It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
On a rainy Saturday in May, most people walking by the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C., stop to puzzle the crowds surrounding it. I can't blame them. Even for D.C., where political demonstrations often require up-to-the-minute insider expertise to comprehend, the block's simultaneous protest, counter-protest and counter-counter-protest make for a puzzling scene. A sign taped above the embassy entrance tries to explain to passers-by what divides those gathered on the stoop from those leaning out of the building's windows and flooded across the street: US MILITARY INTERVENTION IN VENEZUELA, it reads, with arrows labeling each group AGAINST IT or FOR IT. Most people present are AGAINST IT, and many of them represent organizations like ANSWER Coalition, Code Pink, and Black Alliance For Peace, all of which oppose U.S. militarization against Black and brown people worldwide. Almost 20 years after the Iraq invasion, these groups and many others are still chanting "No war for oil," this time in response to the protracted U.S.-backed coup attempt in Venezuela. "Not another war for oil," the chant seems to mean. We've seen this before. And we may see more of it.
What's happening in Venezuela offers a glimpse of one possible future in our right-swinging, climate-changing world. Washington and Big Oil's shameless grab for Venezuela's executive seat and the petrodollars that come with it portends a version of Bush-era resource warmaking, dialed up to full-blown fascism in the anti-democratic conditions created by an emerging bipartisan consensus on climate emergency. With cheap oil in decline and border contests multiplying amid extreme weather from Syria to Guatemala, calls for regime change in Caracas are coming from all corners of the international ruling elite and fortifying the bond between U.S. state power and fossil capital.
With cheap oil in decline and border contests multiplying amid extreme weather from Syria to Guatemala, calls for regime change in Caracas are coming from all corners of the international ruling elite and fortifying the bond between US state power and fossil capital.
Predictably, far-right wingers like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, who has been called the "exterminator of the future" for his attacks on rainforest protections, support Donald Trump and his team in the crusade to fully depose President Nicolás Maduro and permanently install corporate-friendly Interim President Juan Guaidó. More surprising, liberal darlings like Justin Trudeau and Nancy Pelosi have likewise fallen in line behind this mission. In so doing, they strengthen the agenda of Iran-Contra criminal and Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. Abrams's heinous record of NIMBY black-ops in Nicaragua, Iran and elsewhere was spotlighted by questioning from Ilhan Omar, where Abrams called U.S.-funded genocide in El Salvador "a fabulous achievement." Also leading the charge against Venezuelan sovereignty was former National Security Advisor John Bolton, known as a "hawk among hawks" for his trigger-happy position on Iraq and Venezuela, which he explicitly called an economic opportunity for U.S. oil companies worth deploying 5,000 US troops to gain. Bolton championed sanctions on Venezuelan oil that some characterize as "crimes against humanity" akin to "medieval sieges of towns," and which constitute "collective punishment" in violation of the Geneva and Hague conventions. Around 40,000 people died because of U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan oil in 2017 and 2018 after they were systematically denied food and medical imports as well as crucial public services like water and electricity that form the core of the Bolivarian Revolution's oil-funded social safety net. In ramping up these sanctions in 2019, Abrams, Bolton, Trump and the leaders who backed them issued "a death sentence for tens of thousands of Venezuelans." The U.S. has spent the past century fine-tuning its energy imperialism across the Global South, especially in the Middle East. A look at Venezuela today leaves no room for doubt that American empire is prepped and ready to capitalize on global warming's environmental and political extremes.
Another possible future appears in the Green New Deal. Two days after I visited the embassy demonstration in D.C., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ed Markey, Bernie Sanders and others spoke at a rally across town culminating the Sunrise Movement's nationwide tour promoting House Resolution 109 and the fight to "stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process." Inequality and sea levels are both on the rise because our economic model extracts from people and planet in the name of profit. To fix it, the Green New Deal proposes that we decarbonize production and overhaul infrastructure while universalizing union jobs, healthcare and education along the way. A post-Standing Rock reimagining of the 1930's New Deal, the Green New Deal prioritizes the security of "frontline and vulnerable communities" whose very survival under climate change has been disadvantaged by colonization and capital—like working people, the poor, communities of color, indigenous peoples, women and children—the precise demographics under siege by sanctions in Venezuela. Despite its overwhelming popularity, the Green New Deal has reignited bread-and-butter neoliberal debates about fiscal responsibility and realistic expectations (we can't afford to protect people and save the planet!) as well as pit organized labor against environmental preservation, as if these struggles can be disentangled, as if workers can live without clean air and water.
The ongoing power struggle in Venezuela and controversial introduction of the Green New Deal in Washington clarify the central role of fossil fuels in the twin crises of climate and capitalism that define our present. Many of the politicos deriding the Green New Deal's plan for a fair, renewable society are the same ones calling for Maduro's oust. Their position is designed to make environmental catastrophe and economic warfare appear inevitable, offering a world of endless coups and droughts when most of us want healthcare and housing.
