Lessons from Venezuela on Countering Oppression

By Rosenblat, Mariana Olaizola | Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, Annual 2019 | Go to article overview

Lessons from Venezuela on Countering Oppression


Rosenblat, Mariana Olaizola, Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal


Venezuela today is a dark microcosm of the promise of social change gone tragically awry. As a Venezuelan-American, witnessing the devastation of my country over the past two decades has shaped my views on movements that promise sweeping social transformation. It is primarily through the lens of this experience that I offer some reflections.

Venezuela in the 1990s had a broken political system that excluded the vast majority of Venezuelan citizens from meaningful participation in political life and the benefits of national wealth creation. When Hugo Chavez re-entered the political scene in the late 1990s, after being released from prison for attempting a coup d'etat in 1992, he tapped into a reservoir of resentment that had simmered over decades of exclusion and inequality.

In the lead-up to his campaign, Chavez promulgated a manifesto entitled Bolivarian Alternative Agenda: A Patriotic Proposal for Escaping the Labyrinth, according to which Venezuela would transition toward a "Concrete Utopia" leaving behind the "old nefarious model based on imposition, domination, exploitation and extermination." This new episode in Venezuelan history, led by "the Bolivarians, revolutionaries, patriots and nationalists," would constitute a complete "restructuring of the State, of the entire political system ... based on the principles of legitimacy and sovereignty."

Fast forward two decades and we indeed find a drastically changed Venezuela. But instead of a Venezuela that has achieved social, economic, cultural, and political "realignment" ensuring equitable distribution of living standards, as forecasted in the Bolivarian Agenda, we find a country where, according to the United Nations, 94 percent of the 28.8 million people live in poverty; 300,000 people are at risk of imminent death because of the lack of essential medicine and the reappearance of preventable diseases; 1.2 million children are not in school; and 3.7 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition in the face of severe food scarcity and an inflation rate of more than 2 million percent. (1) Venezuela today is nothing short of a failed State.

Meanwhile, wealth inequality has only become more pronounced, with a new ruling class unabashedly siphoning off billions of dollars from state coffers and reaping epic profits from a revitalized narcotics trade. The impunity and unbounded opulence enjoyed by ,this new elite makes any profiteering practiced by the old-generation politicians--and so fiercely condemned by Chavez--look benign by comparison. That those in power continue to proclaim their allegiance to the Bolivarian project, particularly its aim to achieve human equality and wellbeing, is farcical and darkly ironic at best.

I believe Venezuela's demise raises important questions relevant to anti-oppression movements. While listening to participants at the roundtable that gave birth to this essay, I could not help but filter many of the comments and experiences through the lens of this personal experience. Certainly, I do not believe anti-oppression movements are doomed to produce the kinds of catastrophic results that have materialized in Venezuela, and I appreciate that there is a myriad of factors that affect the success or failure of a movement. With that proviso, I offer some reflections on three themes that emerged from the roundtable discussion: "identifying the oppressor as enemy," "the place of violence and hatred," and "visions or guiding principles."

Identifying The Oppressor As Enemy

A movement that seeks to counter oppression has to define the oppressor in some way. Some movements describe the oppressor as a "system of oppression" which may manifest itself in daily injustices that its members suffer or can relate to. Other anti-oppression activists take a personalized approach, fixating on particular individuals' actions and blameworthiness. When the oppressor is described as a "system," the target of action may not be very clear. …

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