“We’ll know our disinformation campaign is complete when everything the American public believes is false.” William Casey, CIA Director 1981
“Every major war in the last several decades has begun the same way: the US government fabricates an inflammatory, emotionally provocative lie which large US media outlets uncritically treat as truth while refusing to air questioning or dissent, thus inflaming primal anger against the country the US wants to attack.” Journalist Glenn Greenwald
Veterans For Peace (VFP) calls on all members of the US military to refuse ILLEGAL orders to intervene in Venezuela, & urges all US military leaders to inform the president that they will order their units to stand down from preparations to invade Venezuela.
Venezuela and the struggle for sovereignty
The US-inspired coup against the elected government in Venezuela is a fiasco, born in the fetid minds of septuagenarian neocon cold warriors hoping to reestablish US hegemony in the western hemisphere after a reformist decade of “pink tide.” So far, it’s not working according to plan. Duly elected President Nicolas Maduro and the Venezuelan people are standing strong in the face of threats from a new “coalition of the willing,” though after barley a month the coalition is already fracturing. This was not the story line in late January when the US put forward a marginal neo-fascist political figure, Juan Guaido, who outrageously declared himself president of Venezuela. Most of the world, and certainly most Venezuelans, were irritated at yet another attempted coup by the empire to the north, but most mainstream media outlets predicted a quick victory for Guaido. It was not to be. As it looks now, the coup attempt is limping along, with little momentum. Could it be a failure for US neocons?
To fully understand the complex situation in Venezuela, it’s important to delve into the country’s rich history, particularly its complicated relationship with the US over the past 20 years.
Oil is key
Well before the most recent coup attempt in Venezuela, cold warriors divvied up the world in easy slices. A simple tripartite arithmetic made for easy bookkeeping – and propaganda. The “good” first world was capitalist, developed, democratic (concepts that got messier the closer we looked). The “bad” second world was communist (or at least socialist – in name), industrialized, dictatorial. The third world – more than ¾ of the world’s population – was poor, marginal, unimportant. Of course, this was always a pathetic descriptive contrivance, though adequate for propaganda purposes as leading capitalists constructed their hegemonic project.
A different, more useful, schematic may help us understand today’s world, though this time in materialist rather than moralistic/ideological terms. And perhaps it will help place Venezuela’s current situation in context. In today’s capitalist world, there are, in very broad brush strokes, three strategies for capital accumulation. Finance, information (media, entertainment, advertising and information manipulation), and relative monopolies (pharmaceuticals and airplanes come to mind, though most important is military production) are the most efficient at capital accumulation. The second accumulation strategy involves mass production of commodities in relatively mature industries in which global competition, mainly driven by cheap labor, defines accumulation opportunities. The third strategy is production of raw materials, like minerals, petroleum, and agricultural products, which provides the necessary foundations for the first two accumulation strategies.
Sometimes all three strategies are present and successful in the same country. The leading financial, media, and arms producing enterprises are found in the US, alongside (declining) mass commodity manufacture, and production of petroleum, soy beans and timber. Many countries are dominated by only one strategy, particularly in the global South. With the largest petroleum reserves in the world, Venezuela is a prime example. Without a diversified economy, petroleum enriches only a small exploitative class that is marginally capitalist, in the traditional meaning of the term as accumulation via exploitation of labor, and leaves the working masses at the mercy of international markets and political manipulation. David Harvey refers to “accumulation by dispossession.” Venezuela’s capitalist class accumulates wealth by selling the national patrimony. The sale of crude petroleum accounts for 95% of international trade, but employs only 1% of the workforce. In the early 2000s, Venezuela accounted for 15% of US oil imports. For most of the past 100 years, US oil companies, anxious to control the world’s largest petroleum reserves, dominated Venezuela’s economy and politics.
Venezuela has a fifth of the world’s proven petroleum reserves, which were nationalized in 1976 with the formation of Petroleos de Venezuela, SA. Ostensibly a state-owned operation and formal manager of national oil production, PDVSA was effectively controlled by “apolitical” career executives with strong ties to international oil companies. Lucrative joint ventures and service contracts turned into wholesale extraction by international corporations. In 1994, Luis Giusti, a former Shell executive, was appointed president of PDVSA, a post he held until 1999. During his five year stint, he signed major contracts with Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Total, BP, Statoil and other transnational corporations, with extremely favorable conditions for the international companies, including royalties of only 1%, a minority stake for PDVSA, income tax of only 34%, and a commitment to arbitrate disputes before panels in New York. In 2000, Giusti joined the Shell board of directors – perhaps a reward for his loyal service in leading the so-called “Generation of Shell” who protected the interests of transnational energy companies, to the detriment of Venezuelan sovereignty.
