Venezuela: Democratic Uprising or US Coup?

Tens of thousands of angry people march in the streets to protest lack of democracy. Women bang on pots to raise alarm over the economic crisis brought on by a socialist president. The United States denounces the leftist government and promises to help bring democracy to the country.

Venezuela in 2019? No, it was Chile in 1973.

Chileans had elected a Marxist president, Salvador Allende, and the U.S. government was seeking to oust him. Allende’s platform rejected the anti-communist foreign policy of the United States and threatened the profits of US corporations. So, in a time-honored tactic of course, the Nixon Administration claimed Allende was an autocrat allied with the U.S.S.R.

With National Security Council head Henry Kissinger as point man, the United States squeezed Chile economically, sponsored trucker strikes, fomented opposition demonstrations, and ultimately supported the coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. The people of Chile would suffer under a brutal dictatorship for the next sixteen years.

Guaidó, until last month, was a virtual unknown. He had never run for national office, and was head of the National Assembly only as part of a rotation system among the opposition parties.

Perhaps the Trump Administration is hoping history will repeat itself, but so far Venezuelans aren’t going for it. Elected President Nicolas Maduro, while politically weakened by recent US maneuvering, still retains a measure of popular support. Unlike the Chilean army, much of the Venezuelan military remains loyal to the government.

As I reported from Caracas two years ago, Maduro survived violent attacks by upper-class opposition leaders on his government. His supporters hope he will do so again, despite massive economic chaos promoted by the United States.

In January the Trump Administration intensified a brutal economic and political campaign to overthrow Maduro. It blocked the state owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, known as PDVSA, from receiving payment for oil shipments to the United States. The administration also orchestrated denunciations of Maduro by US allies in Latin America and Europe.

Venezuela depends on oil exports to earn hard currency. The Wall Street Journal reported that oil production has dropped 10 percent since December. That means the government will have a harder time importing essential goods, like pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and food.

While the US has sanctioned PDVSA, it has also granted waivers allowing Chevron Corporation and two US oil service providers, Halliburton and Schlumberger, to continue operating and making profits in Venezuela. Hmmmm. The US promotion of democracy in Latin America seems, once again, to be attached to corporate interests.

“The Trump Administration is trying to asphyxiate Venezuela,” Carolina Morales, a Venezuelan immigrant rights activist living in San Francisco, told me. “The US claims it favors humanitarian aid to Venezuela, but the best aid is a functioning economy. The sanctions hurt ordinary people.”

Trump and the Venezuelan opposition claim that Maduro orchestrated fraudulent presidential elections in May 2018 and has become an autocrat. The Venezuelan constitution provides that if the presidency is “abandoned,” the president of the National Assembly can assume that office. On January 23, National Assembly head Juan Guaidó swore himself in as president, claiming that Maduro had abandoned his office by conducting fraudulent elections.

However, the major opposition parties had boycotted the 2018 elections because they were badly divided. They made no claims that Maduro had “abandoned” the presidency. The argument—a thin legal thread created to justify a coup—arose months later.

Guaidó, until last month, was a virtual unknown. He had never run for national office, and was head of the National Assembly only as part of a rotation system among the opposition parties. Guaidó’s party, Popular Will, is self-described as a social democratic party. The United States will certainly pressure Popular Will to adopt neo-liberal economic policies such as tax benefits for the rich, taking on onerous loans from international banks and privatizing state owned companies, particularly PDVSA.

Venezuelans have been down that path before. Neoliberal economic policies caused a massive economic crisis in the 1990s, leading to the election of Hugo Chávez, according to Luis Salas, a former minister of economy under Maduro. I interviewed him during my last trip to Caracas.

“That era only produced increased poverty and high inflation,” Salas told me.

Venezuelans will likely be worse off under opposition rule than under Maduro, as admitted by Fernando Cutz, a former White House official who worked on Venezuela policy.

“Things probably will get worse for the people of Venezuela before they get better when you actually start doing things for the greater good,” Cutz told The New York Times.

Surely, the opposition owes much of its support to the country’s deteriorating economy. Inflation hit a staggering 80,000 percent last year and is expected to go even higher in 2019.

That means workers’ wages are almost worthless. “It’s difficult to get enough money to buy food,” admitted immigration activist Morales.

Stringent US sanctions and fluctuating oil prices have impacted the Venezuelan economy. But the government also made serious errors, according to Rodulfo Perez, a former minister of education in Maduro’s cabinet.

“We should have invested our oil money in the domestic economy,” Perez told me during my last trip. “Such a policy would have strengthened the bolívar fuerte [Venezuelan currency] and reduced the need for imports.”

Trump’s Latin American policy is now spearheaded by John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, and a group of neocons determined to reassert US control of Venezuela’s oil.

Trump’s Latin American policy is now spearheaded by John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, and a group of neocons determined to reassert US control of Venezuela’s oil. And, as Bolton has admitted, “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

From a geopolitical standpoint, the neocons see overthrowing the government in Venezuela as a first step towards doing the same in Cuba and Nicaragua.

A US coup is by no means a done deal. “I am optimistic and hoping the government will survive,” said activist Morales. She then added, “I’m also worried. The US could send troops to Venezuela, which would provoke a civil war. There could be thousands of deaths in the streets. That’s why I’m speaking up against this coup.”

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears regularly in The Progressive. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy – is now available. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

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