By WAYNE DELUCA
Only days after threatening “fire and fury” against North Korea, President Donald Trump said, “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.” Trump was improvising, with no back-up from the Pentagon, and seems to be inventing his militaristic bombast as he goes. But we cannot dismiss the threat of military action against Venezuela.
There is a long history of U.S. interference in the region. In Venezuela, Washington endorsed a 2002 military coup attempt against the president, Hugo Chávez. In recent weeks, the Trump administration has leveled sanctions at Maduro and a number of Venezuelan officials, and threatens further sanctions against the country’s oil industry.
Protests have raged in Venezuela since January. Masked youth have taken to the streets, erecting barricades, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, rioting, and looting stores and warehouses. Daily life has ground to a halt, crime is rampant, and weapons have flowed throughout the population. The government has responded with a heavy hand, arresting thousands, and using the National Guard to stop the protests. Tear gas and rubber bullets are a common sight.
The rightist opposition, far from arranging peaceful demonstrations, has provoked this violence. There have been attacks on police barracks and government supporters, and most dramatically, a helicopter attack on the pro-Maduro Supreme Court in late June. The opposition’s goal is to create an excuse for either the military or the United States to step in, claiming to “keep the peace” and “restore democracy.” The U.S. State Department has spent at least $49 million to support the right wing since 2009 and has deep ties to its leaders.
The ongoing crisis in Venezuela has deepened since the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), elected on July 30, has begun to take action. The opposition boycotted the election to the ANC, and supporters of President Nicolás Maduro control the body.
On Aug. 6, there was an attack at a military base in Carabobo, near the city of Valencia. Video was released showing men claiming that the attack was meant to “re-establish constitutional order.” The base remained in government hands. Two men were shot dead and eight more captured. Maduro claimed that his government “had to defeat terrorism with bullets.”
On Aug. 5, the ANC voted to remove Luisa Ortega Díaz, the Attorney General, from her office. The National Guard took control of her offices and supporters had to escort her from the area on a motorbike. She denounced the current regime as a “totalitarian form of government.”
Ortega, a member of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV), broke with the Maduro government this April. She was the leading critic of the installation of the ANC and was likely to begin an investigation into vote tampering during the election. Her office has made numerous charges of corruption within the government and has charged the National Guard with abuses during the country’s turbulent protests.
When she was in office, the press speculated that Ortega might trigger Article 350 of the Venezuelan constitution, which calls for Venezuelans to “disown any regime, legislation or authority that runs counter to democratic values, principles and guarantees, or that undermines human rights.” Hailed as a hero by the Western media, Ortega is in reality positioning herself as a figure who could be useful in a right-wing coup.
On Aug. 8, the ANC declared itself superior to the opposition-controlled National Assembly. That body has not recognized the ANC as legitimate and has declared its opposition to any decrees it issues, including the dismissal of Ortega. The ANC has established a “truth commission” that is poised to attack the political opponents of Maduro and the PSUV government, and a Supreme Court packed with Maduro loyalists has already removed five opposition mayors.
Maduro’s government has increased its repression while facing a public that grows more hostile by the day. Protests are suppressed whether they come from the right-wing forces behind the opposition (Democratic Unity Roundtable, or MUD) or parties to the left of the PSUV. Independent forces to Maduro’s left have found their ability to mobilize hampered, while the MUD grows in strength.
At least 120 people have been killed during the protests. In response to state repression, the regional trade bloc Mercosur suspended Venezuela’s membership, and Peru has expelled its Venezuelan ambassador in protest.
The unrest stands against a backdrop of economic meltdown. Analysts have suggested that Venezuela’s economy may shrink between 7 and 10 percent this year, a catastrophic rate. Such statistics must be taken with a grain of salt, however, since they come from sources like Fedecamaras, the Venezuelan federation of Chambers of Commerce. In the 2002 coup, Fedecamaras President Pedro Carmona was named as interim president of the country, and it has been a leading counter-revolutionary force. Still, all the symptoms of severe economic crisis are in force.
Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, has crashed relative to the dollar. The official exchange rate is 2000 bolivars to a dollar, but for most citizens the “unofficial” rate is over 10,000 to a dollar. Food and medicine are unaffordable for many, thanks to heavy inflation, and other goods are priced beyond them. The hoarding of supplies by the bourgeois opposition has also increased shortages of food and basic goods.
The army has taken charge of subsidized food-distribution as price controls have fed an out-of-control black market. Four out of five households were considered poor last year, and most live on the minimum wage of 250,000 bolivars.
PDVSA, the nationalized oil firm, has watched its revenue figures crash in the past year, as creditors are drawing away most of its profits. The firm has borrowed almost $6 billion as advance payments from the Russian oil firm Rosneft. There was briefly a question of whether Citgo (owned by PDVSA) could be subject to a lien from the Russian company, but Rosneft has dumped its shares due to U.S. sanctions. Russia functions as Venezuela’s lender of last resort, and stands to reap a windfall if oil prices increase thanks to the crisis.
