Friday, November 15, 2019


This scenario has happened time and again throughout history. Examples:
1 MCCARTHYISM: While Communists and those close to the Communist Party were being hounded for their political beliefs in the early 1950s, centrists and liberals (in the bad sense of the word) let it happen. Few of them had the will or the courage to say anything. Then McCarthy and his sidekick Roy Cohen (Trump’s mentor) went after the U.S. Army. That’s when Eisenhower, the former general, said enough is enough and McCarthy (and Cohen) was discredited at the Army-McCarthy Hearings and fell into disrepute.

2. NIXON AND WATERGATE: Everybody knew that Nixon was a scoundrel, but it was only after he went after the Democratic Party with the break-in at its Watergate office, that the Democrats struck back and sought his impeachment.

3. IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS AGAINST TRUMP: Trump did the most horrendous things of any president in U.S. history and yet Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party leadership opposed efforts to impeach him. By centering their fire on the Russiagate scandal and putting all their eggs in the Mueller investigation (in spite of Mueller’s dubious credentials to aggressively take on Trump), the Democratic Party leadership showed little interest in forcefully confronting the president. All that changed when evidence emerged that Trump was using his office to illegally gather information to discredit Joe Biden, the man the Democratic leadership hoped would be the party’s presidential candidate.     

The recent coup in Bolivia is an example of how the centrists are willing to stand by while the far-right does the dirty work for them, and meanwhile they stay silent, if not applaud. The centrist Carlos Mesa, Evo Morales’ main presidential rival, encouraged his people to demonstrate in order to demand new elections. But he allowed the semi-fascist right, shouting all their racist anti-indigenous slogans and committing horrendous acts of violence, to lead the movement. The army also stood by and refused to maintain order, which was the reason that Morales was forced to flee the country. Had the military performed its duty and had Mesa challenged “Macho” Camacho the leader of the right-wing thugs (as some conjectured would happen at the time), Morales would have called for new elections (as he, in fact, did) and Bolivia would have been spared the nightmare it is currently going through.  

By “letting it happen,” those of the liberal establishment in the age of McCarthyism, and Mesa in the face of the violence spearheaded by Camacho, are at best accomplices of tragic events.  

Thursday, November 14, 2019


What happened in Bolivia conforms to the classic coup strategy that has played out scores of times in Latin America. An important faction of the military is “institutionalist” and committed to democracy. But their mission is to maintain order, so that all the ultra-right has to do is to create disorder on the streets and the military steps in. Luis Fernando Camacho and company with much previous planning prior to the coup (which is why Carlos Mesa announced prior to the elections that he wouldn’t accept the results) stirred up enough disruption and chaos so that everything else fell in place. In carrying out this strategy the hard liners in Bolivia, as elsewhere, have an invaluable ally in the corporate media.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019


by Steve Ellner

It’s incredible how one-sided, misleading and cherry picking the mainstream media has been on recent events in Bolivia. Actually, it shouldn’t be surprising. Wouldn’t it be surprising if the New York Times presented a balanced account of what is happening, publishing both sides of the story in equal fashion, as is its professional obligation? In today’s NY Times article “‘I Assume the Presidency’: Bolivia Lawmaker Declares Herself Leader,” journalist Clifford Krauss presents a picture in which Evo Morales is instigating chaos in Bolivia, and implies that opposition-leader Senator Jeanine Añez Chávez has courageously assumed the position of acting president in order to bring order to the nation. Nothing about the fact that Morales was ousted in a coup. After all the military ordered Morales to resign. Instead Krauss writes “Mr. Morales’s abrupt departure had come after the armed forces sided with protesters who accused him of rigging an election to stay in power.” The term “sided with protesters” is a far cry from ordering a president to resign.

In fact, this scenario is a near duplication of what happened in Venezuela on April 11, 2002 when the military threatened to bomb the presidential palace after which the Venezuelan opposition denied that a coup had occurred – same playbook. Krauss and other mainstream journalists either decontextualize or miscontextualize Morales’s decision to resign.

Nor does Krauss make reference to the right-wing mobs which have attacked Morales’s followers, busted into their homes and destroyed some of them and bullied and humiliated María Patricia Arce, a mayor in the department of Cochabamba and member of Morales’ MAS party, who was forced to walk barefooted for three miles covered with red paint while she received punches. Instead Krauss makes it appear that what is in effect armed right-wing vigilantes who act with the blessing of security forces are ill-defined and not so bad. Consider the following quote from Krauss:

A New York Times reporter watched about 20 motorbike-riding civilians armed with metal pipes and chains travel out of Cochabamba’s main police station, as police officers saluted them and gave thumbs up on the way out. The riders did not carry any political affiliation, but Cochabamba’s Police Headquarters had flipped its allegiance to the opposition last Saturday, triggering a national wave of police mutiny that brought Ms. Añez to power.”

