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U.S. Academic Steve Ellner: ‘Venezuela needs more checks and balances to fight corruption and abuse of power’

Originally published: Orinoco Tribune on September 27, 2023 by Jesus Roriguez-Espinoza (more by Orinoco Tribune)  | (Posted Oct 04, 2023)

Orinoco Tribune interviewed U.S. academic Steve Ellner on different issues, ranging from Venezuelan domestic issues to global matters. Regarding the lessons he learned from closely following the governments of presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro governments, Ellner pointed out the importance of building a robust mechanism of checks and balances to counter corruption and abuse of power by authority figures, a situation that Venezuela has been suffering for decades.

On this issue the U.S. academic highlighted the importance of differentiated roles of government officials and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) leadership, as well as the importance of building political alliances with parties strong enough to counterbalance corruption and abuse of power.

Steve Ellner is a U.S. academic who taught social sciences at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela for over 25 years, where he also undertook research projects a few years later. He also taught political science for five years at the Central University of Venezuela. He was a visiting professor at Duke University, and is currently the associate managing editor of the theoretical and scholarly journal Latin American Perspectives. He is co-editor of two books, Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict (Lynne Rienner, 2003), The Latin American Left: From the Fall of Allende to Perestroika (Westview, 2003). He is author of Venezuela’s Movimiento al Socialismo: From Guerrilla Defeat to Electoral Politics (Duke University Press, l988) and Organized Labor in Venezuela, 1958-1991: Behavior and Concerns in a Democratic Setting (Scholarly Resources, l993). He has published op-ed articles in New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

The interview was conducted on Wednesday, September 27, by Orinoco Tribune’s editor and founder Jesús Rodríguez-Espinoza and focused on the following questions:

  • Can you tell us your opinion on the Monroe Doctrine’s “victories” and defeats? And how does it operate in the emerging multipolar world?
  • Please let us know exactly what you mean when you talk about the “War against Venezuela?” What are the similarities and differences with other “regime change” operations in other countries?
  • In your opinion how Marxist-Leninist “strategic retreat,” Spain’s Antifascist Popular Front (Comintern) relate to the recent controversy between PCV and PSUV?
  • Do you think that it is necessary to clarify for the Western left what imperialism really means, in order to properly move forward in the anti-imperialist struggle?
  • Do you think that the petty debates (third-worldism, environmentalism, nationalism, colonialism) in the “Western” left distract many from the main goals that should focus on dismantling capitalism?
  • Do you think that it is really relevant for the world to pay too much attention to the U.S. presidential election when any change in the White House doesn’t really mean a significant change in U.S. imperialism?
  • You have closely followed the process of change in Venezuela under both Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. Are there any lessons that you would like to share with us?

On the question about the Monroe Doctrine Ellner said that he “personally believe(s) that the discussion really boils down to the good cop-bad cop duo of the Democrats and the Republicans: the Democrats who represent more of a soft line position in terms of their discourse, and the Republicans, especially the neocons, who play an important role in the formulation of policy in the Republican Party, represent more of a hard line. But in practice they are on the same page. And just to give you one example of that or one proof of that, the most important position in the Congress with regard to foreign relations is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee president or chairman. And that’s Bob Menéndez, who’s a Democrat. But everybody says that he’s really Republican when it comes to foreign policy. Why do the Democrats, if they really are intent on projecting a different line with regards to the Republicans, why do they choose somebody like Menéndez.”

He added that despite Democrats claiming that the Monroe Doctrine is no longer valid as John Kerry said in 2013 allegedly because the U.S. no longer acts alone when intervening in affairs of other nations, the case of Cuba points in the opposite direction. “The differences between the Democratic and Republican Party when it comes to the Monroe Doctrine is a difference of wording but not a difference of substance,” Ellner said.

On the issue of the “War Against Venezuela” that Ellner has coined to distinguish it from other U.S.-led destabilization operations around the globe, he said that Venezuela is not an exceptional case but in terms of the intensity of the operation, Venezuela stands out if compared to other countries.

Ellner explained that in 2015 the Obama administration signed an executive order declaring Venezuela an extraordinary and unusual threat to U.S. national security and foreign policy, and the next year harsh financial sanctions were imposed on the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the engine of Venezuela’s economy, at a moment when oil prices had begun to nosedive.

He recommended reading the book Extraordinary Threat: The U.S. Empire, the Media, and Twenty Years of Coup Attempts in Venezuela, by Joe Emersberger and Justin Podur, for their exhaustive enumerations of most of the aggressive U.S. measures against the Venezuelan people. In a recent article entitled “Objective Conditions in Venezuela: Maduro’s Defensive Strategy and Contradictions Among the People,” Ellner also enumerates many of these acts of aggression in an attempt to contextualize some economic liberalization measures adopted by the Maduro administration to counter the damage caused by the U.S. and its allies, that have been weaponized by the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) to support its recent confrontation with Chavismo.

