Venezuela: The epicentre of the 'Pink Tide' and now of the right-wing rollback
The attempt to roll back Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution must be seen as part of a determined effort to pry open all economies to transnational capital - it's about access, explains sociologist of globalisation William I Robinson in a February interview with Greg Wilpert from The Real News Network. The transcript of the interview is reproduced below.
GREG WILPERT: It's The Real News Network, and I'm Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.
On Monday [18 February], US President Donald Trump held an important rally in Miami, Florida, where he reiterated his pressure on Venezuela, giving the Maduro government the choice between resigning and facing a coup or US military intervention. He also promised that socialism, more generally, would soon come to an end in the Western Hemisphere, naming Cuba and Nicaragua as the next governments in the region to fall. Here's an excerpt of his speech.
DONALD TRUMP: The days of socialism and communism are numbered not only in Venezuela, but in Nicaragua, and in Cuba, as well. And one day soon, with God's help, we are going to see what the people will do in Caracas, and Managua, and Havana. And when Venezuela is free, and Cuba is free, and Nicaragua is free, this will become the first free hemisphere in all of human history.
GREG WILPERT: Indeed, there has been a significant rollback of leftist or centre-left governments in Latin America over the past 10 years, beginning with the coup in Honduras against Manuel Zelaya in 2009, the legislative coup against Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in 2012, the electoral defeat of the Peronists in Argentina in 2014, and of course the legislative coup against Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and the imprisonment of presidential frontrunner Lula da Silva in Brazil last year.
Is there a pattern, and are there larger forces at work behind the reversal of the so-called Pink Tide in Latin America? Joining me to discuss this issue is William I. Robinson. William is professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written several books on the political economy of Latin America. His most recent book is Into the Tempest: Essays on the New Global Capitalism, which just came out recently. Thanks for joining us today, Bill.
WILLIAM ROBINSON: Thanks for having me on.
GREG WILPERT: So over the course of your books and articles, you make an overall argument about how the governments of Latin America, including the progressive or centre-left ones, did more or less the same thing actually. They integrated their respective economies more tightly into the global economy. If that's the case, give us some examples of what exactly these progressive or left-of-centre governments did while they were in office.
WILLIAM ROBINSON: Right. Well, I mean, obviously, US intervention played a key role in the resurgence of the right politically in Latin America, as it played a key role in reversing the Pink Tide. But there's a larger structural story that you're asking me to speak about, and that is what I term the structural power of transnational capital over the direct power of states, or the straitjacket of global capitalism. Now let me unpack that.
The Pink Tide governments had a model, and their model was not only not to break with global capitalism, but as you pointed out, to deepen their economies' integration into the new circuits of global capitalism. And I've been critiquing this and plenty of other people have as well.
In all of the Pink Tide countries, including in the most radical experiments in Venezuela and in Bolivia, the governments deepened the dependence on extractivism. Venezuela, over the last 20 years, became more, not less, dependent on oil exports. In Argentina, in Brazil, for that matter in Bolivia, in Uruguay, there was a vast expansion of soy plantations to export to the global economy. And these were not small farmers. We're talking about giant transnational agribusiness being invited in and scooping up millions of acres of land which displaced small producers. And then you have the increased [dependence] in Bolivia and Ecuador on gas and oil exports. And then you have, in other countries, increasing dependence on mining. So you see this extractivism intensified in the Pink Tide governments.
And more of this extractivism was based on an alliance with what I call the transnational capitalist class, with transnational corporations. Really, the Pink Tide did not threaten the fundamental interests of transnational capital in Latin America. What instead was the model is that the Pink Tide governments captured surpluses generated by this extractivism and then redistributed those surpluses through social programmes. And as long as prices for these commodities, such as oil, such as soy, were booming, and that boom took place from the early 2000s up until about 2012-13 - it started to deteriorate after the financial collapse of 2008, but it wasn't until 2013-14 that you really felt the impact of the deterioration of those prices.