The Chavez years
With this kind of neoliberal give-away as background, in 1992, a group of young nationalist idealists attempted to overthrow the widely unpopular government of President Carlos Andreas Perez. Perez was a neoliberal lackey, firmly under the influence of US President George H.W. Bush and implementing draconian IMF-ordered government cuts in social spending along with privatization regimes, particularly in the energy sector. Paratrooper Commander Hugo Chavez, part of a powerful nationalist tendency within the armed forces, led the rebellion. He was sentenced to prison, then pardoned in 1994 by Perez’s successor, Rafael Caldera. Chavez ran for president in 1998, at a time when nearly 80% of the population lived in poverty. He won the election in a landslide and immediately declared the Bolivarian revolution (Simon Bolivar led the 19th century independence movements in Venezuela, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama, winning liberation from Spanish control).
Chavez wasted no time in promulgating a new constitution that formed the basis of popular socialist-type reforms.
In 2001, the Chavez administration passed a new hydrocarbon law mandating majority State control of all future contracts, plus higher royalties. Wealthy elites living on the east side of Caracas, in coordination with the largely privately held right wing media, immediately launched a campaign to discredit Chavez. In 2002, the elite alliance mounted a coup in coordination with a small sector of the military leadership. The coup began with a march against the “politicization” of oil. Demonstrators were originally headed for PDVSA headquarters before leaders diverted the mobilization to Miraflores, the presidential palace. Coup leaders kidnapped President Chavez and suspended the National Assembly, but the coup lasted only 48 hours. A million people from popular barrios in Caracas and other cities surrounded the national palace, forcing the coup leaders to hastily abandon the country.
PDVSA officials played a leading role in the next significant attack on Chavez – a three-month work stoppage that nearly shut down the oil industry beginning in December 2002. This was a battle over control of petroleum, with PDVSA executives aligned with international oil companies seeking to maximize production, while the State promoted maximization of income for social programs. The Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) led by its president, Carlos Ortega, was key to the work stoppage. Of 35,000 permanent PDVSA employees affiliated with the union, half walked off the job, mostly managers and highly trained specialists, forcing a dramatic decrease in oil production and economic losses of some $10 billion. The CTV was a historically corrupt, thoroughly undemocratic “white” union allied with company executives. Rank and file workers from other sectors quickly joined the non-striking PDVSA workers to restore production, not an easy task given the complexity of the petroleum infrastructure and efforts by striking executives to sabotage computer systems. Once the work stoppage ended in February, progressive workers joined forces under a new union federation, the Bolivarian Workers Force, leaving the CTV a shell of its former self.
In 2004, the opposition mounted a recall election against Chavez. He won handily with nearly 60% of the vote. With renewed political clout, the Chavez administration increased petroleum royalties from 1% to 16.6%. In 2005 elections for the National Assembly, opposition candidates boycotted rather than suffering an embarrassing defeat. Chavez supporters won an overwhelming majority, giving Chavez the political power to formally declare a national socialist project focused on literacy, health care, and jobs, and an international fight against neoliberalism, particularly in Latin America.
In 2006, Venezuela’s oil minister, Rafael Ramirez, ordered pre-existing partnerships with foreign companies to comply with the 2001 law, including a minimum 51% Venezuelan ownership and higher royalties. Twenty six oil companies quickly negotiated accords that included compensation, but Exxon Mobil (under the direction of President Donald Trump’s first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) and ConocoPhillips took their cases to international arbitration. They demanded cash compensation according to market value, while Venezuela offered compensation based on book value. Juan Carlos Boué, an internationally respected oil industry consultant and researcher, described the cases: “Supposedly motivated by a commitment to uphold the principle of sanctity of contract, the companies subsequently initiated a series of arbitrations involving some of the largest claims ever put before international tribunals. However, the bargains that the companies insist they are defending are not reflected in the agreements that they had actually signed. Thus, these arbitrations amount to an attempt on the part of these companies to use international arbitral tribunals to re-draft on their behalf the contracts they had negotiated, so as to secure a windfall (which they had never bargained for) upon their exit from Venezuela.” Used to getting his way, a livid Rex Tillerson vowed Exxon Mobil would never return to Venezuelan oil fields.
International petroleum prices increased steadily during Chavez’s early years in office, from $24 per barrel (all prices are inflation-adjusted to 2017 prices) in 1999 to $49 in 2004. In 2005, prices jumped to $63, increasing steadily to $104 in 2008, after which they declined somewhat to $88 in 2014. Historically speaking, these were high prices for oil producing countries. As one of the founders of OPEC, Venezuela exerted important, if somewhat limited, influence over the price structure. Chavez utilized oil wealth to lift millions of Venezuelans out of poverty and launch popular education, health care and housing programs. By 2015, Venezuela boasted the most equitable distribution of wealth in Latin America, according to CEPAL, with a Gini coefficient under .40.
