Stop Trump's Coup in Venezuela
How Chavismo Got Derailed in Corruption and Poverty
Manuel Carrillo is a Seattle DSA activist and shop steward in his union, UNITE HERE Local 8.
“It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela,” National Security Adviser John Bolton told Fox Business just one day after Juan Guaidó declared himself Interim President.
The Venezuelan people currently find themselves in the midst of the greatest political crisis since the 2002 coup attempt against the now deceased President Hugo Chávez. Today, a decade and a half later, the remaining forces of Chavismo and Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor, find themselves confronting an emboldened political right, supported by the US and European ruling class, attempting to privatize the remaining industries currently under state control and fully integrate Venezuela into the global capitalist economy.
Unsurprisingly, Juan Guaidó’s most significant support has come from the United States, which has long lamented the nationalization of Venezuela’s oil industry under Hugo Chávez, as was made clear by John Bolton’s comments. While in office, both the Republican President George W. Bush and the Democrat President Barack Obama were vocal in their hostility toward Venezuelan leaders while imposing and maintaining sanctions against them.
This is reminiscent of the approach of the US government to Chile in the 1970s. When the Chilean government nationalized copper and nitrate mines, President Nixon responded by telling US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to “make the economy scream” (Democracy Now!, December 10, 2013). The democratically elected government was brought down by a US-backed military coup that led to a dictatorship so that US corporate interests could reclaim “their” Chilean property.
Today the Trump administration continues the trend of US support for the Venezuelan right wing and, from the start, has been one of the biggest cheerleaders of Guaidó’s attempts to seize power. In doing so, the administration has had no qualms in pointing out that one of their key considerations is access to the Venezuelan oil industry.
The Rise of Chavismo
Hugo Chávez remained popular through the entirety of his presidency, being elected and re-elected a total of four times, before ultimately passing away two months into his fourth term. While much of the Venezuelan private sector remained intact, Chávez gained a reputation for being a vocal critic and resistor of the neoliberal project of privatization, and as a foe to US Imperialism which has long treated Latin America as its personal playground. In a world of increasing privatization, globalization, and expanding inequality, Venezuela swam against the current. In the realm of foreign affairs, Chávez aligned himself with other left-leaning leaders in Latin America many of whom, at least in words, resisted neoliberalism, such as Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Fidel Castro. The US government was particularly obsessed with pointing out the relationship between Chávez and Castro.
The 1998 election of Hugo Chávez as president, a mere six years after being imprisoned for attempting to overthrow the Venezuelan government, upended the political order. The increasing likelihood of a Chávez victory led two of Venezuela’s traditional political parties to abandon support for their own candidates’ presidential campaigns as they rallied around a third candidate in a last-ditch effort to prevent him from winning the election. This tactic was unsuccessful. A longtime crusader against political corruption, Chávez was able to win 56% of the vote by running a populist campaign vowing to raise the living conditions of the poorest sectors of society in the oil-rich nation.
While never fully challenging capitalism in many sectors of the economy or implementing a genuine socialist democracy, Chávez’s presidency, until his death in 2013, was marked by considerable investment in education, healthcare, and various other social programs. As a result, poverty levels plummeted from 50% in 1999 to 31.9% in 2011, and extreme poverty decreased from a high of 19.9% in 1999 to 8.6% in 2011.
Chávez was able to pay for many of these investments due to high oil prices during much of his presidency. According to OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the international body which controls much of the world’s supply of oil (with the notable exception of the US), 98% of Venezuela’s export earnings in 2017 were a result of oil revenues.
Under Chávez, Venezuela faced brutal opposition from the US and international capital: loss of investment, attempts to isolate Venezuela from neighboring countries, funding of anti-government groups, and backing of an attempted coup in 2002.
Under the Chávez presidency, however, corruption also spread. After the nationalization of the oil industry and in the name of the Bolivarian revolution, a new corrupt network of bureaucrats pocketed much of the wealth of the nation. People in Venezuela called this development a “Boli-bourgeoisie.” A new pro-capitalist elite was developing and getting rich through Chavismo.
