Venezuela is fast-becoming the stage for an imperialist cage-match, and the ongoing crisis is in no small measure a consequence of the subordination of a sovereign people’s right to self-determination to the interests of global capital, writes Arjun Chandra.
Last Tuesday witnessed an attempted coup d’etat in Venezuela led by Leopoldo Lopez, the leader of the right-wing Voluntad Popular, and self-proclaimed “Interim President” Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly.
They were accompanied by a small contingent defectors from the armed forces that blocked a highway in Caracas, the nation’s capital, while at the same time uploading videos onto various social media platforms calling on the armed forces and their supporters to join the uprising and take to the streets. Their stated goal: to topple the Maduro government.
The putsch was ultimately unsuccessful, and the military appears to have sided with President Maduro. Despite some international pressure (notably from Russia), Guaidó remains resolute in his determination to overthrow the incumbent government. For its part, the United States government (in particular Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton) has continued in the time-honored tradition of sabre-rattling and flirting with the possibility of a full-scale military intervention. Some European nations (France and Germany among them) have also issued ultimatums to Venezuela, and their message is clear: issue a fresh call for elections, or face the consequences.
How legitimate is the Maduro government, i.e. does the Maduro government enjoy popular support, or do the Venezuelan people support a US-backed coup? What caused the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela? How should we understand the United States’ involvement in the Venezuelan affair? Is it possible to discuss the humanitarian crisis independently of the political and economic turmoil? In this article, we unpack some of these questions. Venezuela is fast-becoming the stage for an imperialist cage-match, and the ongoing crisis is in no small measure a consequence of the subordination of a sovereign people’s right to self-determination to the interests of global capital.
A Question of Legitimacy
In order to understand the crisis of legitimacy pitting Maduro against Guaidó, it is necessary to understand, briefly, their predecessor: Hugo Chávez.
The Rise of Chavismo
A former lieutenant-colonel in the Venezuelan Army, Chávez ran for President in 1998 on a platform that promised a new constitution, the nationalization of the country’s oil industry, and a massive redistribution of wealth. He followed through on the first of these promises, and in December 1999 the Constitución Bolivariana was adopted by a constitutional assembly that was constituted through a popular referendum. The Venezuelan people returned Chávez to power in the general elections of 2000, and he remained President of Venezuela until his death thirteen years later. His tenure was not without its disturbances and criticisms. Chávez did, however, enjoy considerable popular support until his death: in the recall referendum of 2004 and the general elections of 2006, which saw a voter turnouts of around 70%, close to 60% voted to keep the Chávez government in power.
The Bolivarian revolution that Chávez brought with him aimed to socialize the revenues generated from the Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), the state-owned oil and natural gas company. Efforts to expand access to education, housing, and healthcare led to significant improvements in the quality of life for many Venezuelans. The Venezuelan economy derived an overwhelming majority of its export income from the sale of oil products and remained undiversified throughout the Chávez presidency. A drop in international oil prices in 2014 (from over 100$ per barrel in 2014 to below 30$ per barrel in 2016) caused the Venezuelan economy to falter, forcing it to look to international credit markets for support, setting the stage for the current economic and political crisis.
After his victory in 2006, Chávez created the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV). Mike Gonzalez writes that the PSUV would be
… a mass socialist party, democratic in its structures and accountable to its membership. Nearly six million joined in a matter of weeks… [It eventually became] a highly centralized, top-down structure, in which the role of the grass roots was simply to acclaim and carry out decisions taken by the leadership… The massive state budget and the high oil revenues coming into the country up to 2012 while oil prices remained high produced a new bureaucracy, which claimed socialist credentials and used revolutionary rhetoric, while in reality enriching itself, embezzling state funds, and building a state apparatus to protect its own interests.
In short, over time the party lost touch with its base, a theme we will return to when we discuss the response of the working classes in Venezuela.