Socialist programs initiated under Chavez included Mision Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighborhood), which implemented health care as a universal right enshrined in the constitution. Venezuela stood in stark contrast to the neoliberal privatization of health care unleashed throughout much of Latin America. Exemplifying Chavez’s vision of South-South solidarity, Mision Barrio Adentro was staffed largely by some 20,000 Cuban medical professionals in exchange for petroleum exports to Cuba. As in other countries in the global South, Cuban doctors often provided the only available medical care in poor or remote communities.
Education is fundamental for any national development project. Chavez increased the education budget dramatically, with particular focus on two new programs. Escuelas Bolivarianas combined formal classes with extracurricular activities and free meals, and Misiones Educativas provided adult education ranging from basic literacy to university-level classes. Educational programs are central for building social consensus, especially when the national project is socialist in the midst of a capitalist world. In Venezuela it is particularly important, given the predominance of privately owned media outlets with almost universal right wing perspectives, and the prevalence of private schools for the wealthy.
Internationally, Chavez utilized petroleum proceeds to launch the sucre as a regional trade currency, and establish the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA) to promote social, economic and cultural integration throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. ALBA stood in stark contrast to US-dominated multi-lateral institutions in the region like the IMF, and represented a clear challenge to neoliberal hegemony that envisioned natural resources in the Global South as a free gift of nature for transnational capital. By 2016, PDVSA distributed a majority of its production for subsidized (in relation to international prices) internal consumption and to international solidarity projects via PetroCaribe, while about 41% was sold in the most lucrative export markets (calculations by Daniel Hellinger). Cuba received about 3% of national production in exchange mainly for medical services.
In 2011 Chavez was diagnosed with cancer. Despite his weakened condition, he campaigned vigorously for the presidency in 2012 and won re-election in October with 55% of the vote in a six candidate race. His Sunday “Alo Presidente” was the most popular television program in the country, despite a national media largely controlled by right wing elites. He was widely respected and loved for his personal warmth and strong leadership, particularly in popular barrios. Chavez passed away in March 2013. During his last public speech, he called on the people of Venezuela to elect Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who served as his trusted vice president, as the next president. Maduro won the April presidential election that same year, beating business candidate Henrique Capriles by about 2%.
The Maduro years
The narrow margin of victory combined with international economic conditions left Maduro in a challenging position. Petroleum prices dropped from $88 a barrel in 2014 to $43 a barrel in 2015, yet OPEC, and in particular Saudi Arabia, refused to support higher prices through production cuts. At the 2015 OPEC meeting, divisions erupted, with Saudi Arabia arguing to maintain current levels of production and Venezuela calling for cuts that would raise the international price. The Wall Street Journal reported Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry convinced the Saudis to keep oil prices low to damage the economies of Russia, Iran and, particularly, Venezuela. In exchange, the US would support Saudi interests in Syria.
Maduro lacked the charisma of Chavez, and with declining petroleum income, the Obama administration saw an opening to regain control of Venezuelan oil. The Saudis cooperated by maintaining high levels of production, while the US and Canada were expanding new fields – oil sands in Alberta and oil shale in the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico. Obama announced the first sanctions regime in 2015, declaring Venezuela a “threat to national security” and targeting a small number of Venezuelan officials. Sanctions increased dramatically under the Trump administration.
While control of Venezuelan oil has always been the driving force in US policy, a number of domestic issues coincided to make Venezuela a top political interest. First, Trump appointed Rex Tillerson, still smarting from his failed business dealings in Venezuela, as his first Secretary of State. Second, Trump won the presidency in part by winning Florida with a small margin. Most of Venezuela’s elites consider Miami their second home and they helped Trump carry the state. Third, given the importance of Florida in electoral calculations, Trump was looking for a way to repair relations with Senator Marco Rubio, disparagingly dubbed “little Marco” by Trump during the presidential primaries. Rubio’s political base is in south Florida’s Cuban and Venezuelan communities, and he gladly accepted a tacit role as Trump’s shadow Secretary of State for Latin America. And finally, Trump’s opposition to socialism is clearly a foundation of his upcoming election campaign. With Venezuela in the midst of an economic crisis caused by sanctions and low oil prices, and with the mainstream media clearly in his hip pocket on this issue, what better straw man for arguments against socialism?
