Notes on Venezuela

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A question comes to mind as we watch the slow motion coup in Venezuela: is this really about the legitimacy of Venezuelan president Maduro’s re-election bid, or levels of press freedom in Venezuela? Or is this about something else entirely?

A few facts to consider while we ponder.

Fact one: Saudi Arabia doesn’t even hold elections, and has recently murdered a Washington Post reporter in their embassy in Turkey in a very public fashion, with apparently no deleterious effects on our relationship with Saudi Arabia, diplomatically or otherwise.

Fact two: Venezuela is the largest oil exporter in the Western Hemisphere.

Fact three: Venezuela has the second largest oil reserves of any country in the Western Hemisphere.

Fact four: Venezuela has nationalized its oil industry and used profits from that trade to help poor Venezuelans, a state of affairs often referred to as socialism.

Fact five: The United States has a long and sordid history of intervening in Latin American countries that claim to be practicing socialism; especially if there are particularly attractive resources that might draw our interest (see facts two, three and four above).

The table (note 1) at the end of this article offers a quick ‘greatest hits’ list for our more notable interventions in the region.

You might note, way down on that list, is our intervention in Venezuelan in 2002. In that year, 2002, the U.S. gave its tacit approval of a coup attempt against Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez who had the temerity to further nationalize Venezuela’s oil reserves and use the proceeds to benefit the poor in his country. Declassified CIA intelligence briefings show that the George W. Bush Administration had prior knowledge of the opposition’s plans and probably encouraged those plans. But Chavez was deposed for less than 48 hours until overwhelming popular support and loyalists in the military helped return him to power.

Multiple observers over saw those ‘come back’ elections, by the way; elections that have been closely watched since Chavez came into power over two decades ago. These observers confirmed the validity of the result.

President Jimmy Carter, among others, has testified that Venezuela’s voting system is one of the most secure and transparent in the world. (See note 2 at the end of this article for more details on the system) Carter is the founder of the Carter Center, an institution that monitors electoral processes in many regions of the world.

After Chavez’s death in 2013, Presidential elections were held again in Venezuela for Chavez’ hand picked replacement Nicolás Maduro. Voters gave Nicolás Maduro—who had assumed the role of acting president since Chávez’s death—a narrow victory over his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Governor of Miranda.

Although not nearly as popular as Chavez, in May 20, of 2018, Maduro once again managed to squeak out a win, and hung on to the title of President. There were elections, and despite the boycott by the opposition parties (or perhaps because of them) Maduro won a definitive victory. Many on the right and center have claimed that this election was illegitimate, but more than 300 international representatives from organizations such as the African Union, the Caribbean Community and the Electoral Experts Council of Latin America, as well as former heads of states, parliamentarians, trade unionists and solidarity activists, were present for Venezuela’s vote and said it was valid.

In the end, Nicolas Maduro was re-elected for the presidential term of 2019-25 with more than 6.2 million votes (67.8%).

Regarding the elections, the Western press has been overrun with cries of ‘vote rigging’ and ‘illegitimate’ because two of the main opposition parties boycotted the elections. They did this because two of its more popular candidates were banned from the election due to charges of inciting violence and ‘administrative irregularities.’

Are these charges legitimate? It’s hard to say. Charges of violence are assayed from both sides of the political spectrum, and, needless to say, both sides are probably culpable in lesser or greater degrees. Violence in Venezuela has escalated dramatically in the last decade. This is related to the economic crisis that has ravaged the country since 2013, that has grown worse in the last 18 months.

Severe shortages of food, medicine, and basic goods, alongside punishing hyperinflation, have driven an estimated three million Venezuelans to leave the country in recent years. Part of the economic crisis is of course due to plummeting oil prices, coupled with Venezuela’s propensity to print its own money, leading to hyperinflation.

But Venezuela’s crisis is not solely Maduro’s doing. The US government and opposition also share responsibility.

On May 6th, even as oil prices were flat-lining, Washington increased its sanctions on the country; sanctions Western media claimed are “unlikely to create major economic hardship” an assertion that is flatly rejected by the United Nations.

According to the United Kingdom’s The Independent newspaper, the General Assembly’s Human Rights council has condemned the US for its illegal actions that “disproportionately affect the poor and the most vulnerable classes.” It has also called on all member states not to recognize nor apply them, and has even begun discussing potential reparations.

Little of this was reported in the U.S. press.

