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Random thoughts on legitimacy crises around the world

We've recently seen the results of a settlement in the Ukraine, and a live debate has been proposed for Thailand. Below is a discussion of a similar proposal in Venezuela. While "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war," it's not clear that such events can resolve what are, in the end, crises of legitimacy. "All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…. And the war came." I'd welcome counter-examples.

Paul Jay of the Real News Network interviews Miguel Tinker-Salas, professor of History and Latin American studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and Alexander Main of CEPR:

I said "random" and I meant "random." Because I found the video intriguing, I'm going to use it and Venezuela -- which I know almost nothing about -- as an armature for discussion, by cutting up the transcript and adding bits of information about other countries. Like stir fry! Since Venezuela is the ingredient that gives energy to the entire dish, I guess that would make it the cooking oil. Which is appropriate, eh?

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Both pro- and anti-government forces are rallying in Venezuela today ahead of a peace conference called for by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Now joining us to discuss this are two guests.

In Caracas, we're joined by Miguel Tinker Salas. He's a professor of Latin American history, Pomona College, author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela from Duke University Press. His forthcoming book is Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.

And in Washington, we're joined by Alexander Main, senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. And he's also consulted for the Venezuelan government and the City of London.

Thank you both for joining us.

And let's start with Miguel. So, Miguel, you're in Caracas right now. There's reportedly both pro- and anti-government rallies happening today ahead of this peace conference called for by Nicolás Maduro. Give us the latest. And if you can, also comment on Governor José Vielma Mora--and a lot has been made about this in the Western media. He's a supporter of Maduro, but he's criticized some of his what he called violent methods of cracking down on protestors.

On protests: One thing I've finally realized, being here in Thailand during what amounts to an insurrection, is that just because a movement uses Gene Sharp's 198 Methods of Non-Violent Protest and Persuasion, that doesn't make them automagically right! Sharp, after all, opposes violence, but that doesn't mean that he opposes the use of force, and force can be used for bad or good ends. It is true that there are always two sides -- those who will kill for their beliefs, and those who won't -- but at least in Thailand, people on those two sides were also on every other side (if that makes sense). I've also finally realized that just because protesters want to overthrow the State, that doesn't make them automagically right either. What if the protesters want to install a Fascist regime?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS, PROF. LATIN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CHICANO/CHICANA STUDIES, POMONA COLLEGE: Well, no. Vielma Mora said he was against using repression against the population, and I think most people in Venezuela, including most supporters of Nicolás Maduro, would agree with that statement. So I think that Vielma Mora was clarifying his position in relationship to what's happened in Táchira, where the protests have been--by the opposition--have been, somewhat, very violent in confronting the National Guard.

Now, he also was very critical of the mayor, which is an opposition mayor in San Cristóbal, who took the cadaver of a victim who fell off of a second-story building and paraded it through the city. So we have that.

"So we have that." Yeah, well. Parading a cadaver through the streets seems a little over-the-top to me, no matter which side did the parading. The quest for martyrs, the demand for dead bodies, has always existed, but the sucking maw of social media really brings out the dead now, along with the bloody and the maimed. Certainly true in Maidan, but also in Thailand.

But what's happening in Venezuela today have been a series of protests and counterprotests on the part of the opposition. It was "Women for Peace"--interestingly enough, last Saturday, the government and Maduro and others had also a rally of "Women for Peace" on the government side. Today there was a protest sponsored by the Patriotic Pole and the government. The Patriotic Pole is the group that includes all of the supporters of the government, and it was the social movements and peasants (campesinos), who gathered in Caracas on the eve of a peace conference.

The peasants supporting the state. Fancy that!

What you have is much of the protest reduced to essentially 18 different municipalities. And even within those municipalities, it's not the entire municipality. Friends tell me in western Venezuela that, for example, it's a tale of two cities: whether it's San Cristóbal or Mérida, actually one side or some neighborhoods are actually with barricades and others are functioning as if it was a normal day of work. So that's--I think it's a misnomer to consider that we're confronting a massive outpouring by millions of people. In fact, we have pockets of protest taking place in Caracas and in the interior of Venezuela.

