Venezuela and the Half-Truths of Noam Chomsky

Venezuela and the Half-Truths of Noam Chomsky

Clifton Ross
Clifton Ross
12 min read

As a young socialist, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism by Noam Chomsky and his late collaborator Edward S. Herman helped to convert me to the worldview of the anti-Imperialist Left. I remained a member of this political tendency, for whom Chomsky has become an unrivaled intellectual hero, for most of my adult life. That is, until I was confronted by the gap between its doctrines and an unfolding reality I really knew something about.

I continue to respect some of Chomsky’s writing on topics such as the devastation of East Timor by Indonesia. But the more one knows about a subject, the more apparent the selectivity of Chomsky’s analysis becomes. When Chomsky argued that the 9/11 atrocities were morally equivalent to President Clinton’s rocket strike on the Al Shifa medicine factory in Sudan (and that “we” should therefore hesitate before judging “them”), his erstwhile admirer Christopher Hitchens observed that, “Noam Chomsky does not rise much above the level of half-truth.” This, Hitchens went on to complain, had “lately become his hallmarks.”

In retrospect, a writer as intelligent as Hitchens might have noticed this habit earlier. In Chomsky’s writing on Cambodia (which Hitchens defended), the Balkans, and various other conflicts, complexity was reliably collapsed into a simplistic indictment of the West in general, and America in particular (irrespective of the sitting president’s political affiliation). Simplicity can be seductive, especially when it encourages moral outrage, and it wasn’t until I saw Chomsky’s half-truths deployed in defense of the Bolivarian regime that I began to question Chomsky’s honesty and interest in objectivity.

Today, Chomsky heads a list of radical academics calling themselves the Committee to Save Venezuela who signed and circulated an open letter in January “opposing the US-backed coup attempt” there. “The United States government,” the letter sternly begins, “must cease interfering in Venezuela’s internal politics, especially for the purpose of overthrowing the country’s government.” On March 2, 2019, Chomsky appeared on KFPK Los Angeles’s Ralph Nader Radio Hour. After 45 minutes of congenial  chat about the malevolence of America, Israel, and powerful corporations, Nader turned to the topic of Venezuela.

Nader’s critical introduction to the subject begins at 46:34, and it’s worth hearing because it provides some contrast to Chomsky’s defense of the Bolivarian regime. Nader acknowledges the Trump administration’s regime change agenda and the inglorious history of America’s involvement in Latin America during the Cold War. However, he goes on to observe that “the cronyism, the corruption, the colossal mismanagement of Chavez and Maduro have been so deep that you can’t simply write it off as a consequence of foreign intervention.” Nader then reads a leftwing critic’s lengthy indictment of the regime’s mismanagement, including “[a] ten[fold increase in] the murder rate, total stagnation, abrupt decline in hospital infrastructure, before and especially during [the period] 2000 to the present.” This corruption and incompetence has left the country at the mercy of what the critic called the “neoliberal elite,” “foreign oil, mining, and timber companies,” and “IMF-style austerity measures that will seem like a picnic next to Maduro’s madness.”

Invited by Nader to respond, Chomsky begins by stating, “Well, you know, it would take a good bit of time to go through it sentence-by-sentence and take it apart, but there is a few comments we can begin with.” For the next six minutes or so, he helpfully recapitulates a number of half-truths used by anti-Imperialists to defend the Bolivarian regime.

Chomsky begins promisingly by conceding that “there were many problems during the Chávez years.” But he reminds his listeners that during those same years “poverty was very sharply reduced and educational opportunities were very greatly expanded.” This is one of the most common manoeuvers adopted by pro-Chavistas when challenged about the regime’s dismal record of governance: I call this rhetorical move an appeal to The Golden Moment As The Eternal Now. Sure, during the first years of the decade-long oil boom, poverty was reduced and educational opportunities expanded. When billions of dollars flood an economy, there is always a “trickle-down effect” as all boats rise on even the reddest of tides. But a moment is not a permanent reality, and the aftermath of Venzuela’s Golden Moment is comparable to the miserable hangover that follows an excessive party. A responsible intellectual might wonder at the wisdom of that party, not insist that it is emblematic of the whole Chavista project.