Maduro and Guaidó
This is where Nicolás Maduro comes in. A former bus driver and later trade union leader, Maduro had occupied influential posts before ascending to the presidency: President of the National Assembly (2005-2006), Minister of Foreign Affairs (2006-2012), and Vice President of Venezuela (2012-2013). In the elections that followed Chávez’s death, he won the presidential election with a wafer-thin margin, signaling a lack of confidence in his leadership. The National Assembly elections two years later witnessed the PSUV-led Gran Polo Patriótico Simón Bolívar (GPP) lose dramatically to the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), a big tent coalition united perhaps only in their opposition to the Maduro government.
Amid mounting protests, Maduro called for the creation of a new constituent assembly in 2017, the Asamblea Nacional Constituyente (ANC) that would rewrite Chávez’s Constitución Bolivariana. The MUD boycotted these elections, thereby conferring the GPP with a win-by-default. The ANC subsequently assumed parliamentary powers, upheld the presidency of Maduro and stripped the National Assembly of all powers. (We’ll return to this in a moment.)
This triggered a crisis in Venezuelan government, with two legislative bodies (the ANC and the National Assembly) jousting for legitimacy in the eyes of Venezuelans and the world at large. In 2018, fresh presidential elections were called for which opposition parties boycotted; Maduro was declared the winner despite many alleged irregularities, although some independent observers vouched for its legitimacy. In the ensuing chaos, Juan Guaidó declared himself the legitimate president of Venezuela, and has been recognized as such by over fifty sovereign nations. Media organizations often forget to inform their readers that while Guaidó is technically the President of the National Assembly, he was elected as such following a “coalition “pact” to rotate the National Assembly’s presidency” every year. It is not a directly elected post, nor does it reflect a popular mandate; indeed, Guaidó was virtually unknown in Venezuelan politics until earlier this year.
It is important to balance any inclination to treat the MUD-led opposition as legitimate or “good faith” contenders against the weight of history. This very same opposition was behind the attempted coup in 2002 and the willful sabotage of the PDVSA during the strike of 2002 that hurt the Venezuelan economy considerably. In 2018, the MUD-led National Assembly tried to pass a law opening the door for privatisation of the oil industry, and most recently, the Opposition refused to conclude negotiations in the Dominican Republic that were “aimed at breaking the political standoff between the opposition-controlled National Assembly and the leftist executive [the ANC], as well as bringing the two sides together to solve the country’s ongoing deep economic crisis.” This last point is significant: if there was indeed a mediated resolution to the crisis of legitimacy (i.e. National Assembly vs. ANC) that included the oft-demanded “free and fair elections,” why leave the negotiating table?
In fact, much of the international response has focused on the question of whose claim to the presidency to back: Maduro or Guaidó? This, we believe, is a distraction. The question we should concern ourselves with is how best to support Venezuela’s peasantry and working classes.
Class and Crises
Despite its progressive language on participatory democracy and human rights, the 1999 Chavista constitution gives significant protection to private property… In fact, between 1999 and 2011, the private sector’s share of economic activity actually increased from 65 to 71 percent. The critical oil sector is dominated by a state-owned company, but other important industries, like food imports and processing operations, pharmaceuticals and auto parts, are still controlled by the private sector… The crisis taking place in Venezuela [is] a crisis of the strategy of working within the confines of capitalism and making concessions to powerful sectors of the capitalist class, rather than confronting them.
One of the manifestations of this crisis has been the underreported rise in (health, education, electricity, and telecommunications) workers’ strikes and protests. To conclude from this and the ongoing political and economic crisis that the problem is simply Maduro and its solution involves his removal from office, however, is at best naïve and at worst foolish.
