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Utopia Unmasked

A poet and former revolutionary demythologizes the Bolivarian Revolution and breaks down the failure of socialism in Venezuela

The horrors of life in Venezuela are well-documented, and have been presented on this show in the past by guests like Fergus Hodgson (aka “the Stateless Man”), who shared his first-hand experience of South American dysfunction. In this episode, we hear from a former insider of Venezuelan politics—first as a supporter, then as an arch-critic.

Clifton Ross is a Berkeley-based writer, film journalist and poet who describes his conversion from Bolivarian co-revolutionary to skeptic and eventual enemy of socialism in his memoir, Home from the Dark Side of Utopia. He had been reporting on Latin American revolutionary and social movements since 1982, when he produced the 2016 documentary titled “In the Shadow of the Revolution.”

This project earned him the disdain of his former comrades—including many arm-chair revolutionaries from the U.S., who never witnessed the devastation of the Chavista regime firsthand. For decades, he was a true believer in the Bolivarian project, and at one time was even put up in the Caracas Hilton by the government during the Second World Poetry Festival of Venezuela. Despite completely rejecting socialism now, Ross remains in solidarity with many of the social movements that have taken root in opposition to Chavez/Maduro.

The latest opposition coalition includes elements from center-right to left. Guiadó, the rightly elected president of the National Assembly (akin to America’s Congress) has gained support of the international community by leading the charge to restore fair elections, representative democracy, and all of the civic institutions that make dictators shudder. Unlike in the past, when such regime change was spearheaded by U.S. intelligence agencies, this time it seems like a natural result of Maduro’s unpopularity combined with the incompetence of his patrons in the military, state-owned industry, and media. (Contrary to what you may have heard, the opposition is succeeding in spite of not because of support from President Trump’s support.)

A Conversion of Sorts

Ross’s views shifted most dramatically in 2013, after seeing how enforcing socialism in Venezuela required the use of totalitarian tactics. In a recent interview, he was quoted saying:

“I no longer think socialism has anything of value to offer the world, even if I think it was a useful movement in the twentieth century to raise important issues of solidarity, social justice, class conflict and so on. But the very fact that it required a totalitarian state to destroy a market economy and centralize all power so as to guarantee the establishment and continuation of its utopian project entailed the elimination of real solidarity and real social justice. How can you have solidarity when you’re afraid the worker standing next to you might be undercover police who could arrest you for saying the wrong thing?”

His memoir makes the same point, nothing that all political ideologies are rooted in a mythological idea of the Revolution (capital R) along with some messianic ideal of perfection. In socialism this is embodied by the Workers. In the neoliberal ideology it is the Self-Regulating Market. True revolutions, he says, are a restoration or conservation of original principles—not the creation of Utopia. Many of Ross’s ideas will be familiar to classical liberals, but he also embraces less talked about “first principles,” such as those promoted by the indigenous social movements of South America. Native peoples are especially concerned with the extractive practices of Venezuela’s oil industry, which could end up endangering the planet in the name of loftier ideals of “progress” and “the people.” Filling the void left by the old Leninist vanguard in Venezuela will require a democratic patchwork of smaller social movements. These can only be sustained, Ross argues, by liberal democracy with checks and balances on power.

Clif joined Bob to explain how he came to see the truth about himself and the “Revolution,” in all its complex shades of light. They will dissect Clif’s journey from his conservative Christian upbringing on Air Force Bases, through liberation theology in Berkeley and the Zapatistas in Mexico, to his career as a skeptical independent writer/filmmaker. Learn what fundamentalist religions share in common with radical socialism, and how in the long run left-wing and right authoritarianism converge on a vision of Apocalyptic Utopian Messianic Millenarianism (AUMM).

We’re living history. You won’t want to miss it.

Transcript

Venezuela — The Slow Path to Destruction and Chaos

Bob Zadek: One of the events in all the newspapers these days is Venezuela and Latin America in general. I didn’t understand until I prepared for this morning’s show what exactly is happening in Venezuela, which has the some of the largest oil reserves of any country on earth. How is its population starving to death? How is inflation so rampant? Why are they not a Qatar located in Central America? Why are they not living the good life both politically and materially?

I looked around for a guest who could help me learn about and understand the arc of Venezuela. What are the political and economic lessons to be learned from Venezuela? Is Venezuela simply a country run by thieves, or are there deeper lessons to be learned?

