Objective conditions in Venezuela: Maduro’s defensive strategy and contradictions among the people
First published at Science and Society.
In a surprising move, the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) and several smaller leftist parties broke with the government of Nicolás Maduro in July 2020 after twenty years of supporting him and his predecessor Hugo Chávez. In effect, the PCV rejected Maduro’s “defensive strategy” consisting of rollbacks designed to attract private capital in the face of adverse circumstances largely caused by US–imposed sanctions. The PCV accused the Maduro government of embracing a neoliberal approach, abandoning the working class, and violating democratic norms. Actually, the PCV was always critical of Chávez and Maduro, but the party’s anti-imperialism had previously overshadowed criticism of the government (Vázquez, 2021). Curiously, the PCV and its allies broke with the Chavista (pro Chávez) government when Washington, supported by several dozen conservative and right-wing governments, was ratcheting up pressure on Venezuela through interventionist policies to achieve regime change. While some analysts on the left attributed Maduro’s concessions to the need to attract capital and influence Washington policy makers, the PCV blamed the rollbacks on “the government’s dominant liberal bourgeoisie tendency” (Ellner, 2021; PCV, 2021b). The analysis of subjective conditions (the consciousness and resoluteness of the revolutionary subject) and objective conditions by Marx and Lenin in their formulation of non-offensive or defensive strategies helps frame the issue of the Maduro government-PCV split. Just as Marx and Lenin aimed to identify stages based on objective-subjective conditions that, in turn, determined strategy, the intensification of imperialist aggression against Venezuela beginning in 2015 represented a new stage which, according to the Chavistas, required a new political and economic approach. The year 2015 not only marked a new threshold for what could be called Washington’s “war on Venezuela,” but was also the beginning of the rise to power of right-wing movements in Latin America (first with the election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina). Indeed, Maduro called attention to the unfavorable objective conditions by calling his most important business-friendly legislation in 2021 the “Anti-Blockade Law” and, in doing so, justified his defensive strategy as a necessary response to the harsh measures imposed by imperialist powers.
This article argues that in the Venezuelan case, there are tools, albeit imprecise ones, to determine whether the type of retreat engineered by Maduro was congruent with objective–subjective conditions stemming largely from imperialist aggression. The article contends that a viable leftist “defensive strategy” retains some of the programs and struggles the left embraced until then, as popular frontism in the 1930s was designed to do and as the Maduro government claimed it was doing. In addition, the article argues that although objective and subjective conditions in Venezuela justified a defensive strategy on economic policy, an analysis from a leftist perspective needs to critically look at other government policies and actions that may have represented an overreaction by Maduro to unfavorable objective conditions.
The article’s basic argument is that the intensification of the Washington-directed campaign against Venezuela after 2015, particularly under the Trump administration, represented a qualitative change in objective conditions. The PCV largely passed over the issue of how to respond to changing objective conditions stemming from imperialism in its decision to withdraw support from and condemn the Maduro government. The paper will examine other shades of leftist positions on the government to shed light on alternative critiques of Maduro informed by anti-imperialist analysis. Specifically, it will look at positions of “critical support” for Maduro and “loyal opposition” to his government by political actors on the left who shared many of the PCV’s criticisms but rejected its definitive break with the Chavista leadership.
The analysis of objective-subjective conditions is essential in the formulation of any political strategy, but there are potential perils that this article will discuss. Objective conditions are largely quantifiable, but subjective ones are not. This factor may tilt analysis toward objective factors at the expense of giving proper weight to revolutionary subjects that appear dormant. Indeed, unfavorable objective conditions are sometimes opportunistically invoked to justify strategies that overlook undemocratic practices, corruption, and the failure to take risks to make revolutionary advances. A corollary of Lenin’s dictum on democratic centralism — that Communist Parties need to be as internally democratic as it can given existing circumstances — may be formulated for leftist governments like that of Maduro facing external threats: despite unfavorable objective conditions, a leftist government cannot place on the back burner all policies and goals that point in the direction of a socialist future.
Similarly, the left’s implementation of defensive strategies has historically had mixed outcomes. The last hundred years are replete with examples of leftist governments that succumb to pressure from powerful groups on the right and definitively abandon the struggle for structural transformation. Thus, a distinction must be made between a temporary pragmatically driven retreat in the form of a “defensive strategy,” which nevertheless continues struggles on some fronts, and a permanent surrender. The article will examine conflicting currents within the Maduro leadership and movement in order to contrast these approaches and their long-term implications.
Defensive strategies and the appraisal of objective–subjective conditions
In breaking with Maduro despite the escalation of imperialist aggression, PCV leaders overlooked the Communist movement’s history of centering analysis on the reading of objective conditions. A brief review of the writings of Marx and Lenin is in order for the purpose of demonstrating the centrality of objective and subjective conditions in Marxist analysis and to suggest that the PCV’s decision to completely break with Maduro, while based on plausible arguments, was ill-considered.
The analysis by Marx and Lenin of objective and subjective conditions served to identify pre-revolutionary situations, or to refute the claim that the country was in a pre-revolutionary situation, or to argue that a new stage had set in requiring a defensive strategy. Thus, for example, Lenin pointed to objective and subjective conditions in his April Theses, which declared that Russia was approaching a pre revolutionary situation, and then in his activist support for events in October. Shortly after that, in the throes of civil war, Lenin analyzed objective and subjective conditions and advocated a defensive strategy on various national and international fronts, as did the international Communist movement at several junctures throughout the twentieth century. These experiences point to a pattern in which factions on the left, invigorated by the momentum and advances of previous years, criticized the defensive strategy as signifying the doom of the revolutionary process. This was the case with Louis Auguste Blanqui’s followers and allies following the revolutions of 1848 and, to a certain extent, with some Bolshevik leaders after 1917 (as discussed below).
It was also the case in Venezuela, where virtually the entire left in the nation avidly supported the charismatic Chávez. Thus, many considered any rollback to be a betrayal of his legacy. Some Maduro critics like the PCV called for defending the gains made under Chávez and then embarking on a renewed offensive by “returning to the path of national liberation” and eventually socialism once subjective conditions improved in the form of a favorable “change in the correlation of forces” (PCV-Comisión Nacional de Ideología, 2021, 7). The Corriente Marxista Internacional (affiliated with the Trotskyist International Marxist Tendency), which joined the PCV-initiated anti-Maduro alliance, was even less hesitant to allow the imperialist offensive to put the brakes on revolutionary transformation, as Maduro had done. Claiming that “weakness always invites aggression,” the Corriente called for deepening the revolutionary process as the only way to counter imperialist aggression (Corriente Marxista Lucha de Clases, 2020, 6; see also Gilbert, 2020, 15).
