Things are approaching a crisis point in the long battle of wills between Venezuela and the White House. Juan Guaidó, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, swore himself in as the country's "interim president" before a crowd of tens (by some accounts, hundreds) of thousands of supporters in Caracas on Jan. 23. Perhaps in an abortive move to pre-empt this, the SEBIN political police detained him on his way to a rally three days earlier, but later released him without charge. At his auto-inauguration, he declared President Nicolás Maduro's re-election last May illegitimate, and himself the only legitimate executive authority in the country. Donald Trump immediately announced that he is recognizing Guaidó—quickly joined by Canada and several Latin American governments.
"In its role as the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people, the National Assembly invoked the country's constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant," Trump said in a statement. "The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law."
Seeming to anticipate Guaidó's move, Vice President Mike Pence one day earlier condescendingly intoned, adding a phrase in stiff and poorly prounounced Spanish: "As the good people of Venezuela make your voices heard tomorrow, on behalf of the American people, we say: estamos con ustedes. We are with you. We stand with you, and we will stay with you until Democracy is restored and you reclaim your birthright of Libertad."
The Lima Group of regional governments seeking regime change in Venezuela mostly fell into line. In a statement, 11 of the 14 members called upon Guaidó to oversee a political transition "in order to hold new elections, in the shortest time."
Maduro responded by breaking ties with the US, and ordering its diplomatic staff to leave the country within 72 hours. Trump is ordering them to remain at their posts. (Global News, Reuters, InfoBae, Miami Herald, Miami Herald, NYT, The Hill, CNBC)
Guaidó's grab: a soft coup?
Guaidó is protege and heir apparent of veteran opposition leader Leopoldo López, who has been under house arrest and barred from political office since 2014. López gave the nod to Guaidó to lead his Popular Will (Voluntad Popular) party when its new mandate began on Jan. 5—five days before Maduro was inaugurated for a second six-year term. Guaidó had just finished his first full term as a legislative deputy, having been elected in 2015. His self-inauguration was symbolically timed for the anniversary of the 1958 uprising that ended Venezuela's military dictatorship. As his supporters have mobilized in their thousands, so have those of Maduro—sometimes wearing paramilitary uniforms. (The Guardian, NYT)
A few obvious points. It is hopefully superflous to comment on the irony of Trump, the great enthusiast for dictators, suddenly developing a touching concern with democracy in Venezuela. And however dubious Maduro's re-election may have been, Guaidó's self-inauguration is also on thin constitutional grounds. The New York Times reported back on Sept. 8, citing Washington and Caracas officials, that the Trump administration had held secret meetings with rebellious Venezuelan military officers over the past year to discuss plans to oust Maduro—inevitably raising memories of the attempted coup against Hugo Chávez in April 2002.
All that said… the rush to call what is underway a "coup" is premature. One may be in the works, but the model is certainly not Chile 1973, nor Honduras 2009—nor even Venezuela 2002. Widespread (and not merely oligarchical) rage against Maduro is obvious, spurred by the country's ongoing and deepening food crisis, human rights crisis and general crisis of legitimacy. Maduro continues to have his support base but even this has been eroded by the ironic neoliberal turn of his government in response to the crisis (and in spite of the incessant populist and anti-imperialist phrases).
The dissident left: it exists
Predictably overlooked in the world media's Manichean view of the crisis are voices of Venezuela's dissident left that takes a neither/nor position opposed to both the regime and the right-wing leadership of the opposition.
On Jan. 17, six days ahead of Guaidó's attempted power-grab, the Citizen Platform in Defense of the Constitution (PCDC) held a press conference at the Central University of Venezuela campus, saying "No to the parallel state imposed by the United States, the European Union and the Lima Group," but also registering its rejection of the "sell-out [entreguista] and unconstitutional regime of Nicolás Maduro." The statement called for a popular referendum to "renovate all the public powers" in the country. The PCDC is made up of long-time social leaders of the left, including former cabinet ministers under Hugo Chávez and followers of the Socialist Tide (Marea Socialista) party. (Apporea)
Indigenous resistance to extractive agenda
Also unheard are voices of indigenous dissent and resistance. In an episode that received shamefully little coverage either in Spanish or English, December saw protests in the remote Orinoco Basin after a leader of the Pemón indigenous people was killed by elite Military Counterintelligence troops. Pemón leader Charlie Peñaloza Rivas was shot dead and two others wounded in the Dec. 8 confrontation at Campo Carrao, an outpost within Canaima National Park, in the Guayana region of Bolívar state. Amnesty International found that the troops opened fire "without any justification." Members of the Pemón Territorial Guard subsequently took five hostages at the outpost, including personnel of the state power company Corpoelec. The military operation was ostensibly aimed at clearing the region of illegal gold mining—while the Pemón themselves had been protesting the mining. (EcoPolitica Venezuela, Apporea, BellingCat, Caracas Chronicles, Publico, Efecto Cocuyo)
Indigenous and environmental leaders in the region issued a statement in the name of the Venezuelan Political Ecology Observatory after the confrontation. The statement blamed the violence in the region on the "extractive" agenda of the government's Orinoco Mineral Arc development plan, and treatment of the territory as res nullius to undermine indigenous rights. Citing the indigenous autonomy provisions in Venezuela's constitution, the statement asserted: "Contrary to the position demonstrated by sectors of the government and its armed forces, the principal guardians of the national territory are the indigenous, and in the case of Guayana the Pemón people." (EcoPoliticaVenezuela)
It is clear that the illegal mining in the Guayana is fast expanding, driven by the economic desperation in Venezuela. A study just released by the Amazonian Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG) has identified thousands of illegal mining sites across the Amazon and Orinoco basins—with the big majority in Venezuela. Of the 2,312 "extraction points" across six countries, 1,899 are in Venezuela. The runner up at 312 was Brazil—with a far greater territory. (SciDev.Net)
Whether or not the Maduro government is viewing the illegal mining as a kind of social safety valve, keeping a sector of the economically displaced isolated in the rainforest, or (more cynically) viewing the outlaw miners as the advance guard of the "official" extractive agenda for the region, one thing is clear: the illegal extractive activity provides a pretext for militarization that can ultimately be used to repress indigenous opposition to the coming exploitation under corporate auspices.