The media focus is highly selective. Since the political classes in this country and the EU would like to destroy the Venezuelan state and grab Venezuela's oil, coverage on the ground is rare, and what there is, is bad. For whatever reason, coverage on the ground in Thailand is good, and the BBC, Reuters, and Times all have good people here. Could be that ASEAN is more important, could be that Bangkok is a more desirable posting than Caracas, could be that there's a news blackout at the editorial level. And Kiev? Who'd want to go to Kiev? (Somebody should do a study on how correspondents are distributed; protests aren't dangerous enough in Bangkok for the real adrenalin freaks, but they're dangerous enough for people who want to do more than work the phone; reporters have come under fire in here, even though the city is in no sense a war zone.*)

And so in fact what appears in our famously free press to be a mass movement, is parts of some municipalities. Interesting! In Thailand we don't have that misrepresentation, because coverage is better; reporters actually went up-country and interviewed some of the Red Shirts there, instead of staying in Bangkok and tacking dictatation. We do, however, have delusion: The Bangkok protesters call themselves "the great mass of the people" but in fact the political party that represents them hasn't won an election in twenty years, and even in Bangkok they have only 60% of the vote. They also call themselves "the people," which gets to the heart of the matter: Only they have the right to speak for Thailand. I'd be interested to know if the Venezuelans use the same rhetoric. And I know very little about the Ukraine, but what I do know is that the country does not split neatly down the middle, West/EU vs. East/Russia. So the question "Who speaks for the country?" could have a very painful answer, just as in Thailand, or in Venezuela.

NOOR: And Alexander, I wanted to bring you in the conversation. What's your response to what Miguel said? And, also, you know, you could describe the Western media as being almost rabidly anti-Maduro in their descriptions and how they've focused on the opposition and what they've made of José Vielma Mora's comments. And they've highlighted the fact that he's spoken out about some of the repression, but not about his support, his ongoing support for Maduro.

ALEXANDER MAIN, SENIOR ASSOC. FOR INTERNATIONAL POLICY, CEPR: Yeah, absolutely. Well, in terms of what Miguel said, I mean, he's absolutely right. We're not looking at a generalized phenomenon in terms of these protests. They're taking place in, you know, very small pockets.

"Very small pockets." Didn't we read about this in The Ugly American? The photogenic event, images carefully cropped?

And, you know, an important thing to note as well is that they're taking place essentially in middle-class and upper middle-class neighborhoods.

Dear Lord. In Bangkok, the protests are driven by middle- and upper-class people ("hi sos"), although they don't protest in their own neighborhoods. That strikes me as a crazy notion; does Caracas have no public space? No public transportation? No central square, a la Maidan or many locations in Bangkok**?

So it's a rather strange thing that we're seeing--I mean strange from the U.S. point of view, at least, where when one sees riots (because that's essentially what we are seeing here), you really see that in poor neighborhoods, and, you know, often poor neighborhoods take the brunt of the damage that's caused. In this case, it's middle-class students--not necessarily students; young people, at any rate, who have taken to the streets in very small numbers. But they're, you know, blocking traffic, they're burning rubbish, putting up barracades.

I remember last year when the Brazil protests about public transportation were initiated by anarchists and immediately co-ped by protests against corruption. Something similar happened in Turkey, and I believe (without being sure) that Bangkok began to stir as well. That's when you started reading articles about "the revolt of the middle class" in the Washington Post and other places; one reason I don't accept "middle class" as an analytical category. Perhaps for the purpose of this post at least I'll say bourgeois (owners of capital) and petty bourgois (servicers of capital; I know, I know, doctors do some good in the world, but bear with me).

They're putting up barbed wires around intersections that have already caused, apparently, three deaths, including the beheading of a motorcyclist that went by.

That's very bad. When the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie get blooded, they tend to go on with it and start slaughtering their opponents; Paris, 1870. (That's why hate speech is important; it gives a license to kill.)

TINKER SALAS: Two motorcyclists.

MAIN: Is it just two motorcyclists?

TINKER SALAS: Two motorcyclists now that have died.

If Caracas is like Bangkok, the motorcyclists are not on the road for recreation, but providing essential and efficient public transport. So, some workers lost their lives.

MAIN: Okay, yes. So, at any rate, you know, these are, you know, sort of dangerous barricades that have been set up, but that also are paralyzing things in these neighborhoods. I mean, you go in there, you know, it's, you know, very quiet because traffic can't go through there. I mean they really blocked things in a lot of these neighborhoods. But it is a micro-phenomenon in Venezuela, and I think that's important to, you know, keep in mind given the sort of huge coverage that it's been getting over the last few days.