Pensions and the minimum wage have not received their annual adjustments. This symbolizes a deeper part of the crisis: Venezuela’s sovereign debt is near collapse. Credit Suisse has banned the country’s bonds, and Goldman Sachs was criticized for buying them. There is a growing drumbeat in the financial press that Venezuela might default on its debt, as payments come due in October and November of this year. Even if the government can muster enough hard currency for this year, next year’s payments loom heavily on the horizon.
Populism under Chávez
Under Hugo Chávez, who was president from 1999 until his death from cancer in 2013, Venezuela was the jewel of Latin America’s “Pink Tide.” After a 1999 constitutional reform, Chávez survived a coup d’etat in 2002 with massive support from the Venezuelan working class. Following an unsuccessful recall referendum in 2004 he began to set himself out as an anti-neoliberal reformer.
Flush with oil wealth from the state-owned oil firm PDVSA, Chávez’s Venezuela created an aggressive welfare state and popular organizations dedicated to social reform. His government established closer diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba. Together, Cuba and Venezuela founded the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which grew to include Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and several other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
But Chávez’s rule was always based on an alliance with the “Boli-bourgeoisie,” the capitalists who made their profits alongside the oil industry, as well as the working class. Despite grandiose claims of “21st-century socialism,” and a handful of nationalizations, Chávez remained squarely inside the boundaries of classical Latin American populism.
Maduro became president of Venezuela under less than ideal circumstances. Lacking Chávez’s charisma and facing a long-term decline of oil prices, Maduro was forced into currency manipulations that crashed Venezuela’s import trade. While he survived a recall attempt in 2014, at the end of 2015 Maduro and the PSUV lost control of the National Assembly for the first time since the party was formed in 2007.
Maduro declared an emergency in January 2016, and gave himself the ability to rule by decree, which would persist until well into 2017. Then in May of this year, the Supreme Court dismissed the Assembly and granted Maduro further decree powers. The action against the Assembly drew harsh criticism and had to be repealed, driving Maduro to call for a Constituent Assembly, which would have formal power over the National Assembly.
Revolutions cannot be made halfway. Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution improved the lot of workers and the poor in Venezuela, and included inspiring measures such as the building of local communes and workers taking over abandoned factories. But it never followed the Russian and Cuban revolutions in nationalizing the banks, agricultural land, and big industries. This means that the oligarchs remained in control, and has allowed the deep slide backward under Maduro.
Socialist Action demands “Hands Off Venezuela!” Trump’s threats and sanctions are aimed at fomenting a coup d’etat against the Venezuelan government. We are completely opposed to Washington’s support for the Venezuelan right-wing opposition, which has used mass action tactics to destabilize the country. We cannot forget that during the 2002 coup, the United States immediately recognized the coup government as legitimate, and 15 years later is still hoping to finish the job.
The opposition is based in the predominantly white middle classes. Chavismo’s base has been among the mestizo and Afro-Venezuelan population, and middle-class whites see this as a threat to their privileges. The opposition’s leadership is drawn from Venezuela’s traditional elite, which traces its lineage back to the Spanish conquest of the Americas, among them Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo López. Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who is now organizing a network of the Latin American far right, has been among those calling for a coup.
Chávez, a former colonel, enjoyed the support of much of Venezuela’s military throughout his career. Maduro, who worked his way up in the civil bureaucracy, has no such connection. He has leaned on the military increasingly throughout his presidency but has had to make major concessions, giving more and more positions to officers and using the National Guard in an attempt to tamp down resistance. This poses obvious dangers: Maduro cannot lean on the military permanently. Given incentive from the right wing, the army could easily turn on Maduro and back a different leader, and there would be nothing to stop them.
Maduro particularly has had a tin ear for the Venezuelan masses, in contrast to Chávez’s charisma. Even in normal times, this would be a handicap. After four years of unrelenting crisis, it has led him to deepen the authoritarian measures that Chávez was able to say with honesty were rarely needed. The PSUV government is now guilty of numerous crimes against the Venezuelan people. But we reject unconditionally any attempts by the United States, the U.S.-backed MUD opposition, or any foreign power to overthrow Maduro.
The only way to secure and deepen the gains that workers made under Chávez is to form a workers’ government. A revolutionary workers’ party that fights for socialism, independent of Maduro and the PSUV as well as the MUD reactionaries, must be built to lead the working class, armed and organized against a coup. Only such a government could prioritize workers’ desperate needs against the entrenched military and oligarchy interests.
Trump’s direct threats are a new facet of U.S. attempts to install a pliable client regime in Venezuela. This policy was put forward by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It reflects a long history of U.S. imperial intervention, including the Guatemala coup of 1954, the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, U.S. support for death squads in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s, and most recently the 2009 coup in Honduras. In the U.S. we need a strong, democratic antiwar movement, independent of both the Democrats and Republicans, which can mount mass actions around the demand, “Hands Off Venezuela!”
Photo: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Federico Parra / AFP