Trump-imposed sanctions are broad and brutal: cutting off access to oil revenues (effectively an oil embargo) and international banks, making trade with many international corporations virtually impossible, and canceling visas for government and army officials. The actions froze $7 billion of Venezuelan assets in the US, including all income from PDVSA’s US subsidiary Citgo, which operates three refineries in Texas. Ostensibly the funds are held for future use by self-appointed “president” Guaido. US sanctions also block international assets, including $1.2 billion in Venezuelan gold frozen in the Bank of England. US companies are barred from commercial transactions with Venezuela, though the Treasury Department will issue temporary licenses for certain transactions, particularly in the petroleum sector, that might otherwise damage US companies.
International prices continued to decline, reaching $29 per barrel by early 2016. In combination with production cuts caused by US economic sanctions that made it difficult for Venezuela to purchase spare parts or find international investors, oil income declined by 13% in 2017. International prices temporarily rose above the critical $50 per barrel mark in 2018, but sanctions continued to bite, and the economy tanked, shrinking about 15% in each of the past three years.
With the US as Venezuela’s principle oil customer, the embargo is expected to cost $11 billion during 2019 in lost exports, though the Maduro administration is quickly re-routing most of those exports to India, China and Russia. Even some Guaido supporters admit the debilitating impact on the population. Opposition economist and former Torino Capital Chief Economist Francisco Rodriguez said, “Sanctions have turned the crisis into a humanitarian catastrophe… I’m afraid that if these sanctions are implemented in their current form, we’re looking at starvation.” US sanctions are illegal under the charters of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, but this has hardly been a deterrent.
State Department coup attempt
The current battle for control of Venezuela is a battle for oil (led by the US and Venezuelan elites), versus national sovereignty and the right to experiment with a more equitable socialist system that distributes petroleum wealth to the masses. Each side is mobilizing strategies and tactics in a struggle with huge implications for the future of socialism in our world. Central to this struggle is the propaganda war, waged in the US via mainstream media. And central to their argument is a claim that Maduro is an illegitimate dictator.
If we limit the definition of democracy to regular elections with largely clean mechanics (former President Jimmy Carter applauded Venezuela’s electoral system, including use of electronic voting machines, as exemplary in the world), then Venezuela is beyond reproach. While this limited definition leaves democracy void of any genuine meaning, let’s assume for a second, as the US media does, that clean elections equal democracy. The current socialist President, Nicolas Maduro, won the 2018 presidential election with 68% of the ballots, or 5.8 million votes. Opposition candidate Henri Falcon came in second with 1.8 million votes. Just under half the country’s eligible voters participated in the election, giving Maduro active support from about 30% of the population. The same percentage of eligible voters elected Obama in 2012, while about 3% less insured Trump’s 2016 victory. Historically, Venezuelans participate at higher levels – some 80% in 2013 when Maduro succeeded his mentor Hugo Chavez. So what accounts for the low participation in 2018? A badly divided right wing opposition could not decide on a unified candidate, so they called for a boycott rather than risking defeat with a divided slate of candidates.
Since the opposition could not win the election, Juan Guaido swore himself in as president on January 23, 2019. The 35-year-old Guaido, a graduate of George Washington University and an active participant in some of the most violent anti-government protests in recent years, was a little known member of the National Assembly, a rump body whose decision-making capacity was nullified by the Supreme Court in 2017. Guaido is a member of the Popular Will party, which holds only 14 of 167 seats in the National Assembly. The National Assembly stands alongside the Constituent National Assembly, which must ratify all legislation approved by the National Assembly. The National Assembly is dominated by opposition parties, while the Constituent National Assembly is dominated by Maduro allies.
The politics surrounding the Supreme Court and the two national assemblies are complicated, but the dynamics are not difficult to understand for anyone who follows US politics. In Venezuela, the National Assembly must approve Supreme Court appointments by a two-thirds majority. With the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in control of the National Assembly from 1999 until 2015 under Chavez and Maduro administrations, it’s not hard to imagine the party would appoint a majority of the Supreme Court justices. In the US, Trump is trying his level best to stack the US Supreme Court, a privilege afforded to the ruling party in most bourgeois democracies.