This is not to say that the Maduro government should be spared criticism, of course. Its actions following the constitutional crisis of 2017 raised eyebrows across the globe, and the fairness of the 2018 presidential elections have been called into question. Its conciliatory attitude to the interests of capital and Venezuela’s urban elite are essentially reformist in nature; they attempt to tame capitalism, to work within its contours. We have seen this strategy fail over and over again; all it has accomplished is to tarnish the reputation of the unfinished Bolivarian project. There are progressive voices in Venezuela, like those of the numerous and vilified colectivos or the El Maizal Commune, that must be amplified at times like these. They are agitating for a truly commune-based state that will be run by councils of workers, peasants, and neighborhoods. This is precisely what the urban elites and the capitalist class does not want. Jorge Martin writes that the opposition’s vision for the future
… is the one advocated by Guaidó in his “Plan País”, with the backing of the US. It involves privatizing state-owned companies, opening up the public sector to private capital, and above all “opening up” the oil industry… This would mean making the poor and workers pay the full price of the crisis… it certainly does not give any weight to “the voices of the popular classes”.
In order to get what they want, they have instead chosen to side with the imperialists.
Imperialists, Hands Off Venezuela!
A succinct demand is making its way across the globe, echoed by progressives everywhere: “Hands Off Venezuela!” In making this demand, students and working-class people all around the world are standing with the tens of thousands who have marched in support of chavismo and the Bolivarian revolution.
In Venezuela we see the deployment of a tactic from the old American imperial-interventionist playbook: coordinated and tactical provocations aimed at justifying an imperialist intervention. Indeed, Jacob F. Lee sees striking parallels between the Trump administration’s handling of the Venezuelan crisis to that of the Polk administration’s provocations before the Mexican-American War of 1846. The United States’ government is capitalizing on the economic and political instability that is currently plaguing Venezuela, and this aggression coincides with the rise of reactionary, right-wing governments across Latin America, notably in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia.
Oil and Economic Warfare
Why did the oil prices drop precipitously, sending the Venezuelan economy into a tailspin? Among other things, improvements in shale oil extraction technology (“fracking”) led to a plunging import requirement in the United States and a glut. In times of an oversupply, it has been common for OPEC countries to mutually agree upon production cuts. This did not happen in 2014 despite the protests from Venezuela, with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali al-Naimi arguing:
Is it reasonable for a highly efficient producer to reduce output, while the producer of poor efficiency continues to produce? That is crooked logic. If I reduce, what happens to my market share? The price will go up and the Russians, the Brazilians, US shale oil producers will take my share… We want to tell the world that high-efficiency producing countries are the ones that deserve market share. That is the operative principle in all capitalist countries…
To say this differently: the Venezuelan crisis was in part manufactured with full knowledge of its potential repercussions, and the logic that allowed it to happen was the same logic that drives capitalist accumulation.
Further, the allegations of “economic warfare” that are alleged by Maduro and his sympathizers are not entirely without merit: the Obama administration (via a bill that enjoyed bipartisan support!) unilaterally declared Venezuela a “national security threat” in 2014, and followed it up with targeted sanctions. These decisions led, among other things, to capital flight and a decrease in the volume of trade (it dropped by around 50% that year) and had a significant impact on the Venezuelan economy. The more recent economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in 2017-2019 were broader and more severe. For example, the 2017 sanctions prohibited the Venezuelan government from accruing debt from financial markets in the United States, thereby effectively prohibiting it from restructuring its existing debt. This adversely impacted oil production — it fell by a little over 30% in 2018! The drop in foreign exchange earned through the sale of oil made it difficult for the country to import medicine, food, etc. It is estimated that these sanctions resulted in the deaths of over 40,000 individuals. Is kneecapping another country’s economy in unadulterated self-interest now considered humanitarian?
“Humanitarian aid isn’t in self-interest,” our friends say. When Secretary of State Pompeo was asked if he was satisfied with the pace of the momentum behind Guaidó and his leadership, he answered
“It doesn’t take much for you to see what’s really going on there. The circle is tightening. The humanitarian crisis is increasing by the hour. I talked with our senior person on the ground there in Venezuela last night at 7:00 or 8:00 last night. You can see the increasing pain and suffering that the Venezuelan people are suffering from.”