So it's true that the Pink Tide governments lowered poverty levels and improved health and improved education, but all of that was dependent on high commodity prices. There were no structural changes in the political economy of the Pink Tide countries. Now I want to add another point onto this, and that is that if you have the Pink Tide governments, the Pink Tide countries, becoming more and more dependent on global commodities and financial markets ... that means that the internal agents in Brazil and Argentina, in Venezuela and Bolivia and so forth, the internal agents of these global commodities and global capital markets inevitably are going to have more and more of an influence on state policies and on the whole direction of the political and economic system in these countries. So at a certain moment when the crisis comes and commodity prices fall, these agents now move onto the offensive. And so, that's the resurgence of the far right.
And if I can make one other point, I know this is a long explanation, but this is the larger background that gets lost in the headlines, such as Trump's speech in Miami the other day. And that is that where we are right now in 2019, well global capitalism is in deep crisis. And summarising very quickly, there's two dimensions. Global capitalism is losing hegemonic legitimacy everywhere. In part, Trump is critiquing so-called socialism in Latin America because he's scared that socialism is gaining popularity in the United States. So there's a loss of legitimacy in hegemony. But the more significant dimension of the global crisis we're in right now is what I call the structural crisis of over-accumulation, meaning the global economy can't expand anymore because there's so much inequality. No one can consume. One percent of the world's population has 50% of the world's wealth. The 23% with affluence has 95% of the world's wealth. So there's this crisis of stagnation and accumulation in the global economy.
In response to that crisis, the system led by the US state, the US government and the transnational capitalist class is seeking to push forward expansion wherever it can, and that includes expansion through wars, conflict and militarisation, it includes expansion through a new round of violent dispossession of peasants, and it includes expansion through a further plunder of the state. And those three dimensions of expansion in the face of stagnation and over-accumulation are most evident in Latin America. Crystal-clear evidence in Venezuela, Guatemala, with Bolsonaro and the Amazon, Colombia. Everywhere you go, this violent new round of expansion the system is trying to undertake really explains a lot of this intensified assault on what remains of the Pink Tide.
GREG WILPERT: I don't know if we're going to have time to get into this, but actually, at one point I would actually question what these governments could have done differently perhaps. And here I would actually want to point specifically to the case of Venezuela, which I'm most familiar with. Because in the case of Venezuela, they actually did invest billions and billions of dollars in trying to diversify the economy, and this has happened before, this was actually a second cycle of trying to do that. Back in the 1970s they made that effort as well and it failed. And there were some very interesting analyses written back then by Fernando Coronil and by Terry Lynn Karl about why those efforts failed. And I would argue that basically for the same reasons that they failed back then, they failed during the Chavez period. And so, when the commodity boom ended, the economy basically collapsed as a result.
Now, I'm wondering, what would have been the alternative if they really did try to diversify, at least in the Venezuelan case? Now, I can't really speak for the other cases so well. But what could they have done differently from your perspective?
WILLIAM ROBINSON: Sure. Let me respond to that. But let me first say that in part we can critique the governments, but we need to expand that critique. First, as I've already mentioned, we need to see that of course no single country in the world, but especially not Venezuela, not Bolivia, controls these global markets, global oil markets and so forth. But to ask what these governments could have done differently is also to ask: what are the internal political and social processes and class and social forces which made up these governments and which pushed policies in one or another direction?
So one of the problems I see with the left project in which politics is linked to economics is that the model was certainly to try and subordinate the social movements to the state's policies. And those state policies are being dictated by global markets, global financial commodity markets.
So the leftist political model was also a problem for the economy, because the only model that's viable for revolution, or even for just radical progressive change in the 21st century, is, in my view, the complete autonomy of social movements to be able to press for the interests of the popular classes from below to counter the pressure of transnational capital and elites from above. And that was not the model, and this brought about a lot of conflict in Ecuador and Bolivia, also in Venezuela.
But the other, more practical response to your question … is that Venezuela still could have done tremendously more, even being dependent on transnational capital and subordinance of the global economy. We know, and you know this better than I do, that 70% of the banking system still remains, to this day, in private hands. And any leftist project, the first thing you want to do is nationalise the financial system. That would not have brought any massive negative consequences for the interest of the popular classes in the revolution.