The U.S., on the other hand, with the help of local business, is doing its best to create the economic conditions for regime change, a replay of the Chilean coup in which Nixon told Kissinger to make the ‘economy scream.’

According to The Independent, “The first UN rapporteur to visit Venezuela for 21 years has told The Independent the US sanctions on the country are illegal and could amount to “crimes against humanity” under international law.

Former special rapporteur Alfred de Zayas, who finished his term at the UN in March, has criticized the U.S. for engaging in “economic warfare” against Venezuela which he said is hurting the economy and killing Venezuelans.

“On his fact-finding mission to the country in late 2017, he found internal overdependence on oil, poor governance and corruption had hit the Venezuelan economy hard, but said “economic warfare” practiced by the US, EU and Canada are significant factors in the economic crisis.

“When I come and I say the emigration is partly attributable to the economic war waged against Venezuela and is partly attributable to the sanctions, people don’t like to hear that. They just want the simple narrative that socialism failed and it failed the Venezuelan people,” Mr de Zayas told The Independent.

“What’s at stake is the enormous, enormous natural resources of Venezuela. And I sense that if Venezuela had no natural resources no one would give a damn about Chavez or Maduro or anybody else there,” Mr de Zayas added.

The opposition in Venezuela is also actively making the country’s deep economic crisis worse. Its head of the National Assembly went on a tour of international banks demanding they not lend to his country, while the Trump administration is threatening Venezuelan bondholders not to negotiate the debt. As economist Mark Weisbrot stated, “It is an attempt to topple the government by further destroying the economy and preventing its recovery…There is no other way to describe it.”

The opposition also bears a large share of responsibility for the direct and indirect damage wrought by episodes of violent protest, such as occurred in 2014 and 2017, with full-throated encouragement by the U.S. In addition to property damaged and lives lost, many at the hands of opposition forces, opposition violence fed a climate of fear and polarization, inhibiting the prospects for economic reform and government-opposition dialogue. Right-wing operatives wearing the traditional black balaclava of right-wing death squads have been reported firing ball bearings into the chests of young men, passing pedestrians, drivers.

Professor Gonzalez of the University of Glasgow argues that “their actions go beyond protest; these thugs almost certainly draw a paycheck from the far right. They are likely paramilitaries who work for the drug traffickers whose influence is growing.

“They do not narrowly support the right: they aim to make the country ungovernable, to deepen the despair and the fear that affects growing numbers of Venezuelans.”

In short, they are ripening the conditions for a coup.

That brings us to the announcement this week of a ‘dual’ presidency.

By declaring himself Venezuela’s president on Wednesday, while Maduro legitimately holds that office, Juan Guaidó has brought Venezuela to the edge. Within hours of his declaration, the U.S. recognized the largely unknown politician as the President. Was there a back channel? Of course there was a back channel.

A number of Latin American nations, most with conservative governments backed by the US, have also done so. The growing list includes Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, and Paraguay. Canada and the Organization of American States have also recognized Guaidó.

The European Union has reportedly considered such a step, but for now has instead issued a call for new elections.

Meanwhile, Juan Guaidó has promised to privatize Venezuelan’s oil reserves (second largest in the Western Hemisphere, you might recall) and within 48 hours of the U.S, recognition of his ‘presidency’, the oil reporting agency S&P Global Platts reported that the opposition leader already drafted “plans to introduce a new national hydrocarbons law that establishes flexible fiscal and contractual terms for projects adapted to oil prices and the oil investment cycle.”

This plan would involve the creation of a “new hydrocarbons agency” that would “offer bidding rounds for projects in natural gas and conventional, heavy and extra-heavy crude.”

In other words, there are rapid moves to privatize Venezuela’s oil and open the door for multinational corporations.

That’s bad, and perhaps signals the end of the Chavez revolution; but worse news is what followed that announcement.

On Friday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s appointed Elliot Abrams new special envoy for Venezuela. For those who know Abrams’ history, this is a proverbial gallon of gasoline on an already raging fire.

Of all the defunct functionaries you could choose from the Washington establishment, the worst, by far, to oversee a Latin American country on the verge of a catastrophic civil war is Elliot Abrams.