There are parallels between the debate on the left over Maduro’s defensive strategy and the polemics over positions assumed by Marx and Lenin in different contexts. For Marx and Engels, the analysis of objective conditions was fundamental to dialectical materialism. If quantitative change leads to qualitative change — a basic precept of dialectical materialism — then only a reading of constantly changing objective-subjective conditions can provide a rough idea of how far a nation is at a given moment from achieving revolution and the correct strategy to follow.
What is striking about the span of the political careers of Marx and Lenin is their support for widely different strategies depending on existing objective and subjective conditions. Thus, for instance, on the eve of the revolutions of 1848, Marx and Engels were particularly optimistic about Germany, which they viewed as in a pre-revolutionary situation due to its “more advanced conditions” including “a much more advanced proletariat” than existed elsewhere in Europe (Marx and Engels, 1998, 57). Beginning in mid-1850, however, in the context of a conservative backlash, Marx polemicized against an insurrectionist line within the Communist League (which included the Blanquists) by pointing to such objective conditions as the economic prosperity that had set in throughout Europe, in contrast to the situation in 1848. On this basis, he called for a long-term strategy of building a mass based workers’ movement before initiating a revolutionary offensive. Engels later noted that Marx’s “cool estimation of the situation . . . was regarded as heresy” by the League’s radical faction (Engels, 2010, 328; Johnstone, 1983, 302, 306). Marx’s realistic assessment of developments in France in late 1870 also led him to advocate caution, in contrast to the radical faction on the left headed by Blanqui. The arming of the popular sectors in Paris, however, was a game changer for Marx, who proclaimed, “Paris armed was the revolution armed,” at the same time that he became a wholehearted supporter of the Paris Commune (though not without criticisms) (Marx, 1933). Lenin also pointed to changing objective and subjective conditions in his formulation of defensive (or non-offensive) strategies in the early 1920s, sometimes in contrast to the views of prominent leaders of the Soviet Communist Party and the Comintern. In addition, he made clear that strategies were temporary and pegged to existing conditions. In anticipation of possible disillusionment among socialists, Lenin insisted that the NEP was a “strategic retreat” and that, just like in warfare, the enemy and the main objectives remained the same (Lenin, 1973, 63–65). The NEP was made necessary by the “very severe defeat on the economic front” during the period of “war communism,” but also the economic expansion of capitalist Europe in the 1920s as well as soil impoverishment in Russia, the result of prolonged war (ibid., 63).
Similarly, on the international front, Lenin’s position did not coincide with that of Grigory Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin, and other Communist leaders who failed to reflect strategically on the bloody setbacks in Hungary in 1919 and Germany in 1919 and 1921 and who assumed that the momentum of the 1917 Soviet revolution would continue unabated (Jacobson, 1994, 46–47). At the Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920, Lenin differed with M. N. Roy on his rosy assessment of the revolutionary prospects of his native India and his negative views of the national liberation movement represented by Gandhi. The assessment of objective and subjective conditions was key as Roy greatly exaggerated favorable conditions, including the numerical strength and ideological commitment of the nation’s proletariat. In Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin criticized ultra-left leaders in Germany for overlooking objective–subjective conditions, including the “dormant” state of the masses and for failing to produce “even a shred of proof” to back their claims that parliamentary participation was “politically obsolete” (Lenin, 1966, 57). In what could have been cited by Maduro as an argument for his defensive strategy, Lenin wrote: “The entire history of Bolshevism . . . is full of instances of changes of tack, conciliatory tactics and compromises with other parties, including bourgeois parties!” (ibid., 70). Shortly before his death, Lenin opted for a defensive or non-offensive diplomatic strategy of buying time, or in his words, “holding out,” in order to weather unfavorable conditions. His aim was to “prevent the West European counter-revolutionary states from crushing us” until conditions allowed for Communists to retake the offensive (Jacobson, 1994, 43).
The Communist movement’s analysis of subjective conditions is also relevant to Maduro’s defensive strategy and the leftist opposition in Venezuela. In What Is to Be Done, for instance, Lenin underlined the importance of subjective conditions in their relationship to objective conditions. In it, he argued that the party (subjective condition) was the guarantee that worker struggles would go beyond the economistic aspirations inherent in the mentality of the working class as a whole. In another situation in which the assessment of subjective conditions entered into play, the Soviet government (contrary to the position of Beijing) observed in the 1960s that in important Middle East and African countries, the working class and Communist Parties lacked the numbers and strength to play a lead role in the transformation of their respective countries and ended up viewing non-Communist, nationalistic governments in those regions as politically advanced and as critical allies. Those leftists throughout history who have argued for an offensive strategy with far-reaching objectives, like the Chinese during the 1960s, are usually optimistic regarding subjective conditions and raise the possibility of “revolutionary leaps” occurring in the not-distant future (Gau, 1967, 182, 240, 282; Campbell, 1970, 248–253; Harrison, 2022).
Parties and leaders on the far left of the political spectrum also frequently argue that objective conditions are ripe for revolutionary change but that subjective conditions, namely the left’s revisionist leadership, hold back the process. In other contexts, this line of thinking warns against giving too much weight to objective conditions and using it as an excuse for inaction while ignoring the role of the vanguard (subjective condition) in accelerating change. Furthermore, as a corrective to the determinism resulting from the overemphasis on objective conditions, it is necessary to grasp that there is a dialectical relationship between objective and subjective conditions and that the former is never static. Those on the left who favor giving greater weight to subjective conditions also lash out at the “determinists” — social democrats and mechanical Marxists among them — who ignore that “conditions are never just right” (Harrison, 2022). Had the determinist thinking of Lev Kamenev prevailed in 1917, for instance, the October Revolution would never have occurred, an observation made by those who justified the precipitous decision to engage in guerrilla warfare in Latin America in the 1960s (Muñoz, 1970, 115). In Venezuela, the same line of thinking characterizes parties to the left of the PCV that call for an offensive strategy as a response to the imperialist offensive (to be discussed below).
