Readers of the men’s fashion magazine Gentleman’s Quarterly were in for a surprise late April when subscribers, disproportionately upper class, were greeted by the sight of a man hailed as “today’s most relevant Latin-American public figure.” Though described as an “engineer” by trade, he was hardly dressed like one. Perhaps unable to decide between popping a confident pose in his trim-cut suit and rolling up his sleeves as his “background” ostensibly suggests he often does, the magazine gave images of both. It was a fitting bit of subliminal messaging — this public figure can be whoever you want him to be.
And just who was this dapper-looking engineer/public figure? None other than Juan Guaidó, U.S. bagman, coup leader, and self-declared President of Venezuela. At the moment, he is currently in his self-proclaimed “final phase” in his bid to topple the elected leader of Venezuela. In surely one of the most bizarre contributions to the ongoing standoff in the country, the men’s fashion magazine excitedly regurgitated the State Department narrative about the Maduro government “illegitimately holding office,” asking the coup leader to elaborate on his plans to create a “rupture” (gentlemen do not discuss coups or counterrevolution, you see) that will enable his coterie of politicians and PR agents to seize control of the democratically-elected government. In breathless terms, it fed questions about his future plans for Venezuela, while Guaidó himself spent most of the interview trying to explain how important he was despite only “accompanying” (as distinct, one might add, from being) an important member of the Venezuelan opposition before being hand-selected by Washington to lead the coup. “You may think that I just appeared suddenly one day,” Guaidó added defensively, “but actually, I was always there.” It is unclear who he was addressing, as the softball questions that defined the GQ interview gave no hint of anything but complete credulity. Still less clear is how anyone with even a cursory understanding of the situation in Venezuela could believe him or his pretense to the Presidency.
For at the same time Guaidó was attempting to curry favor with the American public, Secret Service and D.C. police were attempting to evict American activists residing in the since-evacuated Venezuelan Embassy in Northwest D.C. so it could be delivered to the coup government. Members of Guaidó’s faction, including his similarly self-declared Foreign Minister Carlos Vecchio, yelled into loudspeakers and petitioned local authorities to violate Venezuelan state sovereignty and evict the activists who had been invited to occupy the building on behalf of the Venezuelan government. On his initiative, access, power, and running water have all been suspended in the building for weeks. Days ago, an “eviction notice” was posted on the door of the embassy in yet another bid to clear the location and pave the way for Vecchio and his ilk. Rather than provide any meaningful backdrop into the origin of the standoff, much of the press coverage tried to depict the activists protecting Maduro’s government as white and American and the supporters of the coup as brown and Venezuelan. That Maduro’s government is buoyed by the poor and Mestizo within the country as against its predominantly white oligarchy, and the oligarchy of the United States, was of no concern. Facts rarely get in the way of a good story.
GQ magazine was right in stressing one thing, “Juan Gerardo Guaidó’s agenda is narrow.” The Venezuelan opposition, while populated by some moderates, is currently dominated by the far-right agenda of Guaidó, which is focused upon resorting to any and all means necessary to regain control. Of particular importance is the oil industry, which even now Guaidó is actively trying to swipe from the government as a means to solidify his control, with the enthusiastic support of the American Treasury Department. Much like the 2002 coup that almost deposed Chavez, changes in the control and composition of the oil sector remain the tectonic plates upon which much of the control of the country is based.
Also like the 2002 coup, the current coup under way continues to probe for opportunities to definitely oust the incumbent government. In its more candid moments, and despite the loud squawking to the opposition’s spokespeople, even the New York Times will admit that what is underway today has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with legitimacy. More candidly stated, what is meant by “legitimacy” is power. After years of brutal and escalating sanction and failing to destroy the Venezuelan government during the announcement of his coup — then failing further to undermine the government with a manufactured crisis on the country’s Colombian border that involved ramming (and torching) “humanitarian aid” — the radical opposition has turned to currying favor with the U.S. military to take a sledgehammer to the country.
This power struggle is currently being dressed up in the trappings of high-idealism, even amongst those who profess to be hard-nosed. For example, in the same New York Times piece, we are treated to the following diagnosis: “[W]hether or not the allegations of a rigged election render Mr. Maduro illegitimate is not ultimately up to election monitors.” This would be a surprise to most Americans, who are constantly told, first, that the Venezuelan government is an authoritarian state and concurrently if they know enough to know that open elections are a regular phenomenon in Venezuela, that such elections are not to be trusted. Except, of course, for the 2015 elections that brought Guaidó and the opposition control of the National Assembly. The piece continues: “It’s up to Venezuelan citizens and political officials, who collectively confer legitimacy on Mr. Maduro by continuing to treat him as president — or not.”
