According to the majority media reports in the West, Venezuela is witnessing a wave of popular protest against its totalitarian government, by students and citizens tired of crime, corruption and food shortages. However, a closer look the history of US imperialism in Venezuela and Latin America, reports from independent journalists and activists on the ground, and the US State Department cables released by Wikileaks, a wholly darker and more complex picture emerges.
The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela sits on the Northern Coast of South America. It has a population of just over 29 million people, a GDP of $382bn a year and a land mass roughly the size of Germany and England combined. It borders Colombia to the West, Guyana to the East, Brazil to the South and has a long Caribbean coastline across the North.
The nation became a republic in the early 19th century, with the revolution of Bolivarian revolution that threw out the Spanish imperialists. Ever since, there has been a power struggle between the small elite and middle class of Venezuela and the mass working class. The former are fully backed by the US, with funds and arms.
The US has a long history of Latin American imperialism, much of it centred on Venezuela. I cannot detail that in full here, but Noam Chomsky does a great job of detailing the history and intent of US imperialism in Latin America here.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century the Venezuelan democratic system was dominated by two political parties that handed power between themselves, while implementing essentially the same policies. As John Pilger writes:
“When Chávez was first elected in 1998, Venezuela was not an archetypical Latin American tyranny, but a liberal democracy with certain freedoms, run by and for its elite, which had plundered the oil revenue and let crumbs fall to the invisible millions in the barrios. A pact between the two main parties, known as puntofijismo, resembled the convergence of new Labour and the Tories in Britain and Republicans and Democrats in the US. For them, the idea of popular sovereignty was anathema, and still is.”
Hugo Chavez promised to bring an end to this corruption, open up the political system, and reduce poverty. He won the 1998 presidential election with 56% of the vote – against a hostile media owned by the pro-US elite. This made him a marked man, Pilger continues:
“With Colombia as its front line, the war on democracy in Latin America has Chávez as its main target. It is not difficult to understand why. One of Chávez’s first acts was to revitalise the oil producers’ organisation Opec and force the oil price to record levels. At the same time he reduced the price of oil for the poorest countries in the Caribbean region and central America, and used Venezuela’s new wealth to pay off debt, notably Argentina’s, and, in effect, expelled the International Monetary Fund from a continent over which it once ruled. He has cut poverty by half – while GDP has risen dramatically. Above all, he gave poor people the confidence to believe that their lives would improve.”
In 2002, members of the Opposition, funded and supported by the United States, launched a failed coup on the democratically elected Chavez government, in efforts to oust him and protect their privilege.
As expert on US imperialism in Latin America Ed Vulliamy wrote for The Observer at the time:
Officials at the Organisation of American States and other diplomatic sources, talking to The Observer, assert that the US administration was not only aware the coup was about to take place, but had sanctioned it, presuming it to be destined for success.
The visits by Venezuelans plotting a coup, including Carmona himself, began, say sources, ‘several months ago’, and continued until weeks before the putsch last weekend. The visitors were received at the White House by the man President George Bush tasked to be his key policy-maker for Latin America, Otto Reich.
It remains the conviction of current President Nicolas Maduro and other Latin America observers that Chavez’s untimely death from cancer, was likely a case of assassination by the CIA, the US State Department of through Opposition forces. This theory gained favour when Chavez ally, Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has also had a series of health scares. The US has attempted to assassinate no fewer than 50 foreign leaders in efforts to impose regimes more favourable to US interests. Does that mean they assassinated Chavez? No. Does it mean it is possible that they tried? Yes.
Nicolas Maduro succeeded Chavez in two subsequent elections (2012, and December 2013) endorsed as free and fair by the National Electoral Council of Venezuela.
Current president Nicolas Maduro (left) and late former President Hugo Chaves (right)
Former US President Jimmy Carter has won a Nobel Prize for his election-monitoring work across the globe with the Carter Center. His group monitored the 2012 re-election of President Hugo Chavez.
“As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” Carter said at the time.
Guardian journalist Mark Weisbrot agrees, arguing that the US has a lot to learn from the Venezuelan democratic process:
In Venezuela, voters touch a computer screen to cast their vote and then receive a paper receipt, which they verify and deposit in a ballot box. Most of the paper ballots are compared with the electronic tally. This system makes vote-rigging nearly impossible: to steal the vote would require hacking the computers and then stuffing the ballot boxes to match the rigged vote.
Unlike in the US, where in a close vote we really have no idea who won (see Bush v Gore), Venezuelans can be sure that their vote counts. And also unlike the US, where as many as 90 million eligible voters will not vote in November, the government in Venezuela has done everything to increase voter registration (now at a record of about 97%) and participation.
Yet, Chavez was consistently referred to by large sections of the mainstream media and politicians as a dictator. Even at his death in March 2013, a wave of sneering editorials denounced the ‘death of a dictator’.