Why? Because we know that his actions, his capacity with regard to any form of legitimate humanitarian oversight will fail miserably. We know this because he has a career littered with episodes in which he did exactly nothing while bishops were murdered (El Salvador), nuns were raped and murdered (El Salvador), drugs were exchanged for money and weapons of war (Nicaragua, Iran/Contra). And hundreds if not thousands of massacred civilians went unmarked for decades (El Mozote massacre, El Salvador), thanks to his duplicity. (Despite physical evidence, Abrams told a Senate committee that the reports of hundreds of deaths at El Mozote “were not credible.”)

He has lied to the American public. He has lied to congress. In 1991, he was convicted of withholding information from congress and went to jail for his lies, only to be pardoned by George H. W. Bush.

And this, my friends, is where we are. A felon convicted of lying in his capacity as assistant secretary of state, will now oversee one of the most tense and delicate dramas to unfold in our Southern Hemisphere.

The Chavez revolution may be faltering, indeed Maduro may be corrupt to the core, but any chance of correcting the problems by appointing a neoliberal upstart that would immediately seek to privatize core elements of the Venezuelan economy will be a disaster, and will likely lead to civil war.

That civil war, in turn, will be over shadowed by the presence of the ghoulish Elliot Abrams, about whom, the best we can say is ‘go back to jail.’

Venezuela may indeed need change, and the revolution begun by Chavez in an earnest effort to help the impoverished of his nation may well need retooling, and a purging of corrupt elements. A revitalization of economic sectors outside of petrol desperately needs to begin. But there is nothing on offer from either Guaido or the Washington establishment that will bring anything more than further deprivation and misery to a badly suffering country.

On the issue of economic viability and political legitimacy, Voltaire had some sage advice offered at the end of Candide, that Trump and the Washington establishment most certainly should heed: ‘Hoe your own garden.’

***Notes***

1. Table of Latin American interventions by the U.S.

1846: The United States invades Mexico and captures Mexico City in 1847. A peace treaty the following year gives the U.S. more than half of Mexico’s territory — what is now most of the western United States.
1903: The United States engineers Panamanian independence from Colombia and gains sovereign rights over the zone where the Panama Canal would connect Atlantic and Pacific shipping routes.
1903: Cuba and the U.S. sign a treaty allowing near-total U.S. control of Cuban affairs. U.S. establishes a naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
First quarter of the 20th century: U.S. Marines repeatedly intervene in Central America and the Caribbean, often to protect U.S. business interests in moments of political instability.
1914: U.S. troops occupy the Mexican port of Veracruz for seven months in an attempt to sway developments in the Mexican Revolution.
1954: Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz is overthrown in a CIA-backed coup.
1961: The U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion fails to overthrow Soviet-backed Cuban leader Fidel Castro but Washington continues to launch attempts to assassinate Castro and dislodge his government.
1964: Leftist President Joao Goulart of Brazil is overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup that installs a military government lasting until the 1980s.
1965: U.S. forces land in the Dominican Republic to intervene in a civil war.
1970s: Argentina, Chile and allied South American nations launch a brutal campaign of repression and assassination aimed at perceived leftist threats, known as Operation Condor, often with U.S. support.
1980s: The administration of President Ronald Reagan backs anti-communist Contra forces against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and backs the Salvadoran government against leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels.
1983: U.S. forces invade the Caribbean island of Grenada after accusing the government of allying itself with communist Cuba.
1989: U.S. invades Panama to oust strongman Manuel Noriega, who once was a valued CIA intelligence source, as well as one of the primary conduits for illicit weapons, military equipment and cash for U.S.-backed counterinsurgency forces in Latin America.
2002: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is ousted for two days before retaking power. He and his allies accuse the U.S. of tacit support for the coup attempt.
2009: Honduran President Manuel Zelaya overthrown by military. U.S. accused of worsening situation by insufficient condemnation of the coup.

2. Venezuela’s election system:

Since 1998 elections in Venezuela have been highly automated, and administered by a non-partisan National Electoral Council, with poll workers drafted via a lottery of registered voters. Polling places are equipped with multiple high-tech touch-screen DRE voting machines, one to a “mesa electoral”, or voting “table”. After the vote is cast, each machine prints out a paper ballot, or VVPAT, which is inspected by the voter and deposited in a ballot box belonging to the machine’s table. The voting machines perform in a stand-alone fashion, disconnected from any network until the polls close.

As part of the election administration the National Electoral Council planned a post-election audit of 54% of polling places, comparing the electronic records with the paper trail.

by Jack Johnson

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