This article first appeared in the MAPA Winter 2019 Newsletter.
Over the past month, the Trump administration has taken brazen steps to undermine and overthrow the elected government of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Trump officially recognized Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, as the legitimate president of the country and imposed crippling oil sanctions to further disrupt and destroy an already ailing Venezuelan economy. He continues to threaten military action, saying “All options are on the table.”
Guaidó, who belongs to a far-right, violent opposition party known as Popular Will, was largely unknown in the country a week before he spoke with US Vice President Mike Pence and then declared himself president the next day. Popular Will and some other opposition parties had refused to take part in the election. But for ten years, Guaidó had been trained and groomed by regime-change groups backed by the US.
Many US allies have followed suit and recognized Guaidó. Meanwhile, the mainstream corporate media have engaged in a relentless campaign to demonize President Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist, whom they portray as a ruthless dictator. While giving extensive coverage to anti-Maduro protests, they make almost no mention of the corresponding pro-government demonstrations in recent weeks.
The US push for regime change has been cloaked in the language of humanitarian intervention and the spread of democracy. But national security advisor John Bolton was surprisingly honest when he told Fox News: “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.” A post-coup Venezuelan economy almost certainly would result in the privatization of Venezuela’s assets.
It is true that the economic situation in Venezuela is dire. The country is experiencing hyper-inflation and people face long lines to purchase basic commodities. Many have been forced to flee the country. While Maduro’s government has made mistakes, the root of the current woes springs from the economic warfare being waged against this 21st century socialist country: falling global oil prices; hoarding of goods by the monied classes inside the country; and US sanctions, currency manipulation, and confiscation of Venezuelan assets. UN rapporteur Alfred de Zayas said the US sanctions are illegal and “crimes against humanity” under international law; they fall most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable and cause death through food and medicine shortages.
These are only the latest moves in the sustained economic war against Venezuela that goes back to the election of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in 1998. The US and international elites have been focused on Venezuela for 20 years because it has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and its people have dared to challenge foreign control of their resources and destiny.
In the decades leading up to 1998, Venezuela, despite its wealth in natural resources, was plagued by extreme inequality. While some reaped the benefits of the wealth generated by oil, the majority of the population was poor. Chávez won the passionate support of this majority, which was largely composed of Indigenous communities and Afro-Venezuelans, while the opposition to Chávez was primarily white and wealthy. The white supremacist mindset of the US elites enabled their disregard for international law as they went on the attack against Chávez and later Maduro.
During Chávez’s tenure from 1999 to 2013, Venezuela made major social and economic advances. Once in office, Chávez initiated a Constitutional referendum which established health care and education as guaranteed rights for all Venezuelans. The new constitution also advanced the social, cultural and political rights of women, Indigenous peoples, workers, and Afro-Venezuelans. The Chávez government went on to launch a vigorous campaign to combat poverty and social exclusion by redistributing the country’s tremendous oil wealth to benefit the majority of poor Venezuelans and not just the few elites.
This “Bolívarian Revolution” (named after 19th century South American Independence hero, Simón Bolívar) posed a strong challenge to the “Washington consensus” in Latin America, and began forging an alternative path that contrasted with the neoliberal order imposed on the continent for decades.
Through government programs known as “social missions,” the Chávez government eradicated illiteracy, built 6,000 health clinics and brought 20,000 Cuban doctors into the country to provide free health care for millions of poor Venezuelans. Poverty, economic inequality, malnutrition, and infant mortality were drastically reduced, cultural rights and communal land titles were restored to Indigenous communities, and thousands of units of public housing were built. Chávez went on to win multiple landslide victories in what were recognized as fair and transparent elections by international monitors.
Perhaps the greatest threat that both the Chávez and Maduro governments have posed to the Venezuelan elites and their US backers is their support for grassroots democracy and popular power among the poor through the establishment of “communal councils,” which are given direct decision-making power and federal money to support self-government. When the US government seeks to intervene on behalf of democracy it is actually an effort to suppress real democracy.
Here in the US, resistance is growing. Rallies were held at many cities across the country in late February, including one cosponsored by Mass. Peace Action in Boston, to protest US intervention in Venezuela.
US Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) has introduced a bill, H.R 1004, with 35 cosponsors, prohibiting unauthorized military action in Venezuela. Mass. Reps. Jim McGovern, Seth Moulton, and Ayanna Pressley have signed on.
US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a presidential candidate, tweeted on January 24: “The United States needs to stay out of Venezuela. Let the Venezuelan people determine their future. We don’t want other countries to choose our leaders — so we have to stop trying to choose theirs.”
—Andrew King and Richard Krushnic are members of the Venezuelan Solidarity Committee of Boston and Mass. Peace Action’s Latin America group. They have visited and worked in Venezuela and Nicaragua.