A similar pattern has been applied to the government of Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro. After losing a close run election with Maduro by 200,000 votes in December 2013, an infuriated opposition immediately accused the Maduro camp of vote-rigging and set about mobilizing mass protests calling for his ouster.
The opposition in Venezuela primarily comes from these middle class and elite groups who seek to protect and extend the privileges they have enjoyed historically. They are often funded and backed by the US.
As Andre Vltchek writes for Counter Punch:
“In Venezuela, the US sponsored an aborted coup, and it directly pays for hundreds of organizations, ‘NGO’s’ and media outlets, with the direct goal of overthrowing the revolutionary process and the government.”
Prior to the recent disputes, the most prominent opposition figure has been Henrique Capriles, governor of the affluent Miranda state,a right wing aristocrat and media mogul.
But after Capriles shook Maduro’s hand in a concilatory gesture aimed at reducing escalating tensions, Capriles began to fall from favour. Lopez seized his moment, refused to even enter talks with the Maduro government and presented himself as the true revolutionary hero. Ably assisted by reports such as this, in Business Week – “Leopoldo Lopez, the Charismatic Face of Venezuela’s Opposition’. But Lopez is simply not the left leaning, moderate man of the people being portrayed.
According to US State department cables released by Wikileaks, Leopoldo Lopez is using the student movement to harness the Opposition movement around his image. Lopez is mentioned no fewer than 77 times in the US State Department Cables.
George Ciccariello-Maher, author and political science lecturer at Drexel University disagrees, telling Democracy Now:
“Left-leaning moderate would be quite a stretch. Leopoldo López represents the far right of the Venezuelan political spectrum. In terms of his personal and political history, here’s someone who was educated in the United States from prep school through graduate school at the Harvard Kennedy School. He’s descended from the first president of Venezuela, purportedly even from Simón Bolívar. In other words, he’s a representative of this traditional political class that was displaced when the Bolivarian revolution came to power.
In terms of his very specific political history, his first party that he came to power as a representative of, Primero Justicia, was formed through the—at the intersection of corruption and U.S. intervention—corruption by his mother purportedly funneling funds, you know, from Venezuela’s oil company into this new party and, on the other hand, funding from the NED, from USAID, from U.S. government institutions, to so-called civil society organizations. Now, after—as Chávez came to power, the traditional parties of Venezuela collapsed, and both the domestic opposition and the U.S. government needed to create some other vehicle through which to oppose the Chávez government, and this party that Leopoldo López came to power through is one of those—is one of those vehicles. So this is really where he’s coming from.”
Lopez is currently under arrest after surrendering himself to the authorities, and Capriles is refusing to join peace negotiations with Maduro until he is released, while violence rages on.
And as for those who are backing and joining the protests? The student movement in Venezuela, is not the student movement in the US or UK. As John Pilger writes:
In Venezuela, their “grotesque fantasies of being ruled by a ‘brutal communist dictator’”, to quote Petras, are reminiscent of the paranoia of the white population that backed South Africa’s apartheid regime. Like in South Africa, racism in Venezuela is rampant, with the poor ignored, despised or patronised, and a Caracas shock jock allowed casually to dismiss Chávez, who is of mixed race, as a “monkey”. This fatuous venom has come not only from the super-rich behind their walls in suburbs called Country Club, but from the pretenders to their ranks in middle-level management, journalism, public relations, the arts, education and the other professions, who identify vicariously with all things American. Journalists in broadcasting and the press have played a crucial role – acknowledged by one of the generals and bankers who tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Chávez in 2002. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” he said. “The media were our secret weapon.”
Many of these people regard themselves as liberals, and have the ear of foreign journalists who like to describe themselves as being “on the left”.
Take higher education. At the taxpayer-funded elite “public” Venezuelan Central University, more than 90 per cent of the students come from the upper and “middle” classes. These and other elite students have been infiltrated by CIA-linked groups and, in defending their privilege, have been lauded by foreign liberals.”
The Opposition movement calls for ‘La Salida’ (the exit) of the democratically elected Maduro government. They reject the legitimacy of Maduro, as they did Chavez. The latest wave of protests followed the murder of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear and her ex-husband in front of their five year old daughter (who was shot in the leg), during a roadside robbery in January. This, combined with shortages of food and other supplies, was said to have galvanised a popular protest movement.
While it is absolutely true that the movements are able to gain support due to the crime and shortages in Venezuela, claims that these issues are the result of social democratic economic policies, or that they are the core trigger of the current protests, are tenuous at best.
