Let’s begin with a story–or so I was hoping to say, in a post this week about the problem of scale in sci-fi storytelling. I wanted to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly in contemporary sci-fi regarding nuanced approaches to global-sized issues. And I will. I’ve simply postponed that essay because, well, this week Venezuela hit the news in a big way, and I started receiving notes of concern from folks worrying about how safe I am in the neighbouring country of Colombia.
So, today let’s detour a bit from my usual, emphatic line about not letting this column become home to knee-jerk responses to the most recent news cycle. Let’s talk about what’s happening in Venezuela.
And let’s do it in a way that shows how global humanism differs from localized variants.
Let’s talk about how to scale your reactions to events in other corners of the world.
On January 10, Nicolás Maduro started his next term in office as president of Venezuela, a resource-rich country that has in recent years endured economic freefall under a socialist military dictatorship. In the last five years, 3 million citizens have fled to other countries to escape a) political brutality, torture, and related oppressions, b) a hyperinflation rate that in 2018 rose to 80,000% per year, and c) massive attendant food and medical shortages that have constructed a humanitarian crisis of starvation and child mortality. The country has been under international sanctions that have limited its ability to draw revenue from external sources. This in turn has caused Venezuela to sell its primary exports cheaper to allies outside the Western sphere, in arrangements that have made the U.S. and other Western powers anxious about overall access to this geopolitically pivotal northern-South-American country. This tug-of-war of international allegiances comes especially to bear on any change in its local politics.
On Wednesday, such a change in local politics occurred when another Venezuelan politician stepped into the spotlight, and in a single action seemingly established a parallel government, with the backing of “the people” and many Western and Latin American powers (including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay, Perú, and the U.S.). Powers outside this sphere, plus the Venezuelan military, thus far remain with Maduro. The U.S. has called its local officials home and is advising average citizens to leave as well. On the streets, average starving Venezuelans are engaged in protests to try to topple Maduro definitively, and they are literally dying to bring about this change.
There are five players we need to keep track of to understand this issue. One is Hugo Chavéz, the president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013. The second is Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela from 2013 to 2019. The third is the military, which has been propping up Maduro all this time. The fourth is Juan Guaidó (it’s an indigenous name, not being emphasized properly in most media: “H’-wai-DÓ” should help most English readers), who has now sworn an oath to assert himself as the interim head-of-state for Venezuela, pending elections. The fifth is the foreign powers, including the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey, and China, the lot of which can’t keep their darned fingers out of anything when oil is involved.
Too many? Tough. There were more contenders in the movie Clue.
Chavéz created a socialist plan that did provide relief to the poor, without changing the actual facts of poverty, in a country that was once among the wealthiest and best educated in South America. Chavez wanted to leverage oil, a resource long-exploited by the West at cost to less developed countries, against free-market price-setting practices, so that earnings could be used to develop more social welfare programs. And he did make improvements to healthcare, education, and social housing! But this plan also allowed him and his military to sequester significant assets for themselves, which they did–reaping the windfall of abundant oil, gold, and related resources, and sheltering their thefts in other countries. The new class of Venezuelans who exulted, capitalist-style, in the excess they stole from their country was called the “boliburguesia“, and as you can well imagine, political oppression of any dissent during this era was key to keeping the country more or less stable while exploiting its wealth. When Chavéz died, the reins were handed over to Maduro… but the system he had started was not sustainable.
Maduro continued some of Chavéz’s habits–the political oppression, the sequestering of state funds in private accounts around the world–but his temperament differs immensely. He’s had a knack, in particular, for getting into petty fights that lead to declarative actions disrupting political workflow and damaging socioeconomic relationships. (Sound familiar, estadounidenses?) When criticized, especially for the impact of this behaviour on the value of Venezuela’s economy, he would draw defensively upon the injustice of past Western encroachment into South American self-determination. Funnily enough, that didn’t do much to inspire global confidence–and as the money dried up, and sanctions tightened, the Venezuelan unit of currency, the bolivar, lost all reliability and value. Maduro turned to non-Western-sphere powers with low-cost bargains on Venezuelan resources, blaming the U.S. for driving him to such actions, in order to keep some income flowing. Even now, private planes shuttle money/gold to holdings in non-Western-powers, as Maduro tries to secure for himself as much as he can before the whole enterprise comes crashing down around him.
