In the Global North, with our imaginations left to percolate in the white supremacist swill taken for granted as history, it can be easy to sink into despair at the prospect of living through what Francis Fukuyama so ambitiously dubbed “the end of history.” Not the potential for apocalypse, the immolation in toxic smog or mushroom cloud that could in fact bring the succession of humanities to an irreversible close, but something much more hopeless: the end of progress and transformation, the end of struggle between ideologies and civilizations, the end of hope and imagination. Since the fall of the Soviet Union – now nearly thirty years ago – Europeans and North Americans have seen more and more of our lives consumed by consensus. The political sphere is shrinking, leaving our nations in the hands of exhausting technocrats; the metaphysical sphere is shrinking, leaving our subjectivity in the increasingly desubjectified hands of artificially intelligent technological algorithms; the interpersonal sphere is shrinking, leaving us grasping for the illusion of the individual in esoterically manufactured culture and identity. Occasionally a Donald Trump or Osama bin Laden will rear their monstrous head against the assumed hegemony of liberal capitalism, but their exceptionality (and their utter failure to articulate any future not dictated by consensus terminology) seems only to secure the sanctity of their foe. Communism, solidarity, ecology, spiritual life – these were the gods that failed, leaving us with nothing to do but consume, vote, and self-medicate.
But this nihilism, which like all nihilisms takes itself for gritty realism, can only be born out of desperately willful ignorance and indifference to the vast bulk of the world’s human beings, who never cease resisting their dehumanization with courage, creativity, and, at certain elusive moments, the miraculous potential for success. Just as the past three decades in Europe and North America have been characterized by the rapid demolition of hope, the past three decades in Latin America have seen a historically unprecedented movement of people toward freedom and justice – a movement that, with the Trump administration’s moves this week to destroy the Fifth Republic of Venezuela, is approaching its greatest trial yet.
In the United States, a nation celebrating the rhetorical victory of “democracy” over “communism” (as if a) the two systems were mutually exclusive and b) either system had ever existed), few people had any way to imagine the political horror unfolding to our south even as the Soviet Union crumbled on the day after Christmas, 1991. It is worth reiterating the crisis of that moment in the not-so-distant past.
A number of countries were ruled explicitly by murderous fascists (though that term is rarely used to describe non-European dictators) – Peru’s new President Alberto Fujimori was slaughtering the descendants of the Incas in the Andes; Guatemala’s military government subjected labor organizers and indigenous villages to mass rape and torture; the brutal regime that had murdered tens of thousands in El Salvador was still clinging to power; and a brutal junta was beginning its terrorist crackdown on Haiti after having just overthrown democratically elected president Jean-Baptiste Aristide. In Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Suriname, and Uruguay, so-called “transitions to democracy” were rehabilitating the very military regimes that had decimated those countries for centuries. The people of Columbia, Honduras, Mexico, and Panama were all reeling as their enormously militarized states became effective puppets of drug cartels shipping narcotics to North American consumers. Only two governments out of the region’s twenty rejected the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” of privatization, slashed social welfare spending, and tax cuts for the rich: Nicaragua, which had been battered by CIA-funded terrorists for a decade, and Cuba, which was effectively cut off from the outside world by US sanctions explicitly designed to “reduce the population by one fifth.” Though the region teemed with agricultural and mineral wealth, four centuries of imperial domination left the vast majority of Latin Americans (especially those descended from indigenous or African slaves) among the world’s poorest people.
It is only in this context that we can adequately conceptualize the rise of Hugo Chávez, an Afro-Venezuelan army officer who had grown up in what North Americans would call extreme poverty. Just months after the Soviet bloc fell, Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolutionary Army (named for Símon Bolívar, who established a unified South American state to expel the Spanish in 1819) launched a coup against the right wing Venezuelan government, backed by a vast and majority-black social movement protesting cuts to social programs and police brutality. Like so many Latin American revolutionaries before him, he was defeated easily by the CIA-backed regime and locked in the infamously brutal Yare prison.
Then began the miracle.
Previous socialist revolutions in Latin America and around the world had relied on one of two European conceptions of socialism: Marxism-Leninism, the basis of Cuba’s party-led collectivized state and the defunct Soviet Union, and Social Democracy, the model that to this day proves immensely prosperous in milquetoast northern Europe. Neither model is particularly feasible in modern South America. Marxism-Leninism depends on a political party’s ability to seize power by force, and is thus permanently at a disadvantage to the CIA, which effectively wrote the rulebook on power by force in the Americas. Social Democracy depends on the transition of bourgeois modes of government to egalitarian collective control, which is impossible in a continent where existing governments are existentially premised on racial exclusion and subservience to foreign empires.
