On the morning of Monday 7th December, I was greeted with news reports of the Venezuelan ruling socialist party’s (PSUV) landslide defeat in the previous day’s parliamentary elections, accompanied by images of jubilant crowds celebrating on the streets of Caracas. Hailed as the long-awaited end to Chavismo and of the divisive Bolivarian Revolution, one would be forgiven for taking the results to signify a change in government. Indeed, with the opposition alliance Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad – MUD) now holding a two-thirds ‘supermajority’ in the National Congress, they possess the power to make significant changes to government spending and legislation, as well as to potentially re-write the constitution and initiate a recall referendum against the current president, Nicolás Maduro. The election results were broadly reported as a response to widespread discontent with President Maduro’s administration and the severely debilitated economy.
Figure 1: MUD supporters celebrating the election results. Reuters/guardian.com
Petro-citizenship and the lurking devil
Despite the outward appearance of a dramatic shake-up of parliamentary powers, as Tinker Salas and Silverman have noted in their analysis for The Nation (December 8th 2015), grievances over dubious democratic processes, food shortages, poor currency management, and rising crime rates often mask the true origins of Venezuela’s on-going and inherent instability: a dependency on oil. Tinker Salas and Silverman argue — as did Coronil in his classic study of the Venezuelan oil industry, The Magical State (1997) — that the Venezuelan economy has been ‘addicted to oil’ since the birth of its petroleum industry in 1908. All ensuing regimes, regardless of political ideology, are buttressed by the petro-dollars that make up the bulk of state revenues (currently accounting for 97% of export revenues), and are entirely at the mercy of its characteristically volatile price. Alongside illusions of ‘dazzling development projects that engender collective fantasies of progress’ (Coronil 1997: 5), the famously branded ‘devil’s excrement’ (el excremento del diablo) was found to be the shrouded begetter of political corruption, criminality and greed, a phenomenon more commonly known as the ‘resource curse’. These observations are as relevant today as in 1997, when Coronil’s book was first published, and reveal why a number of observers aren’t so optimistic about the opposition’s capacity to offer up remarkable remedies to widespread discontent amidst a backdrop of plummeting oil prices.
Aside from assisting in the illusions of state leaders, oil is also woven into processes of subject formation among citizens who harbour a sustained sense of entitlement to the benefits of oil wealth, a dynamic described by Coronil as an intimate relationship between the social body and the natural body of the nation. The late Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution was exemplary in bolstering this imaginary of the social-natural dyad through its endeavour to channel the nation’s oil wealth into endogenous development projects, free education and healthcare, and subsidised food for the entire population (i.e. not just the country’s elite).
Figure 2: A local ‘Mercal’ in a Venezuelan frontier town. This state-run chain of shops was set up under Chavez’s government, and provides subsidised food and household essentials for poor neighbourhoods. Photo by the author.
Oil is political, gasoline is personal
So, what does the future hold for these erstwhile beneficiaries of Venezuela’s prolific oil wealth? And what do the election results signify for those who might not have been celebrating the outcome so joyously? My own fieldwork in Venezuela between 2009 and 2011 explored indigenous people’s experiences of Bolivarian socialism and political inclusion, as one of the disenfranchised populations targeted for the petroleum-funded socialist initiatives. During this time, it became clear that abstractions of oil wealth for certain poor communities did not feature centrally in burgeoning notions of citizenship, nor to local-level comprehensions of rights to the ‘natural body’ of the nation. What became paramount in daily performances of citizenship was rather the ubiquitous derivative of oil — gasoline — which the entire population encounters daily as the tangible manifestation of oil and its omnipotence.
The political potency of gasoline in Venezuela is due in part to its extremely low price, the result of a subsidy introduced in the 1940s when Venezuela was emerging as one of the world’s main suppliers of oil (currently, for example, 120 litres of gasoline can be bought for only US$0.01). Since the subsidy was introduced, Venezuelans have viewed cheap gasoline as a birth-right, perhaps even more so than the dispensation of petro-wealth in the form of national development and social provisioning. This is so much the case that it is difficult to imagine a successful attempt to raise the price of gasoline, even amidst regular threats to do so (see Miroff 2014; Baverstock and Strange 2014). Indeed, price hikes might very well be applied if it weren’t for the shadow of El Caracazo looming over any who dare take this fateful step.