In 2015 elections, opposition parties won close to a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. The PSUV took a page out of the Republican Party’s playbook by appointing new justices before the opposition was sworn into office on January 5, 2016. Republicans in the US did something similar when the Senate denied Obama a vote on his candidate for the Supreme Court for nine months after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. On January 2, the Venezuelan Supreme Court denied four opposition candidates seats in the Assembly after finding problems with the electoral process, including vote buying by the opposition. The situation was parallel to Florida’s infamous “hanging chads” in the 2000 US presidential election in which the Supreme Court decided in favor of Republican George W Bush. In all four cases, the political maneuvers were constitutional, while also providing the opposition with plenty of material for criticism. But there is also a very significant difference. In the US cases, the major political parties accepted the Supreme Court decisions. In Venezuela, the National Assembly ignored the Supreme Court decision regarding the four contested races, and decided to seat the candidates. The Supreme Court ruled this move unconstitutional, and invalidated National Assembly decisions thereafter.
In 2017, Venezuelans elected the Constituent National Assembly to amend the national constitution. President Chavez established a similar elected body in 1999 to draft the current constitution. Every municipality in the country elects one delegate and state capitals elect two, no matter the size of the town or city. (This electoral scenario is similar to the Senate in the US, where each state gets two Senators regardless of size.) In addition, a proportion of delegates is reserved for selection by members of sectoral organizations such as students, workers and indigenous groups. Venezuelan constituent assemblies have the constitutional authority to change the constitution and to dismiss existing officials and institutions. The opposition boycotted the election and the PSUV won a majority of seats. About 42% of eligible voters participated, comparable to non-presidential elections in the US. Given the continuing refusal by the National Assembly to recognize Supreme Court decisions, the Constituent National Assembly quickly replaced the National Assembly, with the approval of the Supreme Court, as the most important national decision-making body. This left the opposition with virtually no institutional political power, so the US adopted “plan B.” Within hours of his unique self-appointment, the Trump administration recognized Juan Guaido as President, with Canada and 11 of 14 members of the Lima Group of Latin American countries quickly following. A week later, European allies joined the chorus. Ultimately, about 50 countries recognized Guaido, or about ¼ of the countries in the United Nations representing about 20% of the world’s population. Meanwhile, Maduro enjoys the support of Russia, China, India, Turkey and many other countries.
Now that the US had an “acceptable” president, it had to figure out a way to gain control of the government. Less than a fifth of the Venezuelan population knew Guaido’s name before his self-appointment, and he had never run for election at any level. With Elliot Abrams, the erstwhile 71 year-old neocon and notorious supporter of right wing dictators since the Reagan administration, appointed by Trump as special envoy in charge of Venezuela, the strategy for “regime change” quickly turned to dirty tricks. Abrams has a long and dubious history as part of the Iran-Contra scandal, for which he was convicted of lying to Congress, and supporter of Guatemala’s notorious dictator Efrain Rios Montt. Abrams was a key architect of the Iraq war and a staunch defender of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador in which US-supported troops slaughtered 500 civilians.
The strategy began at the information level, filling the mainstream media with lies: Maduro was a dictator, human rights abuser, incompetent administrator, and corrupt leader. Venezuela’s privately owned right wing media was already on board with this story line, and the US media quickly parroted the worst lies. The claim that Maduro is a dictator is particularly laughable. With the exception of one state-run TV station, almost every other major media outlet in Venezuela is privately owned and closely aligned with the right wing opposition. They publish and broadcast freely every day, without censorship. Guaido freely travels around the country, even making a week-long trip through Latin America, claiming to be president. He is now back in Venezuela making speeches, organizing rallies, and lobbying various interest groups. Opposition protest marches regularly clog major thoroughfares, with police intervening only when violence breaks out. Maduro must have skipped some key classes in dictator school! There’s no doubt Maduro plays hardball politics (who doesn’t?), but always within the limits of constitutional authority.
Initially, the lies predominated, including the arguments that Maduro’s days are numbered and the vast majority of Venezuelan citizens oppose his presidency. US and Venezuelan media tried to invent a humanitarian crisis, with video of Venezuelans searching for food in trash bins accompanied by heart-wrenching commentary. (This author saw the same thing last week at a train station in Chicago, one of millions of lamentable incidents that, in other contexts, are not mobilized to justify a coup.) Stories of a historically unique refugee crisis are harder to sell, given the border rhetoric of the Trump administration, but that hasn’t stopped US media from trying. About 2.7 million Venezuelans, from a population of 32.6 million (8%), left the country in the past five years. By comparison, about 20% of Mexico’s population lives in the US, with Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti close behind.
To prove the humanitarian thesis, Guaido mounted an aid campaign, with US military planes transporting food and medicine to Columbia where trucks would transport it across the border into Venezuela on February 23 under Guaido’s tutelage. Guaido claimed half a million people would show up at the border to accompany the aid shipment, and Venezuelan troops would abandon their posts in mass. Hoping to attract huge crowds, Guaido convinced British billionaire Richard Branson to throw a party the day before on the Columbia side, featuring some of Latin America’s most popular musicians.