That is certainly one example that could have been done tremendously differently in Bolivia, look at what happened in Bolivia. The natural resources were not nationalised. Actually, they're still in the hands of transnational corporations. It's simply the marketing and the mechanisms that allow the government to capture some of those surpluses. So I mean, I don't have the answer of what I would do if I were in the government in Venezuela or Bolivia or Brazil, but I think unleashing popular forces from below, from a different leftist model of politics, might have forced these governments to do more than they did.
And again, one of the things, Greg, is that there is such a vast difference. Venezuela was, again, a true effort at socialist transformation, whereas Brazil was at best a mild social democracy, and Argentina was a mixture of populism and social democracy. So also it's hard to generalise.
GREG WILPERT: The Trump administration seems to act as if it's representing the interests of national capital in the United States. But at the same time, it seems to be also doing the bidding of transnational capital. And I'm just wondering, especially because Trump is always decrying the globalists and globalisation and so on, I'm just wondering, what's your take on that? Which role is Trump actually playing and whose interests is he serving, particularly in this effort to roll back the Pink Tide or the socialist governments of Latin America?
WILLIAM ROBINSON: I mean, it's an extremely important question because I think much of the left, and the public in general, gets it wrong because there is a confusion . the problem is taking discourse at face value rather than looking at underlying essences of these processes and how they're expressed in discourse. So Trump is trying to regain the legitimacy of the US state. I mentioned the crisis of hegemony previously. And so, Trump has to have the rhetoric of populism and nationalism. But we don't judge Trumpist policies on the basis of rhetoric, but what those actual policies are. And those policies have very little to do with nationalism and even less to do with populism. And I think, as you stated correctly, what the US state is doing in Latin America, and more generally around the world, in general is to push forward the interests of transnational capital and the transnational capitalist class.
Even - to look outside of Latin America for just a moment - even with China, the US pressure on China is to open up China further to transnational capital and to integrate China deeper into, or openly into, global capitalism. And for that matter, this trade deficit with China, sure it's a real trade deficit, but a big part of that trade deficit is US-based, and corporations based from all over the world inside China exporting to the United States, so they're transnational corporate exports from China to the US. So it's not nation-state rivalry the way it's posed.
Now going back to Latin America, the same thing. There are two dimensions to this incredible intensification of US interventionism. And one is the political, the military, the ideological dimension of putting the transnational capitalist class firmly back in power in Latin America and taking advantage of the conjuncture of crisis to roll back even the mild reforms of the Pink Tide governments. But those politics are in conjunction with that economic project of returning the region fully under the control of the transnational capitalist class and its local agents in each country.
Why specifically Venezuela? Well, that should be pretty obvious. And I've stated this for the last 20 years and I got criticised for it earlier. In fact, I'm sure you did too. It's that the very epicentre of the turn to the left in Latin America was always the Venezuelan revolution. And therefore, the epicentre of counter-revolution, and the reversion of the region to total subordination to global capitalism politically as well as economically, has always been the destruction of the Venezuelan revolution. That's the larger story here that we can't lose sight of.
Yes, it's true that Venezuela has the largest oil deposits in the world. Yes, it's true that [US National Security Advisor John] Bolton recently said, 'We want US oil companies back in' - what he really means is transnational oil companies - to take full control of the oil fields and so forth. But that again needs to be seen in the context of Venezuela being the epicentre both of that turn to the left and the epicentre now of the complete reversal of the [Pink Tide] that the US state is attempting on behalf of global capitalist interests.
GREG WILPERT: Well, we're going to have to leave it there for now. I hope to come back to you very soon to further explore these issues. I was speaking to Professor Bill Robinson, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Thanks again, Bill, for joining us today.
The Real News Network is a non-profit multimedia news and documentary service headquartered in Baltimore in the US. This interview transcript is reproduced from its website therealnews.com.
*Third World Resurgence No. 337/338, January/February 2019, pp 15-17