A Post-Chávez Venezuela
Following the death of Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, a close ally of the recently deceased president, went on to win a special election by less than a quarter million votes. This narrow victory kicked off a tumultuous presidency for Maduro, who inherited a country on the brink of economic recession, and a decline in oil prices, which had funded much of the social reforms implemented by his predecessor. At the same time, the results of the new spreading corruption and the weight of the Boli-bourgeoisie on the economy also contributed to living standards being undermined.
The death of Chávez combined with Maduro’s narrow election victory served to embolden the Venezuelan political right and the capitalist governments of North America and Europe who continue to lend it support. In 2015, the Venezuelan opposition (a broad pro-capitalist coalition called MUD: Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, or, the Democratic Unity Roundtable) was able to successfully gain power in the National Assembly for the first time since the creation of the unicameral legislature in 1999, winning 106 of the 167 seats. From this point forward, the National Assembly began to play a central role in attempting to destabilize and bring down Maduro.
Faced with this resurgent opposition, Maduro’s government used Venezuela’s Supreme Court to curtail the MUD-controlled National Assembly. In early 2017, the court attempted to revoke the legislative powers of the National Assembly. Months of protests ensued, some of which were estimated at one million participants, and continued even after the Supreme Court reversed its decision.
The government resorted to bureaucratic methods to enforce their rule after not being able to develop the economy—the latter after the impact of the policies of US imperialism and the fall of the price of oil. Losing the popular support Chávez had, the Maduro regime resorted more and more to police state measures in order to stay in power.
A Contested Presidency
In late January 2019, Venezuela entered a renewed stage of political turmoil as Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for a new term as President of Venezuela. The National Assembly, run by the opposition to Maduro whose parties chose to boycott the May 2018 election, announced that they would not recognize the outcome of the most recent election. The new leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself Interim President instead of Maduro. While Guaidó’s announcement came as a surprise to most ordinary people, the same cannot be said for the capitalist or right-wing leaders of countries across the world. Almost immediately, Donald Trump of the United States, Teresa May of the United Kingdom, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and most of the right-wing leaders of Latin
America countries declared that they would recognize Guaidó as the legitimate President of Venezuela.
This was an attempt at a managed soft coup from the US and other imperialist forces. Trump even toyed with the idea of escalating by sending 5000 troops to Colombia, which could have risked turning it into a full-on war. In the following months, both Maduro and Guaidó have galvanized hundreds of thousands of their supporters to protest in the streets.
The popularity of left-wing ideas is on the rise in the United States. Medicare for All, tuition-free higher education, and the Green New Deal are all topics of discussion among the left. As the 2020 US Presidential election approaches, Trump and his allies in the mainstream will increasingly put forward Venezuela, and more broadly the idea of socialism, as a boogeyman for the choice facing the nation. If Senator Bernie Sanders continues to solidify himself as a serious contender for the Democratic Party nomination, the party establishment will also be pushing this false narrative as another tool in their arsenal to stop him.
Leftists and socialists should prepare themselves to fight back against this red-baiting.
The failure of Chávez’s “socialism of the 21st century” was not in the attempt to establish misiones (community programs) for education or providing food for the poorest. It was also not a mistake to take over the wealth of the nation, oil, to fund these programs. The fundamental mistake was not moving on to establish a real workers’ democracy, which would have been able to fight the bureaucratic weight of the new elite which was establishing itself.
Socialism in one country is not possible against the might of imperialism. Capitalism is an international system of corporate domination and must be replaced by an international system of democratic socialist cooperation. Socialism cannot be overseen by a bureaucratic clique. It requires democratic management of the entire economy and society by the working class. The future of Venezuela will either be a revolution from below to institute a real workers’ democracy or, under the guise of “democracy,” it will be re-privatized and carved up by the executives of Exxon and BP, with the full support and cooperation of US Imperialism.