The plan failed miserably. About 5,000 people showed up for the concert, and perhaps 700 accompanied the aid trucks the following day. Between a dozen and 350 Venezuelan troops (depending on the source) abandoned their posts around this time, from a total of 500,000 troops – hardly the mass defections promised by Guaido. With the initial strategy in tatters, the opposition tried to provoke Venezuelan troops guarding the border, hoping to create a crisis that would generate more support. Some 200 armed paramilitaries, led by retired Venezuelan General Cliver Alcala, and working under strategic direction of Secretary of State and former CIA boss Mike Pompeo, tried to join the aid accompaniment. But Columbian officials forced the paramilitaries to back down after discovering the plan at the last minute.
With the paramilitary plan aborted, someone set fire to one of the aid trucks, then tried to blame it on the Venezuelan army and President Maduro. US media quickly picked up the story, followed immediately by outrage from the US political class. Marco Rubio used the fire to criticize Maduro within minutes of the occurrence. There was only one problem. Opposition protestors started the fire. More than a week later, the New York Times got ahold of video footage showing an errant Molotov cocktail thrown by opposition protestors was responsible. The same footage was available for days beforehand on social media, but most mainstream outlets were happy to let the lie run, instead broadcasting footage selectively edited by Columbian sources to implicate the Venezuelan military.
The story of humanitarian aid was itself a sham. The Trump administration reportedly sent about $20 million in food and medicine, a pittance in comparison to the economic damage caused by US sanctions estimated at more than $30 billion. The International Red Cross refused to accompany the aid, declaring it an overt political action. It turns out the shipment contained mostly food, a few medical supplies like rubber gloves, and, curiously, wire and nails, which opposition forces used in the past at demonstrations to decapitate pro-Maduro citizen militias who often travel on small motorcycles (more on citizen militias below). Meanwhile, Russia, Cuba and China delivered genuine humanitarian aid, without the political fanfare. In any case, the humanitarian “crisis” reported by western media is a colossal exaggeration. Journalist Max Blumenthal reports a generally tranquil country with some occasional shortages. All in all, the “humanitarian aid” tactic turned out to be a fiasco. If anything, it demonstrated the lack of popular support for Guaido, and an abysmal lack of knowledge on the ground by US officials.
Over the following weeks, Maduro and Guaido called for a series of competing rallies, mostly in Caracas. In general, the Guaido rallies are held in the tony eastern section of the city, while Maduro supporters generally gather in the popular barrios or near Miraflores. Inevitably, the Maduro demonstrations are larger, sometimes much larger, though one could never discern this from reports in the mainstream media.
With pro-Guaido demonstrations losing steam, the US and its allies needed a new tactic. Constant threats of military intervention became increasingly incredible as US allies quietly made it clear they would not support it. Even right wing governments in Brazil and Columbia are unlikely to favor a US invasion. As bordering countries, they would most likely suffer the consequences of millions of refugees if war breaks out. Given the dirty history of imperialist projects in the South, there is little stomach for US military invasions in Latin America. The so-called “coalition of the willing” would likely splinter. This does not mean an invasion is out of the question. Trump may want a war to distract attention from his abundant legal problems, and his foreign policy is in the hands of neocon cold warriors who staked their reputations and political futures on regime change in Venezuela. Guaido himself is increasingly looking to the US military to resolve the situation. This makes for a dangerous situation that could throw Venezuela into a prolonged war along the lines of Vietnam. The coalition of the willing may turn out to be only the United States, but that could easily be enough to set off a deadly civil conflict that could last for years.
In mid-March, Guaido and his US allies apparently turned to a tried and true tactic – disruption of the State electrical system, leaving most of the country without power for five days. We say “apparently” because all the details are not yet known, but evidence increasingly points to sabotage. Guaido and the Trump administration blame the extended blackout on delayed infrastructure maintenance and government incompetence. In a country suffering serious economic hardships due to the US oil embargo, it’s not hard to imagine a State forced to juggle financial priorities. In recent years, temporary local power outages have been fairly common, not unlike many Southern nations with economic problems (this author lived in Mexico for a decade where power outages were common). Most likely, some maintenance was postponed, but this doesn’t explain five days without electricity. Some experts suspect a Stuxnet style attack (Stuxnet is the US-Israeli computer virus that damaged Iran’s power system). Others point to a fire that may have damaged distribution lines. At least one power station in Caracas blew up from unknown causes. Most speculation centered on the Guri dam, source of 70% of the country’s electrical power and a relatively easy target for a sophisticated cyber-attack. In any case, the full story may come out soon. The Maduro administration promised to file a formal complaint with the UN High Commission on Human Rights. Meanwhile, the government initiated largescale distribution of food and drinking water to mitigate the most serious consequences of the outage.