“There are regular polls being taken…by the Latinobarometro” Chomsky continues, carefully employing the present tense before taking us back over a decade. “Take a look at their polls during the Chávez years—Venezuela ranked right at the top along with Uruguay in popular support for its democracy and popular support for the government.” This, we learn, was because “in election after election and referendum after referendum” the Carter Center certified that “the Venezuelan elections were among the most free in the world.” There are three problems with this happy picture.

The first problem is that, again, the past is being paraded to avoid discussion of the present. Yes, during the oil boom a majority unsurprisingly supported Chávez. As Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold have pointed out, petrostates like Venezuela operate under an “ax and relax” approach to governance. During oil booms, governments spend lavishly on their constituencies and gain immense popularity. But when the bust arrives, the “ax” falls. The Latinobarometro studies to which Chomsky refers were conducted in 2007 at the height of the commodities boom. But the ax has now fallen and he is silent about Latinobarometro’s more recent findings. Their 2018 report showed 12 percent of Venezuelans expressing satisfaction with what remains of their democracy.

Secondly, “free” elections are not the same as “free and fair” elections. It is true that voting in Venezuela is not mandatory. But the regime controls 98 percent of the nation’s foreign exchange (the oil money) which they can spend on their electoral campaigns while the opposition is denied television ads, cadenas (obligatory broadcasts), posters, radio time, not to mention state printing presses, trucks to ferry around campaign workers, and the workers themselves who are pressured to work for the official party. What meaning does “free” have under such unfair conditions? In 2008, Hugo Chávez declared “I am the Law…I am the State.” During the presidential elections of May 2018, Maduro barred the most powerful opposition parties from participating and permitted only one man to run against him.

Finally, even free and fair elections are no guarantor of democracy without resilient and independent institutions. “It doesn’t matter who votes,” Stalin is said to have remarked. “What matters is who counts the votes.” Does it not concern Chomsky that Chávez set about destroying the institutions of liberal democracy the day he entered office (see Alan Brewer-Carias’s extensive work on the subject)? That the Carter Center certified the elections means that they monitored the votes, not the institutions. And institutions like the National Electoral Council (CNE) and the judiciary have been under tight Chavista control, from the country’s Golden Moment until today.

At last Chomsky gets around to specifying some of the mistakes made by Chávez, including what he calls a “failure to change the colonial economy.” Chomsky is here referring to Venezuela’s reliance on a single product—oil—at the expense of all other sectors of the economy. Governments like that of Norway, however, also enjoy great oil wealth, but have found ways to manage their resource boons and use them to their advantage. The economy of the petrostate has been a problem for Venezuela’s leaders from Juan Vicente Gómez onwards, and no one has been more inept at managing it than Chávez. Lest we are tempted to hold Chávez responsible, however, Chomsky adds that, “The US has been running Venezuela’s [economy] for a century. Since they kicked out the British under Woodrow Wilson, when oil was discovered….”

Chomsky’s arguments always take this turn sooner or later. In his world, the triumphs of his favored nations are invariably described as the result of their own noble efforts, while their catastrophes are the responsibilities of powerful and unjust forces over which they have no control. So Venezuelans are reduced to marionettes in the hands of a ruthless US imperialist elite. Luz Varela, a professor of History at the University of the Andes in Mérida, calls this argument a “simplism.” In an as-yet unpublished paper entitled “On How the Crisis in Venezuela hasn’t been Orchestrated by the Right nor by the ‘Empire’ and other Simplisms,” Varela points out that there has been “commercial reciprocity” between Venezuela and the United States since the 1940s, during which the “United States has paid Venezuela for its oil through exploitation royalties and high taxes or it has bought that oil at market prices. This relationship, in turn, made Venezuela a rich country; so rich that it attracted a large number of European and Latin American immigrants from WWII to the 1980s…”

She goes on to say that while oil extraction went on through foreign companies, “never, in the twentieth century, were either the wells or the oil reserves owned by the ‘empire.’” The capitalists had to “raise up the industry through concessions granted by the [Venezuelan] State that allowed them to explore, extract, produce and commercialize the oil.” By the 1940s, the royalties and taxes made this a 50/50 venture, with the “foreign companies putting up the capital, assuming the risks, paying the workers, paying for infrastructure, reinvesting and paying very high taxes, and still, they made great profits.” All of this made “Saudita Venezuela” in the 1970s the envy of the rest of Latin America, with living standards at the time on a par with Canada and Southern Europe.