The military is also complicit in this astonishing level of corruption, which is why it’s been reluctant to change sides: its cabal of criminal leaders, which has been especially busy enforcing policies of torture, brutal oppression, and murder, is waiting to ensure that its own fortunes will be secure and accessible once it switches to someone backed by Western powers. After relying so heavily upon non-Western-powers for the storage of funds siphoned out of the state (granted, the boliburguesia in general have a history of laundering in Florida, too, so it’s a mess of reinvested stolen money all around), the only thing that could really tip their hand is a lack of direct access to more funds here-and-now. And since Maduro’s government is cash-poor, well… that might just be enough to get them to take the risk!
The 35-year-old president of the Venezuelan National Assembly is by no means acting on his own: rather, he has the backing of Western powers like the U.S., which is sick of seeing the region favour, in its oil-price-fixing and related economic practices, non-Western-powers of a potentially hostile nature. Guaidó’s plan for the future, if elected in a general election, would be a dismantling of Chavez-era social services for a mixed bag of private enterprises, and a move away from an approach to oil-pricing that even Maduro had to mess with once his stealing from the country made him offshore-resource-rich, but cash-poor. Together, these changes signal a Venezuela open for business again to Western exploitation. Of course, compared to the current state of affairs, functional services of any measure are a preferred outcome… but one has to be very cautious about the assumption that any of this is truly altruistic or “for the people”: there are very clear private interests among international allies that will be served by a Guaidó presidency.
The Foreign PowersThe U.S. is, of course, the most nervous about Venezuela’s strong ties with non-Western nations: Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran. Venezuela’s position at the top of South America gives it ready access to Southern US states, Cuba, and even an easy route to Eastern Asia. Yes, this is Cold-War-politics stuff… but it’s also a hard and ongoing foreign-threat-assessment reality. The U.S. either has to accept steep oil-pricing from Venezuela, which has the largest crude oil reserves in the world, in order to stay in Venezuela’s political favour while the country allies itself with the aforementioned non-Western nations (selling oil at massive discounts in exchange for mercurial assistance with the aforementioned money-laundering)… or do what the U.S. does best, and interfere in another country’s government to produce a more amenable ally. If the U.S. does not intervene, the world isn’t suddenly a happier, more democratic place; international encroachment simply continues apace with Russia and China, among others.
So now we have our stand-still, with two parallel governments essentially in operation–one with military backing and the support of certain foreign powers, and one with the backing of the people in the streets and competing foreign powers. Guaidó is technically supported by the constitution, but the Supreme Court is still on Maduro’s side, so truly the question lies with pressure upon the military. They get to choose which body of foreign powers will be served by the Venezuelan government going forward… and their choice will be motivated as it has always been: by instincts of logical self-preservation, with their stolen money stored by one set of powers but their access to future funds only really plausible if they support the other.
…But why didn’t the people get listed as a player here?
Right: because, even as 3 million refugees exist due to Venezuela’s staggering humanitarian crisis… the people aren’t at all the reason for this particular tipping point. The people have been protesting and suffering and dying for years trying to enact change. It’s only now that an option has been made available to foreign powers, to back a transformation in government that could favour specific outside interests, that any real traction is being seen in this situation at all.
So how are we supposed to react, we who’re reading about this issue outside Venezuela?
