clearly understood that there is nothing wrong with forming alliances with Zimbabwe, Iran or Libya. Countries that are trying to develop a foreign policy independent of imperialism will by necessity adopt a kind of socialist realpolitik. When the government of Mexico made the streets run red with the blood of student protesters in 1968, it was understandable why Cuba remained silent. When Cuba had few friends in Latin America, Mexico’s PRI had a shred enough of remaining nationalism to stand up to the OAS and trade with Cuba. Furthermore, Cuba was in its rights to maintain diplomatic relations with Spain when Franco was dictator. Beggars cannot be choosers.

What is not acceptable is elevating despots like Mugabe, Qaddafi and Ahmadinejad into revolutionaries even though they have had confrontations with imperialism. We are not trying to build an anti-imperialist movement. Our goal instead is to build a socialist movement, which is alone capable of ridding the world of capitalism. In the final analysis, imperialism is the latest stage of capitalism and not some new economic system.

Of course, the consequence of Chavez's support for Gaddafi is that it will discredit him and the Bolivarian Revolution with many people around the world who have been sympathetic to it. It legitimizes rightist claims that Chavez will, if necessary, use whatever force is necessary to preserve his power. Never mind that Chavez is noteworthy for his refusal to order the mass suppression of the opposition in Venezuela after the 2002 coup and the 2002-2003 strike at the state run PDVSA oil company, a strike instigated by the opposition to bring about the sort of economic chaos that lead to the coup against Allende in 1973. Never mind that he thereafter proceeded to defend himself politically in an August 2004 referendum on the question of his removal from office. Now, the methods of Gaddafi are associated with the methods of Chavez. Beyond that, it discredits the internationalism of anti-imperialism and socialism through the association of them with kleptocratic dictators like Gaddafi.

Sadly, Chavez, as well as President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, have created a fissure between leftists in South America and Arabs in North Africa and Middle East, people who, as already noted, find themselves struggling against similar forms of oppression. Superficially, there appears to be a different social context in the current protests, one in which the middle class, people within the military, concerned about their economic privileges, and even heretofore longtime supporters of the regimes participate, but it does not justify a dismissive attitude towards them. Upon closer examination, such a process, marked by the specific conditions of the Arab countries in question, is actually somewhat similar to the ones that resulted in the elections of Chavez and Lula. Even if the composition and conduct of these movements can be described as objectionable in some way from a left perspective, it does not necessarily invalidate them as ones that faciliate the eventual defeat of imperialism and capitalism, as Proyect observes by reference to Lenin's positive response to the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Ireland.

Lenin understood that if one insists upon a properly constituted revolutionary movement before proceeding to participate, then one would be waiting a very long time indeed, perhaps forever. Back in the 1990s, Chavez had a similar understanding, when he distanced himself from the more radical leftist groups in Venezuela because of what he considered their unrealistic expectations as to how Venezuela could be transformed. Chavez recognized that, in such a situation, the left must seek to present a plausible, persuasive critique of the existing social order and offer a credible alternative, which he did, quite effectively. With his support for Gaddafi, he has drifted away from his past history of left pragmatism. We can only hope that it has not already created an irreparable separation between the leftists of South America and the revolutionaries of the Arab world, a separation that can only serve to perpetuate US global influence and capitalism.

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