The blackout may backfire badly on Guaido and his US allies. While no one in Venezuela is happy with the lack of electricity, many are blaming the opposition, as support for embattled Marudo appears to be increasing in popular barrios. Widespread blackouts in 2008, 2013 and 2018 lasted only six to ten hours, making the thesis of faulty maintenance hard to sustain. The Maduro administration certainly gains nothing from keeping the population in the dark, while the US may have hoped to spark a general uprising by creating a national crisis. Guaido may have already implicitly accepted responsibility when he declared, “the lights will come back on when the usurper Maduro is overthrown.”
On March 11, the State Department suddenly and inexplicably decided to pull all diplomatic personnel from the country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared their presence in Venezuela “has become a constraint on US policy.” Perhaps, though it could also be interpreted as a de facto recognition of the Maduro administration, which cut diplomatic relations in January and demanded the withdrawal of US personnel simultaneous with the removal of Venezuelan diplomatic staff from Washington. Could this be a preparatory step toward a military invasion? Is this a move to protect State Department personnel from popular outrage in anticipation of the government implicating the US in the blackout? Or perhaps the US is abandoning Guaido? Without ready consultation with his bosses in Washington, Guaido is likely to be increasingly isolated.
Venezuela faces challenges
While Guaido and his handlers have been working overtime, Maduro and his allies are certainly not sitting on their hands. The 500,000 strong Venezuelan military, steeped in powerful nationalism from the days of Chavez, is unified in its support of Maduro and in opposition to US imperialism. In addition, Venezuela has perhaps 200,000 armed and trained civil militias whose defense of socialism is unquestioned. Colectivos, part of the civil militias, are mobile popular forces from the most pro-Chavista barrios. They are widely feared in wealthier neighborhoods where they often arrive on small motorcycles to dismantle road blockades or disarm thugs. This civil-military alliance is key to the defense of socialism in a hostile world. Civil militias form part of a survival strategy that has been successful in Cuba for six decades, and continues to be a defensive bulwark for the island nation. This may not be the recipe for socialism envisioned by idealists, but it is the hard reality confronting Venezuela and every other socialist revolution in today’s context.
Some on the “Left” in the US are willing to stand up for Venezuelan sovereignty, but are quick to dismiss Maduro. He is accused of mismanagement, corruption, and human rights abuses, allegations that, in general, don’t take into consideration the material conditions in Venezuela, and that play into the hands of US imperialism. A country that depends on oil sales for 95% of its trade, and that can’t produce sufficient food or medicine internally, will inevitably find itself with limited options if it tries to build a society in opposition to capitalism. Even a brilliant analyst like Noam Chomsky can fall into idealist interpretations that dismiss Chavez and Maduro. His critiques include:
- “failure to change the colonial economy … overwhelmingly based on oil – it was not diversified.”
- “a serious failure of the Chavez government was not to put aside reserves during the period of high oil prices”
- “[Chavez] left the capitalist class untouched, allowing themselves to enrich themselves”
- “Maduro’s own policies have been awful in many respects – economic, repression and others” (though Chomsky recognizes these policies have been implemented in the face of constant subversion)
We don’t mean to take Chomsky to task. In his short YouTube talk, he critiques the impact of the media, both US and Venezuelan, and the two coup attempts against the socialist government. Chomsky is a dazzling analyst with an impressive grasp of history, yet here he seems to repeat some of the simplistic tropes typically mobilized by the mainstream media.
Even under the best of circumstances, diversification of an economy heavily dependent on one natural resource is a multi-generational project, made even more difficult when the existing economy is based on US technology no longer available because of the embargo. Cuba learned this lesson the hard way, switching from US to Soviet technology after 1960, then abandoning Soviet equipment after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Putting aside a rainy day fund is a great idea, but the reality of building socialism with the US breathing down your neck means you have to deliver on promises that will improve the lives of the poor majority, thereby beginning the political transition from class in itself to class for itself. Admittedly Venezuela had some limited opportunities to stash reserves, though some of these reserves held in foreign banks disappeared with the US embargo (for example, gold reserves in Britain). In any case, it is doubtful the country could have saved enough to overcome the current double barrel attack of US embargo and low oil prices.