I found the perfect guest to help me and my friends out there understand the past, present, and future, and for any lessons to teach us about the failed experiment that is Venezuela.

With that introduction, I am happy to welcome to the show Clif Ross. Clif is a writer, director, producer, poet, and coauthor of Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements. Clif has been reporting on Latin America and revolutionary social movements since way back in 1982. He has produced and created a documentary film called In the Shadow of the Revolution. Clif will explain how he acquired this in-depth knowledge of Venezuela.

Clif Ross: Thank you Bob. It’s great to be here.

Clif Recounts the Beginning of His Journey to Socialism

Bob Zadek: You grew up in the Midwest, in the red state-middle of our country, and you evolved from that somewhat typical upbringing, as you will explain, into a socialist, perhaps even a leftist. You will embellish all of that. You were very active in that sphere of politics and thinking, and this led you to Venezuela. Tell us about your relationship and your background with Venezuela. How did you acquire an interest in Venezuela?

Clif Ross: It is a long, strange trip. I didn’t really grow up in a red state. I lived there for five years. My father was a Master Sergeant during World War II. He lied about his age and went into the Navy, but when they found out he was too young, he couldn’t reenlist so he joined the Air Force. I grew up in South Dakota but lived in many states in the USA, and in England and Germany. I grew up in England and Germany and then moved back to South Carolina where I spent most of my childhood. We moved Oklahoma, where my father retired.

I grew up in the sixties. The Vietnam War was going on. I was a patriot. I grew up in the military, with the flag and with trust for the military above all institutions. At some point my good friend came back from Vietnam when I was around 14—he was much older than me—with a metal plate in his head, paralyzed on one side. That was when I really wanted to know what was going on in the world. It really jolted me. I asked my father and he said, “Well, we have a war economy in this country and we have to have a war to keep the economy going.” And he was a conservative, but he was an honest man, and he told me the truth when I asked him a question. That just totally turned my world upside down.

I rebelled and became a hippie. I started taking drugs and drinking and doing all those things, and eventually became a fundamentalist Christian. This was in South Carolina. They didn’t have anything like recovery programs, so I became a Christian and moved to Oklahoma. I stayed on my father’s farm and read the Bible and studied theology and read a lot of books, and eventually got in touch with a radical Christian community in Berkeley, California. I moved out to Berkeley to see what was going on there to be exposed to more enlightened people. I was already starting to have problems with Bible Belt Christianity. I was a Jesus freak. I had long hair and I wasn’t that welcomed in the First Baptist Church in the middle of Oklahoma.

I ended up in the Christian community in Berkeley. They had a number of houses where people lived collectively. In some parts of the community, they even shared a common purse. They were Christian communists. I wrote poetry and ended up getting involved with the poetry scene. I organized readings in the church and got to know William Everson, aka Brother Antoninus, and that really was extraordinary.

Around 1979 and 1980 I got exposed to liberation theology. I didn’t know where El Salvador or Nicaragua was, but I read the poems of Ernesto Cardenal, priest and Minister of Culture in Sandinista Nicaragua in 1980 and really wanted to find out what was going on there.

It was very clear to me that the reports of what was going on were not accurate. So I got a one way ticket and I went off to Nicaragua with my dictionary of the present tense of Spanish and a vocabulary of about 20 words. I thought I was going to be a revolutionary and fight imperialism. I was soon dissuaded of that notion. I realized I didn’t have it in me to do those things. I didn’t have any of the skills.

I didn’t even have the Spanish. Eventually, I came back homesick and broke—and started doing solidarity work in Berkeley with the Sandinista Revolution, and moved away from Christianity and became much more interested in Marxist theory and revolutionary ideas that I was picking up from Latin America. I started translating. I translated my first book of poetry written by Campesinos in Nicaragua and the farmers and policeman and soldiers.

Ernesto Cardenal was organizing poetry workshops at that point and teaching people how to write poetry. He was teaching military people, militia people, secret police, farmers, students, and everybody. Everybody was writing poetry and everybody was reading poetry. It was really a beautiful thing. Christians were also involved in the revolution. So, I think that really made the Sandinista Revolution a unique and interesting phenomena.

I followed that all the way to the end. I was a militant Sandinista solidarity activist. That came to an abrupt halt in 1990 when the Sandinistas were voted out of power after a long Contra war. I didn’t know all the backstory of that until much, much later, when I learned there was a dark side to that. I wrote about all of this in a political memoir for anarchist publisher (AK press), called Home from the Dark Side of Utopia.