But the Bolivarian movement was situated in a uniquely Latino socialism that predates Marx by centuries. Throughout Venezuela and the rest of South America, the primary mode of survival during the rule of the Spanish Empire had been through local communes called colectivos. Black slaves and indigenous peasants had organized networks for food distribution and self protection that existed continuously, outside of and antagonistic to any official legal structure, from the colonial period forward. The political genius of Chávez rested in his decision not to impose a socialist party under his own direction, as Castro did in Cuba, but to uncover a socialist movement simply by linking together previously existing communities. While Chávez waited in prison, the Bolivarian Revolutionary Army turned to the direct democracy of the colectivos for leadership and in doing so gained the trust of of the enormous bulk of the body politic. By 1994, public pressure was so great that the government had no choice but to release Chávez from prison. And in 1998, with overwhelming popular support, he was elected President of Venezuela. He promptly crafted a new constitution which demanded democratic control of private corporations, public distribution of commodity revenue, and local government directly by colectivos.
The Bolivarian Revolution lifted a veil from the realm of possibility in Latin America. Suddenly the floodgates were broken, and a Pink Tide of left-wing parties, backed by indigenous groups and labor unions, flooded into power. Longtime revolutionaries such as Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, and Evo Morales in Bolivia began transforming a continent practically overnight. While in 1998 there had been zero left wing governments in South America, in 2011 Pink Tide socialists ruled everywhere but Chile and Columbia. Though the impacts were less uniform in Central America and the Caribbean, at different times Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and most recently Mexico all saw Pink Tide victories.
The impact was impossible to overstate. In just a decade, social spending in Latin America pulled more people out of poverty than in any equivalent time period in human history. Wealth inequality and racial wealth disparity plummeted even as they reached all-time highs in the rest of the world. Homelessness, child mortality, and illiteracy all shrank by orders of magnitude. By no means was the Pink Tide a uniform phenomenon – each country offered its own unique experimentation, such as Bolivia’s globally unmatched environmental protections or Ecuador’s immense expansion of land rights to indigenous people. But astoundingly, however radical it became, the transformation that took place in a region very recently infamous for political violence happened without the extreme bloodshed that marred even the most heroic victories of the twentieth century socialist movements.
There were, of course, always signs that disaster waited just past the horizon. The most conspicuous practical difference between Chávez’s Pink Tide and Castro’s revolution in Cuba was the treatment of the upper classes. Where Castro had seized wealth, Chávez seized profit. Where the Cuban Revolution survived by nationalizing private property and distributing its protection, the Pink Tide survived by nationalizing commodity industries (critically, for the case of Venezuela, oil), selling the commodities, and distributing the surplus. This causes two significant problems: firstly, while the Cuban Revolution could be self-sustained within Cuba, the Pink Tide was reliant on capitalist commodity buyers around the world, particularly the Chinese; secondly, while the class interest of the Cuban population is largely uniform, Venezuela and other Pink Tide countries still have a significant population of very wealthy people with a vested interest in ending the revolution.
By 2009, the global price of commodities was beginning to falter, which gave the American empire the opportunity it had been waiting for to resume its usual role in Latin American politics: unconditional domination and economic extraction. While throughout the Bush administration solidarity within the Pink Tide bloc had been strong enough to prevent substantial US interference (except for an embarrassing attempt at a coup against Chávez in 2002), newly elected President Barack Obama could smell blood and, in 2009, supported the Honduran military and economic elite in a surprise takeover of their government which included the kidnapping of President Manuel Zelaya. Though the Pink Tide bloc condemned this move, they failed to see it for the warning that it was.
