Venezuela: Global Left Seduced By Another Latin American Strongman

From Spain's Podemos to Noam Chomsky, many left-wingers around the world are too blinded by ideology to see the Venezuelan crisis for what it really is.

Police forces in Caracas on Jan. 30
Police forces in Caracas on Jan. 30
Jairo Lugo-Ocando


BUENOS AIRES — In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn (1922-96) explained that scientific knowledge is obtained incrementally, within theoretical paradigms that permit the interpretation of the natural world. But these paradigms, he warned, could at times become straight jackets that prevent us from seeing new phenomena that don't fit our preconceptions.

A prime example is how a good portion of the Left worldwide continues to see Venezuela's Chavista regime, led by Nicolás Maduro, only within the paradigm of dichotomy. They see a picture of rich versus poor, whites against blacks, Yankee imperialism against Bolivarian revolution, capitalism versus socialism. In Argentina and Brazil, leftist elements view the Bolivarian system as a challenge to the IMF. In Chile, the Left blames Venezuela's economic collapse on the same conspiratorial forces that toppled President Salvador Allende in 1973.

The dichotomy extends to Spain's Podemos party, the Labour Party in Britain, and Noam Chomsky. None are taking a truly critical view of the situation. They want to see this as a spat between Donald Trump and Maduro, without stopping to consider the Venezuelans want or aspire to. Their support is thus for the regime, not for the people, as they keep thinking in terms of the Cold War and the fight for Venezuelan oil.

It is a mistaken paradigm that cannot explain events on the ground. Chavismo came to power in 1998 bearing the socialist standard, but it was not alone. It was joined by the military, which discovered that it could perpetuate itself in power by branding itself as left-wing. Thus Chavismo came explicitly to define itself — on the advice of Norberto Ceresole (1943-2003), an Argentine adviser to the late president Hugo Chávez — as both a civic and military movement.

Where was the Left while all this was unfolding?

Thanks to that and to high oil prices, it thwarted the attempted coup of 2002 and managed to crush the political opposition for a good while. But eventually it began to lose ground. In 2007, the late Hugo Chávez (president from 1999-2013) suffered his first big electoral defeat, in a referendum to scrap presidential term limits by revamping the constitution he himself had installed. Chávez ignored the results and changed the constitution anyway. Five years later, and battling cancer, he won the 2012 elections, but it was to be his last last hurrah.

At the behest of Cuba, he named Maduro as his successor. And after Chávez died in 2013, ties with popular sectors were cut. The Sucre district near Caracas, one of the continent's poorest neighborhoods, turned against the movement. Others followed suit, and in 2015 — against all expectations and despite the regime's shenanigans, the opposition won control of parliament. Maduro responded by nullifying parliament and creating his own Constituent Assembly through fraudulent elections. The rest is history.

Maduro has intensified his oppression as oil prices have fallen. More than 400 political opponents have been jailed, and more than 100 students shot in the streets. Dozens of media outlets have been shut down. Hospitals have been neglected. Thousands of tons of food handled by the state have been left to rot in ports, while frequent power and water cuts make life even more difficult for everyday citizens trying to support themselves on vanishing incomes.

As a result, some 3 million Venezuelans and counting have fled the country, many on foot. And where was the Left while all this was unfolding? Where were all those ideologues who have now come out fighting in Maduro's defense? Busy rehashing their old paradigms, no doubt.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!