Venezuela: U.S.-backed destabilization campaign accelerates
An anti-government protester aims his slingshot during at security forces blocking marchers from reaching the national ombudsman office in Caracas, Wednesday, April 26. | Ariana Cubillos / AP

On Wednesday April 26, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez announced that her country would take the first steps in the complicated process of withdrawing from the Organization of American States (OAS). The announcement came after the hemispheric body voted to hold a special foreign ministers’ meeting to decide whether its “Democratic Charter” should be invoked to suspend Venezuela’s participation.

OAS secretary general Luis Almagro has been campaigning for Venezuela’s suspension for months. This has met with angry repudiation by Almagro’s former boss, former Uruguayan President José Mujica, under whom Almagro had served as foreign minister.

Almagro and his allies complain that the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro violates its citizens’ human rights. However, most of the countries whose OAS representatives voted for the foreign ministers’ meeting have even worse human rights records. These include Honduras, where indigenous, environmental, and LGBTQ activists have met with so much repression that it has created a mass refugee crisis; Guatemala, where the large indigenous population faces discrimination and repression; and Mexico, where tens of thousands of people have been “disappeared,” including the 43 teachers’ college students from Ayotzinapa.

The Venezuelan government sees the maneuvers in the OAS as proof that the body is controlled by the United States and serves U.S. imperial purposes. It is a view shared by the leadership of socialist Cuba, which was expelled from the OAS after its January 1, 1959 revolution. Recently, there have been moves in Latin America to invite Cuba back into the OAS, but the Cuban leaders say they are not interested.

The “pink tide” hits the rocks

After the election President Hugo Chávez in 1998, oil-rich Venezuela undertook a radical program of reforms which greatly improved the living standards of workers and the poor at home, as well as a restructuring of political and economic relations in the Latin America-Caribbean region.

The domestic programs guaranteed that Chavez and his supporters won election after election in the years that followed. The restructuring of Venezuela’s international relations was designed to undermine historic U.S. and monopoly capitalist domination of the Western Hemisphere. In country after country, elections brought to power more left and left-center governments:  Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay – joining Cuba, Venezuela, and some of the small Caribbean states.

Local oligarchs, working with transnational monopoly corporations and the U.S. government, have seen these transformations as a threat to their interests and have worked hard to destabilize and overthrow these “pink tide” governments – by a military coup in Honduras in 2009, constitutional coups in Paraguay in 2012 and Brazil in 2016, and by various destabilization projects, including an unsuccessful coup attempt in Venezuela in 2002.

The sudden drop in oil prices on the world market in 2015 seriously undermined the ability of Chavez’s successor, Maduro, to maintain the living standards Venezuela had achieved in recent years. Going back to the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez in the 1920s, Venezuela’s governments had become extremely dependent on oil exports to finance themselves, and as a result, an excessively large proportion of the Venezuelan people’s needs are met by imported goods.

This situation led to the loss of parliamentary elections to Venezuela’s right-wing opposition on December 6, 2015.

There is a great deal of debate within the governing coalition, the Great Bolivarian Patriotic Pole, which includes Maduro’s own United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV), the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), and others, as to how to remedy the situation.

Many criticize the complicated monetary exchange rate, which encourages smuggling and black market speculation and has thus contributed to scarcities and serious inflation (800 percent in 2016). Others want to see more diversification of Venezuela’s economy away from oil and the democratization, via cooperatives, of the circulation of essential goods. The monopoly of the distribution of food by major private corporations, which are mostly supporters of the political right, has not ended. These criticisms are intended to improve the Bolivarian model, not to undermine it.

Taking advantage of crisis

However, the right-wing opposition, now with a strong majority in the National Assembly, is using the crisis to push for regime change and a roll back of past pro-people reforms. The parties of the right eagerly reach out to some of the most reactionary international forces. Julio Borges, the chair of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, has gone so far as to try to block foreign investment in the Venezuelan economy.

Anti-government protesters stand at a roadblock in Caracas, Monday, April 24. Thousands of demonstrators shut down the capital city’s main highway. | Ariana Cubillos / AP

The right has been pushing for new presidential elections this year instead of 2019 as scheduled.  An attempt to remove Maduro via a recall referendum appears, up to now, to have failed. The governing coalition still has grassroots support, which, according to a recent poll by the respected Hinterlaces organization, appears to be rising. Thirty-five percent of Venezuelans said that they have more confidence in the Great Patriotic Pole parties to run the country and 29 percent in the right-wing opposition parties of the MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática), or Democratic Unity Roundtable, coalition.

The uproar on the streets, which has been going on for about a month, was triggered by a decision of the Supreme Court on April 1. The court ruled that the National Assembly has been operating illegally because, in defiance of a previous ruling, it had seated three legislators whose election had been tainted by credible accusations of electoral fraud. The court went further and announced it was taking over some of the functions of the legislature until this situation was corrected. President Maduro and Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz quickly persuaded the court to back off this step, which was nevertheless seized by the right as a pretext for demonstrations demanding immediate presidential elections and the removal of the current Supreme Court judges.

For weeks, the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities have been filled with dueling mass marches in favor of and against Maduro’s administration. Particularly large pro- and anti-government marches took place in Caracas on April 19.

By and large, security forces have restrained from repressing peaceful marchers. But by no means have all the protests have been peaceful, and the government has stopped some of them from reaching key ministry buildings. In a return to the “guarimba” riots of 2014, in which scores of people were killed, anti-government protesters have opened fire and have also committed acts of sabotage against government installations.

Some of the elements within the MUD coalition have openly called for overthrow of the government, and there have been deaths on both sides (up to 29 fatalities at the time of writing).   Security officials who have caused the death of protestors are currently being prosecuted by the government.

Deaths of government supporters have included that of “Chavista” labor union activist Esmin Ramirez, who was kidnapped on April 22 and found murdered the next day. A leading activist of the PSUV in Miranda State, Jacqueline Ortega, was also murdered on April 22; her son had been murdered earlier. Security officials have also been killed, while hundreds have been injured and millions of dollars in property damage inflicted.

The threat of outside intervention

Within Venezuela, there have been calls for foreign intervention, and these have been echoed by powerful right-wing politicians and leaders outside the country. Ex-president Álvaro Uribe of Colombia has issued a thinly-veiled call for the Venezuelan military to rebel against Maduro.

Recently, Uribe and another former Colombian president, Andres Pastrana, met with U.S. President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. The meeting probably covered Uribe’s oft-stated wish to undo the Colombian peace process, but it is likely that Uribe also raised the Venezuela issue.

Another threat to Venezuela’s sovereignty is represented by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Until his appointment, Tillerson was the CEO of ExxonMobil, a multinational oil company that has had sharp disputes with Venezuela. In 2007, Chávez nationalized some of ExxonMobil’s properties in the country.

Chavez offered ExxonMobil compensation to the tune of $1 billion, but Tillerson, as CEO, demanded ten times that amount. A World Bank arbitration panel eventually took the side of Venezuela. Given this history, it is not surprising that Tillerson has also weighed in with claims that Maduro is repressing Venezuelans’ freedom of expression.

The destabilization campaign goes beyond just Venezuela, however; it also threatens other countries that cooperate with it. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has threatened Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador with cutoffs of U.S. aid if they continue to take Venezuela’s side in international disputes.

More threats against Venezuela have been issued by Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander of the U.S. military’s Southern Command. In a report to the U.S. Senate dated April 6, the admiral hinted strongly that “instability” in Venezuela might force U.S. intervention at some point.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.