How do you understand the motives of the Venezuelan opposition, and of their support from the US?
The Venezuelan opposition is led by an elite, super-rich class that ruled the country for decades, and accumulated much of their wealth through corrupt business practices and siphoning oil industry profits, leaving a majority of the country in poverty and the country’s infrastructure in tatters. When Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998, a four-decade rule of the elite, represented by two main political parties, was ruptured. Had Chavez bowed to powerful U.S. interests and the country’s business elite, the opposition would be very different today, but he didn’t. Chavez led a profound transformation of Venezuela’s core establishment, restructuring the oil industry, which had been nationalized in 1976 but was functioning like a private corporation, making the rich richer and the poor poorer. He redistributed the wealth, created widespread, effective social programs and advanced the economy and investment in infrastructure and domestic production. His policies reduced poverty by over fifty percent, rebuilt much of the interior of the country, placed Venezuela on the map internationally, diversifying Venezuela’s foreign trade partners, and he created a new, flourishing middle class. But all this was done by shutting out much of the traditional ruling class that had governed in line with U.S. interests. Chavez also took nationalizations further, in order to guarantee essential strategic and natural resources were in the hands of the state and not those who could abuse them or use them as a threat. He forged relations with governments adversarial to the U.S. and he inspired the continent-wide shift to the left, and led the formation of regional entities, like ALBA, UNASUR and CELAC, that exclude the United States. When Chavez’s policies on the international stage first affected oil prices, in 2001 when Venezuela assumed the presidency of OPEC, a coup d’état was planned against him, backed by Washington and executed by the former elite in the country. When that later failed and Chavez took his policies further towards socialism, the opposition radicalized and became entrenched in an unrealistic desire to take power back and destroy everything that had changed in the country since Chavez’ first election. The opposition, along with U.S. policymakers, consistently underestimated the importance of the social, political and economic changes that had taken place in the country through the Bolivarian Revolution. They always treated it as populism, and failed to understand the fundamental role millions of Venezuelans had played in the changes. This was their revolution, their homeland, built by them, and they were not going to let it be destroyed by the same groups that had marginalized and excluded them before.
In essence, the motives of the opposition in Venezuela today, along with Washington, are the same. They still want to control Venezuela’s massive oil resources for their own gain, they still want to destroy the Bolivarian project and any sign of socialism and social justice, and they want to privatize as much industry and resource in the country as possible, for their own benefit. The leadership of the opposition in Venezuela views the government of Nicolas Maduro and that before him of Hugo Chavez, as illegitimate. Despite democratic elections (some of the most transparent and fraud-proof in the world since 2004, when Venezuela implemented a new electoral system), and checks and balances, the opposition refuses to recognize the government’s authority. Their actions continue to exceed constitutional bounds, and they believe they are justified. To this opposition, and its Washington backers, anything they can do to get Maduro out of power and destroy the Bolivarian Revolution is on the table. The end game and the big motive is oil and power. Control Venezuela, and they can control Latin America. As Henry Kissinger once said, if Washington can’t control Latin America, how can they control the world?
This is not the first coup attempt in Venezuela. What are the similarities and differences, particularly in methods from the past? What do you anticipate in the future?
One of the most consistent components of the ongoing destabilization in Venezuela has been, and continues to be, multi-million dollar funding of anti-government NGOs and political parties from U.S. agencies such as USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). During the April 2002 coup against Chavez, the NED played a key role in funding all of the “civil society” groups involved: the political parties, the NGOs, the corrupted workers federation, the chamber of commerce, and even private media outlets. Subsequent to that coup’s failure, USAID came on the scene with an “Office for Transition Initiatives” (OTI) and channeled in over $50 million during the following years to help keep the opposition alive. USAID’s funding went to creating hundreds of small NGOs that feed the conflict in the country and served as facades to funnel dollars to anti-government initiatives. This funding has continued to date, despite its prohibition in Venezuela. Just like in the U.S., it’s illegal for organizations engaged in political activities to receive funding from foreign governments, yet the U.S. continues to violate this law in Venezuela, as do the entities receiving the funding. Just this year, President Obama authorized a special $5.5 million dollar fund to finance anti-government groups in Venezuela through the State Department. This is in addition to USAID, NED and other U.S. agency funding to those groups.
Some of the other striking similarities between these coup attempts include the role of media to discredit the Venezuelan government internationally, therefore justifying any action against it. We have seen a coordinated campaign in major U.S. and international media calling for and discussing the Maduro government’s downfall, distorting the reality in the country and portraying Venezuela as a failed state. This type of severe media campaign goes well beyond normal, and legitimate, criticism. Sources cited on Venezuela are always opposition voices, presented as neutral and credible, while reports omit important facts that present the government in a favorable light.
Business owners and private enterprise in Venezuela are also once again pushing for a coup, as they did in 2002, and using their power to restrict public access to consumer goods, forcing shortages and price hikes, and overall panic amongst the population. The government is taking direct measures to resolve these problems and work with business interests, but this is a very effective strategy that hits where it hurts the most, the stomach.
Finally, the other major factor in this current coup attempt has been the role of dissident military forces that have betrayed their oath to defend the nation and have succumbed to foreign interests. The case of Capitan Leasmy Salazar, a former Chavez presidential guard and confidant who is now collaborating with U.S. intelligence agencies, is an example. In the recent coup attempt against President Maduro, at least 10 military officers from the Air Force were detained as they planned to execute their coup plot. Some evidence has surfaced indicating ties to U.S. officials and opposition figures.
How do you think the Venezuelans will react to try to ward off U.S. machinations, and those of domestic Venezuelan elites as well? Are there things you think they ought to do that at least so far they haven't? Do you worry that a repressive turn might compromise or even wreck the Bolivarian project even as it wards off off the opposition?
Venezuelans generally rely on public denunciations as the most effective way to impede these types of destabilization actions, but often that is not sufficient. It’s critical that those involved in serious attempts to violently overthrow a democratically elected government be held to justice. There are already clear signs that the Maduro government will ensure those responsible will have their day in court. Beyond the involvement of Venezuelans, the role of U.S. agencies and interests, and other foreign actors, has been a constant in these anti-democratic actions. Venezuela has received the full support of all Latin American nations in the face of these recent threats, and all 33 nations of Latin America and the Caribbean have condemned and rejected the unilateral sanctions the Obama administration has imposed against the Venezuelan government. This type of solid, unwavering support from a unified Latin America is critical to show Washington that the region will no longer stand for its bully tactics.
I don’t foresee the Maduro government taking any kind of repressive action against anti-government groups that is outside the law. Before Chavez was elected, Venezuela experienced a brutally repressive period for decades. Constitutional rights were continuously suspended, national curfews were imposed, young men faced a forced military draft, and authorities used lethal force to repress demonstrations. That all disappeared under Chavez, who refused to use repression, even during the coup in 2002 and subsequent attempts to overthrow his government. The Maduro government continues these same policies. The only recent change was a Defense Ministry decree allowing for military forces to use lethal force in the face of violent uprisings. But this decree is very clear that no lethal force or even weapons can be used during peaceful demonstrations.
The one area I believe the Venezuelan government has been too lenient is with respect to the foreign funding of anti-government activities. It’s illegal under the law in Venezuela, but rarely enforced. The state must take the necessary steps to end this type of harmful funding that is just feeding the conflict in Venezuela and keeping an otherwise defunct opposition alive. The funding also comes from U.S. taxpayer dollars, and it would be nice to keep that money in the U.S. and invest it in social programs, instead of trying to undermine legitimate democracies in oil-rich nations.
The interview was conducted by Michael Albert.