Crisis of Latin America’s Left: How should we understand it? A Diagnosis and Forecast of the Post-Chavez Maduro government


It would not be an exaggeration to say that with the collapse of the Soviet Union’s socialism and the spread of the neoliberal political economic order after the 1980’s, an alternative to capitalism has become something unimaginable and even sacrilegious. For the past 150 years, the constant and fierce capitalist exploitation and contradictions have been discounted as something that could be fully overcome with “rational” and “efficient” economic policies. This is also the era of just sitting and waiting for the emergence of capitalism with a humane face. In the late 20th century, defeatism  of the “left” prevailed, moderate conformist reform was seen as the best choice, and class based demands and prospects were lost; the only form of resistance was a crude “citizen’s movement” caught up in a crude culturalism. But as everyone knows, capitalism’s prosperity that neoliberalists promised turned out to be for only a few capitalist class and the reality was completely opposite. The strong social resistance and political revolt against it began in the Third World that is Latin America. This is how Latin America left governments began to appear.

After about 20 years, Latin America faced a complicated situation receiving much attention, concern, and regret. People are concerned about the rapidly changing political landscape and the economic and political crisis of the post-neoliberalist left-wing governments in Latin America. While on the one hand, the “left” has turned its gaze on on Latin America to find a potential new alternative system to overcome a powerful neoliberalism. On the other hand, neoliberalists resist radical changes with great hostility and anger.

With the sudden death of Chavez in Venezuela - who played such pivotal role for left governments in Latin America - and the impeachment of former President Lula and current President Dilma in Brazil. In addition, with former businessman Macri taking power in Argentina, Latin America’s “right turn” is arising as a popular cautious prognosis.

In actuality, it was the financial crisis that created the crisis of left-wing governments in Latin America. During the 2008 global economic depression, it was not easy for Latin American countries to overcome the financial crisis because of their high dependency on the export of raw materials. Furthermore, “chronic” political corruption, weak social system and inefficient economic policies seemed to create the perfect storm. It was as if Latin America’s low development was on a league of its own that it could never escape from.

With the same logic, it is surprising to see the ongoing provocative Korean coverage of Venezuela as plagued by the “curse of natural resources.” Venezuela represents the economic and political crises of Latin America’s current crises. The major foreign media, which could only view Bolivarian missions of Chavez’s “21st century socialism” with critical view have eagerly leapt upon the current situation as if a long awaited opportunity to attack.  Based on this, the conclusion can be drawn that “Venezuelan people are paying the price of their populism.” It is easy to dismiss the great changes in Venezuela as a fortunate convergence of the recovery of high oil prices starting 2001 which boosted the Venezuelan economy and facilitated social spending on social programs such as the Bolivarian missions. This is a “simple and clear” explanation of the Chavez to Maduro administrations.

The Crisis in Venezuela However, like all crises, the cause of this crisis should be understood not phenomenally but structurally. In the 20th century, Venezuela also experienced serious social polarization like other countries in Latin America. This contradictory social structural problems started in the 1920s when oil was discovered, and have continued for the last 80 years. Venezuelan society has been dominated by oligarchy who monopolized the oil. The ruling class stepped down from their “throne” after pushing 85% of the population into extreme poverty. As a result of neoliberal economic policies that devastated their lives, people carried out the Caracazo in 1989. As a result, within 10 years, they were able to create a complete reversal of class relations.  

Throughout the 20th century, a cartel of the ruling class formed around the oil industry drove the majority of people into extreme poverty. This paved the ground for Chavez taking power in 1999. Naturally, the ruling class resisted against the government since their vested interests of 80 years were taken from them. They could not simply hand over their monopolized vested interests. Thus the crisis in Venezuela was the result of a counter offensive by the ruling class who tried to retrieve their vested interests domestically within the backdrop of the international capitalist crisis. Just looking into the economic sabotage and international media’s responses, these phenomena are clear. Therefore, it is reasonable to see the nature of the crisis as the result of typical class struggle.

Were the social reforms undertaken after Chavez took power simply “populism” doomed to fail? An overspending of public finance simply to keep their government in power? This is just a piecemeal interpretation simply centered on the phenomena. One of the press reported the ruling party has been defeated in the last general election and expressed that the government lost popularity due to its populist policies. After maintaining a continuous majority since Chavez took power, the ruling party’s loss of the majority in the National Assembly was indeed newsworthy. This result was used as an objective indicator to evaluate the situation of Venezuela in a simple and clear way: “The price for indiscriminate populist policies” was paid in the last general election.

Democracy in Venezuela

In Venezuela, the Punto Fijo system was established in 1950 which established a “legitimate system” by which power would be shared equally between the two main parties. Even as they were complimented as the most “exemplary” democracy in Latin America, they suffered from extreme poverty and serious social inequality that devastated people’s lives. The oligarchy finally stepped down when they lost the 1999 election after monopolizing the oil wealth for the past 40 years while pushing over 85% of population into poverty. Yet, many political scholars evaluate Punto Fijo as a democratic system based on coexistence between the conservative and reformist forces and view Chavez’s semi-authoritarian governance as damaging this democratic system (Javier Corrales 2013). Here, we see the appearance of the typical dichotomy between politics and economy. It represents the naïve “liberal view” that politics can be separated from the economy and vise versa. It would not be an overstatement to say that the prerequisite for the most exemplary “democratic” system that Punto Fijo guaranteed was the exclusion of 80% of people. When the analysis overlooks Venezuela’s individual specificity and history, it creates a paradox that simply worships the system.