Chapter 10 is entitled “Revolution in the Rear View Mirror;” as I looked back at the Sandinista revolution in the light of what I later learned and experienced in Venezuela. So, these were the beginnings of my interest in Latin America. I worked in Nicaragua in 1987 as a translator in the political wing of a guerilla organization in Guatemala.

How American Imperialism Gave Birth to Socialism in South America

Bob Zadek: You mentioned liberation movements. Liberation from what to what?

Clif Ross: There was a real problem in Latin America in the 20th century. Even prior to the Cold War. We have, as a species, the natural inclination for empire building. In the 20th century, as the United States became a very powerful nation, it started looking South with the idea in mind of building its own empire in the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine essentially set that up. The Americans intervened in the Spanish-Cuban war in the late 19th century, which ended in 1898. The United States occupied the country. The U.S. essentially occupied the country as the cold war progressed.

The U.S. government was seeing communist and guerrilla movements everywhere. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union took an active approach of funneling arms through Cuba to guerrilla insurgencies all over the continent. So, the liberation I mention was national liberation from colonial governments that were allied with the U.S. in a Cold War context. The same way that the Soviet Union had its colonies in the Eastern Bloc, the U.S. had its colonies in this hemisphere, and the national liberation movements were essentially attempts to decolonize. The problem was that almost all of these were backed by the Soviet Union. They wanted a socialist revolution.

Bob Zadek: Your narrative seems to suggest that the reaction to the United States’ perceived imperialism in Latin America and South America was Russia. U.S. imperialism seems to be a major contributing factor in forcing Latin America away from a market economy and away from free markets and property rights. Am I being too simplistic?

Clif Ross: That is pretty accurate. A lot of people get left behind in markets. There is competition and there is what is called “creative destruction.” That has an impact on people because people lose work. When people have factory closures because another factory has gotten all the orders, these employees do not have a positive view of the market, because they have not benefited. Because Latin America is essentially a resource area rather than a manufacturing area, the United States frequently would bring in help or empower governments that would give them favorable trade terms on the extraction of natural resources. That was not uncommon. Honduras was viewed by Dole Banana, for instance, as a banana plantation — same with Guatemala.

Arbenz’s crime was that he nationalized Dole bananas’ plantations and did some land redistribution. So, these are complex issues. Now I understand that, but when I was a young socialist activist, I just thought, “Well, of course you nationalize Dole Banana plantations because the people need the land.” That was my thinking in those days.

The solidarity movement in this country and around the world was largely inspired by Leninist ideas, whether it knew it or not. Communists were really brilliant in their strategy for undermining the West, the same way the U.S. was at attempting to undermine the Soviet Union and the communist insurgencies. The solidarity movement really looked to these national liberation movements as movements that would ultimately liberate the people, and we looked towards the vanguard for support. So in Cuba that was Fidel Castro and in Nicaragua it was the Sandinistas. That was the world we lived in during the Cold War.

Bob Zadek: You used the word “ultimately.” When you said that I thought to myself that the ultimate goal of socialism was so glorious, that there was no analysis as to whether or not the vehicle to get to that goal would actually do the trick, whether the medicine was going to cure the illness. The goal was so glorious that it blurred out any economic or political analysis as to whether it would actually work. Is that a reasonable observation?

Clif Ross: Yeah, I think it is. That’s my perspective now. Socialism really is an apocalyptic ideology. It is really a secularized version of Christianity that I held onto when I became a fundamentalist Christian back in the Seventies. It was a seamless transition from apocalyptic, Fundamentalist Christianity. It’s the same exact narrative. They both start with the idea that you are oppressed and living in sin, and you need to be liberated from the sin, and only a messianic force can liberate you from that. You can’t do it yourself.

Only the Vanguard, the people, can liberate you from your oppression. And when you are liberated, you will enter into a realm where the workers control the means of production and everything is peaceful and everyone lives in harmony. It is essentially just a rewriting of the Christian narrative using different symbols and different language. It is essentially the same narrative.

Bob Zadek: It is the promise of an elixir that socialism and communism promised an easy way out. It is a Fountain of Youth — the secret pill. Just sign here and no more hard work. We will fix you. We will take care of it now. That was the promise in Latin America.

