'Totally divided': how Venezuela's crisis split the Latin American left

After months of political turmoil in the country, Latin America’s once broadly united leftist movement is in disarray

In her first international speech as the president of Brazil’s powerful Workers’ party, Gleisi Hoffmann waded immediately into controversy when she voiced uncompromising support for Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro.

Addressing the São Paulo Forum – an annual gathering of leftwing parties in Managuá in July – Hoffmann said Venezuela faced a “violent offensive by the right” and endorsed a controversial new constituent assembly – which Maduro’s critics have described as a bare-faced grab for power.

The new body, which was installed last week amid protests from as many as 40 countries, would “contribute to an ever greater consolidation of the Bolivarian revolution”, Hoffmann said.

In a continent whose recent history is littered with rightwing coups, military dictatorships and US interference, such reflexive support made sense to many on the left. For them, Venezuela remains a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance – much as Cuba once did.

But to others, Hoffmann’s speech was an indefensible endorsement of a government accused of growing authoritarianism and violence against its own people.

This week the United Nations said 5,000 people have been arbitrarily detained in Venezuela since April and outlined “credible reports of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” by security forces. The country’s economy is in freefall, while shortages of food and medicine have triggered a humanitarian crisis.

And after four months of political turmoil in Venezuela, the steady erosion of human rights has left Latin American leftists – once broadly united behind its charismatic late leader Hugo Chávez – in disarray.

“The left is totally divided,” said Leonardo Valente, a professor of international relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Graffiti in Caracas reads ‘we are hungry’. The country’s dire economic situation has caused shortages of food and medicine.
Graffiti in Caracas reads ‘we are hungry’. The country’s dire economic situation has caused shortages of food and medicine. Photograph: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

Valente described a hardline current which believes “Venezuela today is an example of open class war, that there is no more democratic solution”. But others are appalled by the violent clampdown on dissent. “They are much more focused on the humanitarian, identity issue,” he said.

The chorus of protest has left Maduro increasingly isolated. Venezuela has been suspended from South American trade bloc Mercosur, and on Tuesday 17 American countries – including Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Colombia – condemned its “breakdown of democratic order”.

Even the Vatican has called for the suspension of the new assembly – although Argentinian-born pope Francis has been criticised for not speaking out against the Venezuelan president.

In Brazil, Hoffman’s comments were been seized upon by opponents of the Workers’ party – but criticism of the Venezuelan government is not restricted to those on the right.

“Maduro’s constituent assembly is the last madness of a regime that has been rotten for a long time,” said Jean Wyllys, a lawmaker from Brazil’s Socialism and Freedom party, in a Facebook post. “The situation in Venezuela is catastrophic, a real humanitarian tragedy.”

Wyllys said had been attacked online for his comments. “There was a whole hate campaign against me on social networks – principally from sectors of the left who still defend the old Stalinism of the last century,” he told the Guardian.

Wagner Romão, a professor of political science at the State University of Campinas and a Workers’ party member, said Venezuela had lost the lustre it once held.

“Venezuela was an exemplary case,” he said, pointing to Workers’ party founder Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who threw his support behind Chávez following an aborted coup attempt in 2003.

Members of the controversial new constituent assembly, criticized as a power grab, hold a picture of Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez.
Members of the controversial new constituent assembly, criticized as a power grab, hold a picture of Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Many in the Workers’ party draw parallels between protests against Maduro and the impeachment of Brazil’s former president Dilma Rousseff – which they describe as a coup d’état engineered by the country’s “elite”.

Monica Valente, the party’s secretary for international relations, accused Venezuela’s upper classes of “playing against the country” and exacerbating the political and economic crisis to force regime change.

She blamed Venezuela’s economic collapse on its over-dependence on its vast oil reserves, and compared the tens of thousands Venezuelans who have fled to neighbouring countries to the waves of immigrants entering the US or the European Union. “This is not a phenomenon restricted to Venezuelans,” she said.

