Volume 2, No. 5, May 2020
Editor: Rashed Rahman
In a by now familiar rerun of the kind of creeping coups used by the US-led west in recent years to wring regime change in countries where the government does not kow tow to Washington’s hegemony, the left wing government of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela is undergoing a state of siege by the US, some countries in Europe, and some right wing governments in Latin America, through this unholy alliance’s local agents backed by the Venezuelan elite. First, the historical backdrop. The US has long insulted sovereign countries in Latin America by characterising the continent as its ‘backyard’. European settler colonialism in what became the US, having gained its independence from Britain in 1776 after a war between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ colonialism, decimated its indigenous population in an open, violent and unmitigated land grab. Having consolidated and expanded the territories of the new state, the US set out the Monroe doctrine in 1823. US President James Monroe in his annual State of the Union Address that year declared Latin America ‘out of bounds’ for the European colonial powers. Actually the Monroe doctrine was intended to establish exclusive US hegemony over Latin America and block the return of European colonialism to the region, which, with the exception of the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico, had thrown off Spanish and Portuguese rule between 1808 and 1826 after three centuries of colonial rule. This long period of the rule of loot and plunder of Latin America’s resources and the virtual extermination of the indigenous peoples of the continent only became possible after definite economic, technical and social developments in Europe. The emergence of mercantile capitalism and the accompanying technical ability to circumnavigate the globe by sea in the 15th century had led to the conquest of the Americas by British, French, Spanish and Portuguese waves of settlers who set about massacring the indigenous populations and laying claim to their lands and resources. (This process of colonial expansion also brought the British, Dutch, Portuguese and French to the Indian subcontinent, with tragic results.)
The independence of the former European colonies of Latin America had parallels with the US’s independence. In all these cases, European colonial settlers threw off the yoke of their erstwhile homelands. Naturally, the states that emerged as a result of these developments were dominated by a settler elite of European origins, with the indigenous people, to the extent they survived, being relegated to slavery and a perpetual status of the marginalised hewers of wood and drawers of water. The US’s status as the dominant hegemon of the Americas grew from the 19th century onwards. By the turn of the 20th century, this hegemony was an established fact underlined by US territorial expansion at the expense of its southern neighbour Mexico, carving out new countries such as Panama out of Colombia to build the Panama Canal and boost trade between the eastern Atlantic seaboard and the western Pacific, and economic, political, cultural and military interventions in numerous Latin American countries to consolidate US dominance. This pattern persisted throughout the 20th century and in the current case of Venezuela, carries on in even the 21st. After WWII, this was the uninterrupted fate of Latin America as a whole. After a troubled 20th century history of repeated military coups, in the 1950s, the US was backing the military dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jiminez in Venezuela until he was overthrown by an alliance of revolutionary socialist, nationalist and social democratic parties combined with a military rebellion in 1958. The military junta that came into power as a result in 1958 presaged a continuing succession of military rebellions, coups and dictatorships until the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria – MIR) was established in 1960 with revolutionary Cuba providing military assistance to the MIR. In 1961, under President Romulo Betancourt, Venezuela severed diplomatic relations with Cuba on the grounds that the latter had been supporting communist rebellion in the country. The MIR’s armed struggle was punctuated by unrelated military rebellions on a regular basis. The turmoil continued while the Armed Forces of National Liberation (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional – FALN) began a rebellion against the Betancourt government in 1963. Cuba provided military assistance and training to the fighters of the FALN too. However, both armed struggle revolutionary movements eventually failed.
There then followed a long succession of elected presidents whose tenures were punctuated by military rebellions. On February 3-4, 1992, government troops suppressed a military rebellion led by Colonel Hugo Chavez of the Bolivian Revolutionary Movement-200 (MBR-200). Chavez was arrested and imprisoned until his release in 1994. The elections of 1998 propelled Chavez into power as the presidential candidate of the Patriotic Front (PF) coalition. Constituent Assembly elections followed in July 1999 and a new Constitution was approved by 71 percent of the electorate in a referendum in December 1999. Building on these successes, the Hugo Chavez-led Fifth Republic Movement (Movimiento Quinta Republica – MQR) won 91 of the 165 seats in the National Assembly (NA). President Chavez was re-elected with a 60 percent majority in 2000 and sworn in for a six-year term. On April 11, 2002, President Chavez was overthrown by a military coup believed to have been orchestrated by Washington, but amidst condemnations by the Organisation of American States (OAS) amongst others and the mass mobilisation of his supporters, he was restored to power on April 12, 2002. This was an unprecedented show of mass strength to reverse the traditional pattern of elected presidents and governments being overthrown by one military coup after another supported by Washington. Chavez responded to his near-miss and US hostility by nationalising US oil interests in Venezuela. The enemies of the Chavista revolution (basically the elite) that sought to use Venezuela’s oil wealth (the country has the largest proven oil reserves in the world) in the interests of the poor had not yet given up though. Their resort to political violence against Chavez supporters led into a presidential recall referendum on August 15, 2004, which was defeated by the votes of 58 percent of the electorate. President Chavez was re-elected in 2006 and 2012 with 63 percent and 55 percent of the vote respectively.