Krauss also fails to mention that the racist mobs which created the chaos in the first place have shouted out anti-indigenous slogans and have burnt the indigenous flag known as the whipala, in tandem with their repudiation of the constitutional principle that Bolivia is a pluri-national state. Nor does Krauss come close to pointing to the courage of Morales’s supporters who are on the streets in spite of brutal repression. Instead, Krauss writes “Ms. Añez’s proclamation, however, has not put an end to sporadic political violence and opportunistic looting unleashed by Mr. Morales’s resignation.” Words do matter. What does “opportunistic looting” mean Mr. Krauss?

Indeed, the situation recalls the events of October 2002 when Carlos Mesa (who as presidential candidate refused to recognize the official count in last week’s elections) was vice president and brutal repression resulted in dozens of deaths forcing President Sanchez de Lozada to resign.

Krauss is obviously supportive of Añez Chávez’s maneuvers in which the nation’s highest constitutional court validated her self-proclamation. And yet this is the exact scenario of what happened in Venezuela in July 2017 when President Maduro succeeded in putting an end to four months of violent protests by sidestepping the National Assembly and calling elections for a constituent assembly. The move was ratified by Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal. And yet for that the Trump administration and the mainstream media have called Maduro nothing less than a dictator, a dictator of the worst kind.

Unlike a few scattered quotes from Morales, Krauss’ article contains 6 paragraphs in a row in support of Añez Chávez beginning with: “Some political and legal analysts said the steps taken by Ms. Añez and the assembly members present for her announcement were extraordinary but necessary, because members of Mr. Morales’s party had boycotted the scheduled session at which they were to select a new president.” And a few paragraphs down: “the new president’s controversial proclamation was greeted with a visible sigh of relief, if not mass celebration.”

In 1897, Adolph S. Ochs, the owner of The New York Times, came up with the iconic slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print," Can anybody take that seriously anymore?


Steve Ellner is an Associate Managing Editor of Latin American Perspectives and a retired professor from the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela. His edited Latin America’s Pink Tide: Breakthroughs and Shortcomings was just released by Rowman and Littlefield.

Monday, November 11, 2019


Morales committed the error of allowing the OAS to come in there and do a BINDING auditing of the electoral process. The outcome was more than predictable, it was a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, to allow an outside body to conduct a binding review of an electoral process is a blatant violation of national sovereignty. Evo should have known better. That the OAS proposed the binding review in the first place shines light on Luis Almagro’s commitments and reactionary thinking.

On the other hand, events in Bolivia should give special pause to those on the left who attacked Evo for being somewhat of a sellout, for not respecting indigenous rights and for reaching agreements with the Santa Cruz oligarchy. If he was such a sellout, how do you explain the ruthlessness of the Bolivian opposition and the support it received from the Trump administration.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review of Dario Azzellini's Communes and Worker’s Control in Venezuela: Building 21st Century Socialism from Below

Communes and Worker’s Control in Venezuela: Building 21st Century Socialism from Below, by Dario Azzellini. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016.

by Steve Ellner

Published in Science & Society, October 2019

Communes and Worker’s Control in Venezuela combines an examination of the experiences of grassroots bodies involved in neighborhood and workplace decision making and theoretical analysis of the role of state institutions in the transition to socialism. The author Dario Azzellini champions “the idea of a communal socialism” (54), while detailing the ways that the old state’s bureaucracy during the presidencies of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro has impeded the full development of a new state based on popular participation. Azzellini points to the “centrality of territory in the Venezuelan struggle” and adds that “the most active agent of change” in the nation has been barrio and rural inhabitants. In contrast, industrial workers are “frequently privileged” and have largely been led by corrupt trade unionists “co-opted by the political system,” while “the building of workers councils” has proven to be particularly “difficult” (32).

Azzellini relies heavily on a 2008 study of the Jesuit think tank Centro Gumilla to refute “liberal critics” who warn that communal councils undermine the existing institutional system of checks and balances. Contrary to the allegations of anti-Chavista writers, the Centro’s data showed in its words “‘a low level of state interference in the dynamics of the communal councils’” (112-113). The study also demonstrates that, contrary to the allegations of these same academics, 80 percent of the councils “admit differing political positions” (115), and that there was no “difference in financing between different socio-economic areas (which also tend to correspond to different political preferences)” (107). Finally, the academic “liberals” criticize the communal councils for being dependent on the central government and bypassing the municipal government. Nevertheless, according to Azzellini councils that respond to the central government are more likely to promote popular participation than those “under the responsibility of local and regional authorities” (108).