On this issue Orinoco Tribune’s editor said that he believes that “it is extremely important that you try to coin that term, because I have the impression that a lot of people outside Venezuela, in other countries, tend to compare Venezuela’s recent struggles with their own mild struggles in most cases. And that, in my opinion, tends to make them believe that sometimes radical decisions taken in Venezuela are ‘too much’ according to their standards. But I believe that they consider that radicalism based on their own country’s experiences, and they don’t really measure what has been really happening in Venezuela.”

“Besides all the things that you enumerate,” Rodríguez-Espinoza continued,

we have to say that we have a coupmonger opposition that has been plotting coups almost every six months since Chávez took office. And no one talks about that, no one pays enough attention to that. That’s why I believe that you trying to coin this War Against Venezuela term is important because there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what happens in Venezuela.

The third question went back to the issue of objectives conditions but also touched subjective conditions and what Marxist-Leninists call “strategic retreats,” that relates to the controversy between the PCV and the PSUV.

On this issue Ellner used the example of Spain’s Popular Antifascist Front built by Manuel Azaña in 1935 incorporating a broad coalition of political parties that allowed them to take power in 1936. The critical position of the Socialist Party toward the more moderate Popular Front government opened the door to the Spanish Civil War and the bloody and fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco who ruled Spain until his death in 1975.

Ellner also referred to the 1848 Revolutions in Europe that forced Karl Marx to take a “strategic retreat” after analyzing the objective and subjective conditions for a socialist revolution in the continent, something that was labeled as a heresy by some in the Communist League. Ellner further mentioned V.I. Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) that was also harshly criticized by some Bolsheviks at the time, but that again measured objective and subjective conditions in the USSR heavily impacted by World War I, the October Revolution and the Civil War. The NEP ended up being the anchor for the massive industrialization process that converted the Soviet Union into an industrial power.

Returning to Venezuela, Ellner added that besides the objective conditions enumerated in what he calls the War Against Venezuela, there are subjective conditions that also weaken the strength of the Bolivarian Revolution, such as the demoralization after Hugo Chávez’s death or the apathy noticed in the 2015 parliamentary elections that led to the victory of the opposition, not because they got more votes but because 2 million Chavista did not vote in that election.

“So those factors have to be taken into consideration and that doesn’t disqualify the position of the PCV or other parties that are critical of Maduro. They might be right in what they say, but the analysis has to incorporate objective and subjective conditions into their analysis,” the intellectual added.

The fourth point of the interview referred to imperialism and how some in the Western left tend to forget Leninist definitions and incorporate China and Russia in the same bag with the U.S. and European countries and thus sow confusion among anti-imperialist forces. On this issue Ellner said that he thinks that it “does a disservice to the solidarity movement throughout the world and the peace movement, because people say that, okay, United States is imperialist, but so is Russia and China. The logical conclusion, which a lot of people reach, at least people on the center and the right, and maybe perhaps some people you might define as center-left, they say, well, okay, I prefer Washington. If the three countries are equally imperialistic, at least Washington is democratic.” Ellner added that even this notion of U.S. democracy is becoming more and more questionable.

Then he referred to new concepts attempting to diminish the role of the nation-state, thus diminishing the concept of imperialism using as argument the globalization of big capital, and he questioned that notion based on the unequal balance between the North and the South.

The fifth question was about the amount of energy and time invested by many in the Western left discussing what the Orinoco Tribune editor called petty debates, like third-worldism, patriotism, nationalism, colonialism, environmentalism, something that in his opinion distract them from the main objective that should be focus on fighting capitalism.

Ellner answered as follows:

I would prefer to formulate the issue along different lines because I think that the differences on the left are understandable and they reflect the complexity and the contradictions of the capitalist system in the United States. The organized left is basically divided in three general categories or tendencies: the left that is struggling against imperialism that prioritizes the struggle against imperialism, the left that is centered on what some people call identity politics having to do with gender and race and issues that relate to that, and the left that focuses on the working class and domestic economic issues.

So you have three different categories and those three different categories reflect different social bases, that there are different perceptions that ultimately have to do with class differences or social differences. There’s an intersectionality in terms of these three issues coming together at certain points, but also there are differences with regard to emphasis, discourse and priorities. I’ll give you one example.

About six months ago I was in Washington and I went to a protest that was called the Rage Against the War Machine, in Washington DC, in front of the Lincoln Memorial. And I went there to check it out really, but I kind of got enthusiastic about it because I liked most of the presentations.