The CEPR report we mentioned earlier noted Secretary Pompeo’s statement and had this to say about it:
This appears to refer to the impact of the sanctions, not something that has taken place over years of economic failure. Furthermore, it implies that the pain and suffering being inflicted upon the civilian population may not be collateral damage but actually part of the strategy to topple the government.
Finally, to those friends who would still argue that the goals of United States’ involvement in the Venezuelan crisis are humanitarian and not with the interest of furthering the reach of American capital, we need only quote National Security Advisor Bolton, who readily supplied a candid admission:
“We’re in conversation with major American companies now… I think we’re trying to get to the same end result here. … It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”
A clear, unambiguous statement of self-interest. Secretary Pompeo summarizes this sentiment crisply:
“This is in our region. We don’t want this to be a Cuban puppet state in Venezuela. So there are many American interests.”
Given all this, it is perhaps no surprise that the United States is so aggressively backing Guaidó: he has promised to roll back the wave of nationalizations that defined Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution.
It is instructive to pay attention to the United States’ choice of envoy: Elliot Abrams, a war criminal. Secretary of State Pompeo, speaking to reporters soon after Abrams’ appointment, said that he would be “a true asset to our mission to help the Venezuelan people fully restore democracy and prosperity to their country,” and that he was passionate about the “rights and liberties of all peoples.”
“Abrams was the key man in Reagan administration policy toward Central America, when that administration was abetting what a court recently ruled was a genocide in Guatemala, when the U.S. was backing the army of El Salvador in a series of death squad assassinations and massacres, and when the U.S. was invading Nicaragua with a Contra force that went after what one U.S. general described as “soft targets,” meaning civilians, things like cooperatives.
Abrams later came back during the George W. Bush administration, joined the National Security Council and was a key man in implementing the U.S. policy of backing Israeli attacks against Gaza, when the U.S. refused to accept the results of the Gaza elections, where Hamas defeated Fatah in a vote, and instead Abrams and company backed a war operation to overturn the results of the election, backing the forces of Mohammed Dahlan.
Some commentators have said, “Well, Abrams is not a Trump guy. He represents traditional, established U.S. foreign policy.” And that’s true. The problem is that that U.S. policy has been to abet genocide when the U.S. feels it’s necessary.“
People are Suffering, Let’s Talk Politics Later
There are many millions whose lives lie in the balance, and our friends, despite all this evidence, sometimes argue that to discuss politics during a humanitarian crisis is bad form. “Let us help them out, and then we will talk shop,” they say. We reply: “How many humanitarian crises do you know of that spring out thin air, and are unrelated to politics?”
The conflict in Venezuela is of a fundamentally political and economic character. The “help” they speak of may well be a Trojan horse, a pretext for military escalation. We stress that this is not an unfamiliar modus operandi. (Recall that shipments of aid from Russia and China have entered Venezuela without hiccups.) To offer humanitarian aid while simultaneously enforcing punishing trade sanctions is to at once exacerbate a problem that one is claiming to solve, and the Venezuelan people are wary of such skullduggery. They are speaking out to protect their right to self-determination and their commitment to the principles of chavismo. Marco Teruggi explains their defense of the latter:
“They are defending a process that today has been dealt blows but continues to be the only project that has offered the popular classes in Venezuela a different destiny to the one they had always been condemned to — one of poverty, unemployment, exclusion and marginalization… The people are not defending Maduro; they are defending the possibility of being able to continue improving not just their economic situation but their lives in general.”
To conclude, and since we have been arguing that it is the voice of the Venezuelan people we should be listening to, it is perhaps best to quote an anonymous Venezuelan:
“Any country can come and make suggestions, but no one can impose themselves on us like the US is trying to. That’s not the way it works here. That’s not the way to help.”
Cover Image courtesy: httpswww.flickr.comphotos135433887@N0246863915542
The author Arjun Chandra is a freelance journalist