Lingering Questions for Chomsky on Venezuela (Part 3)

This is the third post in a three-part series. Read parts 1 and 2.

The Guardian Controversy

In the wake of Chomsky's visit, Chávez continued to court the MIT linguist. Just earlier this year, in fact, the Venezuelan leader said he'd like Washington to name Chomsky as U.S. ambassador to Caracas, no less. Whatever good will might have existed, however, was put into some doubt over the Afiuni affair. Speaking to the Guardian, Chomsky said, "Concentration of executive power, unless it's very temporary and for specific circumstances, let's say fighting world war two, it's an assault on democracy." He went on, "[Y]ou can debate whether [Venezuela's] circumstances require it -- both internal circumstances and the external threat of attack and so on, so that's a legitimate debate -- but my own judgment in that debate is that it does not."

In a letter, Chomsky stated that judge Afiuni had suffered enough and that Chávez had intimidated the judicial system. In another rebuke to the Venezuelan leader, Chomsky criticized Chávez for adopting enabling powers to go around the National Assembly. "Anywhere in Latin America there is a potential threat of the pathology of caudillismo [authoritarianism] and it has to be guarded against," Chomsky told the Guardian. "Whether it's over too far in that direction in Venezuela I'm not sure but I think perhaps it is. ... It's a trend which has developed towards the centralisation of power in the executive which I don't think is a healthy development."

At this point, the whole controversy might have died down, but subsequent coverage of the affair has led to even more questions. In an article posted to the pro-Chávez website aporrea, Golinger claims to have conversed with Chomsky over the Afiuni imbroglio. Muddying the waters, aporrea quotes Golinger as saying that Chomsky was "victimized" by the Carr Center for human rights policy at Harvard University, an entity linked to the United States Agency for International Development. According to aporrea, it was the Carr Center, and its director Leonardo Vivas, that persuaded Chomsky to take up the Afiuni case in the first place.

The Old "Bait and Switch"

Complicating matters yet further, Chomsky is quoted as saying that the piece in the Guardian was "deceptive." In an email, Chomsky noted to aporrea that the Guardian, a rather left paper from England to begin with, had omitted crucial points mentioned during his interview, which served as the later basis for the article. Chiming in, Golinger says that Chomsky was victimized by the media establishment. "Nothing escapes media manipulation!" she exclaims.

What seems to have raised the professor's ire? In the original article, the professor makes a rather tangential comparison between the U.S. and Venezuelan judicial systems. After mentioning Chomsky's support for Afiuni, the Guardian notes that the professor "remains fiercely critical of the U.S., which he said had tortured Bradley Manning, alleged source of the diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks, and continued to wage a 'vicious, unremitting' campaign against Venezuela."

After Chomsky protested the Guardian's coverage, the paper opted to print the entire interview online. In the original version, the professor goes into the U.S.-Venezuela comparison in more depth. "It's obviously improper for the executive to intervene and impose a jail sentence without a trial," Chomsky says. "And I should say that the United States is in no position to complain about this. Bradley Manning has been imprisoned without charge, under torture, which is what solitary confinement is. The president in fact intervened."

Continuing, the professor noted, "Obama was asked about his conditions and said that he was assured by the Pentagon that they were fine. That's executive intervention in a case of severe violation of civil liberties and it's hardly the only one. That doesn't change the judgment about Venezuela, it just says that what one hears in the United States one can dismiss."

Going yet further in the aporrea article, Chomsky claims that Manning has been subjected to worse conditions than Afiuni. Perhaps, but after reviewing both pieces in the Guardian as well as the aporrea article, one wonders what Chomsky is so upset about. What is so relevant about Bradley Manning, and why can't Chomsky bear to mention Venezuela on its own terms without bringing the United States into the picture? Apparently, there is something in Chomsky's DNA that prevents him from discussing Latin America outside the context of U.S. imperialism. Thus, everything that transpires politically in the region must be compared with Washington's actions. It's a familiar game of "bait and switch" that is common to the Stalinist left, a constituency which Chomsky ironically claims to abhor.

For a Venezuelan anarchist perspective on this controversy, I caught up with X. "Without a doubt," comments the member of El Libertario, "prison is hell wherever you go, but with all certainty and through direct evidence one can say that Venezuelan prisons are worse than what one can ever imagine." It is ironic, X adds, that Chomsky is muddying the waters at the precise moment when prison conditions in his country are being exposed, for example at the infamous "El Rodeo" facility.

Venezuela in the Post-Chávez Future

Though Chomsky is something of a Johnny-come-lately, waiting until fairly recently to issue critical statements of Venezuela, the linguist has no doubt shaken up the debate in the U.S. about the course of the leftist "Pink Tide" in Latin America. Still, there are confounding signs that Chomsky still views events outside the U.S. through an outmoded leftist framework.

For clues as to the professor's thinking, consult the original Guardian interview. At one point, Chomsky says that the left may be reluctant to criticize Venezuela because the country has come under attack by the United States and the mainstream media. "I think it's natural," the academic adds, "that the leftwing commentators won't want to join in it."

Yet here, Chomsky seems to be abdicating any kind of critical self-reflection or rigorous analysis, characteristics that the linguist presumably regards highly and has attempted to encourage as an educator. Put simply, one need not agree with Fox News and its right-wing spin machine on Venezuela to bring independent judgment to bear on world events.

Moving to the future, and particularly in light of Chávez's recent debilitating illness, one wonders how Chomsky may view his role far afield. Even if the Venezuelan leader manages to overcome cancer, there is no guarantee that he will win reelection in 2012. Indeed, if Chávez's condition worsens, much of the Venezuelan electorate may believe that a vote for his populist style of leadership is too risky. Yet, because Chávez has never demonstrated much of an interest in grooming a successor, a big question mark now hangs over the fate of Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution.

In the event that Chávez vanishes from the scene, either for health reasons or a drubbing at the polls, Venezuela will have to deepen the process of social transformation that has been underway for some time. It is here where Chomsky might be able to map out his vision for grassroots democracy more succinctly. What anti-authoritarian measures would Chomsky like to see, and how should they be advanced? How should Venezuela seek to distinguish itself from rising star Brazil, which may rival the U.S. for regional hegemony in the not-too-distant future? What are Chomsky's specific recommendations for South American integration, and what types of international anti-imperialist initiatives would be most advisable? How can South American leftist nations break out of the extractivist trap and move toward more equitable economic arrangements? If Chomsky, a North American, believes he has a right to express views on such weighty matters, then now would be a good time to speak up.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of "Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left" (Palgrave). Visit his website,