"Warlike, and capable of anything" -- the US-backed coup in Venezuela

Having just liberated modern day Venezuela from Spanish domination, Sîmon Bolîvar’s eyes flicked about the global stage for other threats to his newly-independent country, Gran Colombia. One stood out above all others, a rapidly expanding slaver state to the north called the United States. In 1822, El Liberator observed nervously “there is at the head of this great continent a very powerful country, very rich, very warlike, and capable of anything.”[1] Equally, the United States looked at Gran Colombia, and its successor states Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, as a prize to be won, announcing the imperialistic “Monroe Doctrine” the very next year. Over the course of the next two centuries, the United States would fight relentlessly to secure them from any rival powers from without, or independence movements from within. For centuries, it has done so, with very few sustained challenges to its power.

In the latest act in this multi-century struggle, the US is now backing a coup in Venezuela led by Juan Guaido, a previously unknown politician of a sparsely populated state, declaring him the president of Venezuela on no meaningful electoral or constitutional pretenses. This should be resisted by socialists of every stripe, for Guaido represents the latest in a long, well, caravan of American-backed puppets seeking to smash the independence movements of Latin America in general, and the social democratic reforms of the Chavez era in particular. At the same time, the United States has ramped up economic sanctions so aggressive as to be labeled a potential “crime against humanity” under Article VII of the Rome Statute by the Independent Expert to the UN who visited Venezuela last year -- all while vapid conservative commentary complains that such outcomes were the inevitable results of “socialism”. As socialists, we know better. But to see this whole debacle in better perspective, let us reflect on the revival of Bolîvar’s vision of an independent Venezuela, and the challenge Guaido represents to that dream.

Reacting to centuries of US-backed imperialism, the last generation saw Venezuela, the heart of Bolîvar’s former empire, partly break free from the control of the United States under the guidance of Hugo Chavez. Mobilizing millions of Venezuelans in the 1998 elections, the Chavistas tumbled the sclerotic political system that dominated the country, going on to produce a paradigm shift that helped raise wages and provide housing, healthcare, and education to millions of people. Horrified with this process of redistribution, the United States backed a capitalist coup in 2002, the Carmonazo, which aggressively attempted to liquidate all of the democratic institutions in the country, a coup stopped only by the public outcry of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans. At the same time, the capitalist class called for a capital-strike, depriving the Venezuelan economy of badly needed investments in the hope that the pain of the strike would drive out Chavez. The result, today regularly blamed on the Chavez government itself, was an almost 30% decline in the Venezuelan economy. Yet despite all this, the Venezuelan people stood behind Chavez, and the economy moved swiftly into recovery.

Since the failure of the 2002 coup, the United States has single-handedly kept the Venezuelan opposition afloat, at times pouring upwards of $40 million into the political system, while both refuse to endorse the legitimacy of the Venezuelan political system, routinely depicting Chavez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, as authoritarian autocrats despite the government regularly calling regular elections of a quality once hailed by the Carter Center as “the best in the world”. In this crusade, the US government and Venezuelan opposition have been regularly joined by the international business press, particularly the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times (the last of which infamously came out in favor of the Carmonazo, while also helping to circulate the fabricated ‘resignation letter’ of Chavez).

As socialists we must acknowledge Maduro has heightened some undesirable statist and authoritarian tendencies in Venezuela, but to hear this allegation from the United States, or to endorse the remedies proposed by the US, the conservative-dominated “Lima Group”, and its allies, is hypocrisy at the highest level. To demand new elections be held after the opposition boycotted them, as they regularly do, and insist on their illegitimacy despite, as Joe Emersberger observes, no less than four separate monitoring teams attesting to their validity, is equally absurd. Clearly, the real agenda of the United States lies in a fabricated constitutional argument hoping to install an IMF-backed candidate in office, gutting the Venezuelan state of its Chavez-era social programs and attempting to privatize the country’s crown jewel, its oil sector, which sits atop the largest reserves in the world. Such a policy would be disastrous for the Venezuelan people, which is precisely why, for the second time in a half generation, it is being attempted over the heads of the Venezuelan people.

While most countries are calling for dialogue between the government and the opposition, the United States has ramped up sanctions, throttled Venezuelan access to the global financial system, seized Venezuelan state assets, and delivered them to Juan Guaido so that, to quote the New York Times, he has the “tools to start running the country”. This came after a meeting between Pence and Guiado in which the former explicitly pledged support from the United States for the latter should he attempt a coup, a fact evidenced by the immediate recognition of Guaido as head of the government in a televised address given by US VP Mike Pence mere hours after Guiado’s stage ‘inauguration’.