George Ciccariello-Maher explored the issues further in his interview with Democracy Now:
“To be perfectly clear, food scarcity has been a problem, and insecurity is a massive problem in Venezuela. And both of these are really deep and intractable problems that have—you know, that have some relationship to government, government failures to confront them in certain ways, but also to the action of various other actors. In the case of crime, the infiltration of mafias has been a powerful force in recent years. And in the case of scarcity, the role of private capitalists in withholding and hoarding goods, as well as currency speculation, has been a massively destructive force that really echoes the kind of Chile scenario of helping to destroy an economy as a preparation for the government being overthrown.
But the reality is, these do not—these two factors, which the students are claiming are driving these protests, are really—they don’t explain why these protests are emerging now. Why? Because crime is actually going down, as we speak, and because food scarcity is not nearly as bad as it was earlier in the year. Rather, what explains what’s going on now is that this is the moment in which—after December elections, in which the opposition fared very poorly, this is the moment in which the right wing of that opposition has said, “Enough. You know, once again, enough. We’re done with elections. We’re going to go to the streets, and we’re going to try to topple this government.”
What is most likely, and what the evidence points to – is that we are witnessing the latest efforts of the Venezuelan middle class and the US government, to destabilize Venezuela. In short, a foreign backed, violent coup is being rebranded as a people’s uprising.
This coup has been launched on two main fronts.
First, as we have seen above, the US sponsors opposition elements, who whip up middle class resentment at social democracy and destabilise the economy and society – primarily by hoarding goods and currency, and by sponsoring organized crime gangs.
Secondly, we have the media war. The internal and international media is recasting militant, right wing, US sponsored stooges, as popular, moderate heroes.
“Throughout last night, panicked people told their stories of state-sponsored paramilitaries on motorcycles roaming middle class neighborhoods, shooting at people and storming into apartment buildings, shooting at anyone who seemed like he might be protesting.”
The mainstream/corporate media used this and other stories as evidence for their narrative that Venezuela is a dictatorial state witnessing a people’s uprising, and the authoritarian government are suppressing it by force.
A major US media transparency organisation, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), reviewed the claims further and found major inaccuracies, writing:
Who is Francisco Toro? He used to report for the New York Times, but stepped down, saying he couldn’t conform to the paper’s conflict-of-interest rules: “Too much of my lifestyle is bound up with opposition activism,” he wrote, adding that “I can’t possibly be neutral” about Venezuelan politics (FAIR Action Alert, 6/6/03).
Are, in fact, “state-sponsored paramilitaries…shooting at anyone who seemed like he might be protesting”? Two days ago, when Toro posted, the death toll stood at six (Reuters, 2/20/14). That’s six deaths too many, certainly, but if paramilitaries were actually shooting at everyone who seemed to be protesting, there would be either very few protesters or the paramilitaries would have to be exceedingly bad shots.
And, in fact, not all the dead are protesters, or killed by pro-government forces. Yesterday, Venezuelanalysis (2/21/14)–a pro-government but independent website–put out a fuller list of people killed in the ongoing clashes, adding up to 10. Three people died after crashing into barricades set up by the opposition, and another person–the brother of a pro-government legislator–was shot while trying to open up a barricaded street. A protester was run over by a motorist trying to drive through a barricade; the driver was reportedly arrested. An intelligence service officer was also arrested in connection with a shooting incident on February 12 that left two people dead–one a protester, the other a government sympathizer.
US journalists tend to identify with the opposition, which is generally wealthier and better educated–and not incidentally whiter–than government supporters (FAIR Blog, 2/25/13). This should be borne in mind when reading reports from Venezuela–from whatever source.
In essence, the mainstream media was amplifying a misrepresentation of the situation on the ground, to suit the political agenda.
Furthermore, the UK’s Guardian Newspaper recently published a statement written and signed by some of the world’s foremost peace and justice campaigners, deploring:
“the wave of violence from minority and extremist sections of Venezuela’s opposition (caused by the) recently launched campaign by Venezuela’s extreme right for the La Salida (‘The Ousting’) of the government of President Maduro before his constitutional mandate ends in 2019.” It concludes by “supporting the Government’s call for peace and dialogue to resolve differences” which has been echoed by UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations.)
Prominent signatories include Grahame Morris MP of Labour Friends of Venezuela; Colin Burgon, VSC Chair; former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, former Minister Peter Hain MP, a wide range of prominent figures in the academic and cultural sectors including filmmaker John Pilger, musician Dave Lee, poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and writer Tariq Ali; and numerous Trade Union leaders, alongside student leaders, peace campaigners, community representatives and an array of others from across society.
In the era of the Occupy Movement and Anonymous, it is easy for the will of democratic movements in the West, to see protesters up against police in another setting and automatically ally with the protesters. But after the painful and still unfolding manipulation of the Arab Spring, the backing of neo-nazi paramilitaries in Ukraine, and the reality of US/IMF imposed imperialism – kneejerk sympathies, whilst often well intended, belie the complexity of the situation.