Class Struggle in Venezuela

This is where the bare face of democracy that Chavez has been criticized of damaging can be seen. Chavez administration took power through a rough path in 1999 and was constantly challenged domestically with two coup attempts in 2002. While on the one hand Chavistas grew as more organized politically to “defend” the government, they could not but come into confrontation with the past elite. It was a predictable conflict between the former trying to distribute national “wealth” dominated by the hands of a few and the latter refusing to share. The reality was revealed through the coup in 2002.

There is little disagreement among sociologists that the illiteracy rate was high, that many children in poor neighborhoods outside of Caracas did not even know the existence of schools, and that there was a vicious cycle where inequality of opportunity reproduced poverty and crime. It is out of this that “populist” policies emerged in Venezuela. Oil had been discovered in the 1920s in Venezuela. Since then, the Venezuelan economy has relied on oil with a few wealthy people monopolizing political power through a distorted and contradictory social structure that pushed most people into poverty. Chavez emergence into power in 1999 was significant not as the revival of individual heroism nor of a leader from the top, it was meaningful for its realization of an unprecedented reversal in class relations.  

The relation was between 60% (3.8 millions) of voters who chose Chavez in the 2000 presidential election versus an oligarchy that monopolized politics and economy. As a result, countless community councils and communes were organized in poor neighborhood that had been marginalized and thousands of civil organizations and public independent groups were created. It was not a spontaneous and sporadic rising of individuals and a marginalized class demanding their needs, but an organized people pushing for their demands and growing as a political force. Is the “simple and clear” explanation that Venezuela’s crisis was caused by “populist policies” still an adequate one? At the least, we can agree that the explanation is too piecemeal.

We must question the cynical criticism that government policies are indiscriminately spending to buy voters when these policies are providing education, health care, better water supply facilities, and houses in the poorest neighborhoods, and food at cheaper prices.  Some economic experts might argue that growth must precede distribution: the trickle down effect. However, fiscal policies in developed countries are unable to overcome economic crisis and even the IMF has issued a report “encouraging” government interventionist expenditures rather than the expansion of the market. Given this global context, it is “naive” to say that the Venezuelan crisis is the price of a brutish populism simply because it does not fit the neoliberal economic condition.

As regards the “complete defeat” of the ruling party in the general election often referred to as a revenge of public opinion, if we compare it to the 2010 general election, the ruling party lost 200,000 votes while the opposition increased by 2 million votes. Thus, it is more accurate to state that the opposition gained more supporters rather than to state that supporters of the ruling party switched sides. Consequently, the elections results reflected the mistrust and discontent against the present government amplified by the difficult economic situation in Venezuela. Nonetheless, there is still strong unity among people in their support of the ruling party and they still chose the ruling party to put their needs forward. Despite their political awareness, they are deemed by critics of populism as “foolish” for agreeing to policies that fool them. The crisis in Venezuela should be seen as a dynamic of social changes in the expansion of a fierce class struggle. That may be the only fair yardstick for both classes.

The sudden death of Chavez brought changes in a political system that had formed around him. 21st century socialism in Venezuela began with Chavez; it is certain that his absence caused changes in all sectors and sometimes brought confusion and even crisis. As the Chavez administration was steering the state in a radical direction, this confusion is inevitable. Thus the crisis that Maduro administration faces is the extension of political conflicts that have pervaded Venezuelan society. Also it is worsened by the economic sabotage of the capitalist class and attacks by the opposition party in this transition period. The Maduro administration - inheriting the legacy of Chavez - might need Kurt Weyland’s (2013) “behaviorism” to overcome the current crisis.

Kurt Weyland (2013) put out an interesting analysis on the left government in Latin America. He divided them into two: Brazil and Chile are the realist moderate lefts that comply with complicated reality; Venezuela and Bolivia are radical lefts that seek unrealistic goal in current situation with political ambition using revolutionary symbols and slogans. He concluded that the moderate left is stabler and attains greater “economic” achievements in the long term. It is an attempt to explain four different countries’ politics and economy with a coarse classification between provocative behaviorism and careful realism. It attempts to show that a policy based on efficiency and a strategy conformist to reality are superior. Unfortunately, it is reminiscent of the revisionism that was controversial in the revolutionary period. The conclusion is already proved in history. I do not have to enumerate the various facets of revisionism, it is enough to point towards the various discussions of revisionism in the period of the Second International.

This is my opinion about the crisis facing the Maduro administration. It inherited Chavez’s legacy which was criticized for damaging democracy. If Venezuela continues to pave the way for the Bolivarian Revolution as the Maduro administration claims, I would like to conclude by saying “Crisis in revolutionary period can serve as another opportunity”. “The revolution made progress, not by its immediate tragicomic achievements but by the creation of a powerful, united counter-revolution, an opponent in combat with whom the party of overthrow ripened into a really revolutionary party.”  (The Class Struggle in France, Karl Max)

written by Jeong, Ih Na  (HK Professor, Busan University of Foreign Studies, Institute of Iberoamerican Studies)