The Tragedy of Venezuela

Zach Campbell
Apr 12, 2019 · 7 min read
Thousands gather for a pro-government rally in Venezuela.

Dark-skinned Venezuelans worry every day about the possibility of a failed government, about losing their homes, their social programs, and the sense of control over their lives they felt they had only a few years ago. The United States government, after assessing the situation (and taking into account the fact that Venezuela has the world’s largest reserves of oil), has decided to go forth with a plan that aims to massively strangle the Venezuelan economy, “sort of like in Star Wars, when Darth Vader constricts somebody’s throat”, according to one senior Trump administration official. It has not yet reached the point of military escalation — largely because the first choice in geopolitical conflicts is always to strangle remotely, via economic forces, and without moving actual artillery — not unlike Darth Vader’s use of ‘The Force’ in the excellent analogy of choice.

As American citizens, our focus should be on where we have leverage: our own government, which we are responsible for and which ostensibly represents us, and is carrying out severe economic strangulation — in the name of us. Another important principle one shouldn’t forget is solidarity — with oppressed and working-class people across the globe, including Venezuelans.

THE MEDIA’S AWFUL COVERAGE

The media spectacle surrounding the situation in Venezuela has been amazing in its extreme disregard for the truth. We see this in the coverage of the Santander bridge, which Maduro supposedly blocked in order to prevent US aid from coming in. In reality, the bridge, which connects Venezuela and Colombia, has never been opened. This asks the question: why did the US and its reality-show coup choose this border crossing over one that is actually open? On February 23, US-backed opposition protestors tried to push humanitarian aid through the bridge. During the event, USAID trucks carrying food were set aflame. US media and politicians immediately blamed Maduro, but as Max Blumenthal (and later the New York Times) shows, all evidence points to the opposition starting the fires.

“Yes, Venezuela Is a Socialist Catastrophe,” a New York Times headline screams. But is this the case? The slur “socialism” is only used when it is convenient. A Fox News piece from 2010, when the country was doing better, claims that Venezuela is not a socialist country because the “private sector still dominates [the] Venezuelan economy.” However, now that the country is in crisis and at the crosshairs of the US government, it is a given that Venezuela is socialist, even though the private sector’s share of the economy has not decreased.

As Alan MacLeod has pointed out, there is an element of white supremacy in the coverage of Venezuelan affairs. Chavistas, who are predominantly darker skinned, are portrayed as “thugs” participating in “mobs,” while wealthier, light-skinned opposition protestors, who are much more violent than Chavistas, are portrayed as being part of “civil society.”

Maduro, the man who Chavez personally implored Venezuelans to vote for before he died, is constantly slandered as a dictator in Western media. There’s little to no evidence for this claim; indeed, most signs point to the opposite. Chavez and Maduro won election after election, in a voting system Jimmy Carter later called “the best in the world,” although it is important to note that the Carter Center has not observed elections in the country since 2004. As far as we know, the election process has not changed.

VENEZUELA’S DEMOCRACY

In 2018, snap elections were held in May with a 46% turnout, down from 79% in 2013, in which Maduro won two-thirds of the vote. Now, it’s hard to know exactly if the elections were entirely legitimate. The Carter Center expressed concerns, along with many other organizations. But with knowledge of Venezuela’s electoral system in the past, it’s hard to believe they were a sham. In fact, Maduro’s opposition asked the UN not to observe the 2018 elections. For some reason, the UN complied. The opposition largely boycotted the elections, with Henri Falcon winning 21% of the vote.

International election observers were present, but we should approach them with skepticism, for multiple reasons. One of the main electoral observers in the ’18 presidential election was the Latin American Council on Electoral Experts (CEELA). Very little information can be found about this organization other than the fact that it was founded “as a leftist counterpart to electoral observation agencies sponsored by the Organization of American States (OAS).” CEELA does not even have a public website and there is very little official information on the group. Other observers were present, like a Canadian union, some African officials, and the former president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa.

This leads to the question: does the math on support for Maduro and the votes for him check out? With an approval rating hovering at about a quarter of the country, he received 6.2 million votes in 2018. With a total population of about 32 million, he has the support of roughly 8 million Venezuelans. So the electoral math does check out — but for now, it’s hard to come to a 100% certainty on the legitimacy of the elections — and that’s not Maduro’s fault.