Then, in 2010, commodity prices crashed, Chinese investment slowed, the money for social programs dried up, and chaos broke out. The movements that had once formed a base for Pink Tide governments rightly demanded increased socialization and relief spending, and in return the most powerful Pink Tide governments (Brazil and Venezuela) turned on the movements with police power (notably, in Bolivia, where Morales embraced the new social unrest, the Pink Tide remains strong). Meanwhile, embracing the moment of weakness, the wealthy right wing across the continent, which had never lost its grip on media apparatuses, began to amplify religious evangelicals and military strongmen as the antidote to the Pink Tide’s failure. The Obama administration leapt back into Reagan-era policies of arming right-wing rebels across the region, leading to widely publicized violent confrontations between protestors and police. Obama was particularly fixated on undermining Chávez as the symbolic leader of the Pink Tide, ordering a seizure Venezuela’s oil assets through aggressive sanctions. As millions of Venezuelans face hyperinflation, malnutrition, and a near-total breakdown of the Bolivarian social investment program, it is critical to remember that their suffering (which the US attributes to “economic incompetence”) is entirely the result of Obama’s decision to sanction their national wealth, a blatant and murderous act of economic warfare.
But the left can not forget that the chaos inflicted by American foreign policy is not always such an insurmountable obstacle – had Chávez, like Castro, worked to diversify his state’s assets into a mass agricultural movement rather than basing his economy on the inherently unsustainable value of his oil fields, the talons of empire could not so quickly and efficiently strangled his government. Socialism in Cuba, for all of its flaws, has a major argument in its favor: nearly sixty years of economic blockade and imperial aggression from the United States never weakened the egalitarian programs at its core. It shows a blatant authoritarian streak for Chávez to choose finance his revolution through “petro-socialism”; he knew that oil fields, though unstable and short-sighted in both economic and ecological terms, could spatially remain under his exclusive political control. Perhaps that streak was born from the anxiety any ruler would feel facing the promise of his own 1999 constitution – government directly by commune, a true communism that could encompass and surpass the best of the Marxist promise, the boldest experiment in democracy ever attempted in the history of human civilization.
By the time Chávez died of cancer in 2013, he had entirely abandoned the potential of that promise, going so far as arresting many of his former colectivo allies. And his successor, Nicolás Maduro, who enjoyed none of Chávez’s familiarity and charisma, has only muddied the swamp, leaning more heavily into police violence and military posturing. Yet it is worth noting that the core Chavista base – poor Afro-Venezuelans pulled into the middle class by enormous social spending – remain overwhelmingly loyal to the government. This is less a testament to Maduro’s credibility than to the overt racism of the coalition of parties that the US media innocuously terms “the opposition.” In 2017, international observers filmed anti-government protestors setting a black man on fire, chanting, “Black man, black man, this is what happens to Chavistas!” Chávez’s affectionate nickname, “Mi Commandante” or “my Commander,” is still frequently parodied on opposition placards as “Miko Mandante” or “monkey dictator.” And the images coming from the latest rounds of protests show a vastly different racial composition in pro- and anti-government rallies, apparently impossible to discuss in English language media coverage.
It is also worth noting that Juan Guaidó, who Mike Pence pronounced the rightful President of Venezuela in a bizarre video last week, is a secretive non-entity in Venezuelan politics whose party, the ironically Popular Will, boycotts elections to avoid revealing how popular or unpopular they may be. Though Guaidó has been embraced both by the Trump administration and by Democratic leaders including Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin, he has never run for President in Venezuela and never even claimed the office until after Pence’s video was released. As recently as 2014, the solidaristic power of the Pink Tide was strong enough to force the United States to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, but now, only three South American governments (Bolivia, Uruguay, and Suriname) and three Central American ones (Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) have refused to support a US-imposed Guaidó government. Bolívar was apparently right that only a unified South America can resist foreign imperial power. Unless Vatican-brokered negotiations can the legitimacy of his government, Maduro is likely to be engaged in an all-out civil war within the next 30 days. And with a need to distract from the backlog of his domestic failures, President Trump will have every interest in joining that war, no matter how many lives he destroys in the process.
The Venezuelan people find themselves trapped in a tragic contradiction: they are forced to choose between Maduro, an embodiment of the short-sightedness and cynical opportunism that kneecapped their revolution, and Trump, who wishes to restore the most nightmarish elements of the American Empire with its unbridled theft of resources and violent racial oppression. In empirical terms the choice is obvious – better the demon of the present than the devil of the past. But as we fight against Trump’s coup at any and all costs, which we must, we must also fight to guarantee that the miracle uncovered in the Bolivarian Revolution is not returned to the shelves of history. We must situate in the front of our minds not Chávez or Maduro, not the negatory logic of anti-capitalism or anti-imperialism, not the defensive war against the past, but the incredible affirmation of a possibility: the radical democracy of the commune, carrying us down the only survivable path through the twenty-first century.