In summary, both Marx and Lenin pointed to specific objective and subjective conditions to define whether nations were in a pre-revolutionary situation (as in 1848, France in 1871, and Russia in 1917) or whether non-offensive or defensive strategies were called for (as in Europe in the 1850s and the Soviet Union in the early 1920s). Especially relevant for the Venezuelan case was the external political environment (in Latin America and Europe), which, for Marx and Lenin, was also a key factor in determining strategy. Also relevant is that the realistic analysis of Marx and Lenin that led them in certain situations to advocate caution was questioned, and in some cases vigorously opposed, by important figures in the Communist movement (and other leftists, such as the Left Socialist Revolutionaries who opposed the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk) and not just the Blanquists, anarchists and (in the 1930s) Trotsky, as is well known. Advocates of an offensive strategy included August Willich and Karl Schapper of the Communist League in the 1850s and Zinoviev and Bukharin in the 1920s with regard to foreign policy.
Maduro’s defensive strategy as a response to the imperialist offensive (objective conditions)
No leftist government has been spared the disruptive activity promoted by foreign powers in conjunction with local elites. Nevertheless, differences in the intensity of this hostility have to be taken into account by the left in evaluating objective conditions and formulating strategy. The Chavista governments, almost from the outset, were subject to the legal, semi-legal, and illegal regime-change efforts engineered by both sets of actors, more so than in the case of other progressive (or “Pink Tide”) governments in twenty-first century Latin America. A second comparison, namely Venezuela before and after 2015, is also relevant to the discussion of Maduro’s defensive strategy. In 2015 Washington-promoted interventionism in Venezuela reached a new threshold, first with Obama’s executive order declaring Venezuela a threat to US national security and then the international sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. Comparisons between the “war on Venezuela” and Washington’s hostile actions against other “Pink Tide” governments, and between Venezuela before and after 2015, help contextualize Maduro’s defensive strategy and shed light on objective conditions.
Several factors demonstrate that Washington singled out Venezuela for special treatment and that actions designed to undermine stability were especially intense and ongoing compared to those faced by neighboring pro-leftist governments (Emersberger and Podur, 2020, 22). More than any other Pink Tide head of state, Chávez was a charismatic leader with a worldwide following. Washington viewed him as especially threatening because, from the outset, he questioned unipolarity, which was a euphemism for US hegemony and imperialism, and at the same time engaged in an activist foreign policy. The effectiveness of his leadership was demonstrated in his second year in office when, discarding warnings, he traveled to all OPEC countries to pave the way for the organization’s second summit in Caracas, where he gained acceptance for his plan to stabilize oil prices at upper levels. The following actions carried out by external and internal adversaries, even before 2015 when the anti-Maduro campaign reached a new threshold, put in evidence the greater intensity of the destabilization efforts against Venezuela.
The magnitude of destabilization in Venezuela prior to 2015 compared to other pink tide countries
- Ongoing destabilization and regime change actions. The recurrence of disruptions largely designed to achieve regime change had no equivalent among other Pink Tide nations. Mobilizations of this nature included: the coup attempt of April 2002; the two-month general strike (which was, in fact, a lockout) of 2002–3; the “foquista” tactics of street violence in 2003 by those who argued that Chávez would soon assume dictatorial power; the Daktari Ranch incident in 2004 when the arrest of 54 Colombians thwarted an imminent military action to overthrow the government; the street violence in early 2007 to protest the closing of an opposition TV channel that had supported the 2002 coup; random violence in April 2013 following presidential elections which was triggered by an inflammatory statement by defeated candidate Henrique Capriles alleging fraud, resulting in the death of ten Chavistas; the four-month paralysis of strategic urban areas in 2014 (known as the “guarimba”) with the stated aim of achieving regime change, resulting in the death of eight National Guardsmen and policemen (in addition to several dozen civilians). This record of ongoing insurgency and violence had no equivalent in other Pink Tide countries.
- The US’ Office of Transition Initiative (OTI). Shortly after the abortive coup of April 2002, the US installed in its Caracas embassy an Office of Transition, which, as its name implies, financed efforts to bring about regime change and functioned until 2009. The OTI operated under greater secrecy than USAID and National Endowment for Democracy (NED) programs. Nowhere else in South America did Washington set up OTIs, which were largely confined to countries perceived to be failed states or were characterized by extreme poverty typical of the Fourth World.
- Refusal to recognize the legitimacy of elections. Both the Venezuelan opposition and the US government refused to accept the official results of the 2004 recall elections (which were certified by the Carter Center) and the 2013 presidential elections. The major opposition parties refrained from participating in the 2005 congressional elections, a decision Chávez attributed to pressure from Washington.
- “Democracy promotion” programs that financed the Venezuelan opposition. After Chávez’s election in 1998, Venezuela went from the tenth-largest recipient of NED funding to the first (Clemente, 2005, 66) in amounts that continued to increase sharply in subsequent years (Huertas, 2012, 23). The “Cablegate” documents released by Wikileaks reveal that the Venezuelan-based NGOs funded by NED and USAID engaged in a diversity of activities to a certain extent unmatched in other countries, including human rights, agrarian issues, electoral observation, conflict resolution, civilian-military relations, economic reform, law enforcement, education, decentralization, communications media, and the judiciary. Following Chávez’s re-election in 2006, democracy promotion funding targeted the student movement (the “generation of 2007”) from which Juan Guaidó and other radical opposition leaders during the Trump years emerged.
- US diplomatic efforts to undermine Venezuelan foreign policy initiatives. The “Cablegate” documents also shed light on the ongoing covert attempts by US diplomats to block Venezuelan initiatives abroad. While Cablegate documents on other countries in the region demonstrate the role of diplomatic personnel in promoting US corporate interests and specific Washington concerns such as security, in the case of Venezuela, interventionism was clearly directed against the Chávez government per se. Examples include the continuous efforts of the US ambassador in Haiti to convince that nation’s president not to join the Venezuelan-sponsored PetroCaribe (Coughlin and Ives, 2011), pressure on Lula to take the lead in isolating Venezuela, and a request that Brazil engage in espionage against Chávez; and pressure on the Russian government to refrain from selling arms to Venezuela.