I'm not sure that blocking the city, let alone one's own neighborhood, is ever a recipe for success. It hasn't been in Bangkok, so far. What is the endgame?

And in terms of, you know, the government response to that, you know, there have been allegations that there was a lot of, you know, very heavy repression. I think there are certainly cases of abuses on the part of the state security forces. I think in a lot of cases, you know, in these neighborhoods, there's perhaps a lack of any sort of intervention taking place on the part of state security forces. They, I think, are wary of going in there and clashing with these students, causing, you know, more casualties, potentially.

You know, there are already a number of casualties. Each one is, you know, generally in the media and so on attributed to the government, although, really, if you look over who has been killed so far, it's probably about 50 percent opposition supporters, and the rest are, you know, either pro-government or just not really as involved in politics. So, you know, these are things that are not really being covered in the mainstream media.

Yes, on the casualties. Each side talks only of its own, never of the other's.

NOOR: Right. Miguel, how much of these protests are expanding into the urban working class? Because if you just read the headlines in the Western media, they're all about the protests broadening and growing, but the urban working class, which the majority, from what I understand, do support--they are Chavistas, but they're about split on their support. So have they taken to the streets? Are they part of the protests now?

TINKER SALAS: They're not part of the protests, per se. But, for example, in Minas de Baruta, in Caracas, a few days ago there were protests in what is essentially a very poor neighborhood, and people were complaining about scarcity and about other issues. I mean, there are some real issues in Venezuela the government needs to tackle, and these are primarily economic issues and primarily the question of being able to not have scarcity. And people are tired of confronting those issues. Inflation is also upwards of 50 percent. So those are real issues that affect broad sections of society, especially working class and poor segments of society. So they are concerned.

A "rule or ruin" strategy by the bourgeois and petty bourgeioisie, I would guess. (The economic tactics and effects of the protests in Bangkok would be really complicated to net out, so I won't do that. In a lot of ways, though, it's a Stop or I shoot myself situation.)

But again, what the opposition is offering as an alternative is simply street protest. They've actually pushed their people into a dead end. They have only one goal: overthrow the government. They don't have short-term measures. They have not made proposals on crime. They have not made proposals on how to address economic issues. They have not indicated how they would govern the country differently.

Exactly the same thing in Thailand. The protesters are demanding "reform before elections!" with no program of reform!

And, in fact, just the opposite happens. People that I talk to tell me, if this is how they want to govern, by creating ungovernability, by making the city impassable, by disrupting society, then that's a very poor example. So I think that's the largest question they face.

I believe that happened in Bangkok, too. In many ways, the protesters were seen as irresponsible. I can't quite the word... Actually, the word is "asshole"; see this definition. Political speech is fine, but not in the Quiet Car, mkay? I'm trying to figure out the difference between Caracas and Bangkok protests, on the one hand, and Zucotti Park, on the other; funding issues aside, I'd say that although it was disruptive***, Zucotti was also prefigurative, an element lacking with Caracas and Bangkok

And the electoral cycle does not benefit them this year, because for the first time in almost 15 years there are no elections scheduled in Venezuela. So, again, let me reiterate: they have taken their movement and their people into a dead end, because they don't have anything else to offer except oust Maduro by undemocratic means, because at the heart of their position is they refuse to recognize his election.

Exactly as in Thailand; I don't think in Kiev.

And understanding that last December, 2013, from Municipal elections, the opposition made them into a plebicite on Maduro, they lost. They gained a couple of major urban cities, but they lost, and Maduro's forces won close to 75 percent of the municipal areas, so that coming from that victory to now have a condition of ungovernability simply underscores and belies the fact that they are not willing to abide by the democratic process and they are looking for extralegal means to oust a democratically elected government.

And again, exactly as in Thailand.

NOOR: And I know we're running out of time, but, Alex, let's end with you. So there may be legitimate demands here, but is the call for the resignation for Maduro really a demand for destabilization?

MAIN: Well, absolutely. I mean, these are destabilization tactics. When you paralyze neighborhoods and smoke them out and terrify entire communities, which is what these small groups of young people have been doing for the past ten days or so, you know, that is the objective.

And, you know, I think it's important to underline that this is not a new thing. This has happened many times now over the last 14 years, ever since, you know, Venezuela first elected, you know, Hugo Chávez, that the opposition has engaged in these destabalization tactics, sometimes with, you know, a temporary success, as was the case in 2002, during the April 2002 coup.

