Commentary  Hands Off Venezuela

On Western Imperialism in the Venezuelan Coup

On January 23, Juan Guaidó, President of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself the interim president of Venezuela. This coup came in the wake of the inauguration of President Nicolás Maduro, who was elected for a second term in May of 2018. Guaidó’s claim to presidency was immediately backed by nearly all major Western powers, and their allies in Latin America, such as the United States, Canada, Colombia, Honduras, and Brazil. Less than a week later, under the pretense of democratic concerns, and after being lobbied by the US and Canada, most European countries came to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s president. Their justification was based on Maduro’s refusal to call new elections, a demand that all of these democratically elected leaders would have rejected as well.

On January 10, the National Assembly decided that incumbent President Maduro’s election was invalid, and began to orchestrate a “constitutional coup,” in order to remove him. Guaidó’s coup attempt has been framed in the Western media as a legitimate democratic opposition to Maduro’s supposed dictatorship. Guaidó’s self-proclamation as president, while Maduro is still in power, is unconstitutional. Under Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, one is allowed to replace the president in the case of an “absolute power vacuum,” which occurs in a list of clear circumstances. In this case, since Maduro is still alive and performing his duties, and has not been impeached nor declared incapacitated by the Supreme Court, Guaidó’s declaration of leadership rests on the false claim that Maduro has abandoned his duty. Further, even in the case of Maduro abandoning his duties, according to the constitution, Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez should have been sworn in. There is no scenario in which Guaidó can not only take over power, but also install himself as the president for several months. The National Assembly passed a law on February 5 regarding the terms of the democratic transition. Article 26 of this new law extends the maximum period to call new elections from 30 days to 12 months, essentially allowing Guaidó to conserve power for a full year without any democratic process. The passing of this law by the National Assembly, benefitting Guaidó after his coup attempt, is blatant legislative overreach. This does not differ from past “constitutional” coup attempts in Latin America.

Under the pretense of democratic concerns, and after being lobbied by the US and Canada, most European countries came to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s president.

The influence of Western propaganda on the coverage of Maduro’s presidency produces a single narrative of the 2018 presidential elections as fraudulent, legitimizing Guaidó’s claim to presidency. While most reports stress that the Supreme Court banned the opposition party in 2018, few discuss the political opportunism of the opposition’s boycott of the elections, which is now benefitting Guaidó. As a result of the boycott, voter turnout in wealthy neighbourhoods was lower than that of poorer neighbourhoods. Naomi Schiller, an Assistant Professor at the City University of New York who specializes in Latin American politics, explains that the boycott was likely a ploy by the opposition party to delegitimize the election of Maduro, which is exactly what we see happening today. According to Daniel Kovalik, US law professor and an observer of the election, the level of transparency of the election surpassed those in Western countries. The West’s refusal to hold Venezuelan democracy to the same low standards they accept for themselves testifies to their hypocrisy. It is clear Western governments value the political and partisan outcomes of elections in Venezuela over the actual legitimacy of democratic processes.

Guaidó’s Political Project

Unlike the image of a popular leader spread by the Western media, Guaidó was in fact largely unknown by the Venezuelan population until his coup attempt in January. He was inaugurated as president of the National Assembly on January 5 of this year, only 18 days before declaring himself president of Venezuela. Guaidó’s support comes mainly from right-wing and far-right upper-class leaders, such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Theresa May, and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who owes his power to another American-backed coup. This coup has been supported, funded, and orchestrated by pro-capitalist, imperialist states. Their approval is directly linked to Guaidó’s right-wing economic and political positions.

Guaidó’s domestic policies include another “transition law,” which specifies a proposal to privatize companies which are currently nationalized under the Maduro government. He also hopes to implement free-market economic policies. Both of these will lead to massive layoffs, and increased unemployment for Venezuelans. In terms of foreign policy, Guaidó has already made it clear that he would turn Venezuela into a pro-US government. The US has been pursuing this outcome ever since the start of the Bolivarian Revolution by Hugo Chávez in 1999.

There is no [constitutional] scenario in which Guaidó can not only take over power, but also install himself as the president for several months.

Guaidó also stated on February 12 that he’s planning on renewing diplomatic ties with Israel, which has also recognized him as interim president. Since 2006, Venezuela has been openly critical of Israel; while still in office, Chávez called Israel “the assassin arm of the United States.” Diplomatic relations were officially established between Venezuela and Palestine in 2009. After Chávez’s death, the Venezuelan government continued its support of Palestine, a position that is now being threatened by Guaidó’s effort to solicit international support.