- The Colombian border and violence. Another largely unique situation is Venezuela’s extensive, easily passable border with Colombia, whose governments for most of the period were hostile to Caracas. The Venezuelan government accused Colombian president Alvaro Uribe of failing to combat contraband and the paramilitary units that crossed the border, as documented by Cablegate (Huertas, 2012, 23).
- The role of the top leadership of the Church, business organizations, the labor movement, and the corporate media in attempts at regime change. The cohesiveness of these established institutions in their support for the two regime change attempts in 2002–3 made the Venezuelan case somewhat unique. The Church hierarchy aggressively attacked Chávez during his first year in office. Then it applauded the April 2002 coup, while prominent corporate media representatives took credit for the coup the day after it took place. The alliance between traditional labor leaders and the nation’s main business organization (FEDECAMARAS) that spearheaded both the coup and the general strike was uncommon for such major events. Carlos Ortega, president of the Workers Confederation of Venezuela (CTV), along with a number of opposition political leaders, met with US political leaders and government officials on the eve of the April coup undoubtedly to get the green light for the impending action.
The intensification of destabilization after 2015
By 2005, following Chávez’s consolidation of power and several regime change fiascos, inner-circle policymakers in Washington put off all-out efforts to topple the government until more favorable circumstances set in. That time came following Chávez’s death in March 2013 due to several factors. First, Maduro lacked the charisma and popularity of his predecessor and was elected president in April by a mere margin of 1.5 percent of the vote. Second, in the context of a near power vacuum prior to Chávez’s death, the exchange control system spun out of control, setting off rampant inflation that became difficult to control. Third, beginning in mid-2015, international oil prices plummeted. And fourth, beginning in 2015, conservative and right-wing presidents came to power in nearly every South American nation while the Venezuelan opposition gained control of the National Assembly. In this context of vulnerability, Washington’s hostility to the Venezuelan government reached unprecedented levels. The diversity of fronts in which aggressive actions were taken to achieve regime change had no equivalent elsewhere in the region during these years. The following actions demonstrate the qualitative change that occurred beginning in 2015.
- The Obama executive order of 2015 declaring Venezuela an “extraordinary threat” to US national security. Washington spokespeople failed to provide evidence for this claim. The order followed a pattern in which similar accusations against Syria, Iran, and other countries were preludes to implementing economic sanctions. It is in the context of Washington’s increasing hostility toward Venezuela that the decision of US companies to close plants and leave the nation has to be seen. However, the announced reason for their decision was deteriorating economic conditions. Both factors were undoubtedly at play. Among the companies to leave were Kimberly Clark, Clorox, Pirelli, General Motors, and Kellogg’s.
2. Regime change actions supported by the US The reoccurrence of regime change attempts through different methods set Venezuela off from the rest of the Pink Tide. These included the four-month “guarimba” of 2017; a helicopter attack on the supreme court in June 2017; the attempted assassination of Maduro by two drones during a public event in August 2018; Juan Guaidó’s self-proclamation as president on January 23, 2019; the attempt on February 23, 2019, to supply “humanitarian aid” via the Colombian border which was designed to induce Venezuela’s military to turn on Maduro, as partly corroborated by a USAID audit (Reuters, 2021; Emersberger and Podur, 2021, 43–46); a failed military coup attempt on April 30, 2021, organized by Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular party; a paramilitary invasion by sea originating from Colombia organized by a Florida-based firm with links to Trump and financially supported by Guaidó with the participation of two US green berets in May 2020.
- Crippling sanctions. The well-publicized activism of US cabinet members in tracing Venezuelan trade patterns and money flows, and threats against foreign companies, was designed to ensure the effectiveness of economic sanctions and encourage “overcompliance.” The net effect of this campaign was to intimidate foreign companies, even those of Russia and China, into halting all commercial activity with Venezuela, even in the case of food, medicine, and other products not included in the sanctions (overcompliance). The active promotion of overcompliance and the use of US-dominated financial institutions for enforcement purposes took the system of sanctions as embodied in the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 against Cuba to new levels.
- The US government’s encouragement of Maduro’s kidnapping and assassination. No other Pink Tide head of state faced overt threats of this nature. The above-mentioned paramilitary invasion of May 2020 had as an objective the kidnapping of Maduro to collect the 15 million dollar bounty the Trump administration placed on him.
- Efforts to isolate the Maduro government. The above-discussed strategy to isolate the Chavista government before 2015 reached new heights under the Trump administration, reinforced by the rise to power of conservative and right-wing governments in Europe and Latin America. The creation of the Lima Group in 2017 by twelve hemispheric nations, which rejected the legitimacy of the Maduro government and called for stringent measures against it, clearly demonstrated that the offensive against Venezuela was unmatched by actions against other Pink Tide governments.
- Washington’s unwavering support for Venezuelan opposition leaders. Not only did the US insist on international recognition of the parallel government of Juan Guaidó, but it threatened the Venezuelan government with reprisals if he were to be imprisoned. In an unprecedented move, the Citgo Petroleum Corporation and other assets of the Venezuelan state were turned over to the Guaidó makeshift administration.
- The freezing of the Venezuelan state’s deposits in financial institutions. In another act of aggression that no other government in the region faced, an estimated 5.5 billion dollars of the Venezuelan government’s reserves were frozen in banks that feared reprisals from the US government and the European Union (La Iguana, 2021). The use of international financial markets to enforce the sanctions represented an escalation of the “soft coup” tactics employed by the U. S. government during the Cold War.
The above points attempt to demonstrate that the “war on Venezuela” was more intense than the hostile actions carried out by powerful domestic and foreign actors against other Pink Tide countries and that the aggression took a qualitative leap in 2015. The purpose of the discussion is to contextualize the defensive strategy adopted by Maduro. It also addresses the argument that all leftist governments face similar types of hostility, and thus Maduro should have been better prepared. While the argument is certainly valid, the severity of the hostility relative to other Pink Tide countries needs to enter into the analysis as well as the historical precedent of defensive and non-offensive strategies dating back to Marx.
In addition to the objective factors that influenced Maduro’s decision to embark on a defensive strategy, subjective conditions were also at play. Specifically, disillusionment among Chavistas, which stood in sharp contrast with their passionate support for Chávez, accounted for the low voter turnout for the governing United Socialist Party (PSUV) and its resounding defeat in the 2015 elections for the National Assembly. In those elections, the united opposition received approximately the same number of votes as in the previous presidential election of April 2013, while the PSUV saw a loss of nearly two million votes, representing a decline from 51 to 41 percent of the national vote.