Inherent contradiction of bolivarismo
As with the constitutional autonomy provisions, the government has of course sought to build support among the indigenous—especially those in places less remote than the Orinoco. Amid this week's political showdown, the government handed over more than a hundred collective property titles to indigenous peoples. The move was announced by the Indigenous Peoples Commission of the National Constituent Assembly, the body charged with rewriting the constitution—and accused of usurping the authority of the National Assembly. The Commission's Clara Vidal said the move was part of the government's "decolonization" policy, adding: "This implies reinforcing and bringing back indigenous peoples' way of life through intercultural bilingual education, ancestral medicines and foods, among others." (Prensa Latina)
But in a contradicton also seen in the hydrocarbon-rich Sierra de Perijá along the Colombian border, extractive agendas undermine the very indigenous support the government has sought to build. The government clearly has far less indigenous support in the remote Orinoco, where the autochthonous inhabitants see their rights less in terms of "land" than of territory. And the sacrifice of these territories is essentially mandated by the Bolivarian Revolution's fundamental strategy of winning popular support through a clientelist distribution of the proceeds of resource extraction.
There is nothing to be gained by overlooking these contradictions in the name of anti-imperialism. On the other hand, the condition of Venezuela's indigenous peoples, as well as workers and peasants, clearly stands to worsen (certainly not improve!) if an openly neoliberal reactionary regime were to take power.
Can progressives around the world possibly walk this line?
Photo: EcoPolitica Venezuela
Is Guaidó’s power-grab legal?
The US State Department is citing Article 233 of Venezuela's constitution as legal back-up for Guaidó's "courageous decision" to assume the role of interim president. If you read the actual text of Article 233, it does call for the president of the National Assembly to serve as interim president for 30 days in the event that the president "shall become permanently unavailable to serve" based on a determination of "physical or mental disability" or "abandonment of his position." The prior determination must be made by a medical board appointed by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly. The second determination can be made directly by the National Assembly. The National Assembly did vote on Jan. 15 to declare Maduro an "usurper." But this is not exactly what the language of Article 233 stipulates…
Elliott Abrams unto Venezuela breach
As if we needed any more nostalgia for the 1980s Contragate scandal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just named Elliott Abrams as his pointman for the Venezuela crisis. Just a reminder… In 1991, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress about secret efforts to aid the Nicaraguan rebels. He was pardoned by President Poppy Bush, and went on to serve high-level posts in the Dubya Bush administration. (The Hill, Politico)
Helicoide symbolic of Venezuela crisis
This BBC News report on El Helicoide, a former luxury mall turned notorious prison in Caracas, symbolizes everything wrong with the Maduro regime. I'd love to see the shopping malls of the bourgeoisie expropriated, but not for torture centers, thank you very much.
Neither/nor voice on Venezuela
The International Workers Unity-Fourth International (UIT-CI) writes: "We do not endorse the interventionism of Trump, Macri and Bolsonaro. Nor do we recognize the pro-Yankee auto-government of Guaidó. But we do not give any political support to the civic-military hunger-imposing [hambreador] government of Maduro."
Is Juan Guaidó really right-wing?
It's been brought to our attention that his Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party is a member of the Socialist International, and claims to be "social democratic." Yet we refered here to the "right-wing leadership of the opposition," and we stand by that. A July 2018 piece on VenezuelAnalysis notes the fracturing of the opposition umbrella Table for Democratic Unity (MUD), portraying the actual moderates as Acción Democrática (AD), who have now broken with the coalition. It states that the remaining 15 parties are "largely dominated by the far-right Popular Will and First Justice" (that's Primero Justicia, vehicle of former opposition figurehead Henrique Capriles), as well as the "center-right social democratic UNT, who, alongside AD, were referred to as the G4 of the MUD."