This is not so much reminiscent of the 2002 coup, when the opposition did manage to mobilize a really mass middle-class protest. I think it's much more reminiscent of 2004, where we saw the phenomenon of the guarimba that took place at the end of February and the beginning of March. The guarimba is exactly what we're seeing now. It is, you know, creating chaos with small groups of people that are setting up barricades, that are, you know, threatening anybody who comes close to them, that are, you know, burning things, that are damaging public property, etc., trying to provoke, actually, a very strong response from state security forces in order to sort of try to get a snowball effect and try to get a more generalized rebellion.

guarimba is a useful word, but there's no such thing in Kiev or Thailand, AFAIK (though the cycle of provocation and counter-provocation in Thailand is so layered and intricate and opaque you just have no concept.)

Well, as I said earlier, there hasn't actually been much repression of these protests, at least not recently. I think it's been, you know, fairly minimal. And so, you know, they're not really managing, I think, to mobilize more support.

In Kiev, the repression was massive. In Thailand -- at least by the standards of the previous government, run by the protester's party, that ended up killing around 90 people in a crackdown by the Army -- the repression has been pretty minimal. The wind blows through the trees, and when it's gone, the tree remains.

But in the meantime, you know, I think the really tragic thing for the opposition is that the radical sector of the opposition sort of has the upper hand as the support of the private media in the country and so on. And, you know, they are not about elections, they are not about constitutional processes; they're about, you know, getting rid of this government immediately. And that's what they've made clear.

In Kiev, the government seems to have been gotten rid of. In Thailand, if the government is gotten rid of, it hasn't been by the protester's alone, although there are other methods under the heading of "checks and balances."

Well, these are crude notes towards a comparative study of "middle class" and other revolts round the world. If I were smarter and it wasn't so late for me, I'd add the Occupations, and especially Egypt, to the list. I'm not sure what the underlying dynamic is worldwide, or even if there is a single on, but this remark from Dmitri Orlov, writing on the Ukraine, struck me forcibly:

In light of all this, some people might wonder: were the people in Washington and in Brussels always eager to favor fascists, or is this a new thing for them? I believe the answer is that it doesn't matter. Their assigned job is to destroy countries, and this they do well. They have destroyed Iraq, Libya and Syria, but these are small, and the beast is still hungry. They would love to destroy Iran, but that has turned out too tough a nut to crack. And so they have now set their sights on larger prey: Venezuela and Ukraine. And the reason they have to continue destroying countries is so that the process of wealth destruction, which is inevitable as the world runs short of critical resources, can run its course some place other than the West's economic heartlands in the US and Northern Europe. It matters very little to them whether they have to support al Qaeda fighters in Libya and Syria or fascists in Ukraine; it's all the same to them.

I dunno about that process of "wealth destruction." But if you hypothesized that a small class of extraordinarily rich people hated the State, as such, because the State gets in the way of their making any even shittier ton of money, given that the proles have some influence on the State, no matter how tiny, then events in the Ukraine and Venezuela -- as well as Iraq and Afghanistan -- take on some unity.****

NOTE Thailand is a monarchy, and the lèse-majesté laws are enforced, even against foreigners. Therefore, readers, discussion of the Thai monarchy or royal family is off-topic. Guests in Thailand must obey its laws. Their house, their rules.

NOTE * It's also a question whether gunmen perform for the cameras, of which there are rather a lot; I think they do.

NOTE ** Greater Bangkok is a city of 12 million. It makes LA or Berlin seem small.

NOTE *** Not in the Silicon Valley sense.

NOTE *** Events in Thailand are about capturing the State, not destroying it. IMNSHO, the protesters in Thailand are not funded by the US. The tell is that their international presentation is, to say the least, gauche. Insulting women and putting a stop to elections doesn't play well, even among the international global ruling class.

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quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

I've been following the situation in Venezuela for years. Not closely, but somewhat. Chavez used some totalitarian methods -- not good -- but he was trying to spring loose some money from the wealthier classes and reduce the horrific inequality -- which is good. Except the not-poor classes didn't like it much. Did they have a point when complaining about his methods? Absolutely. Would gentler methods have worked to take some of their money away? Who knows.