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? And hardly the “US running Venezuela.” Chomsky’s version of history overlooks the Revolution of 1958 and 40 years of very independent government, often far to the left of US tastes. Even so, US military forces never invaded or engaged in the kind intervention seen in other parts of Latin America during the Cold War. The threat to Venezuelan sovereignty, interestingly enough, came instead from the Left—the Cuban invasion at Machurucuto began a years-long Castro-backed guerrilla war against Venezuelan democracy. According to the former guerrilla commander and founder of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) of Venezuela, Hector Pérez Marcano, it was instigated by Castro in an attempt to gain access to Venezuelan oil.

If Chomsky knows anything of this history, he certainly isn’t in a hurry to say so. Things like “subimperialisms” only risk complicating an otherwise straightforward worldview. The US, he says instead, has long been “dominating [Venezuela] with lots of hideous atrocities…” which he doesn’t have time to go into. Although Chomsky concludes this digression by reaffirming his criticism of Chávez for failing to diversify the economy, his language and the time he allots in his answer to his indictment of US malfeasance, leave the uninformed listener in now doubt about where moral responsibility deserves to be concentrated.

Chomsky is also correct to criticize Chávez for failing to put money aside during the oil boom. But then he makes the amazing claim that Chávez “left the capitalist class untouched [and] allowed them to enrich themselves throughout this whole period…” In fact, Chávez spent his time in power expropriating a productive capitalist class and turning that capital over to an emerging non-productive and parasitic class known as the Boligarchy which now runs the country. Chávez expropriated everything from ranches to entire industries, and everything he expropriated turned to dust. Try to find a bag of concrete in Venezuela today, or aluminum, industrial coke, steel, and even milk or corn. These are all things Venezuela produced in abundance before Chávez’s revolution and even exported. Now they are either no longer available or available only as imports. The state oil company PDVSA, once a world-class company, is collapsing so quickly due to a lack of investment and maintenance that it can no longer refine gas.

In May 2013, Maduro charged that Polar Industries, the largest of the remaining capitalist businesses that hadn’t yet been expropriated, wasn’t producing, but was “hoarding” and “speculating” on commodities, particularly the flour for arepas, the national bread of Venezuela. Polar’s exasperated president Lorenzo Mendoza responded by providing the paperwork at a national press conference to demonstrate that Polar was producing at 100 percent capacity. The reason for the shortage of flour, he explained, was that Polar represented only 48 percent of the flour mills; the remaining 52 percent were state-owned, and they were producing nothing. “I’d ask President Maduro when he’s going to inspect them since we’ve been inspected 1,500 times. I want to know how many inspections the state-owned mills have undergone.”

“After [Chávez’s] death,” Chomsky continues, “a couple of years after, the oil prices declined and … the government had to go to the international credit markets.” Okay, but Chávez began his reckless borrowing spree seven years earlier and debt peaked when oil prices were still at historic highs. Over the course of his rule—which ended when oil prices were still over $100/barrel—government debt doubled, and oil production rapidly declined due to lack of reinvestment, and because Chávez had fired all the competent oil workers just at the moment oil prices were preparing to skyrocket. And why is Chomsky only interested in the international lending agencies? While the bonds issued by those agencies represent some $60 billion in loans, the BBC puts the figure of what Venezuela owes China and Russia at $140 billion. But it’s really anyone’s guess since the government hasn’t released any economic data since 2015.

