“However entangled the petroleum’s
arteries might be…
when the fountain gushes its paraffin foliage,
Standard Oil arrived beforehand
with its checks and its guns,
with its government and its prisoners …
They buy countries, people, seas,
police, county councils…
Standard Oil awakens them,
clothes them in uniforms, designates
which brother is the enemy”
“Standard Oil Co.”
Since January 22nd, Venezuela has been trying to survive a coup. On that day, and on no constitutional basis whatsoever, opposition-leader Juan Guaido declared himself President of Venezuela to the immediate approval of Washington. Guaido, a protege of Leopoldo Lopez, a participant of the 2002 coup, has been previously linked to violent, far right protesters. But since January Guaido has sought to rebrand himself as a unity candidate in the eyes of the West while releasing plans for a wholesale destruction of the social legacy of Hugo Chavez, a legacy chiefly responsible for making Venezuela one of the most egalitarian and progressive countries in Latin America. To those curious whether Guaido’s priorities lie in the ‘unity’ part or the ‘destroying Chavismo’ bit, one need only point out the curious logic by which a politician previously unknown by over 80% of the Venezuelan population perceives a coup installing himself as unelected president as a way to heal divisions in the country.
His real purpose is clear: return Venezuela to its subordinate state under Washington, and deliver Venezuela’s rich mineral deposits along with PdVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, into the control of US capital.
It should be made clear from the onset that Venezuela is a country that has experienced the height of triumph and tragedy over the last two decades. What is at work today is a titanic struggle in which the working class of Venezuela has little to gain and everything to lose. The country’s impeccable democratic credentials have been jeopardized by Maduro’s consolidation of power, though such measures pale in comparison to most US client states. Yet despite Maduro’s flaws, amplified as they are, the United States government’s actions threaten a political precedent far more damaging to Venezuela’s democracy, and have already begun to roll out an economic transformation far more cataclysmic than anything the PSUV can credibly stand accused. At stake is nothing less than the future of the Bolivarian Revolution itself.
The reasons Washington is seeking regime change in Venezuela are obvious. While the country has a legacy of maintaining close ties to Washington, its grotesquely corrupt oligarchy eventually collapsed in a maelstrom of violence, a process eventually arrested by the coup attempt and later election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency in 1998. Chavez, in turn, reformed the oil industry to finance social democratic reforms that made the country the envy of Latin America for well over a decade. On measures of the human development index, for example, it increased in across-board indicators by fully 20% between 1990 and 2017, with the vast majority of that improvement taking place under Chavez.
However, in more equitably administering the nationalized oil industry, and setting a precedent for independent and effective left-wing governance throughout in the region, Chavez became the enemy of both the existing oligarchy of the country and US private capital, especially US oil interests. As a result, a failed coup attempt in 2002 and a long period of constant economic warfare has defined US relations with Venezuela both under Chavez and Maduro. Perhaps most absurdly, the Obama administration even went so far as to declare the Venezuelan government “an extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States” in 2015, a move enabling the unilateral declaration of sanctions against the government by the executive using the very same legislation that American liberals now denounce Trump for using to fund his border wall. Though both precedents make a mockery of the division of powers articulated by the US Constitution, in practice the violence enabled by the National Emergencies Act of 1976 has always been more effectively waged on foreign governments in the form of sanctions than on Congressional priorities. At present, the sanctions the US has on Venezuela are conceded even by the mainstream press as amongst the harshest ever implemented by the United States. “If these sanctions are implemented in their current form” warned economist Francisco Rodriguez on the front page of the New York Times, “we’re looking at starvation”.
Yet despite these aggressive moves, the most recent attempt at regime change by Washington has not gone according to plan. Much like the 2002 coup, broad-based support for Maduro, despite his flaws, has blunted the efficacy of the traditional regime change playbook. To remedy this, the US government has ratcheted up sanctions, and manufactured two crises in a bid to oust Maduro.
The first was the border standoff, which took place just over a month after the coup attempt began, on Saturday, February 23rd. Attempting to capitalize on the discontent within the country caused by US sanctions, Guaido attempted to force a miniscule amount of aid over the closed Tienditas Bridge while the international press looked on breathlessly. Over the course of the struggle, two aid trucks caught ablaze, a development reported at the time to have been caused by opposition protesters, while CNN led the charge in blaming the government. The aid was in fact burned by the opposition, a fact the international press managed to correct… two weeks later. Whether such a provocative move was premeditated was not deemed worthy of further exploration.
Further distortions should also be mentioned. The first was the pitching of the aid. In refusing to allow the opposition to bring in aid, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has loudly insisted “The Venezuelan people desperately need humanitarian aid. The U.S. & other countries are trying to help, but #Venezuela’s military under Maduro’s orders is blocking aid with trucks and shipping tankers. The Maduro regime must LET THE AID REACH THE STARVING PEOPLE.”.
The hypocrisy is threefold.
First, and centrally, the United States is the single largest source of the economic crisis within the country.
As the UN Independent Expert Alfred de Zayas noted in his report on the country back in September:
[N]on-conventional economic wars have been waged… in order to make [US target’s] economies fail, facilitate regime change and impose a neo-liberal socioeconomic model. In order to discredit selected governments, failures in the field of human rights are maximized so as to make violent overthrow more palatable. Human rights are being “weaponized” against rivals.
Therefore to maintain, as Pompeo does, that Venezuela “must” open its borders to allow $20 million in US aid in country as a PR stunt the opposition itself has suggested it hopes “will accelerate [Maduro’s] ouster”, while refusing to pay for oil exports sent by the country to the US, and handing control of it to an unelected-opposition leader, as a consequence denying the country almost $12 billion in export earnings, evinces staggering hypocrisy.