It’s also worth mentioning that alongside the state, Venezuela has a sophisticated apparatus of communal structures called colectivos (see George Ciccariello-Maher’s Building the Commune). With such decentralized and democratic structures, it may provide a hint as to why the US has been so adamant about crushing Venezuela and the gains it has made under Chavismo.

IT’S NOT A UTOPIA (BUT THAT’S MOSTLY AMERICA’S FAULT)

Undernourishment and malnutrition are on the rise in Venezuela, and the number of migrants exiting the country is also rising. Venezuelan supermarkets, especially and ironically in wealthy opposition-strongholds, have everything you can find in a US supermarket. The problem is that many Venezuelans can’t afford some of these items, largely because of actions taken by the United States, such as sanctions which amount to a financial blockade, and which UN Special Rapporteur Alfred de Zayas has slammed as illegal and that they “could amount to war crimes.”

The sanctions have hurt the country for years, with Trump placing even harsher ones on the country (and threatening that more are on the way). The Trump administration is pushing a cruel tactic of starving the nation, severing its financial interactions with Western countries, making military threats, and training opposition leaders for a “popular” uprising in order to orchestrate a coup. Indeed, Wikileaks published a US Army document detailing how the US uses economic destruction as a form of unconventional warfare.

Once part of the Venezuelan military, Gustavo Diez helped implement the short-lived 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. Now he runs the site DolarToday, which “posts fake black-market exchange rates to manipulate the country’s currency.” Diez has said that “it’s ironic that with DolarToday in Alabama, I do more damage to the government than I did as a military man in Venezuela.” The site has “artificially devalued the value of the currency in order to induce an inflationary spiral.”

While it is surely true that there has been mismanagement and some corruption in the Venezuelan economy (as with any country), Maduro has not made the best economic choices. In fact, he has signed oil deals which the late Chavez lambasted as being ‘disguised privatization.’ But when the entire US-led global financial apparatus and the most powerful military in the world are aimed at strangling your country: you have very little alternative choices to make if you want to survive. Maduro will be blamed for any route he takes.

On January 23, exactly a month before the aid spectacle, Juan Guaido proclaimed himself president after communications with top US officials, including the Vice President. He was virtually unknown before this, with 80% of Venezuelans clueless to his existence. A man created by US-funded regime change operatives, he has pleaded for outside help because he cannot gain it within his own country. He has participated in violent guarimbas which have shaken the country before, and is now advancing a neoliberal agenda that will benefit American and Venezuelan elites.

Within 30 days of declaring himself interim president, the Constitution calls for snap elections. Guaido did not call for elections.

A company called 21 Air based out of North Carolina, which has ties to CIA rendition, was caught delivering weapons to Venezuela earlier this year. This isn’t uncommon; the CIA has had multiple front-companies in the past which were used to ship arms to right-wing rebels throughout Latin America. Never mentioned by the media, Eliot Abrams used humanitarian aid as a cover to ship hidden arms to the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. This being the same man who oversaw the attempted shipment of humanitarian “aid” to Venezuela last month.

WHAT’S NEXT IS A QUESTION FOR VENEZUELANS ONLY

If we claim to support democracy and self-determination, we would be supportive if the Venezuelan people wanted Maduro to step down. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Indeed, the country has seen sizeable large pro-Maduro rallies (possibly larger than pro-Guaido protests) and support from the communes throughout poor sectors of Caracas. And it’s not entirely clear that the Venezuelan people want Maduro to step down, although it’s starting to seem that way, with negotiated settlements to oust him and dialogue between the government and opposition being popular options.

When the new elections do occur, though, it is crystal-clear that the US has no business getting involved. And since it is already involved, now is the time to fight back through organizing, educating, and protesting.

During the Nicaraguan elections after the Contra death-squad wars, Noam Chomsky pointed out that the elections could not be considered free or fair. Here’s an example: if Russia is hundreds of times more powerful than the US, and is threatening America if “their guy” or “the right guy” is not elected. If early elections were called in Venezuela for 2020, the gun would be pointed at Venezuela’s electorate — choose “our guy” or else.

As leftists, we talk about solidarity a lot. But talk is just that: talk. The only way our solidarity is effective is if we use it where it has an effect on real people — therefore, we must protest and fight for an end to the US-led economic war on Venezuela and show the established powers that we will not allow military intervention.

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