To this depiction, a few facts are in order. First, far from it being a matter for the “Venezuelan citizens and political officials” to decide, much of the wrangling has focused on cinching the noose around the Venezuelan people first and the assets of the Venezuelan state second — rather than a mere exercise in public opinion. For if it was a matter of the Venezuelan people deciding whether to back Guaidó or not, how could we account for the overwhelming popular opposition to foreign involvement in the country’s affairs having no discernible effect on Guaidó’s constant bleating for U.S. intervention to deliver him to Miraflores Palace? Rather, as has been amply discussed within these pages, Guaidó’s ascent from a member of the fringe Voluntad Popular party to figurehead of the opposition is almost solely the product of the U.S. government.
Another crucial fact can be discerned from how many press outlets have discussed the details of the coup. Having sufficiently edified their audiences with tales of the Maduro regime’s unrepentant authoritarianism — careful to avoid discussing the current opposition’s relation to previous regime change efforts, ambivalence toward democratic participation, or penchant for violent and racist guarimbas [demos] — newspapers like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal now regularly invite their readers to pretend that they sit in Oval Office, laying out the vexing issues behind destroying foreign governments. The country’s military won’t cave! Their people are suffering, but they aren’t revolting! How are we to topple their government? Such horrifying speculation has populated countless newspaper headlines, with each representing a bipartisan consensus as sincere as the last that regime change is the order of the day.
Meanwhile, the people are suffering. The Maduro government undoubtedly botched the transition to low oil prices, although few predicted the glut in the market would shave fully 70% off if its peak value so quickly. Part of the blame undoubtedly lies with Hugo Chavez’ policy choices, as well. No one denies the severity of the downturn. And yet, most fail to grasp how significant a role U.S. sanctions continue to play in turning a recession into a full-blown crisis. Wielding the moralistic and evasive language of the foreign policy establishment, the Trump administration has drastically escalated the Bush- and Obama-era sanctions. Venezuela has lost $11 billion from U.S. sanctions in the last year, equal to 94% of the value of its imports. In short, despite the Socialist Party’s errors, it is absolutely inconceivable that a country in such straits would not witness intense hyperinflation. It is inconceivable that it would not see a radical reduction in its standard of living as a direct consequence of oil — the source of more than 90% of its export value — being subjected to crippling sanctions. For all of the rhetoric about the “Venezuelan crisis,” the crisis was manufactured from the outside. The U.S. government is the author of the contemporary malaise in Venezuela — it could make the worst of it stop tomorrow, if it so chose.
The human costs have been severe. One study published by the National Survey on Living Conditions found a horrifying 31 percent increase in generalized mortality since the sanctions took effect. The increase is estimated by the Center for Economic and Policy Research to be linked to more than 40,000 deaths. Emphasizing the scale of the social devastation, the authors of the CEPR paper stressed, “this would be a large loss of civilian life even in an armed conflict,” restating the simple truth that economic warfare still constitutes a menacing form of warfare in the hands of a powerful state.
And yet, voices continue to call for military intervention. “All options are on the table” remains a mantra on Capitol Hill. The allure of substantial military intervention, even as the administration simultaneously continues to back Iran into a corner, remains. In the press corps, a survey of commentary on the subject of regime change conducted by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) couldn’t find a single commentator opposed to regime change in a survey of 3 months of major newspaper coverage of the news. While the protracted nature of Guaidó’s bid for power has tempered spirits somewhat, intervention, especially short of war, remains a real possibility. Within intellectual circles, speculation abounds on Guaidó and the American government’s tactics and next steps. Some viewed Maduro’s arrest of the Vice President of the National Assembly as another possible catalyst, but that too failed to substantially change the camp’s fundamental positions.
DSA is an organization committed to core socialist principles. One of the most important remains anti-imperialism, as the organization’s statement on Venezuela affirms. Though the current Venezuelan administration faces important and unique challenges, it also remains the sovereign government of Venezuela, and continues to be pressured by its citizens to implement important reforms in the spirit of the Bolivarian Revolution. For example, throughout the worst of the crisis, the Venezuelan government has continued to build millions of houses for poor families. It tackled a housing deficit of higher than 30% by building more than 1.8 million houses from 1999 to 2016 alone, a rate more than 3 times that of the previous 4 decades. These actions are also telling of the social character of the Venezuelan government. While they do not neatly compensate for the real abuses of the Maduro administration, they should at least temper observers from drinking deep from the well of regime change that lies in the Washington swamp.