UNT stands for Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Era) (and is not to be confused with the chavista union federation of identical acronym). It is also a member of the Socialist International.
Now, is "right-wing social democratic" an oxymoron? Strictly speaking, yes. One of the two parts of that construction has got to be bullshit. Guess which one it is? Recall that fellow members of the "Socialist International" (forgive the scare quotes) include the French decidedly not-so-socialist Socialist Party, Israel's Zionist-before-socialist Labor Party, and (perhaps most perversely) the Peruvian Aprista Party, which got Peru into the FTA with Washington and attempted to drown in blood the campesino and indigenous oppsition to it.
Guaidó is being backed by Brazil's fascistic new president Jair Bolsonaro, as well as by Argentina's reactionary Mauricio Macri, and (of course) by Trump. He's also got the support of Peru's Martín Vizcarra—who, by the way, used to be with the Apristas and fashioned himself a leftist, but is now with the technocratic and scandal-mired (and poorly named) Peruanos Por el Kambio.
Meanwhile, the supposedly "social democratic" AD and UNT are also backing Guaidó, as is obvious from their Twitter feeds.
Right-wing? Yeah, we'll go with that.
Venezuela: is it the oil, stupid?
TeleSur leaps on the following indiscreet comment from National Security Adviser John Bolton: “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela."
To which we add, quoting one wag on Facebook: "Si EEUU quiere el petróleo de Venezuela, China y Rusia quieren las arepas?"
US oil sanctions on Venezuela…. at last!
UN human rights expert Idriss Jazairy expressed concern over the impact on innocent Venezuelan citizens after the US imposed sanctions on the country's national oil company this week. (Jurist)
Note that after years of creeping sanctions, this is the first time the US has actually ordered an embargo of PDVSA, the pillar of Venezuela's economy. So, uh, just saying, but… there is no remote analogy here to the sweeping and total embargo the US placed on Nicaragua in the '80s—a much smaller, poorer and more US-dependent country. So oppose the sanctions all you want, but do not attempt to blame the Venezuelan crisis on them.
War of perceptions on Venezuela
Well, after meeting with wannabe dictator Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Juan Guaidó is back in Venezuela—and, despite expectations, he has not been arrested. (UPI, NBC) So there is a certain irony to his accusations that Nicolás Maduro is a "dictator."
Guaidó has been rushing to assure foreign oil companies that he would bring them back into Venezuela once is ensconced in power. "The majority of the oil production that we want to increase will be with the private sector,” said his spokesman Carlos Vecchio. (The Independent)
Maduro's government has meanwhile signed deals over the past months securing investment from Russia and China in Venezuela's oil and gold sectors. (Reuters, AP) Perversely, the country's refining capacity appears to be in such a shambles that it is importing fuel from Russia and Europe, and accumulating a mounting debt in the process. (Reuters) So it's not like Maduro is exactly the guardian of Venezielan sovereignty here.
And while Guaidó is evidently willing to schmooze wannabe dictators like Bolsonaro (and Trump) for his supposedly democratic cause, there does in fact seem to be some genuinely democtratic content to the movement backing him. The parallel government starting to emerge behind him apparently includes "cabildos abiertos"—open town councils—organized at the municipal level. (Diario de Las Americas) This is not the kind of organization typically used in a "coup," the word always used by the maduristas.
They may indeed be worried about a coup in support of this movement, though—which could explain Maduro's recent hiring of Russian mercenaries to serve as a Praetorian Guard. The current crisis was apparently preceded by an attempted National Guard mutiny in January, when guardsmen briefly took over outposts in the poor Caracas neighborhood of Petare. There was fighting before the mutiny was fnally put down by loyal units. (AP) Over the past week, over 560 Venezuelan troops have reportedly defected across the border to Colombia, some pledging loyalty to Guaidó. (CNN)
Most ironic of all is that none other than Jair Bolsonaro, then a right-wing deputy in Brazil's Congress, praised Hugo Chávez in gushing terms back in 2017, telling a reporter: "Chávez is a hope for Latin America and I would very much like this philosophy to come to Brazil… I intend to go to Venezuela and try to meet him." (Vela)
So, despite the mutual demonization (and real potential for civil war in Venezuela), maybe these two sides aren't as far apart as they superficially seem…
US behind Venezuela blackout?
So Maduro is calling the blackout US sabotage—an "electricity war." (NPR) And maybe it was. The timing was certainly convenient, coming on the even of dueling pro-and anti-Maduro rallies in Caracas. But then again, maybe not. Nearly 10 years ago, we analyzed the chronic power outages in Veneziela, and their roots in endemic mismanegement of the power sector, especially the hydro-electric facilities.