Maduro’s post-2015 policies: capitulation or masterstroke?
Like Lenin’s NEP, Maduro’s defensive strategy contained economic and political dimensions. The NEP was designed to facilitate economic recovery in the aftermath of the Civil War and neutralize, if not appease, the kulak class with their organized resistance (including revolts) to Communist rule (political objective). Maduro, for his part, adopted a multidimensional strategy consisting of pro-business economic policies to attract much-needed investments, but it also had a political side. Concessions to the private sector were designed to divide the opposition by neutralizing a “moderate” sector that supported the measures and to influence Washington to lift the sanctions.
The political dimension of Maduro’s defensive strategy rested on the premise that regime change was not Washington’s sole objective. The US government used the sanctions as “leverage” (a term increasingly used in Washington) to extract concessions in favor of US business interests. It also insisted that Venezuelan opposition leaders (especially its surrogates) be given ample political opportunities. Indeed, Maduro’s pro-business policies were a sine qua non for reaching agreements and maintaining cordial relations with Venezuelan opposition moderates. In short, Maduro’s defensive strategy was directed at different actors, specifically Washington, the moderate opposition, and domestic and global business interests (Ron, 2020).
Maduro’s harshest critics on the left interpreted his government’s pro-business measures as evidence that it had embarked on a path of capitalist development by allying itself with what various Chavistas called a “revolutionary bourgeoisie.” In contrast, according to Maduro, concessions to the private sector were temporary measures designed to encourage private investments. Thus Maduro prefaced his unveiling of the Anti-Blockade Law to the National Assembly with a 3,500-word exposition on the devastating impact of the economic war on Venezuela. In addition, measures that eliminated the state’s absolute control of mixed companies in the oil industry were designed to get around the US sanctions that prohibited commercial and financial dealings with the state oil company PDVSA (Argus, 2021).
Maduro, however, refrained from discussing two other targets of his defensive strategy, namely the winning over of Washington and the Venezuelan “moderates” to recognition of his government’s legitimacy. Had he explicitly stated this, he would have reinforced the accusations of his leftist critics that he was appeasing foreign and domestic adversaries by granting them concessions in violation of national sovereignty. Nevertheless, the Maduro government entered into back-channel negotiations with representatives of US business interests close to the Trump administration. It even proposed an oil industry deal with one of them in an attempt to influence policymakers to lift the sanctions (Confessore, Kurmanaev, and Vogel, 2020, A-1).
Maduro’s policy of reaching out to the “moderates” had long been advocated by sectors within the Chavista movement. From the beginning of Chávez’s presidency, the Venezuelan opposition was divided, as demonstrated during the 2002 coup when the “moderates” favored achieving regime change institutionally through the National Assembly rather than the self-proclamation of businessman Pedro Carmona as president. Within the Chavista movement, a minority current headed by the vice-president and long-time leftist José Vicente Rangel favored overtures to the “moderates” and rhetoric that differentiated them from the opposition radicals (Valero, 2011). The failure to adopt Rangel’s strategy undoubtedly contributed to the unity of the opposition, as encouraged by Washington, which paved the way for its overwhelming victory in the 2015 National Assembly elections. Subsequently, pressure from the Trump administration assured that the moderate leaders would acquiesce to the radicals’ regime change strategy, even though they were not even informed about Guaidó’s intentions to proclaim himself president in 2019.
Maduro’s pro-business policies and political concessions (such as increasing the opposition’s representation on the five-member National Electoral Council from one to two) influenced moderates, many formerly ardent anti-Chavistas, to tone down their rhetoric. The defensive strategy thus helped drive a wedge between the moderates and the radicals. In less than two years, the opposition went from a united bloc supporting Guaidó’s self-proclamation as president to total fragmentation as nearly all the major parties split in two over whether to participate in the National Assembly elections held in December 2020. Various issues separated the opposition moderates and pro-Guaidó radicals. In addition to the debate over electoral participation, the moderates, unlike the radicals, opposed the US-imposed sanctions and generally supported the Anti-Blockade Law (El Universal, 2021). In some instances, the Chavistas and moderates acted in unison against the pro-Guaidó radicals. Thus in 2020, while opposition moderate and Chavista deputies to the National Assembly allied to nominate its president and vice presidents, the radical deputies split off to form a parallel body.
By 2020 it became clear that the regime change strategy against Venezuela had failed, as was acknowledged by the influential US Senator Chris Murphy. At that point, some business operatives close to Trump and members of his administration favored using the sanctions, not as a means to overthrow Maduro but as “leverage” to pressure him into making concessions, a position that became dominant under Biden. Back–channel negotiators indicated to Bloomberg that they were “waiting to see concrete steps from Maduro” in order to “protect the interest of US bondholders and high-stakes American companies on the ground, such as Chevron” (Laya, Vasquez, and Jacobs, 2021). One of the economic measures required for normalizing relations with Venezuela was the repeal of Chávez’s Ley Orgánica de Hidrocarburos of 2001, which established state majority ownership of mixed companies in the oil industry. The implementation of the “leverage” approach made clear what was the case all along, namely that Washington’s policy toward Venezuela was not about strengthening democracy but rather US strategic economic and political objectives.
In summary, Maduro’s supporters maintain that the government’s defensive strategy did not represent a permanent surrender to the logic of capital. Instead, like Lenin’s NEP, it was a response to highly unfavorable objective and subjective conditions. The plausibility of the Chavista leadership’s argument rested on its assessment of the intensity of the US-driven war on Venezuela, particularly after 2015, as well as the increasing support in Washington for the use of sanctions not for regime change purposes, but to extract economic concessions from Maduro. Even within the logic of this pro-government argument, however, Maduro was open to criticism for failing to initiate overtures that may have won over or neutralized dissidents and critical sectors on the left, such as the PCV. Indeed, some on the left accused Maduro of sectarianism (Marea Socialista, 2015). Had the Maduro government viewed its differences with the PCV prior to the 2020 split as, in the words of Mao Zedong, a “secondary contradiction” (Mao, 2007, 88–89) meriting internal discussion and debate, then the infighting on the left may have been contained, as will be discussed below.