Both Chavez and Maduro left the capitalist class largely, though not completely, untouched. The few cases where Chavismo took on capitalist power directly are noteworthy. When the revolutionary project gained control of PDVSA, it lost many of the highly trained elite workers who made the complicated oil infrastructure function. This put a dent in production from which the country has yet to recover. Every battle with the capitalist class (or allies in the educated middle class) has repercussions. Perhaps Chomsky is correct. The capitalist class should have been destroyed. After all, this is the recipe that Marx advocated – there is no such thing as revolution via reform. But that would have opened the revolutionary government to charges of human rights abuses. In a battle of property rights versus the right to eat, have a home and live in dignity – in any battle between rights – the winner is decided by force. In this context, it’s not hard to predict counter-revolutionary activities by hired or CIA-aligned forces. There are no set recipes for building socialism. Every context is different. Bold, intelligent experimentation offers the only way forward – exactly what Chavez and Maduro have done. Mistakes are inevitable, and should be critiqued while simultaneously searching for solutions that lead to a better socialist society, but this is very difficult in the context of constant attacks from the US and the local bourgeois.
US officials driving Venezuela policy – Senator Marco Rubio (with his presidential ambitions still intact), National Security Adviser John Bolton, and special envoy Elliott Abrams — continue to put on a brave face, tweeting daily about Maduro’s certain departure, while simultaneously increasing economic and diplomatic pressure. But Maduro’s demise, once reported breathlessly in US media as inevitable, is now questioned, even occasionally in the mainstream media. The New York Times was first, but the Gray Lady seems to find it necessary to toe the official line in most reporting. In general, the mainstream media continues to abrogate its duties as the fourth estate.
Journalists on the Left, particularly those with firsthand knowledge of Venezuela, like Max Blumenthal, Abby Martin, Anya Parampil, and Greg Palast, were among the first to throw serious shade – and it looks like they may be prescient. With Guaido losing steam and his supporters losing interest (elites are not known for their long term commitment to street demonstrations), there now appear to be two possibilities. Maduro could negotiate a tentative peace and slowly rebuild the economy with support from Russia, China, India and Cuba. Or the US could intervene militarily or clandestinely, which would likely precipitate a long and devastating war, especially if the US mobilizes Columbian paramilitary forces ala the Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Avoiding this second scenario necessitates a face-saving negotiated stratagem and, simultaneously, imposing a high political cost for the neocons.
For the people of Venezuela, negotiations offer the best hope. The Maduro administration has been savvy in not closing diplomatic avenues, even meeting with unsavory characters like Elliot Abrams. Negotiations will not be simple. Maduro is unlikely to agree to rapid new elections in violation of the constitution. In any case, the opposition has never participated in elections unless they are guaranteed a win, and Maduro is unlikely to deliver those conditions on a silver platter. The right, both in Venezuela and the US, is dug in, though this may change as Guaido’s lack of standing in Venezuela becomes increasingly clear. He represents a minor party on the extreme right. Will other elite parties unite behind him? Unlikely, given the factional dealings of the Right in recent years.
For the US, negotiations may be the only available face-saving approach. One of the unforeseen consequences of this ill-conceived coup is the newly forming alliances that challenge US dominance, exemplified by the groundbreaking work done by Venezuela’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jorge Arreaza. He is organizing a group of United Nations members in defense of the fundamental principles that undergird the international organization, including respect for sovereignty and non-intervention in internal affairs. Russia, China, India, Turkey, Cuba and many other countries are finding common cause in opposing the US-sponsored coup, to the point where some former allies may abandon the US club in search of more palatable alternatives. There is a new boldness in a world in which the Trump administration seems to be squandering the historic global influence of the US. Could this be the most recent example of US hegemony on the wane?
If neocons and their allies are to pay a political price, it is the responsibility of solidarity actors with ready access to the US political system and public opinion. In the US, the Alliance for Global Justice, the ANSWER Coalition, US-Venezuela Solidarity, the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC), and Code Pink all play important roles in grassroots organizing. For the US Left, Venezuela is critical for defense of socialism, sovereignty, and the right to build alternatives to capitalism. National Security Advisor John Bolton, one of the principle authors of the coup attempt, also has Cuba and Nicaragua in his sites. If his “troika of tyranny” (do our tax dollars really pay the salary of someone who invents these asinine alliterations?!) can withstand US power, the message for working people struggling for liberation in other countries would be powerful. And the message in the US would be equally significant. Venezuela is today’s proving ground for socialist alternatives. Venezuela must be defended.
For more information on Venezuela, check out these sources:
Max Blumenthal, journalist, The Grayzone
Abby Martin, journalist
Anya Parampil, journalist, MintPress News
Greg Palast, journalist, BBC
Ron Paul Liberty Report, for a strictly non-interventionist, libertarian approach that may appeal to some on the Right
Author: Thomas Hansen, PhD
Autonomous University of Social Movements