The wave of the so called ‘pink’ tide that washed the shores of Latin America in response to the post-1970s neoliberal straitjacket of privatisation, low tariffs, reduced social spending, weakened labour laws and increased social inequality, has receded. Following the uprising in Venezuela in 1989, left-leaning governments were elected in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile, and El Salvador. But now, in Brazil, Dilma was deposed and Lula jailed with neofascist Bolsonaro crowned, in Ecuador Correa’s successor Lenin Moreno has reversed policies, in Argentina, Cristina Kercher’s replacement Macri is beholden to the IMF for his survival, Chile after Pinochet is in the hands of businessman Sebastian Pinera after two staggered terms of Michelle Bachelet. Only Evo Morales and Maduro remain. In Nicaragua Ortega faced a street movement to remove him but has so far survived. In Cuba the Castro era has ended with the leadership of a new generations facing immense pressures from the United States after 60 years of blockade.
It is inconceivable that the US, with its dense military, surveillance and political networks, with deep financial pockets, has been a passive agent in this shift towards the right in a region which it has long regarded as its backyard. It has a reputation to seek to restore its power even after a severe defeat such as in Vietnam. It has been firmly ensconced in Colombia both economically and militarily for decades where the right wing has consolidated under Duque. It condoned the removal of President Manuel Zelaya 2009 by American-trained generals and the subsequent murders of thousands of indigenous activists, peasant leaders, trade unionists, journalists, environmentalists, judges, opposition political candidates, and human rights activists. The removal of the left wing President Lugo through impeachment by the Paraguay’s Senate had the implicit support of the US.
In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez came to power in the wake of the great uprising by the poor in 1989, the Caracazo against the IMF-brokered austerity that was suppressed by the military killing more than a thousand people. Chavez, a career military officer led a revolt against corruption in 1992, only to be jailed, but this catapulted him to hero status. Release in 1994, he won the presidential vote 1998 by a landslide. The triumph of Chavez promised hope for improvement to the poorer classes with his embrace of Bolivarianismo, after Simon Bolivar, the iconic leader of the war of independence from Spain in the early 19th century who promoted social reform and unity in Latin America. For the first five years in power, Chavez was forced to fight rearguard action from the reaction of the elite and the oligarchy supported by the US. In 2002, he luckily survived a coup attempt by the military who abducted him and only mass action from thousands of his supporters enabled him to return to power in two days. This was followed by a war of attrition with attempts to shut oil production down and a recall referendum. He survived numerous assassination plots to triumph and achieved great success electorally.
At the height of his power from 2005 to his final election in 2012, the social gains as a whole were spectacular: greater employment, more and better housing, better nutrition, better medical care, higher life expectancy and increased literacy through better education. Over the whole 14 year period of his rule to his death from cancer in 2013, Chavez never deviated from improving the lot of the poor through a redistribution policy using part of the proceeds of the oil revenue.
Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor, on taking power in his first term in 2014 was to see the collapse of oil prices. In 2014 Venezuelan oil was still US$88 a barrel. In 2015 it halved to $44. In January 2016 it had reached its lowest level for over 10 years, at $24. Additionally there was pressure from the US when Obama declared Venezuela a ‘national security threat’ and imposed sanctions in 2015, later to be intensified by Trump, precipitating a severe economic crisis.
Over the last five years, Venezuela’s per capita income shrank by 40 percent, a decline that parallels war=torn countries such as Iraq and Syria. Whereas, it earned $100bn in oil revenues in 2012, by 2017 this fell to $32bn, a decline of about two thirds. Part of this could be explained by the collapse of the oil prices in January 2016, the lack of investment in oil production because of cash shortages, but the drastic fall in production can be attributed to the US financial sanctions imposed in August 2017 barring US persons from providing any financing to the Venezuelan government or the oil company PDVSA.
At the security council meeting on Saurdayt 26 January, Ms. DiCarlo, the UN Under Secretary-General of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, described the situation in Venezuela as “dire”, and as having both an economic and political dimension. “The population is affected in a systemic way, nearly all 30 million Venezuelans are affected by hyperinflation and a collapse of real salaries; shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies; deterioration of health and education services; deterioration of basic infrastructure such as water, electricity, transport and urban services,” she told the Council. Whilst there were calls for a political solution, at no stage were the sanctions that have strangulated Venezuela mentioned.
In August 2018 Alfred de Zayas, the first UN rapporteur to visit Venezuela for 21 years, criticised the US for engaging in “economic warfare” against Venezuela which he said is hurting the economy and killing Venezuelans. According to him the US sanctions on the country are illegal and could amount to “crimes against humanity” under international law. Economic measures taken by the Maduro government have not been effective and have led to a black market and corruption. Facing such a serious crisis, the government has become more authoritarian.