Figure 3: News article following the Caracazo riots.
In a situation strikingly similar to the current hardships experienced in Venezuela today, falling oil prices in the 1980s led to an economic crisis and the subsequent decision to remedy this through increased gasoline prices under neoliberal reforms. The price adjustments brought about a wave of protests, riots, and a violent military crack-down on the 27th February 1989, known as El Caracazo, that left hundreds dead. It is clear to see, then, that whatever happens to the price of petroleum, and to the management of the somewhat abstract wealth accumulated from the sale of oil, subsidised gasoline is treated with great caution in recognition of its fundamental role in well-being and livelihood. It is, in this sense, a tangible manifestation of the nation’s oil wealth, and of Venezuelans’ rights to that wealth.
Meanwhile, for the indigenous population of the country, daily encounters with gasoline are even more intimate and central to well-being, not least so for the Sanema, with whom I conducted anthropological fieldwork. For my hosts, the dual nature (the natural and social body) of the petro-state is experienced first and foremost in their direct and intimate interaction with huge quantities of subsidised gasoline, which is woven into every aspect of their practical and moral lives. This process of becoming ‘permeated with gasoline’, as it were, is related in no small part to the recent co-option of indigenous peoples into state building objectives.
Figure 4: Indigenous boys siphoning gasoline from one barrel to another. Photo by the author.
The Venezuelan State’s interest in Amazonian territories began in the early 1970s with a plan to utilise the rich resources of southern regions — named the ‘Conquest of the South’ (la conquista del sur) — predominantly with the aim of building infrastructure that linked the Amazon regions to the rest of the country. This development of the south was a process that was later taken on by Chavez’s regime after his election in 1998, through an accelerated inclusion of indigenous peoples into the Bolivarian Revolution. For the first time in Venezuelan history, the indigenous population gained considerable recognition, most notably in changes to the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution which introduced a section devoted to native peoples, and which included clauses that espouse rights to collective land ownership, native education and health practices, and prior consultation for natural resource extraction in their territory. Notwithstanding this multi-ethnic vision, however, Chavez simultaneously directed attention to indigenous people’s history of exclusion and consequently promoted their equal incorporation into criollo-standardised initiatives such as the hallmark communal councils, neighbourhood-run development projects that formed the backbone of Bolivarianism.
Figure 5: The outboard motor, one of the most common political gifts bestowed in Venezuelan Amazonia. Photo by the author.
From the perspective of my indigenous interlocutors, gifts and the direct supply of funds for these communal council projects figure prominently in descriptions of their motivations for migrating northwards, embarking on regular trips to the cities, and participating in political activities. The Bolivarian Revolution played a central role in accelerating regular and extended movements in Amazonia due to gifts of outboard motors and other machinery, profuse political events in the cities, and frequent paperwork errands. This process of political inclusion thus resulted in a new rapid and regular mobility that was facilitated by their newly obtained gasoline-guzzling outboard motors, which in turn required large and regular supplies of evanescent gasoline. Exacerbating this process was the government mandated monthly cupo (quota) of gasoline supplied to each indigenous community, an endowment that sustained their dependence on gasoline-run machinery, which again impelled them to regularly travel to the cities in order to procure the quota. We can see how such circular movements to the cities are self-perpetuating since one literally needs gasoline to get gasoline. Indigenous peoples, then, were swiftly embedded in a circulatory system of citizenship and dependency through gasoline.
Holding steady amidst change
It is easy to see that even amidst rhetorical powers of oil and the ever-looming threat that its volatile price ultimately determines (or indeed homogenises) the fate of political regimes; the price of gasoline, on the other hand, remains far more constant, and much more reliable. Cheap petrol has endured both neoliberal and socialist regimes. For the time being, then, many Venezuelans’ sense of citizenship remains sufficiently stable despite the ostensible overhaul in political power within the National Assembly.
So, while Venezuelan elites might view themselves as ‘stewards of oil wealth’ (see Tinker Salas and Silverman 2015), the country’s poor and indigenous populations channel their rights and citizenship through a more prosaic materialisation of the petro-state: gasoline. Hence, we might do best to look for a solution to Venezuela’s ‘addiction to oil’ in the more mundane daily encounters with this valuable energy source.