The struggle for a just and sustainable world requires a political vision at the same international scale as the arsenal the ruling class is using in its war against an ecological transition by and for working and oppressed people. Tens of thousands of Venezuelan workers continue to resolve against U.S. capital, defending the Bolivarian program for a socialized way of life. They join comrades like Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi and the Native peoples of Red Nation, as well as communities in Flint, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, Haiti and others across the Global South. In step with radical organizing around pipelines, water, food, housing, and work, the legacy of Chavismo now under threat in Venezuela charts a path toward eco-socialist internationalism—green, red, Black and brown. For the Green New Deal to build the sovereignty and safety of our communities as climate change gets worse and the ruling class digs in its heels, we need to follow that path.
The ongoing power struggle in Venezuela and controversial introduction of the Green New Deal in Washington clarify the central role of fossil fuels in the twin crises of climate and capitalism that define our present.
Nationalizing Venezuelan oil has been an indispensable tool of Latin American socialism and anti-imperialist solidarity since Hugo Chávez took office in the late '90s, riding the Caracazo wave of resistance to austerity measures imposed by the IMF. On May Day 2007, Chávez expropriated the majority stakes of the fossil fuel companies that had occupied the Orinoco Basin for over a century. He consolidated energy production under the state's Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), simultaneously clearing debts and cutting ties with the IMF and World Bank. Repossessing the country's oil wealth from foreign powers meant repossessing its political future: a banner behind the thousands of workers present at the seizure of the oilfields proclaimed "Full oil sovereignty. Road to socialism." It is no surprise that Guaidó's first intended agenda item as president is privatizing PDVSA with IMF loans. Energy sovereignty in Venezuela has meant reduced poverty and socialized healthcare and education, guarantees that Americans are fighting for. The Bolivarian vision has never sought to make capitalism more compassionate or sustainable. Rather, by means of ongoing participation in collective life and ongoing agitation vis-à-vis state actors, it aims to create conditions for the flourishing of community-determined arrangements of production and social reproduction, like free childcare and local subsistence agriculture.
Much as oil wealth is the cornerstone of Venezuela's domestic socialism, it has forged the international ties required to contest U.S. hegemony. Founded in 2005, PDVSA's lending network Petrocaribe offers oil and capital at discount prices with flexible repayment plans. It provides the region's small nations with a safety net alternative to the IMF and World Bank and a buffer for their contracts with energy companies. Whether by trading fuel for 10,000 tons of black beans or supporting low-income U.S. families during harsh winters, Petrocaribe's hemispheric wealth redistribution has offered the most viable countermeasure to price gouging by the world oil market and to structural adjustment programs that place formerly colonized nations into permanent debt peonage.
Repossessing [Venezuela's] oil wealth from foreign powers meant repossessing its political future: a banner behind the thousands of workers present at the seizure of the oilfields proclaimed "Full oil sovereignty. Road to socialism."
No link in Petrocaribe's regional solidarity is stronger than that between Venezuela and Haiti, the latter of which paved the way for Latin America's pink tide with the overthrow of the Duvalier regime. Chávez described a massive Petrocaribe deal in 2007 as repayment for this "historic debt," building on mutual support during the revolutions of the 19th century. Wikileaks cables indicate that Washington and Big Oil fiercely opposed the deal because it promoted "Haitian energy independence from the United States." Indeed, it did: as a former U.S. ambassador to Haiti was loath to admit, Petrocaribe's combined capital, energy, technology and expertise loan significantly improved electricity and quality of life in Port-au-Prince and sealed a relationship of tremendous solidarity, one strengthened by Venezuela's debt forgiveness and aid after the 2010 earthquake. Socializing energy works.
The "deep sense of gratitude" forged by Chavista internationalism is the reason Venezuela and Haiti are both currently embroiled in crises. Amid hyperinflation and a devalued gourde, the Haitian people have spent months in protest against the embezzlement of billions of Petrocaribe dollars by U.S.-backed President Jovenel Moïse, successor to Michel Martelly, himself hand-picked by the Clintons amid post-earthquake disaster capitalism. These protests intensified when the Haitian and Dominican governments refused to recognize Maduro's presidency in January. Many Haitians have framed Moïse's theft of public funds and Yanqui strong-arming in Caracas as two sides of the same energy imperialist coin.
In this sense, the hashtags #petrocaribechallenge and #kotkòbpetrocaribea (Where is the Petrocaribe money?) mirror #HandsOffVenezuela: they identify different stages of a playbook that we can expect to see more of as fossil fuel profits grow harder to come by and the ruling class grows less afraid to show its teeth. More, however, these hashtags and the vigorous real-life movements they represent are a testament to the power of the Bolivarian map to resist Washington and Big Oil. The people of Haiti, ever the vanguard of revolution and today militating on behalf of Petrocaribe socialism, are modeling an insurgent grassroots strike-and-riot politics of accountability and solidarity for the rest of us.