Left positions on Maduro’s defensive strategy
By the December 2020 elections, the Venezuelan left appeared to be highly polarized between the Madurista PSUV and the anti-Maduro coalition led by the PCV, with little or no gradations between the two poles. The atmosphere of polarization, however, belied the diversity among Venezuelan leftists with regard to positions on the Maduro government, its defensive strategy, and the war on Venezuela. The PCV’s break with the government in the lead-up to the 2020 elections partly contributed to polarization because of the party’s widely recognized prestige. Not only is the PCV Venezuela’s oldest political party, but it suffered from brutal repression in the 1950s and 1960s and was one of the few Latin American Communist parties to fully participate in the guerrilla struggle a few years after the Cuban revolution, a decision that went against Moscow’s line. The PCV’s withdrawal of support for Maduro encouraged others on the left to follow suit and assume a position of hardened opposition.
The Chavista leadership appeared to view its leftist critics through the same lens as it did its critics on the right. A major reason why the PCV broke with Maduro in 2020 was the lack of space within the governing alliance (known as the Gran Polo Patriótico) to discuss policy and the failure to provide the party with a just share of positions on electoral slates (PCV, 2019, 5). Furthermore, before the December 2020 elections, the PSUV-controlled Supreme Justice Tribunal denied official recognition to two PCV allies (the Tupamaro and Patria para Todos — PPT). Instead, it granted it to pro-government split-offs from both parties. By carrying out these actions and assuming a “you’re with us or against us” attitude, the PSUV undermined leftist unity, which Chávez had successfully promoted.
Mao Zedong’s “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” (1957) has a direct bearing on the dilemma faced by Maduro as to whether to view the PCV as an enemy or a potential ally. Mao begins the work by underlining the importance of unity which he claimed China had achieved to a degree without precedent in the nation’s history. However, unity is not without contradictions. According to Mao, the dynamic of dialectics before 1945 pitted the “people,” who opposed Japanese aggression, against the Japanese and their Chinese collaborators. Even among the “people,” dialectics often plays out in the form of secondary contradictions as opposed to “antagonistic contradictions” involving enemies, specifically the imperialists and feudal lords. With regard to secondary contradictions, Mao points out that the law of the “unity of opposites” cannot be ignored, as those who view socialism as conflict-free do, since it is precisely these contradictions that “are the very forces that move our society forward” (Mao, 1980, 21–22) In short, the secondary contradictions, if correctly handled, contribute to the revolutionary process.
These reflections, which distinguish contradictions among the people from “antagonistic contradictions” involving the imperialists, apply to Maduro and the PCV. In the first place, the PCV was unequivocally opposed to the “imperialist enemy,” that is US imperialism. In none of its declarations did the party minimize the severe consequences of the sanctions. This position contrasted with groups on the far left, such as Marea Socialista and Corriente Marxista Internacional, that claimed Maduro’s mistaken economic policies, not the sanctions, caused the nation’s economic crisis, which allegedly preceded Trump’s implementation of measures against Venezuela (Corriente Marxista Lucha de Clases, 2020, 6). In this sense, the PCV–Maduro clash could be viewed as “contradictions among the people.” In the second place, the Polo Patriótico was the ideal venue for (in Mao’s words) “discussion, criticism, and reasoning” and “persuasion and education” (Mao, 1980, 16, 53), but the PSUV converted that body into an electoral vehicle (unlike Chávez who had called it a “historic bloc”).
The following discussion identifies different shades of positions on the Maduro government, imperialism, and the defensive strategy. The analysis is intended to demonstrate that the appearance of extreme polarization on the left misrepresented the more diverse configuration of opinions that existed. Given this diversity, leftist political actors in 2020 — Maduro and the PCV in particular — had options other than the all-or-nothing approach rejected by Mao.
The radical opposition on the left
The PCV criticized a wide range of economic measures taken by the Maduro government, including devaluation, legalization of the use of the dollar in commercial transactions, tax exoneration as incentives for investment, elimination of price controls, privatization, labor flexibilization and alternatives to the system of collective bargaining. Furthermore, in mid-2021, the Communist-led United Central of Workers of Venezuela (CUTV) threatened to carry out an international campaign to denounce criminal charges brought against Venezuelan trade unionists. At the same time, the PCV deplored the failure to bring justice to assassinated peasant leaders, including Luis Fajardo, a member of the party’s Central Committee (PCV, 2020b, 4).
The PCV recognized the harm that sanctions produced but failed to emphasize the issue. Thus, for instance, the party’s Tribuna Popular published 84 articles on current Venezuelan politics in the newspaper’s nine editions between July 2020 (when the PCV broke with Maduro) and January 2022, and none of them focused on the international sanctions and other actions carried out by Washington against Venezuela. This lack of emphasis on imperialist aggression would suggest that the PCV leadership failed to contextualize the government policies that it criticized or to view them as understandable overreactions to the war on Venezuela — as opposed to opportunism. The PCV’s failure to consider external factors may be partly explained by the pressure exerted on the party’s leadership by the rank and file, driven by the precipitous decline in purchasing power and living conditions in general (Vázquez Heredia, 2021).
Before and after the 2020 split, the Maduro government showed little tolerance for dissent on the left. During the campaign for the 2020 elections, state media outlets provided opposition candidates on the right promotional time in accordance with agreed-upon electoral rules. However, they failed to do the same for the candidates of the PCV, which denounced the “media censorship” (PCV, 2021a, 3).
Subsequently, Maduro insinuated that the PCV formed part of the “long arm of United States imperialism” (PCV, 2021c, 6). Even though both sides appeared to be far apart, certain positions assumed by the PCV suggested that reconciliation would have been feasible at a future date. Most important, PCV secretary general Oscar Figuera did not discard the possibility of a future agreement, in contrast to some of the party’s allies to its left, which explicitly rejected the idea (Morales, 2020; Corriente Marxista Lucha de Clases, 2020, 4; Uzcátegui, 2021). Indeed, the PCV called the decision to leave the governing coalition a “tactical adjustment” rather than a definitive break (PCV, 2020a, 8). In addition, at the time that it broke with Maduro, the PCV defended the legitimacy of his government, unlike other groups and analysts on the left (PCV, 2020c, 3; Hetland, 2019) and supported his foreign policy. At least at the theoretical level, the PCV recognized that imperialism represented the “principal enemy of our people” (PCV, 2020a, 8). This position implied prioritization of resistance to US interventionism (rather than to the Venezuelan capitalist class).