In some ways, but not others, Azzellini’s analysis of socialist transformation coincides with Lenin’s concept of dual power in which a new structure eliminates (“smashes,” in the words of Marx and Lenin) the old state. The old state in Venezuela include the bureaucrats who have resisted and sometimes sabotaged the efforts of the communal councils (some of which are now grouped in economically productive “communes”), which are the embryo of the new state. Nevertheless, Azzellini defends the Chavista scheme of the old state’s “gradual substitution by the communal state” (53) as opposed to the abrupt change produced by the Soviet revolution of 1917. Furthermore, Azzellini recognizes that in spite of the bureaucracy’s restraining role in the process, the relationship between the old and new state in Venezuela is “complicated” (78). He thus shares with Lenin the thesis that the revolution involves a rupture in which the old state is replaced rather than transformed. Unlike Lenin, however, he does not view the old state in its entirety as counter-revolutionary. 
In his discussion of specific communal councils and worker management arrangements based on his field work, Azzellini faults state bureaucrats for shortcomings and setbacks, while expressing faith in the capacity and commitment of the rank and file. In the process, he plays down the positive role played by the old state in promoting popular participation. One example of a “top-down” process of change originating from the old state was the activist role played by the Popular Participation Ministry following the passage of the “Law of Communal Councils” in 2006. The Ministry contributed to the proliferation of communal councils throughout the nation by sending representatives into low-income communities to inform inhabitants that financial support was contingent on the creation of a council.

In the concluding chapter (Chapter 8), Azzellini appears to be more insistent than in the rest of the book on the complex and dialectical relationship between the old and new state. The chapter refers to a “two-track construction” in which the old state “makes many processes possible” but at the same time “makes them hard to accomplish, restrains them, and derails them.” He goes on to describe the relationship between the governing powers from above and the emerging powers from below as one of “cooperation and conflict” (263).

Several key issues regarding the role of the old state are pertinent. First, is the old state basically an obstacle to the achievement of change or does a struggle play out within it, as envisioned by Nicos Poulantzas who referred to it as a “strategic battle field”? In Chapter 8, Azzellini reinforces Poulantzas’ thesis by arguing that “the government and its institutions are riddled with contradictions and class struggle” (274). Second, is the emerging new state also subject to internal class struggle? Azzellini’s argues that the communal councils are a “social relation,” as opposed to an “administrative entity” (83). The use of the term would imply that the communal councils are neither class-neutral nor simple class instruments. Chapter 8 implies that Poulantzas’ battlefield metaphor is applicable to the new, emerging state by pointing to the “risk that the new from-below entity will reproduce the logic and forms of constituted power, such as hierarchical structures, representative mechanisms, division into leaders vs. led, and bureaucratization” (276).  

Third, is the problem of bureaucratic interference and inefficiency to be placed in the same category as bureaucratic corruption? While Azzellini basically considers the leftist government bureaucrats a major obstacle to change, may their differences with the rank and file be considered at least in some cases “contradictions among the people”? In contrast, corruption in Venezuela has undoubtedly become a major impediment to the revolutionary process. Fourth, what is the larger context in which transformation is taking place? In any analysis of a revolutionary process, the insurgent actions against the government (which is part of the “old state”) carried out by an opposition aided from abroad and with immense resources need to be taken into consideration as they tend to limit options, a factor Azzellini largely ignores.

Finally, were subjective conditions partly responsible for the failure of numerous worker cooperatives and communal councils and the resultant squandering of government revenue allocated in an effort to jumpstart these bodies? In his analysis of individual cases, Azzellini generally places the entire blame on state bureaucrats. However, many of these failures were due to overly lenient terms of state support and lack of state controls, not excessive state interference. The weakness of subjective conditions also contributed to the failure of worker management schemes. In his chapter “Workers’ Control, Workers’ Councils, and Class Struggle” Azzellini describes how a Chavista union movement tied to the allegedly corrupt governor of the state of Bolívar sabotaged the tenure of a worker-chosen president of the state aluminum company Alcasa. Azzellini mentions all too passingly that the union faction the “M21”, which according to him was the true champion of worker management, was “divided into three tickets” (225) thus allowing the anti-Chavistas to gain control of the union.

These critical comments are not meant to place in doubt the usefulness of Azzellini’s study. The book presents considerable specific information on grassroots democracy stemming largely from the author’s field work. Furthermore, the theoretical analysis in the book’s concluding chapter frames issues that are fundamental for any Marxist analysis of the state in Chavista Venezuela. The same discussion illustrates that the mixed record of cooperatives and communal and worker councils in Venezuela defies simplistic and romantic notions of grassroots democracy. The examination of these cases demonstrates how much we can learn from concrete experiences and how important it is to theorize on the basis of such studies, and to resist the opposite tendency, that is, imposing preconceived notions and theories on concrete situations.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Juan Guaidó gets all the media attention but his party is one of the smaller ones of the opposition

Talk I gave at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo (south of Rochester) on Thursday, Nov. 8. I was invited to Rochester by the Rochester Committee on Latin America (ROCLA), where I spoke at the United Presbyterian Church on Wednesday, the same day I was interviewed on WXII by Evan Dawson. One of the main points I made in these talks is that the mainstream media focuses on President Maduro but says very little about the opposition and leaves the impression that a radical fringe which the Trump administration has bolstered represents the entire opposition. But the fact is that Juan Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular party did not win any state in the gubernatorial elections of October 2017, the last one in which that party participated, while Democratic Action won in 4 states, and Primero Justicia won in the key state of Zulia. You can hear the interview by clicking on the Nov. 6 Listen arrow.

Monday, November 4, 2019


Artículo que escribí con Teri Mattson sobre la hipocresía de la política de Washington hacia Venezuela.