Western Economic Interests

This coup would not have been successful if not for the obstructive and imperialist political intervention of Western powers. Top Canadian and American officials such as Trump, Rubio, Special Envoy to Venezuela Abrams, Pence, and Freeland collaborated with the Venezuelan opposition prior to January 23, in order to ensure Guaidó’s success. While they have claimed that their support for Guaidó was motivated by a will to resolve the “humanitarian crisis” in Venezuela, the brutal economic sanctions imposed by these same countries on Venezuela suggest otherwise. The brunt of economic sanctions is always carried by the middle and working classes of Venezuela, and directly contributes to its current economic crisis.

As per usual, the real reason for the West’s support of the coup rests on the economic assets of the region. Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserve, exceeding US partner Saudi Arabia, and the West wants access. US National Security Advisor John Bolton publicly admitted that the coup is “good for business” and stated that it would “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.” The idea that Western governments are supporting Guaidó to “restore democracy” is shameless propaganda. If Canada and the US are so concerned with democracy, where is their condemnation of authoritarian regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia and Honduras? Further, if their goal was to remediate the “economic and humanitarian crisis” plaguing Venezuela, why do they continue to paralyze the Venezuelan economy with sanctions?

The West’s hypocrisy has no limit: after imposing sanctions, countries such as the US and Canada then rushed to offer humanitarian aid, supposedly to help the Venezuelan population.

On January 28, a week after the coup, the US declared that it was imposing further sanctions on the Venezuelan state-owned oil enterprise, PDVSA. The Venezuelan economy relies on oil exports for over 95 per cent of its revenue. These sanctions are estimated to result in a loss of over $11 billion in 2019 alone, and the immediate freezing of over $7 billion in assets. This is a clear attempt at asphyxiating the Venezuelan economy in order to force Maduro to step down. These measures directly affect the Venezuelan civilian population, and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis. Cutting the government’s primary revenue prevents it from importing basic necessities such as food and medicine into the country. Unsurprisingly, Guaidó’s opposition party backed these sanctions, despite their dire repercussions on the Venezuelan people.

The US has been imposing sanctions on Maduro’s government since he was first elected in 2013, and this has had catastrophic effects on the population. Sanctions allegedly costed Venezuela over $20 billion in 2018 alone. While investigating Venezuela, UN expert Alfred-Maurice de Zayas found that international sanctions by the US and Canada are a primary cause of the country’s current economic turmoil. In his report, he notes that these sanctions violate international laws and amount to crimes against humanity.

Political and Military Pressure

The West’s hypocrisy has no limit: after imposing sanctions, countries such as the US and Canada then rushed to offer humanitarian aid, supposedly to help the Venezuelan population. However, the US has admitted that aid is a political tool aimed at destabilizing the government. The West could have chosen to negotiate with the Maduro administration, as initiated by Mexico, Uruguay, and CARICOM (the Caribbean Community). Instead, they sent a minimal amount of resources to frame themselves as “saving” Venezuela, and frame Maduro as culpable for the economic crisis. This politicization of humanitarian assistance has been condemned by the UN, especially in the context of Trump threatening military action, and Guaidó announcing he was “not ruling out” supporting this imperialist intervention.

The Lima Group is not an established international body, but, as explained by analyst Nino Pagliccia, an “ad hoc group of governments with no other purpose than to promote the overthrowing of the legitimate Maduro government.”

Another tool of political pressure has been the Lima Group. Formed in August 2017, it is composed of 12 out of the 33 Organization of American States (OAS) members, including Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Honduras. Both the US and the European Union have positioned themselves as supporters of the group. Its main goal is to “resolve the crisis in Venezuela,” which is apparently synonymous with interfering with the Venezuelan democratic process. Canada has assumed leadership of the group, and according to official sources, Foreign Affairs Minister Freeland talked with Guaidó merely two weeks before the coup, congratulating him on “unifying the opposition.” These talks have been framed by the media as “quiet diplomacy,” rather than a concerning exchange between Canada and Guaidó, days before the coup. Further, the speed at which the Lima Group threw their support behind Guaidó, and its creation a year and a half prior to the coup in the midst of the Venezuelan constitutional crisis, suggests that it was first and foremost created as an anti-Maduro alliance. The Lima Group is not an established international body, but, as explained by analyst Nino Pagliccia, an “ad hoc group of governments with no other purpose than to promote the overthrowing of the legitimate Maduro government.” They have served to destabilize the legitimate Venezuelan government through statements of condemnation and calls for elections, which have been rejected by some of its own members, including Mexico.

Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution

Guaidó’s illegitimate claim to presidency on January 23 continues a trend by the Venezuelan opposition of co-opting significant left-wing revolutionary moments. January 23, 2019 marked the 61st anniversary of the 1958 Venezuelan coup, where dictator Marcos Jiménez was overthrown. This radical movement was largely student-led, spearheaded by Black, Indigenous, and poor activists, as well as feminist movements. The historic event continues to be honoured today in Venezuela by national left-wing mobilization. By planning their right-wing political moves during categorically left-wing anniversaries, Guaidó, and the light-skinned, elitist, wealthy opposition party of Venezuela have in recent years framed themselves as the “democratic” revolutionary movement.

This coup is a direct attack on everything that Venezuela has worked towards since the Bolivarian Revolution, a rebellion against an elitist government and global capitalism. On February 27, 1989, began what is now known as Caracazo, arguably the beginning of the pushback against neoliberalism in Venezuela. This mass riot in Caracas by the poorest of the Venezuelan population led to a chain reaction throughout the country over the next decade, including the rise in popularity of Hugo Chávez.

Guaidó’s illegitimate claim to presidency on January 23 continues a trend by the Venezuelan opposition of co-opting significant left-wing revolutionary moments.

Chávez emerged as a figurehead of the Bolivarian Revolution. He was propelled into the public eye by grassroots leftist workers, leading to his election in 1998. In 1999, Venezuela radically rewrote the constitution under Chávez. The people of the country decided on the constitution change by popular referenda, which transformed the economic and political landscape of the country. For the first time, it gave identity and recognition to the Black and Indigenous populations of Venezuela, and took major strides in gender inclusivity and women’s rights. This period also saw a dramatic reduction in poverty and increases in social welfare for the poor, in terms of goods, income, and education. The latter almost eliminated illiteracy in the country. Venezuela transformed from one of the most inequitable countries in Latin America to one of the most equal.

Capitalist Hegemony

The West, watching this socialist ideology spread throughout Latin America during the “pink tide,” has had a vested interest in ensuring its failure. As the figurehead of global capitalism in the post-Cold War era, the US has continuously attempted to undermine the Bolivarian project, and this coup is just the most recent attempt. In 2002, before Chávez’s full turn towards socialism, a similar coup was staged. Another right-wing, elitist opposition saw Chávez as an illegitimate president, in part due to his skin colour and status as an Afro-Indigenous person. Their attempted coup lasted only 47 hours – overwhelming popular support for Chávez and mass resistance in the streets by radical grassroots movements led the coup to be reversed almost immediately. Even then, the US was funding the coup that subsequently failed. It was after this that Chávez realized that a more socialist ideology was necessary, including direct democracy, the vast decentralization of power, and transforming production.

As the figurehead of global capitalism, the US has continuously attempted to undermine the Bolivarian project, and this coup is just the most recent attempt.

As author and activist George Ciccariello-Maher articulates, “the situation that prevails [in Venezuela] is not the result of too much socialism, but too little.” Venezuela has been punished by the West for not adhering to the norms of global capitalism since the Bolivarian Revolution. Any country that attempts to deviate from this oppressive standard has historically been an enemy of the West, and this is no exception. By destabilizing the Venezuelan economy, the West is ensuring that the Venezuelan people lose faith in the Bolivarian Revolution and turn to capitalism instead. The interest in the regime change clearly stems from a desire to crush the independence movement which began in 1999 in Venezuela and spread throughout Latin America. Contemporary foreign intervention is strikingly reminiscent of US intervention in the continent throughout the twentieth century. It is solely for personal gain under capitalism that the US and Canada continue to impose sanctions, while also providing strategic political aid to maintain appearances.

#HandsOffVenezuela

Venezuelan activists have called on the international left to help block the coup, but most news sources have chosen instead to side with Western imperialist countries such as the US and Canada. Regardless of one’s opinions of Maduro, the fact remains that he was re-elected by the Venezuelan people in a voting system which was, until recently, praised as being among the best in the world, and thus should be supported by nations that label themselves as democratic, such as the US and Canada. To stand in solidarity with the Venezuelan people is to stand in solidarity with the leader they have chosen, not with one who has asserted himself against their will. Neither Canada, nor the US, nor any other country, has the right to decide what Venezuela’s future ought to be, especially not if that future is an illegal right-wing coup. Support for the Maduro government is widespread in Venezuela, and even more widespread is a desire for America to stop intervening. Not only do Venezuelans have a right to self-determination, but the effects of America’s decades of American imperialism have had consistently negative outcomes. Why would this case be the exception?