Subsequently, unlike some of its electoral allies, the PCV along with the Maduro government sided with Russia in the war with Ukraine. The PCV’s increasingly antagonistic stance toward the government appeared to be at odds with the party’s praise of Moscow and Beijing for its resistance to US imperialism, a position that coincided with that of Maduro.
Although a reconciliation based on a mutual acceptance of pluralism on the left was feasible at the outset of the split in 2020, reciprocal hostility only increased in time. In the months following the break, PCV leaders characterized the PSUV as “petty bourgeois,” but in 2022 they claimed that Maduro’s economic policies were dictated by members of the “national bourgeoisie” within the government in alliance with the traditional bourgeoisie (Pino, 2022, 3).
The allies of the PCV to its left advocated “revolutionary measures” to face US imperialism, particularly the expansion of the communes (self-governing communities), as Chávez had called for in one of his last speeches (Martín, 2019). As is the case elsewhere, the basic assumption of those on the Venezuelan left who prioritize subjective conditions is that bold, radical actions generate a “qualitative leap” in the consciousness and revolutionary fervor of the popular sectors. According to the same logic, Maduro’s alleged concessions and capitulation to capital dampened the spirit of the non-privileged sectors and explained their unwillingness to support the government. The statements by these groups would indicate that they failed to consider seriously any relationship between the offensive political strategy they championed and the intensity of imperialist aggression.
The gravity of the PCV’s accusations against the Maduro government has to be weighed against the harshness of the war on Venezuela and its economic impact. Obviously, governments cannot be judged by the same criteria in wartime situations as in times of peace. One question that defies easy answers is whether a more leftist strategy on the part of the government consisting of an opening up to the opposition on the left and a harder line toward the private sector (as advocated by the PCV) would have led to greater instability in the face of the nation’s severe economic conditions and erosion of support for the Chavistas. In other words, could the Maduro government have achieved its objective of dividing the opposition and resisting the “war on Venezuela” and low international oil prices while pursuing a less conciliatory strategy toward conservative and business interests? Such an approach would have enhanced the possibility of reigning in the PCV and its allies on the left.
Elías Jaua, who had belonged to Chávez’s inner circle and occupied top ministerial positions, and economist Pasqualina Curcio were among the most prominent Chavistas to formulate far-reaching criticisms of government policy while maintaining support for Maduro. Both attributed the nation’s problems, including democratic shortcomings, to the war on Venezuela. Jaua called for a renewal of the Chavista leadership, and greater democratization of the party and the labor movement, and opposed both the Anti-Blockade Law and disguised privatization, particularly of the oil industry in the form of mixed companies. He refused, however, to publicly debate the issue in accordance with PSUV party discipline (Jaua, 2020; Ellner, 2020a, 185). Curcio discretely framed the issue of the causes of Venezuela’s economic crisis in a way that was favorable to Maduro. At the same time, she pointed to deficiencies in his economic policies (Curcio, 2020, 104). Rather than opposing the Anti-Blockade Law per se, she called for an open discussion on proposals such as creating mechanisms to prevent profits from leaving the country and increasing the purchasing power of workers.
Under Maduro, Jaua and Curcio were marginalized within the Chavista movement and largely excluded from government media outlets. Jaua aspired to be the Chavista candidate for governor of the populous state of Miranda for the 2021 elections. However, the PSUV’s leadership prevented him from participating in party primaries for that position, a decision he accepted even while hinting that it was politically motivated. Both Jaua and Curcio were highly popular among the party’s rank and file and the Chavista movement at large.
The loyal opposition on the Left
The war on Venezuela had the effect of rallying some non-PSUV leftists behind the government despite their sharp criticisms of Maduro. Like Maduro’s critics within the PSUV, these leftists pointed to the gravity of the war on Venezuela as the reason for their restraint, even though the PSUV thwarted their political ambitions due to their independent positions. Their support for the government stemmed from the distinction they made between the dominant faction of the PSUV leadership headed by Maduro and the social-democratic or right-wing faction (discussed below), along with state bureaucrats allied with the class enemy.
Thus, for example, Angel Prado, leader of the nation’s iconic commune El Maizal in the state of Lara, warned that it was necessary to ensure that “our government isn’t taken over by right-wingers disguised in red” and, on this basis, supported Maduro’s re-election in 2018 (Prado, 2018; 2020, 49). In 2017 Prado had run for mayor in the municipality of Simón Planas in Lara against the PSUV’s candidate and received 57 percent of the vote. However, the results were invalidated by the PSUV-dominated electoral commission on technical grounds. Similarly, former Commerce Minister Eduardo Samán, as a member of the PSUV’s leftist current, aspired to represent the party in the 2017 mayoral elections in Caracas (and again in 2021) but was vetoed by the party’s leadership. He then left the PSUV to join the PPT, on whose ticket he unsuccessfully ran for mayor. Despite being snubbed by the party, Samán criticized another former top minister of the Chávez government, Jorge Giordani, who belonged to the intransigent opposition on the left. Samán stated: “I also have criticisms, but am not going public. At this moment, we have to prioritize unity because the whole [revolutionary] process is on the line” (Ellner, 2020a, 185). The cases of Prado and Samán, like those of “critical supporters” like Jaua, are clear examples of the PSUV’s sectarian practices that marginalized important leaders and activists and, in the process, ran the risk of converting “contradictions among the people” into “antagonistic contradictions.”
The chavista social democratic current
Agriculture Minister Wilmar Castro Soteldo (and participant in the Chávez-led 1992 coup) was the foremost representative of the PSUV’s social democratic current. Castro Soteldo rejected an anti capitalist path and called for “the construction of a revolutionary and transformational bourgeoisie” that would be a force for “national liberation.” The statement was interpreted as a justification for privatization and the dismantling of the agricultural communes (Uzcátegui, 2021; Velásquez Atehortúa, 2021, 169–170).