Venezuela is a country rife with polarization, but contrary to the conventional narrative, this polarization is far more the product of opposition intransigence than Chavista radicalism. Even within the opposition, for example, Leopoldo Lopez and his protege, Juan Guaido, are regarded as loose cannons, the latter not even bothering to consult other mainstream political parties on his decision to announce a coup. In refusing to participate in the electoral process, the fragmented opposition in Venezuela has consistently demonstrated their unwillingness to recognize the importance and legitimacy of Chavez’s legacy of social democracy regularly affirmed by the electorate, often to their own (and Venezuela’s) detriment. But so long as this policy, predicated on US support, continues, there is little hope for a meaningful opposition in Venezuela.

As a NACLA report best described it:

There is still a large divide between the general population and the opposition. The opposition has focused almost exclusively on how to overthrow Maduro and dismantle what has been achieved. There is no consensus among them on what the alternative to Chavismo might be. The few policy proposals they have made include a rise of oil rent, liberalization, and seeking assistance from the IMF… In sum, the opposition has shown that they prioritize regime change and seek to reestablish the elite coalition that governed Venezuela during its pre-Chávez history, forcefully destabilizing the regime that excluded them from the state’s redistribution of wealth and power.


Despite the unfortunate effects this asymmetric polarization has had on Venezuelan politics, this intransigence cannot be blamed on Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

This unwillingness was so extreme that it even torpedoed the last round of reconciliation held between the Maduro government and the opposition, held in 2016 and mediated by both the Vatican and the former Prime Minister of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Crafted over two years of negotiations, the eventual resolution, entitled “Agreement on Democratic Coexistence” was left to wither on the signing table the day it was meant to be approved after the opposition delegation reportedly received a call from Colombia, the United States’ firmest ally in the region, stating simply, “don’t sign”. Such is the state of dialogue the opposition has advocated in Venezuela. So much for their support for the “democratic process.”

Indeed, if the United States was so concerned with the state of democracy in Latin America, it is unclear why exactly Venezuela would receive the attention it has these last few weeks, and not, say, its own client state of Honduras. After all, both countries have seen a mass-exodus of refugees, and many Hondurans have flashed across the American press as the primary contributors to the “caravans” which figure so prominently in Trump’s xenophobic language. Both countries also have badly destabilized economies— although Venezuela’s social problems under Chavez and Maduro have normally paled in comparison to Honduras’ extreme poverty— and mass drug violence. That said, there is one notable difference between the two countries’ election systems: namely, unlike Venezuela, Honduras’ political elites don’t even try to conceal their hatred of functioning democratic norms, having haphazardly abolished presidential term limits and blatantly resorting to fraud once the 2017 presidential results appeared in doubt. Also unlike Venezuela, the US-backed 2009 coup in Honduras was actually successful, helping to oust a popularly elected candidate, Manuel Zelaya, and replace him with a more ‘moderate’ successor unwilling to challenge the status quo. In 2017, as in 2010, the US then signed off on the election results anyways despite the widespread fraud and violent protests. In the face of examples like these virtually next door, US allegations of authoritarianism in Venezuela lack any credibility.

So what next? The answer is uncertain. Certainly, Trump and his administration will continue to try to deprive the Venezuelan people of their basic economic rights, hoping to strangle them into submission or revolt against Maduro. More worryingly still, recent developments also suggest that the US may begin to entertain arming the Venezuelan opposition since the military has refused to abandon the government voluntarily. With Elliot Abrams, the butcher of Nicaragua and El Salvador back in the 1980s at the helm of US relations, the outlook remains grave. As socialists and American citizens, it is vital that we continue to demand a peaceful, mediated settlement to the crisis we have produced in Venezuela.

For as Sîmon Bolîvar warned almost two centuries ago, the US state remains as “warlike, and capable of anything” as ever.

DSA (including DC Metro and NoVa and MoCo branches) has been reaching out to local members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and setting up congressional office visits to lobby for support of a "dear colleague" letter initiated by Reps. Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal citing the effect of sanctions on ordinary Venezuelans and urging mediation by neighbor nations like Mexico and Costa Rica, as well as the Vatican. Activists are also supporting bill 1004 to prohibit US military intervention, being introduced by Rep. David Cicilline.  Note that the MDC DSA Internationalism Working Group has set a meeting Saturday, Feb. 16 in Columbia Heights. [edit team]

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