Figure 6: Indigenous community travelling to the city in their gasoline-powered canoe. One man wears a jackets proclaiming “Indigenous socialist warrior at your service!” Photo by the author.
 Others have suggested that Maduro fears raising the price of gasoline, as it would have knock on effect for many other products (see Hetland 2015).
Criollo is the local term used for non-indigenous Venezuelans or people of mixed heritage.
Spain’s traditional parties aim to halt the remarkable rise of Podemos by painting links to Venezuela as foreign intervention. Like many Podemos policies this is an import from Latin America. The good news is that it makes no sense. The bad news is nobody cares.
The rise of Spain’s Podemos (We Can) from zeroes a year ago to potential heroes of this year’s general election has shocked the rest of Europe. But their lead in the polls has brought a new level of scrutiny and hostility from the ruling People’s Party and the centre-left PSOE.
The latest charge is that Podemos “has its origins and roots in Venezuelan money”, namely illegal donations channelled via the party’s founders, many of whom worked as consultants to the Latin American left. That attacks on Podemos have increased with their popularity is no surprise, but this one is especially dangerous. As novelist Isaac Rosa notes, “few places have reached Spain’s level of ferocious anti-Chávez feeling … present in most of the media, in politicians, but also in society, including parts of the left”.
First things first: is it true?
If you know Venezuelan politics, the most striking thing is that this is news at all. The central figure, Podemos number three Juan Carlos Monedero (right), has been a fixture of Venezuelan politics for as long as I can remember, ubiquitous in academic forums and the media (sometimes chatting with Chávez), identifying openly as a government consultant. My own article on these links appeared in August 2014, with many others before and since. So why the sudden uproar?
Basically, because someone realised long-public accounts of the thinktank from which Podemos emerged (CEPS) show receipt of £2.7 million from Venezuela since 2002. Again, if you know Venezuelan politics, this is nothing outlandish. Monedero was but one of numerous CEPS advisers, including Podemos figureheads Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón, working closely with the Venezuelan government. Neither is it surprising that the Venezuelan government, flush with oil money and facing an implacable opposition, would pay such advisers well. To a state that in a single year lost $20 billion dollars to fake import transactions for currency arbitrage, £2.7 million on real consultants is a very small potato. Others question why Monedero received payment in 2013 for work done in 2010. They might ask the hundreds of regional exporters waiting months and years for Venezuelan debts to clear. Sadly, to find things running smoothly would be more surprising.
All of which is actually immaterial to the charge of foreign intervention, since it would only matter if leaders’ money had gone into Podemos, which it hasn’t. An independent audit of party accounts found that no executive member had donated more than €100. The vast majority – more worryingly for political rivals – came in small amounts from crowdfunding.
So, at a time when Podemos was but a twinkle in its founding fathers’ eyes, they did receive money from Latin America for work they undertook openly, but this money did not fund the party. Am I missing something? Or was Tony Blair’s gap year working at a bar in Paris a devious French plot to fund promote the nouvelle gauche?
The dreary answer to “who influenced who?!” is that Podemos and Chávez each turned independently to the intellectual left when the neoliberal model fell over. Much has been made of Podemos’ debt to the Argentine neo-Marxist Ernesto Laclau, no doubt familiar to them from their academic careers; Chávez favoured Hungarian neo-Marxist István Mészáros, PhD supervisor of his closest economic adviser Jorge Giordani. Both theorists were channelling Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (right) anyway, so the most significant influence in either direction was probably Podemos’ first-hand experience of what can and can’t be achieved through a mass movement towards participatory democracy.
“Terror in the Andes!”: Birth of the Toxic Venezuela Monster
So if this is not heinous Venezuelan intervention in Europe’s fifth largest economy, what is it? Again, the answer lies in Latin America.
Peru’s Alan García was the first to realise that Venezuela could be used to discredit political opponents. Up against former soldier Ollanta Humala in 2006, García’s principal line of attack was that Humala was a Chávez lackey, his campaign paid for by diplomatic bags full of filthy lucre. Despite producing no evidence, García overturned a first-round deficit of six percentage points and won the presidency.