Additionally, the country is accepting humanitarian aid in a bid to ride the turbulence caused by US intervention. But unlike the United States, countries and agencies doing so have been abiding by international law in respecting the provision of impartiality in delivering aid. A particularly stunning rebuke of the United States came when the Red Cross explicitly cautioned against delivering aid without the approval of the security forces, warning a potentially violent clash could result, exactly as occurred. If any residue of uncertainty existed as to the political nature and purpose of the aid remained, John Bolton had demolished them when he tweeted “Its time for Maduro to get out of the way”.
Finally, the claim that in denying aid from without, while distributing it from within, Venezuela is acting in a cronyistic and totalitarian way cannot be taken seriously in light of the circumstances. An instructive example of this line of argument was came from the New York Times on February 5th, bemoaning “Aid With a Political Motive” while pointing to the Maduro government’s use of targeted assistance to shore up support. To be sure, calls to withhold aid for political ends in light of ongoing shortages are appalling, but it is by no means clear that the government is the worst culprit. Not once in the piece is there a single example of the constant calls to increase sanctions which have defined the policy of the opposition since 2002 and to the present moment.
Nonetheless, the standoff partly achieved its desired purpose. Maduro was vilified in the press for denying aid, while the United States was given a further pretext to increase sanctions. The logic here remains the same as always. If a country resists US efforts at regime change to save its starving people, the only solution conceivable to US policymakers is to starve them further. If our rhetoric is to match our practice, they must literally be “freed to death”.
But while the hypocrisy surrounding the aid was glaring on its face, the potential US role in the other crisis to occur since the coup began has been more subtle. It relates to the blackout caused by the failures of key parts of the Venezuelan energy system, particularly the Guris dam, starting on March 7th. The dam is the keystone in the country’s energy supply, providing roughly 70% of the country’s electricity. By attacking the Guris dam, opposition leaders (and the US) are able to not only directly foment chaos against the regime, but also force the government to divert oil production into acquiring gasoline rather than the diluents that enable the government to export the heavy-crude via pipelines, thereby further depriving the regime of the source of 98% of its hard currency and driving up inflation. Here the Western press is keen to emphasize the failures of the government to upgrade the energy grid and dismiss claims of the government that the dam was targeted by a US cyber attack, but there is ample reason to suspect US involvement in this recent attack.
In particular, a connection identified by the Washington Socialist and further analyzed by reporters at the Greyzone Project has identified internal memos since published by Wikileaks which discuss this very tactic. In the first longform piece to seriously discuss Guaido, reporters at the Greyzone Project identified the link between Juan Guaido and a ‘non-violent’ regime change outfit known as CANVAS, founded by Serbian political dissident Srdja Popovic. The writer has identified Popovic as a leader during the NATO-backed push to oust Milosevic in the 90s, having since been linked by the “Stratfor leaks” to various regime change operations backed by Washington. In particular, CANVAS receives millions of dollars in funding from the State Department bankrolled National Endowment for Democracy, a group which the late DC-local journalist Bill Blum noted in Rogue State (2005) also gave in excess of USD $1 million to the coup plotters in the two-year run up to the last bid to topple the Venezuelan government (Page 217).
Popovic, now Rector at the prestigious University of St Andrews in Scotland, has been repeatedly reached out to for questioning by this writer, but has not responded. Since first identifying this connection, however, joint exploration between the writer and Greyzone Project has borne fruit when the latter discovered a cable sent by Popovic back in 2010 explicitly suggesting that an attack on the electrical grid would “galvanize public unrest against in a way that no opposition group could ever hope to generate” since “there is little Chavez can do to protect the poor from the failure of that system”. In light of previous US efforts to attack infrastructure, and the tie between Popovic’s analysis, CANVAS, and Guaido, US involvement in sparking a crisis that killed at least 21 people is a very real possibility.
The risk today remains that the United States will forgo purely economic measures in favor of a military response. While enthusiasm in the hawkish cabinet has waned somewhat, the administration has repeatedly insisted that “all options are on the table”. While the clock continues to tick, a peaceful resolution has yet to present itself. Should Maduro hold on to power, the undemocratic measures his administration has taken to secure his power will continue to dog him and socialists even in the United States. Should he be taken out by force, the whole region could be plunged into chaos. Finally, should he either be forced or concede to a transition, potentially stemming from yet another round of sanctions, the result could very well be the death of Chavismo at the hands of the oligarchy.
One way or the other, one company sees an opportunity. Chevron, thanks to exemptions from US sanctions, remains patient. A descendant of Standard Oil, it has discovered it will profit from the crisis no matter who is in charge. Should the government limp through, it will be ready to profit from the deals it will be forced to make to survive. Should the government be overthrown, they will have connections ready as well.
As Neruda remarked almost a century ago, so it could soon be today:
[I]n the capital, a whisper
like an oil tide,
and zap, you’ll see
how Standard Oil’s letters
shine above the clouds,
above the seas, in your home
illuminating their dominions
Should Guaido in particular prevail, Neruda knew then as now how the oligarchs, and the United States government, will greet him:
There was a round of applause
from the aristocratic benches:
what eloquence, how spiritual,
what a philosopher, what a luminary!
And everyone ran off to fill
his pockets in his business…
all boisterously proclaiming
themselves patriots, with a monopoly
-- The Oligarchies, Page 216
Through all of the allegations and angling, it can be easy to miss the bigger picture. Through force or fraud, through sanction or election, the Trump administration is attempting to install its preferred candidate atop the Venezuelan people. Whether in spirit, or in the case of Chevron, quite literally, “Standard Oil Awakens Them”: the spirit of US imperialism remains alive and well.