Certainly, plenty have taken the smug, “See? This is why socialism never works!” approach. This is tedious because the folks who invoke such a line rarely take the time to define what they mean by “this”: Because of corrupt local politicians? Because of predatory foreign politicians? Because of the last 30 years of post-Cold-War politics and the mounting new powerplays between Russia, China, Iran, and the U.S. in various international hotspots? Make a specific charge, gosh-darn-it, and then we can talk about different socialist and capitalist models and their respective vulnerabilities to predation!
Others have taken the often-entirely-justified line of “Oh, great, another case of U.S. meddling in resource-rich foreign governments! Because that’s always worked out so well before!” Here, though, the U.S. is in trouble whatever they do: Intervene, and they’ll maybe turn the tide to alleviate geopolitical strife currently caused by Venezuela’s other major economic allies. Don’t intervene, while still maintaining stiff sanctions against pathways to funding for a starving country, and… they’ll be letting the pressures of geopolitical strife with Russia, China, and Iran mount close to the U.S. border.
Meanwhile, others still advocate simply listening to “the people”, because the people are starving, the people are fleeing, the people want change, and… the people really like Guaidó as a change-maker! So let the people of Venezuela dictate their own destiny! And absolutely, this makes sense on one level, because ultimately it will be “the people” who continue to live and die under any regime.
…But this answer, from outsiders, also speaks to the limits of our general approach to global affairs. You want to be a good global humanist? Great. It’s time to scale your response to globalist happenstance.
What Is Global Humanism, Really?
I’ve used this term quite a bit since starting this column, but I haven’t really described it beyond a sense of being aware of the global stage, and sensitive to contextual variation when problem-solving therein. In the case of Venezuela, though, we find some clear actionable items that should help give a sense of how a global-minded humanist can best act on the world stage.
- Yes, support the people in any given locale. If they are suffering in the present, you’re hardly going to win them over with talk of broader geopolitical strife. Find whatever non-profits can reach these people in their efforts to reclaim dignity and agency on a day-to-day level, and leave them to determine their political destiny. BUT ALSO…
- Look to what your country is doing in relation to this global crisis, and challenge your people to enact better policies, policies that will as much as possible alleviate the outside pressures being placed on any given locale in crisis. If your country is supporting one side of a government collapse, and not the other, is it doing this for humanitarian reasons or to increase access to economic resources? Write to your representatives with your concerns. Advocate for changes in your energy and consumption economies that will prompt less reliance on the resources your government is haggling over at the cost of global lives. BUT ALSO…
- Recognize the limits of your government’s humanitarianism in a world where foreign policy portfolios are also guided by geopolitical strife. It’s not enough to say, “Well, if my country pulls out of this contest, and it’s only the other world powers haggling over economic access at cost to human lives, so be it! At least my hands will be clean!” No. We also need to work to alleviate the threats of geopolitical strife, writ large, that are shaping our government’s reactive approaches to global economic issues. And how we do this as individuals? By unifying as peoples around the world over issues that affect all of us more or less equally. By building alliances with those working to eliminate disease and poverty, mitigate the effects of climate change, raise literacy rates, diminish rich-poor divides, and literally shoot for the stars. The people in one nation-state cannot change the whole system alone. But the people as a body of global citizens? Recognizing that our nation-state governments are now but one piece of our political infrastructure? Together we have the ability to shift market-economies–and with them, in time, the shape of our whole human tribe.
These are not easy goals.
These are–dare I say?–lofty goals.
But the first step is easy enough that you can start today, with your conversations and actions around the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. You can start by accepting that the answer to its humanitarian nightmare is not going to be found by taking sides between two specific political contestants, or even two socio-economic ideologies. Rather, the best response is a set of actionable items, scaled mindfully to target the fuller range of players involved. And within that set? Yes, above all else, support the autonomy of the Venezuelan people! But also… consider what you can do outside the region, in your own neck of the woods, to alleviate some of the more pervasive globalist pressures impacting any one people’s ability to make the best possible choices for themselves.
Because, well… we can do better, fellow humanists.
And because we can, we must.