The financial strangulation over three years prepared the ground for toppling Maduro who faced an intractable war of attrition with the opposition from 2014 onwards, with violence including three assassination attempts. When the opposition won the National Assembly elections in March 2016, it challenged the executive power of the president through legislative means. This confrontation led to the Venezuelan Supreme Court repeatedly annulling laws made by the National Assembly. Attempts were then made to shorten the presidential term and to initiate a recall of referendum. The Maduro government called a referendum to elect a constituent assembly which the opposition boycotted. The Presidential election of May 2018, boycotted by the main opposition. saw Maduro win the election with 68 percent of the vote on a low turnout of 46 per cent against some minor opposition figures. The domestic opposition, United States and Lima Group of mostly right-leaning Latin American governments say they do not recognise the results even though US President Jimmy Carter declared that Venezuela’s electoral system is the best in the world.
This was the juncture when a cascade of well-coordinated actions were launched by the US government and the opposition, tightening the noose around Venezuela by imposing sanctions on its oil companies and withholding its gold reserves in the UK. John Bolton targeted Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua as a troika of tyranny that need to be dismantled in the name of freedom and democracy. This was followed by Juan Guaidó, the President of the National Assembly, declaring himself the President on 23 January whereupon he was immediately recognised so by Trump, the US’s allies in Latin America, the UK and European powers. Vice President Pence incited the Venezuelan population to go out in the streets against Maduro. As expected an intense public relations campaign in the media followed with a selective narrative and images in support Juan Guaidó as someone that 80% of Venezuelans had never heard of until last week. Research into Guaido’s background reveals he is the product of more than a decade of assiduous grooming by the US government’s agencies as part of a cadre of right-wing student activists set up to undermine Venezuela’s socialist government, to destabilise the country and one day seize power. He participated in violence organised by the Popular Will Party which led to the arrest and exile of its leaders.
The US has embarked on a strategy of setting up a parallel government in Venezuela in order to bring about a counter revolution. European countries became accomplices in this by issuing a ten day ultimatum for Maduro to call elections with the threat of recognising Guaidó as interim president. As expected, this has been rejected. Now an economic crisis has been compounded by a political crisis. The outcome of this is difficult to foresee. There could be widespread civil unrest with violence and even a civil war. Intervention by the Venezuelan military could be decisive. Mercenary proxy forces funded by the CIA could enter the country from Colombia and Brazil. There is a possibility of a US invasion on humanitarian grounds. Guaido has rejected negotiation with Maduro. Several countries have offered mediation. This could be a way forward to resolve the political crisis. The US is showing little interest in such mediation. International security requires patient diplomacy and conflict resolution. For this to happen, we need to set in place internationally a system of checks and balances where no country is able to act in extreme ways.
It has been argued that all this is about the US wanting to grab hold of Venezuela’s immense oil reserves. Whilst this is only partly true, there are elements of geopolitical competition when Venezuela, because of US sanctions, turned to Russia and China for investment. Both these countries have made significant investment in Venezuela. Above all, the US seeks to erase the legacy of Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution which not only asserted national sovereignty but sought to counter the neoliberal order and create alternative institutions for Latin American unity.
It is risible that many media outlets including those who claim to be liberal have claimed that this is about democracy. Historical experience attests that the US foreign policy has blocked democracy across the world by supporting dictatorships, invasions, counterinsurgencies, proxy wars, assassinations and regime change, amongst many other nefarious strategies. In Latin America the memories of the overthrow of President Árbenz of Guatemala in 1954, the overthrow of President Allende in Chile(1973), the support for military dictatorships across Latin America and the ‘dirty wars’ in Central America, are still fresh. The US has inflicted immense pain on the people of Latin America and blocked the development of democracies in all the countries continually.
The appointment of Elliot Abrams as a special envoy to Venezuela bodes ill for the country. Elliot was the architect of the “dirty war” in Central America where death squads murdered at least 250,000 people in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The victims were overwhelmingly unarmed and poor civilians as well as teachers, doctors, peasants, workers, students, women, nuns and priests, including bishops such as El Salvador’s martyr Oscar Romero.
It is best to see Venezuela in the wider context of a US-led imperialist system which has, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, asserted monopolistic power over world security. This freer play has enabled Trump to usher in an era of bullying in international relations, where Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, and John Bolton, the National Security Adviser, issue threats to vulnerable countries. They represent the ugly face of imperialism. With the blocking of Venezuelan crude oil to refineries in the US, they are throttling Venezuela to make it submit to their yoke. This is unforgivable because the suffering of the Venezuelan people will be horrifying.
The mass of Venezuelan people, the bottom 99 percent, face extreme danger. Any takeover of the country by a proxy of US will lead to the privatisation of the resources of the country, their looting, the dismantling of the social security, housing and education provision. The mobilisation of the mass of Venezuelan people will be critical. Although exhausted by the economic warfare they are by no means subservient, because of their historic experience of Chavez’s revolution, in spite of the distortions it has undergone over time because of internal and external threats.
The US intervention in the name of democracy must be opposed and resisted without reservations. We need to counter the propaganda blitz in the mass media which support intervention with a counter-narrative that is grounded in history to show how imperial interests have destroyed societies across the world. We need to defend the rights of the Venezuelan people to sovereignty and self-determination. We must oppose all sanctions that are starving Venezuelan people. This is the time to speak out critically and boldly in public to oppose our government’s support for intervention in Venezuela. To express your solidarity and oppose US intervention, you can join the Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign and Stop the War Coalition.