On Tuesday a group of Venezuela’s allies – including Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador – declared support for Maduro, and attacked US sanctions as “imperialist interference”.

Bolivia’s firebrand president Evo Morales had already defended the new assembly. “The aggression to the Venezuelan democracy is aggression to all Latin America,” he tweeted. And under new leftist president Lenin Moreno, Ecuador’s foreign ministry endorsed Venezuela’s new assembly, saying it “ratified its support for any process which seeks peace in Venezuela”.

During some of the darkest years of the Colombian civil war, Venezuela served as a refuge for the country’s Farc rebels – but it also played an important role in negotiating hostage releases.

And Chávez was fundamental in convincing the Farc to sit down to peace negotiations with the government of Juan Manuel Santos – which eventually led to the demobilization of Latin America’s largest rebel insurgency.

In turn, the Farc have unapologetically stood by Chávez’s beleaguered successor.

The rebels’ top leader, Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timochenko, has said that while the Venezuelan government has made mistakes, it is the forces of “neoliberalism” that are trying to destabilize a democratic government.

“We support Nicolás Maduro Moros and the Bolivarian revolution. We denounce the criminal onslaught of which they are victims,” he wrote in April.

After the election of the constituent assembly earlier this month, Andrés París, another member of the Farc’s ruling secretariat, said: “We are very happy that the people of Venezuela have triumphed, that peace has triumphed and that democracy has won.”

The national assembly building in the Venezuelan capital. ‘Venezuela today is an example of open class war, that there is no more democratic solution.’
The national assembly building in the Venezuelan capital. ‘Venezuela today is an example of open class war, that there is no more democratic solution.’ Photograph: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

But Gustavo Petro, a former Bogota mayor for the leftist Progressive Movement – and before that a militant in the now defunct M19 guerrilla group – distanced himself from Maduro’s policies.

“Venezuela, as an oil-exporting country, suffers from problems of income distribution and the crisis of falling oil prices – but they have been amplified by terrible economic policies. Venezuela can either remake itself by starting with a dialogue of its society – or follow the path of Syria or Iraq,” he said.

In Argentina, leftists have mixed feelings, feeling little sympathy for either Maduro or his opponents. “Maduro’s government has lost popular support and is leaning on the armed forces with increasingly anti-democratic measures,” former vice-presidential candidate Myriam Bregman, whose Leftist Front came in fourth in Argentina’s 2015 elections, told the Guardian.

But she also blasted the US, Pope Francis and rightwing Latin American governments for “pressuring Maduro’s government towards a negotiated solution with the right”.

With elections looming in Mexico next year, Andrés Manuel López Obrador – the socialist candidate who is currently leading polls – has stayed silent on Venezuela, though some members of this Morena party openly support Maduro.

In contrast, the Venezuelan crisis has been highlighted by Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary party – whose technocratic policies now obscure roots in the populist current of the Mexican revolution. While the PRI has steadfastly supported Cuba, the government of president Enrique Peña Nieto has strongly condemned Maduro, though that may owe more to domestic priorities, said Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

“It’s about domestic politics in Mexico, setting up the PRI campaign against López Obrador – dovetailed with converging American policy in the region,” he said.

Brazil’s Lula has also remained uncharacteristically quiet as the crisis worsened. He plans to run for a third term in next year’s presidential elections, if he is not jailed on corruption and money-laundering charges, and declined to comment for this piece.

“For Lula there is no point in commenting on it. He wants to see what is going to happen with his own candidacy,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.

As the Venezuelan crisis worsens, more Latin American leftists – especially those facing elections – may adopt a similar stance.

“It’s kind of that lose-lose situation,” Stuenkel said.

  • This article was updated on 11 August 2017 to correct the spelling of Wagner Romão. Previously we had it as Mourão. This has now been changed.


Dom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro, Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá, David Agren in Mexico City, Dan Collyns in Lima and Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires

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