But that protest was very controversial because it was an attempt to bring those sectors of the right that are opposed to the war in Ukraine and are opposed to war, at least the military budget in general, together. And the argument was the war movement is so weak, at least if you compare it with the anti-war movement in the 60s, it’s small. It’s very small, even though what’s happening today is just as bad, if not worse than Vietnam or at least, let’s say, just as bad.

So that protest brought a lot of criticism because there were speakers there and sponsors of the protest who are on the right. Ron Paul was one of them and the widow of the notorious Lyndon Larouche, who was a right-winger, sponsored, supported. And some of them participated in the protest.

And many people felt that these are people who are opposing the rights of the working class. They’re reactionaries, which they are. They are reactionaries on issues of race, gender, and the working class. The issues of racism and misogyny are ones of principle and you can’t accept compromises on them. The left can’t unite with racists.

My article in Science of Society made reference to Mao’s famous work, actually two works, on contradictions among the people in which he says you’ve got to make a distinction between primary fundamental contradictions with the enemy and contradictions among the people. And those contradictions among the people are resolved through debate, discussion, and he didn’t use this term but through comprehension and a rejection of sectarianism.

I think the real issue is sectarianism. There are groups that are sectarian that don’t want to have anything to do with or write off other groups that are coming from different directions and I think that that mentality has to be overcome.

Jesús Rodríguez-Espinoza clarified that he was not trying to criticize the broad groups from the left but most importantly Marxist-leaning groups that spend too much energy in discussions that, in his opinion, distract Marxists from the main goal of changing the capitalist system, something that is different from the sectarianism that one might find among different Marxist tendencies or even among broader groups. He added that on the issue of the Rage Against the War Machine protest he agreed with Ellner’s position because when a person is put in an extreme situation like world annihilation, that person has to abandon political convictions strategically in order to avoid an undesirable outcome, like the one connected to the War in Ukraine and the real chance of a nuclear disaster.

Regarding whether it is necessary to pay attention to U.S. presidential elections, Ellner explained that despite the fact that on foreign policy both parties in the U.S. have almost similar positions, he believes that in domestic issues they are different and for that reason he tends to favor the Democratic Party option.

“But at the end of the day, the two are equally bad, equally imperialistic,” he said.

I don’t see much in the way of differences, maybe in terms of discourse, but not in terms of actual policies and actions. I would prefer that the Democrats win the presidential elections over the Republicans, but not because they have a better position on foreign policy, but because they do have a better position on domestic economic issues, even though that leaves a lot to be desired and that can’t be emphasized enough.

He explained that the growing influence of the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) as a force within the Democratic Party gives him optimism about the political correlation of forces within the U.S.

In terms of candidates he named Green Party’s Cornell West and Party of Socialism and Liberation’s Claudia de la Cruz as good options. He also discarded any real possibility of victory for Donald Trump. “The rejection percentages for Trump works against him because none of the candidates have an absolute majority… I think that the Democrats have more of a chance of attracting the vote of independents than Trump would,” he added after recognizing that Joe Biden offer is not attractive either.

About his experiences of the governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, Ellner made a reference to the corruptions cases in PDVSA revealed recently as well as those during the times of Rafael Ramírez. He stated that the fact that Ramírez—as well as Tareck El Aissami—were at the same time ministers of petroleum and PDVSA presidents played an important role in bypassing the system of checks and balances that existed previously in Venezuela where the Ministry of Petroleum played a more active role in monitoring the work of PDVSA.

“My basic criticism actually is that there has to be in place a system of checks and balances because the people in power can be the most dedicated and committed people in the world, but if there is no other entity that will monitor what they’re doing and that has an input in what they’re doing, then there is going to be an abuse of power or at least in the best of cases, erroneous policies that will take place,” Ellner explained his point of view.

And those checks and balances, that concept that I have of checks and balances goes beyond just state institutions like what I mentioned before about the Ministry of Petroleum and the state oil company PDVSA, for instance, the party itself, the PSUV. I believe that the PSUV should consist of a leadership that is outside of the state to a great extent. Now, the president of PSUV has always been the president of Venezuela, Chávez and Maduro, and I don’t see anything bad about that. But it seems to me that there has to be individuals high up in the party, the vice presidents of the party, for instance, who should be party members first and anything else second. It’s a mistake to have ministers and governors occupying those top positions under Maduro within the structure of the PSUV.

Ellner continued his analysis explaining that the same logic should work in party alliances, with parties strong enough to serve as a mechanism of checks on state power. This is something that is not happening currently, especially after PSUV’s rupture with the PCV and previously with the Patria Para Todos party (PPT).

Ellner concluded that his answers represent tentative criticisms aimed at improving things. He also clarified that he is against some people in the Western left who said that it is not valid to criticize countries in the South where the left is in power.

Steve Ellner has spent most of his life in Venezuela and currently lives between Venezuela and the U.S.

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