Throughout his term in office, despite his democratic credentials and successes, his opponents kept up the pressure through street violence. The failed coup/s against him persuaded the US to adopt a different strategy. This was to fight on the electoral terrain, heavily financed by US-controlled foundations and non-government organisations (NGOs). Despite their best efforts though, repeated electoral defeats produced a shift in US tactics to electoral boycotts and propaganda to delegitimise Hugo Chavez’s electoral successes. If anything, however, all these failed sabotage attempts only helped increase Chavez’s electoral support and fed into expanded state control over oil and other resources, besides radicalising his popular base. Hugo Chavez increasingly secured backing for his anti-imperialist policies among governments and political movements throughout Latin America. He increased his influence and ties throughout the Caribbean by providing subsidised oil to a number of countries, including Cuba.
Some of the factors that helped Hugo Chavez stave off US-led attempts to remove him from power included: (1) the commodity boom of 2003-11, which, despite US sanctions, provided Venezuela with the resources to finance domestic social programmes and neutralise local boycotts by elite allies of the US. (2) Venezuela benefitted from the neo-liberal model’s crisis of the 1990s to 2001, which led to the rise of centre-left, nationalist, popular governments throughout the region (e.g. Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador and Honduras). Centrist governments in Chile and Peru remained neutral. (3) Chavez as a former military officer secured and enjoyed the loyalty of the military.
On the other hand, the factors that have fed into the reversals suffered since include: (1) the end of the commodity boom weakened the economies of Venezuela’s regional centre-left allies and led to the rise of far-right, US-directed client regimes that heightened the coup activities of the US-backed opponents of Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro (Chavez died of cancer in 2013). (2) Both Chavez and Maduro, admittedly operating in a very adverse environment because of US sanctions and sabotage, failed to diversify the economy to wean it off reliance on one export commodity, oil. The virtual collapse of financial/distributive systems in the aftermath of the precipitate fall in international oil prices led to a decline in consumption (fuelled by hyperinflation that suggests printing too much money to compensate government coffers for declining oil revenues) and production. This allowed US imperialism to attract voters, middle, lower middle class consumers, employees, shopkeepers, professionals and businesses to its unrelenting campaign against the Maduro government.
The decline in oil revenues, elite mobilisation of its electoral base, systematic sabotage of production and distribution, all have had a multiplier effect. The corporate mass media and the electoral right wing have embraced the US-led far-right coup playing out before our eyes by manipulating democratic and human rights rhetoric. The US’s heightened sanctions aimed at starving the low income Chavez/Maduro supporters have also mobilised the US’s European and Latin American allies to demand Maduro’s surrender while at the same time planning a military intervention in case he and his supporters successfully resist.
Juan Guaido, the pretend-president, did not spring out of nowhere, as many commentators have surmised. His declaration of assuming the presidency on January 23, 2019 came after a phone call from US Vice President Mike Pence, further exposing the trail of the coup that leads to Washington. He is the product of a US project to train young agitators for protests that feed into regime change, as witnessed in the so-called ‘colour’ regime changes in Eastern Europe, the so-called but short-lived Arab Spring that ended with military dictatorships and authoritarian pro-US regimes replacing the incumbents as in Egypt, Libya, and (unsuccessfully thanks to Russian and Iranian support) in Syria.
Guaido and other young trainees benefitted from a US-organised insurrectionary programme run in Serbia and other Eastern European countries under the aegis of the Center for Applied Non-Violent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), funded largely through the National Endowment for Democracy, a CIA-backed outfit and the main arm of the US’s regime change project, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. The project weaponised protest as a form of hybrid warfare aimed at states that resist US domination. Guaido has based his claims to the presidency on the issue of legitimacy. He alleges Maduro’s re-election as President in 2018 was fraudulent. The background to this allegation is that after the opposition won a majority in the 2015 legislature elections and attempted to use the National Assembly (NA) as a tool to put pressure on and overthrow President Maduro, in 2017, after a ruling by the Venezuelan Supreme Court declaring the NA defunct, Maduro held elections to a fresh legislature where his supporters won and then stripped the former NA of its powers. Guaido has ‘creatively’ interpreted a clause of the Constitution to argue that since Maduro’s 2018 re-election was allegedly fraudulent, the presidency is technically vacant. So Guaido has declared himself president with the support of the defunct NA packed with opposition loyalists!
Whatever the faults, weaknesses and mistakes of the Maduro presidency in not tackling the creeping coup in the manner Chavez dealt with such attempts in his tenure, i.e. mobilising his mass base of support while keeping the military on his side, a conglomerate of western and Latin American governments led by the US has no locus standi to recognise the pretender Guaido as president. If the creeping coup succeeds in Venezuela, it will be the latest demonstration of the new tool of protest as subversion and regime change in countries defying US hegemony, and quite possibly further embolden the hybrid warriors in Washington to expand the programme wherever they think it is needed. If, however, like Syria, the Maduro regime stands firm and beats off this formidable challenge, it will set an example to other countries threatened by the US-led regime change juggernaut.