The differences among Venezuelan leftists regarding the influence of social democratic thinking on the Maduro government sheds light on the applicability of Mao’s concept of “contradictions among the people.” Those on the left end of the PCV-led alliance made no distinction between the PSUV’s social democrats and Maduro, whom they considered fully committed to strengthening the capitalist system (Corriente Marxista Lucha de Clases, 2020, 3–6). In contrast, other critics did make a distinction, and thus their criticisms of the president could be characterized as “contradictions among the people.” The PCV, for its part, harshly criticized Maduro’s concessions to business interests, but, at least at first, pointed to currents within the PSUV and the government as representing the real threat, namely the possible reversal of the advances achieved under Chávez. PCV secretary general Oscar Figuera, for instance, pointed to factions within the Chavista movement that sought to “construct “a new bipartisanship of elites” (Figuera, 2020; PCV, 2020a, 9). For his part, Maduro did not publicly embrace the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” thesis put forward by Castro Soteldo (Arreaza, 2016).
This article has pointed to the centrality of objective conditions in formulating leftist political strategy dating back to Marx and Lenin and currently in the debate between the Venezuelan government and the PCV. Widely acceptable criteria, of course, do not exist for determining the relative weight of objective conditions to arrive at the correct strategy. However, this article suggests that some tools are applicable in given situations. In the Venezuelan case, comparisons between Venezuela and nations in the region and between different periods over the recent past are useful for evaluating the defensive strategy pursued by the Maduro government. The article also compares the initial willingness of PCV leaders to reconsider their break with Maduro with the more intransigent positions of parties to their left. It concludes that the PCV–government confrontation needed not be, in the words of Mao, an “antagonistic contradiction” and that the rupture of the governing alliance was far from inevitable.
The Venezuelan controversy has to be seen against the backdrop of the defense of national sovereignty against imperialist aggression, which arguably is the left’s most important banner in today’s global South. However, it has been downplayed in the age of globalization (Xu, 2020, 2–3). The issue is at the heart of the Maduro–PCV confrontation. Nevertheless, there are reasons, however, to reject a mechanical view that subordinates all revolutionary goals and objectives to the challenges posed by imperialism. Fidel Castro’s reflection that all Cuba’s problems cannot be attributed solely to imperialist aggression pointed in this direction. Freddy Bernal, a prominent PSUV leader, made a similar statement with regard to Venezuela (Ellner, 2020b, 52–53). A defensive strategy such as that implemented by Maduro cannot be the sole response of a government committed to revolutionary change, regardless of the circumstances. Without continuing certain policies of the past, a defensive strategy will lay the groundwork for a permanent retreat and abandonment of revolutionary goals. Furthermore, the leftist government’s ability to maintain popular support and mobilize followers will be undermined. The Maduro government did, for instance, maintain Chávez’s progressive foreign policy in favor of a multi-polar world. It also claimed that it was promoting the “communal state” initiated by Chávez based on self-governing and economically productive communities and clusters of communities.
Undeniably, the government provided the communes with resources, but the extent of its commitment has been the source of debate on the left (Gilbert, 2020, 21).
Several factors undermined the possibility that the differences between Maduro and the PCV and some of its allies could have been dealt with as “contradictions among the people.” For its unity to have been achieved, Maduro would have had to convert the Polo Patriótico into a space for intra-left debate and policy recommendations and to have modified some of his pro-business policies. For part, the PCV would have had to take into account the imperialist war on Venezuela in the formulation of strategy and, in doing so, give greater consideration to the rationale behind Maduro’s defensive strategy. The reformulation of strategy along these lines implied a non-dogmatic approach to inter-left relations, in contrast to the PSUV’s sectarianism toward the currents on the left analyzed in this article, specifically the “loyal opposition on the left” and the “critical supporters.”
The war on Venezuela, along with other unfavorable conditions, lent itself to Maduro’s defensive strategy. However, that approach was not without a major risk: the possibility that the defensive policies would initiate a permanent retreat — contrary to the stated intentions of Maduro (as well as Lenin in the 1920s) and in line with the model advocated by the PSUV’s social democratic current associated with Castro Soteldo. The best guarantee against backsliding would have been a cordial and conciliatory stance toward allies and potential allies on the left. Indeed, a principle was at stake. A leftist government needs to bend over backwards so that “contradictions among the people” do not become “antagonistic contradictions” — as they have in Venezuela — and, in the process, undermine the goal of a united front on the left against common enemies.
 The term “defensive strategy” in this article refers to concessions and compromises by leftist governments and parties that are adopted during unfavorable periods with the intention of advancing toward revolutionary goals once objective conditions improve. The strategy finds expression in Lenin’s phrase with reference to the NEP “one step backward to take two steps forward.” As will be discussed, the PCV appeared to defend what this article calls a “non-offensive strategy,” which refers to a pause in demands and initiatives of a progressive nature in order to achieve consolidation during unfavorable periods, but short of concessions. While the distinction between “defensive strategy” and “non-offensive” strategy may sometimes be blurry, the difference between Maduro’s strategy and that defended by the PCV could not have been sharper.
 A major objective condition was the Bolsheviks’ gaining control of a majority of soviets in the latter half of the year, an achievement that could also be labeled a “subjective condition” in that it implied heightened consciousness among key sectors of the population.
 Bob Avakian, long-time head of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), frequently posits the importance of revolutionary “leaps” in both objective and subjective conditions (Avakian, 2016, 45, 51, 181, 408–409).
 Confidential interview, Washington DC, October 22, 2004.
 Elsewhere I have argued that Chávez and especially Maduro failed to take full advantage of favorable situations partly because they failed to anticipate the formidable challenges they would face once their adversaries went on the offensive (Ellner, 2020a, 180–184).
 The PCV was the most important member of the Alternativa Popular Revolucionaria alliance, which took in diverse political parties on the left and social movements. They included two Trotskyist parties, the barrio-based Tupamaro and the Patria Para Todos party (which dated its origins to the Communist guerrilla movement of the 1960s).
 Only two articles focused on the “war on Venezuela.” One deals with a decision of the International Court of Justice that favored Guyana in its border dispute with Venezuela and the other is a short piece on the accusations against Venezuela lodged by the UN’s Human Rights Council (Tribuna Popular, July 9, 2020; October 6, 2020)
 I observed this dynamic in the interaction between PCVistas in the audience and party leaders at a meeting held in commemoration of the bicentennial of Marx’s birth at the PCV’s national headquarters on May 5, 2018.
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