Maduro is the heir of that work. Who knows whether he's as pro-poor as Chavez was. But the haves definitely are hoping that he's not as good at handling power and that now they can get some of what they see as their own back.

I gather from what you've written that it's somewhat similar in Thailand. Haves who aren't happy about the lower orders having some voice. The problem is that the have-nots are just as capable of grabbing everything in sight as any other human being, once they have the power to. Look at what happened after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The only solution I've ever seen is the good old checks and balances. Real ones. And nobody ever wants those.

par4's picture
Submitted by par4 on

Random thoughts... After Kerry's delusional comments on Face the Nation no further proof is needed that the 'death of the liberal class' is complete. The stench of the carcass is overwhelming. The Lib/Progs expiration date is long past, please exit stage right (pun intended) and never expound again on politics, philosophy, morality or any other thing you no nothing about, In fact a vow of silence would be greatly appreciated. What we are left with (no pun intended) is zombies supporting and defending these lunatics. The inmates of the asylum are firmly in control in the U.S.

Submitted by lambert on

Just appalling. Of course, he's doing what his boss wants him to do.

But ya know, we really dodged a bullet in 2004. What the hell were the Democrats thinking? I know, I know...

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

I like TRNN, Paul Jay gets it.
But, I feel for a certainty, that the U.S. has a hand in Venezuela's and Ukraine's instability.
The back story's are everything and without those, the public is blind. Can't possibly be informed unless they care enough to dig for the truth or at least information.
And therein lies the problem; and it's a very big problem...

Submitted by lambert on

... to sort the players in the back story. I insist the most important story is the tide among the 80%, let's call them; but that's a hard story to write, and in some ways we have elections for that. Unless we don't, manipulation by professionals enters in, and on and on. But that's where the story is. I find those Popcorn bags very, very worrisome here, for example. They are now an article of fashion; I saw one last night on the BTS.

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

Especially when it comes to Venezuela--our Press is either deliberately, or out of an abundance of ignorance, distorting the facts.

A great source on this topic is Mark Weisbrot of CEPR--here's a recent piece from his (and Dean Baker's) website:

Venezuela’s Struggle, Widely Misrepresented, Remains a Classic Conflict Between Right and Left

Mark Weisbrot, The Guardian, March 4, 2014

. . . The spread of cell-phone videos and social media in the past decade has made it more difficult to misrepresent things that can be easily captured on camera. But Venezuela is still grossly distorted in the major media. The New York Times had to run a correction last week for an article that began with a statement about “The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government …” As it turns out, all of the private TV stations “regularly broadcast voices critical of the government.” And private media has more than 90 percent of the TV-viewing audience in Venezuela. A study by the Carter Center of the presidential election campaign period last April showed a 57 to 34 percent advantage in TV coverage for President Maduro over challenger Henrique Capriles in the April election, but that advantage is greatly reduced or eliminated when audience shares are taken into account.

Although there are abuses of power and problems with the rule of law in Venezuela – as there are throughout the hemisphere– it is far from the authoritarian state that most consumers of western media are led to believe.

Opposition leaders currently aim to topple the democratically elected government – their stated goal – by portraying it as a repressive dictatorship that is cracking down on peaceful protest. This is a standard "regime change" strategy, which often includes violent demonstrations in order to provoke state violence. .

Of course violence from either side is deplorable, and detained protesters – including their leader, Leopoldo López – should be released on bail unless there is legal and justifiable cause for pre-trial detention.

But it is difficult to argue from the evidence that the government is trying to suppress peaceful protests.

One of the most important forces that has encouraged this extreme polarization has been the U.S. government.

It is true that other left governments that have implemented progressive economic changes have also been politically polarized: Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina for example. And there have been violent right-wing destabilization efforts in Bolivia and Ecuador.

But Washington has been more committed to "regime change" in Venezuela than anywhere else in South America – not surprisingly, given that it is sitting on the largest oil reserves in the world. And that has always given opposition politicians a strong incentive to not work within the democratic system.

Hope everyone reads the entire piece.

Will try to locate any excellent video which depicts Hugo Chavez's life, accurately. It is one of the best documentaries that I've seen, in quite a while.

Bear in mind, Chavez grew up in a Venezuelan kleptocracy.

In the film, Chavez visits the site of the "shanty" that he grew up in--and he was the son of two "teachers," not illiterate peasants!

He vastly improved the lives of millions of Venezuelans--to the dismay of the oligarchs!!!!