Venezuela's tactic of redistributing oil wealth within and across borders isn't enough to build a sustainable socialist world. As we've seen since January, it leaves working and oppressed people at the mercy of U.S. economic sanctions and the oil market, as well as ignores the mandate to decarbonize, which leaves them at the mercy of global warming. However, the legacy of Petrocaribe's internationalist strategy has laid powerful ground for the total political and social transformation that was always at the heart of the Bolivarian Revolution—ground the Green New Deal must walk to empower working and oppressed people in the face of chronic economic, state and environmental violence.
[T]he legacy of Petrocaribe's internationalist strategy has laid powerful ground for the total political and social transformation that was always at the heart of the Bolivarian Revolution—ground the Green New Deal must walk to empower working and oppressed people in the face of chronic economic, state and environmental violence.
Petrocaribe teaches us that a just ecological transition must operate on the same global scale as fossil capital, redress ongoing violences of colonialism, and build an economy designed to reproduce life rather than produce profit. Neither socialism nor decarbonization can succeed without the other, and the left must push both with the fierce solidarity that the international right is demonstrating with their own climate agenda. While the Green New Deal recognizes that centuries of death and dispossession have determined who is most vulnerable to climate change, we need to ensure that its policies and programs break from this history and shed the intent of the original New Deal to "save the settler economy from itself." The Green New Deal could command a fundamental societal transformation by carrying forward three crucial lessons offered by Chavismo:
1. Nationalize energy production
Petrocaribe owes its achievements to its ability to resist the dual stranglehold of energy companies and lending institutions. This owes, in turn, to the state's expropriation of the private oil assets encoded in late capitalism's DNA. As Cooperation Jackson's Kali Akuno notes, "the main enemy is and will be the petrochemical transnationals," like the ones who have lied for decades about climate change and who are today as excited for regime change in Caracas as they were in Baghdad. Big Oil won't come quietly in any energy transition, socialist or not, so a just ecological transition requires us to aggressively target them.
A 2017 report identifies 25 fossil fuel producers as responsible for over half of total greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Some argue that there is a role for such producers in a Green New Deal, but the IPCC's decarbonization goals demand a hard line on drilling and pipeline construction conspicuously missing from H.R. 109. Because the economic and environmental future of the entire Global South is determined by a fossil fuel industry largely headquartered in the U.S., we must treat this report like a hitlist to build eco-socialism on the international scale that true eco-socialism requires. Only nationalizing U.S. energy production can do that—and do it fast, by "us[ing] public ownership to plan the sector for obsolescence," as Johanna Bozuwa and Thomas M. Hanna from Democracy Collaborative write. The path to nationalization is not as daunting as opponents suggest and the policy possibilities are second to none: keeping fossil fuels in the ground, halting pipeline projects and extraction on public lands, implementing a federal renewable portfolio standard, and redirecting the industry's federal subsidy monies and unused corporate assets to public banks funding new energy production and transmission infrastructure. The market cannot deliver this, but a strong public can.
2. Open borders
The Green New Deal identifies climate-driven migration as a current and future reality as global warming makes more land unfit to live and grow food. It does not, however, address U.S. border policy—which is already vicious, but with the rise of neo-fascism on track to radicalize even further. At the southern border in particular, climate refugees will continue to join political refugees, all arriving because of fossil-fueled U.S. empire's two main hobbies: regime change and climate change. As extreme weather and shifting coastlines displace more communities, we must refuse Pentagon solutions and look to the example set by Petrocaribe: unconditional, debt-free relief and reconstruction, as well as guaranteed freedom of movement and resettlement for those seeking environmental asylum—housing, work, and political rights.
3. Decolonize, decolonize, decolonize
The Bolivarian Revolution's blueprint of ongoing collective participation and state agitation is both a precondition for the measures listed above—only mass mobilization will win us open borders and socialized energy—and an end in itself.
Eco-socialist internationalism does not name a destination that we will one day arrive at; rather, it urges a constant process, reconfiguring what it means to live in a political community. Venezuela and Haiti instruct that environmental justice means creating sustainable, worker-led systems of production (unions and co-ops focused on care work, food security and renewable energy) as well as engaging in militant civil disobedience of the kind modeled by water protectors. Only such a habit of confrontation—showing up in everyday cooperative life and checking power at points of conflict—can build and sustain a better world. Climate change can erase borders and it can erase political sidelines, too: a Bolivarian groundswell for a green, red, Black and brown New Deal means all hands on deck. It's worth it, because through our efforts together we will get to "live, not just survive."
Our path has been charted by the Bolivarian project from Caracas to Port-au-Prince and the work of labor and radical organizers across the Global South. As historian and activist Nick Estes has said, "There's a reason why there were Palestinian flags flying at Standing Rock." Rather than reinvent the wheel, the project of international eco-socialism is lucky to draw and build from such a powerful legacy, one strong enough to contest the supposed inevitability of fossil-fueled war and poverty. The Green New Deal's utility for this legacy lies in the scale, speed and ambition it offers us to direct on our own terms. The fates of working people, the poor, communities of color and indigenous peoples in Venezuela and in Haiti, in the U.S., in all occupied lands and across the warming world are bound together. Only by seizing this fate in collective struggle can we build the world we deserve.