Later that year Mexico’s right-wing candidate Felipe Calderón, under challenge from leftist Andrés López Obrador, ran negative campaign ads (above) that showed Chávez warning Mexican president Vicente Fox “not to mess with him” followed by clips of López Obrador telling Fox to “shut up, big mouth!” at a rally. Another had Chávez announcing imports of AK-47s against a backdrop of weapons, guerrilla fighters, and dissonant music. The impact was massive, with an immediate twelve-point spike in Calderón’s ratings. López Obrador lost by 0.58%, depriving Mexico of its first left-wing government since the end of one-party rule and bringing in the president who oversaw the country’s downward spiral into astonishingly brutal drug violence.
What they had realised – and what Latin American politicians have known ever since – is that Venezuela is a toxic brand. Whole digital forests have fallen to articles on media bias against Venezuela, and to any disinterested observer who knows the country the phenomenon remains mind-boggling, but let’s not rake over old coals. Suffice it to say that the latest BBC Mundo headlines on Mexico and Colombia concern a decapitated politician and a series of bombings in Bogotá. These events barely registered in the English-language media, yet when things a hundred times less serious happen in Venezuela, the howls can be heard on Venus. But there is sometimes a lack of toilet paper, granted.
Toxic Because It Contaminates, Monster Because It’s Beyond Rationality
The unfortunate fact is that the “media war” is lost. To say “Venezuela” in the same breath as “North Korea” is entirely acceptable to most people, including much of the left. How a renowned historian like Simon Schama (right) – not an idiot by any means – felt qualified to claim on Question Time in 2010 that Venezuelans “would give their eyes for a real democratic verdict” is still beyond me (Chávez had already won six fair elections on his presidency). But even more revealing is that it went unchallenged, with the BBC’s later apology for this frankly ludicrous statement reaching a tiny fraction of the three million socially influential viewers who saw the original broadcast.
Spain’s traditional parties are just the latest to realise that what you say about Venezuela nowadays doesn’t even have to be true. So they claim to “reveal” payments that were never hidden, whereas “supposed” donations “have to be confirmed”. The wall of media sound behind standard tropes of Venezuelan wickedness means you need only say “Venezuela” and “Podemos” before standing back to watch the fun.
The First Rule of Toxic-Monster Club Is Don’t Talk about the Toxic Monster
Worse, Venezuela is now beyond discussion, with the pathological polarization of its domestic politics reproduced in miniature around the world. Isaac Rosa’s conclusion for Podemos is sombre, but I can’t improve on it:
“[Detractors] have found an inexhaustible seam for wearing down [Podemos], a leak through which they hope support will drain away. They’re going to make some of Podemos’ founders pay for their recent relationship with the Venezuelan government, and we’ll soon see how much. The worse things get in Venezuela – and they will get worse, though we can’t even discuss why – the more damaging for Podemos.”
Podemos is just the latest victim of the toxic Venezuela monster: Syriza beware!
Venezuela has an abundance of oil and a lack of doctors. Cuba has an abundance of doctors and a lack of oil. On 14 December 2004, the two countries launched the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) precisely to allow the simple, yet innovative, logic of mutually beneficial exchange to solve each other’s problems. As it celebrated its tenth birthday last month, ALBA’s membership grew to eleven with the addition of Grenada and St Kitts & Nevis (alongside Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua amongst others). However, intensifying political and economic risks in ALBA’s lynchpin, Venezuela, now threaten this important but poorly understood regional project.
Yet precisely how important all this has been remains hard to say, because of the ‘poorly understood’ part. Neither individual ALBA governments nor the organisation’s secretariat provide clear information about the implementation or impact of these various initiatives. And, since ALBA consciously allows its initiatives to expand beyond its formal borders and into other non-member countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, it’s often hard to define exactly which ALBA we are talking about. These ambiguities allow commentators to fill in the blanks with the version of ALBA that best fits their particular ideas and interests.
My own research into ALBA’s implementation within its formal membership suggests that, because ALBA is unevenly implemented, it has had, as one might expect, an uneven impact. This makes it hard to sum up its nature and value in simple terms. Key elements such as the People’s Trade Agreement, designed to reverse the neoliberal reforms of earlier decades, have not been institutionalised, and even within broadly successful initiatives, like the SUCRE and Petrocaribe, those elements designed to redress imbalances between member-states remain weak. This doesn’t mean that ALBA’s role is insignificant, but it does indicate that its role is not as significant as its heads of state tend to claim.