The Rise of Socialist-Populism

Bob Zadek: The average Venezuelan has lost over 20 pounds in body weight simply through starvation. What is going on in Venezuela is shocking. Tell us the recent economic and political history of Venezuela and explain to us what is going wrong with this country that has so many natural resources. How could people be starving to death?

Clif Ross: This is a really big question. It’s a huge question. I think we need to start with the election of Chavez. Just a very quick recent history, Venezuela had dictatorships through most of the 20th century through the 19th century. In 1958 they had a democratic revolution and overthrew a dictator and set up a democratic political system. The main party was a social democratic party. They had a democratic revolution. In 1958, they began to sow the oil money and use it to develop the country, and to develop local industries.

The first President, Romeo Betancourt, began investing, or what he called “sowing,” the oil money. He was using your own money to develop the country. He began developing the national industries. Venezuela not only has the largest amount of oil in the world, they also have gold, iron oxide, and all kinds of minerals in Guyana, which is right next to the country of Guyana. So, they began bringing electricity to countries in rural areas and using the oil money to educate people.

Bob Zadek: What was the economic system at this point in time for Venezuela? You said they were using the oil money to spread the wealth and bring up the standard of living. Was it a socialist country? A communist country? Was it a mixed economy? Help us understand what was going on economically.

Clif Ross: Socialism is state ownership of the means of production, distribution, and capital. Capitalism makes these things privately owned. All activity would be done in a market rather than a state. Social democracy, which is what they had in Venezuela in 1958, would be where you have a private ownership of the means production. You have some state industries or state monopolies on energy and oil production, where the state owns all the resources in the country. This is similar to what happens in Norway.

In Norway you have a market economy with a free enterprise market-capitalist system, but with a very strong intervention on the part of the government and national ownership of the mineral resources, so that those resources will be reinvested in the country. So, it was social democratic. Even the right-wing, Christian democratic parties would come in social democratic policies.

Venezuela is a petro-state, so 98% of its income comes from oil. This money goes to the State. In the United States, by contrast, you may have mineral rights on your land and even though the oil companies come in and drill it, they give you the money rather than giving it to the state.

In Venezuela the state owns the mineral and oil resources. So, basically what the government did originally was invest all that oil money back into the country. They called Venezuela “Venezuela Saudita,” because it had the living standards of any European country throughout the 70s and into the 80s. Then, around 1974, we have the oil crisis, where the price of oil zooms up. Venezuela prospered here but it got over its head in terms of its obligations to the people regarding these social programs, so it began borrowing money to maintain the social programs. And by 1979, the debt crisis hit Latin America and all these governments were unable to pay their debts, because the interest rates went up.

When Reagan was President, you have the “lost decade” in Latin America where the governments are all in dire straits. They put in place “austerity” measures. Venezuela had their first big catastrophe which called into question democracy. People suddenly started suffering because they had not totally developed their industries. They had relied entirely on importing foods rather than producing it themselves. They have an extraordinarily rich country. They have very good soil and incredible conditions for growing things, but it was just so much easier to import food than to grow it themselves, because they got all this oil money coming in. So the the government would import food and people would import things, so that was a problem that really raised big questions about the system.

You had this explosion in 1989 where a lot of people were killed, so there were protests against the government. Then, in the 90s the government started to decentralize so that the people would have a lot more local power. As there were these steps toward decentralization, the country was still in a crisis. This was why Chavez was elected in 1998. He actually tried to take the country in the military coup in February 4th, 1992, but didn’t succeed. He went to prison but he became a hero for so many Venezuelans. When he was released by a right-wing President, he ran for President and won.

He said he was going to end corruption. So when Chavez came into office he promised that he was going to have a revolution. He immediately had popular forces where he had a constitution written by social movements rather than a parliament. He invited ecologists to come in and write the environmental laws.

He brought labor people into help write the labor laws, and so on. First, he seemed to be practicing the same austerity policies of the previous government and it was a fairly conservative administration, but he started pushing the envelope a little bit and started pushing toward more services to the poor people, which the majority really liked. However, the old classes who had really been privileged under the previous governments began to rebel. So you have the first rebellions against him. Nevertheless, his policies were relatively modest.

A petro-state works this way. There are booms and busts. When the price of oil is high, the people really benefit. When the price of oil drops the government has to cut and do austerity.