Chomsky goes on to criticise US sanctions (“harsh, brutal, devastating”), but he doesn’t mention that it was the sectors of the Venezuelan opposition, alarmed that Maduro was dragging the country deeper into debt with no oversight from the National Assembly, who urged the Obama administration to end further renegotiations of the debt. Nor does he explain that they were forced to do this because Maduro had every act of the opposition-dominated National Assembly (elected in December 2015 with a two-thirds majority in elections with the historically high voter turnout of 75 percent) nullified by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. Like the international boycott of Apartheid South Africa called for by the ANC, these sanctions have had a negative impact on the country, but it is absurd to suggest, as Chomsky does, that they have “turned a crisis into a humanitarian catastrophe.”

What brought about the humanitarian catastrophe was the looting of over US $475 billion from the national treasury during Chávez’s 14 year rule. That represented nine years’ worth of food imports that might have fed the country. No doubt this is only a fraction of the total money squandered in programs that led to no long-term development, incompetence, waste, patronage to clients, bribes, missions that led to no clear ends, all of which has gone on in an environment of total impunity. Chomsky is probably right that the new sanctions under Trump will make life considerably harder for ordinary Venezuelans, but he is certainly wrong to describe them as “an effort to starve the population into submission.” Some 80-90 percent of Venezuelans want to be rid of Maduro and understand that the sanctions are a clumsy ham-handed Trumpian attempt to achieve that end.

As he winds down, Chomsky finally turns his attention to Maduro, calling his policies repressive and “awful” but, hey, what can be expected of Venezuelans, when they are subjected to “constant subversion” and criticism in the West’s media? “Has anyone,” he wants to know, “ever withdrawn their praise for the military coup?” In 2002, the Venezuelan opposition tried to overthrow Chávez, and briefly succeeded. From that event, Chomsky spins an entire history “of subversion, sabotage, internal problems, and errors…” And now, Chomsky laments, “the international media speak only for the opposition.” Perhaps that’s because the Maduro government has shut down opposition newspapers in the country, attacked and censored online publications, and imprisoned critical journalists on trumped-up charges.

The aim of the Imperialist plot, Chomsky concludes, is “the return of Venezuela to the kind of circumstances you see in some of the other US-run countries of the region. If you want to look at atrocities, crimes and so on, simply look at the countries where the US has maintained control. The Central American countries.” It’s true that Honduras isn’t doing well, but other US-friendly states like Chile, Colombia, Peru, Panama are seeing living standards rising consistently—thanks perhaps as much to their being clients of the US as to their not having been run by the Chavistas under the tutelage of the Cubans for 20 years. Venezuelans might say, “We should be so lucky.”

And, with that, Noam Chomsky’s six minutes of disinformation come to an end. Nader thanks his guest and describes him as “a voice of towering intellect and reason and factual rendition which is rare today in public discourse.” This opinion is alarmingly widespread. As far back as 1979, the New York Times was describing Chomsky as “arguably the most important intellectual alive today.” That line reliably appears in Chomsky’s numerous flattering profiles (usually in publications he ceaselessly disparages), but it is seldom noted that the writer went on to add that “he is also a disturbingly divided intellectual” and “often maddeningly simple-minded.” Marxist William Robinson’s essay attacking Western apologists for Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega could well have been written about Chomsky: “In accord with the infantile manichean view of a significant portion of the US Left, the world is black and white and there are good guys and bad guys. This is a template into which everything must by political dogma fit.”

Richard Hofstadter warned us about people like Noam Chomsky in his great book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. “If there is anything more dangerous,” he wrote, “to the life of the mind than having no independent commitment to ideas, it is having an excess of commitment to some special and constricting idea.” Noam Chomsky has committed himself to the special and constricting idea that liberal democracies are simply scam fronts for capitalist cabals who manipulate an unconscious public as they fill their pockets with cash. And on this basis, he has spent his career attacking the crimes and incompetence of the US, and excusing the same in its enemies. This is, needless to say, a childishly reductionistic view, unable to accommodate the complexities of national and geopolitical realities. It also leaves those who adopt it incapable of understanding the meaning of the disaster unfolding today in Venezuela, upon which Chomsky and his followers gaze with only a hint of comprehension.

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