The fact that trade via the SUCRE mechanism has hovered around US$1 billion in recent years (despite having launched only in 2010) and that Petrocaribe has saved the entire Caribbean billions in foreign exchange – averting numerous fiscal crises in the process – are clear signs of ALBA’s material significance. Here too the macro often obscures the micro, such as the new export opportunities afforded to collectives of small farmers in Ecuador via the SUCRE or the new transfer benefits for the elderly and disabled funded by Petrocaribe savings in Antigua and Barbuda. Being ‘poorly understood’, these real human benefits of ALBA – and every member-state has its own equivalents – are often overlooked despite being the organisation’s basic motivation.
Indeed, because ALBA cares little for its own formal limits and often strays unnoticed into the affairs of non-members – whether as subsidised petrol in El Salvador or fair-trade deals for Guyanese rice exporters – the geographical spread of its impact is likewise underestimated. The political, negotiated nature of its inter-state interactions has also meant that it has been able to react with uncommon speed to stabilise regional neighbours hit by external shocks, such as those caused by the sudden suspension of US trade preferences or the collapse of financial institutions. Since subsidised, ALBA-sourced imports into Venezuela can become part of massive contraband flows into Colombia and Brazil – which lower the cost of living for consumers there – even its role in illicit forms of integration is potentially significant.
In more abstract terms, ALBA has also served as a sandbox for new forms of regional cooperation, with initiatives like the SUCRE and international social ‘missions’ achieving maturity and real utility, even if others have floundered. This degree of experimentation is the exception, not the rule in regional organisations. Symbolically, it has served to demonstrate that, even if another world is not yet possible, another regionmay be. For the same reason, it has served the political end of uniting and channelling disparate forces in their opposition to the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas and the North-South free-trade deals offered in its wake.
ALBA’s importance to Latin America and the Caribbean is thus greater than often assumed, which makes any threat to its persistence all the more serious. Unfortunately, the flipside to ALBA’s innovation and flexibility is a lack of prudence and stability.
Despite the (continuing) growth of its membership, ALBA remains fundamentally Venezuela-centric in terms of its governance and financing. Indeed, because many ALBA programmes are funded off-budget by the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, in turn controlled by the Venezuelan presidency, they can be jeopardised as much by political as economic upheaval in that country. Since massive public spending on domestic social programmes also originates with PDVSA, any further deterioration of these public services would eat into President Maduro’s slim electoral advantage, opening the door to an opposition that sees ALBA simply as ‘giving away the oil’.
So what to do? While the Venezuelan government officially budgets for an oil price of around US$60, even that is above the current level and it does not cover off-budget spending. In the past Venezuela has been able to paper over occasional cracks with Chinese credit, but the recent collapse of oil prices raises issues of a different magnitude. International financial markets are backing away and Venezuela’s cost of borrowing has risen dramatically. Maduro recently proposed a partial devaluation that could help improve cash flow, but there is no guarantee that this will suffice, and devaluation comes with a political cost at a time when the president’s popularity is already on the wane. Though sensible for the same reasons, his moves to reduce state subsidisation of domestic petrol consumption are also likely to prove unpopular.
OPEC has shown little sign of lowering production, and the only possible divine intervention would be geopolitical instability involving major producers. The main problem remains the earthly one of increased shale exploitation in the US, itself only threatened by the same low prices worrying Venezuela. Maduro will find himself exposed to the possibility of a recall referendum in April 2016, and his ability to continue as president will depend to a great extent on how he deals with these key economic questions.
For ALBA, and for the prospects of alternative regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean, the stakes could not be higher.
(An earlier version was published by SPERI, the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute)
The last few months have been testing times for Venezuelans. In February a series of anti-government protests broke out across the country, igniting social tensions that had been simmering since the death of Hugo Chávez and the election of his successor, Nicolás Maduro, in April 2013. Initially beginning among students in the western state of Táchira, demonstrations soon emerged in Caracas and other major urban centres, where predominantly middle-class protestors took to the streets to condemn high inflation, food shortages and insecurity. Led by Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado, radical sectors of the opposition seemed intent on stoking tensions in order to destabilise the government.