Hugo Chavez’s Rise to Power

Bob Zadek: Maybe I’m hearing everything through my own libertarian filter, but when oil prices were high, the government was making and honoring more promises to the people. So they promised education, an improved standard of living, whatever. They became “entitlements.” Whenever these are taken away, because of externalities like the reduced price of oil, that causes unrest.

There is an exportable lesson here to any country that offers entitlements which are inflexible. When circumstances change and you can no longer afford the entitlements, you can’t withdraw them. Therefore, debt and other political unrest results. So I am taking the lessons of Venezuela and explaining how it has applicability to the US.

Also, the decisions were not made by the market, but rather by a very few individuals who were making these decisions to remain in political power, rather than on sound economic policy. Now there is unrest and the people are getting disappointed with the broken promises of government.

There is still plenty of oil and oil prices go back up. So, how could the people be actually starving to death? What is the core issue today in Venezuela that causes starvation when you have so much natural resources?

Clif Ross: In 2003, after US invaded Iraq, the price of oil skyrocketed. This happened right around mid-2004, which was just about the time that they were having a recall referendum on Chavez because the opposition was very upset with him. He had gotten cozy with Fidel Castro and Fidel said, “why don’t you begin giving more programs for the people and you can bring this whole referendum to an end?” And so the money from the oil flooded in, and since the President is in control of that stuff, he managed to get control of all the oil money and start giving away money to the people—something he called “the missions.”

So, Chavez won the referendum. If you get the oil money and pay off your constituents they will vote for you. So Chavez ran 13 elections while President on this model. The problem, however, was that there never was enough money to pay for everything, so he began borrowing money. By 2007 he began borrowing money even from China to fund his social programs, which he would bring out before elections.

He was doing what was called “petro-socialism.”What we had is basically a “socialist populism.” This is classic populism, where the leader becomes the movement itself. So, Chavez begins driving the country deeper and deeper into debt, even when oil was at $130 dollars a barrel. He became increasingly authoritarian and giving land to his constituents, and basically became socialist. He destroyed national industries by expropriating them. He also created currency controls, which not only created a lot of corruption, but inflation. They overvalued their money. Nothing was produced. Everything was imported. Then, he died.

A Problem of Socialism, or Just These Socialists?

Bob Zadek: When you talk about Chavez, it means a totally autocratic government. It’s one guy running the place, and of course, the fatal conceit of socialism is that there is a group of people smart enough to run an economy, and of course that is never the case.

Is what happened in Venezuela simply further proof of the intellectual failure of socialism? Or is it a standalone lesson that when you put a kleptocrat in control and have an autocratic government with a dictator, he is going to steal. Is it a problem with socialism or is it simply the dishonesty of a small group of people, not an indictment of socialism?

Clif Ross: It is both. The problem is the delusion that a small group of people can know everything there is to know about an economy and just centralize all power and form an alternative to a market economy. But also, when that small group of people gets all the power, the temptation to corruption is impossible to control. It is impossible to not fall into it. So, it really is both.

About half of the money which came into the country during the boom was embezzled, and lies in bank accounts in the Bahamas and Panama and so forth. Now, the country has become incredibly insecure.

People operate with impunity. There is virtually no accountability whatsoever. The institutions of government are broken. Caracas is more dangerous than the West Bank. They have lost half their economy. It has decreased by 50 percent just in the past few years. It’s a complete wreck and it is the result of both incredible corruption and an economy that has been destroyed because people tried to centralize everything and create a socialist economy, and they destroyed the market.

The Future of Venezuela: Two Roads

Bob Zadek: What’s the prognosis for Venezuela? What do you see as the most likely three-year outcome in Venezuela?

Clif Ross: We don’t really know what is going to happen. It all depends on the military at this point. The military has been given huge chunks of the economy including drug trafficking. About 80 percent of the drugs produced in Colombia come through Venezuela and are trafficked by the military. So, they have benefited a lot from the so-called revolution. Maduro has given them bigger chunks to keep them on his side.

Now, whether or not the military is going to go with the new interim president, Juan Guaidó, who didn’t auto-proclaim himself but was chosen by the legitimate national assembly voted in December of 2015, or whether they are going to stick with Maduro.

If it continues with Maduro it is going to continue down this trajectory of destruction and misery, and we will be looking at a Somalia in South America. If Guaidó manages to get control we can see some slow rebuilding of the country.

Bob Zadek: I commend to our audience your memoir, “Home From the Dark Side of Utopia.”

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