Courage in the face of intimidation. Venezuela’s fight against US imperialiasm

When it comes to international politics we should be very aware of the methodologies used when attempting to weaken or overthrow a nationalist-populist government, aggressors will resort to numerous forms of attack in covert operations such as corruption (buying off government supporters),  funding and organizing opposition media, influencing business and trade union organizations, organizing and backing disloyal military officials to violently overthrow the elected government,  paralyzing of strategic sectors of the economy (oil) by influencing strike actions, financing referendums and other ‘legal mechanisms’ to revoke democratic mandates, promoting paramilitary groups to destabilize civil society, sow public insecurity and undermine agrarian reforms,  financing electoral parties and non-governmental organizations to compete in and delegitimise elections, engaging diplomatic warfare and efforts to prejudice regional relations and establishing military bases in neighboring countries, as a platform for future joint military invasions.

We must be aware that a lot of the unrest in rich but poor countries have underlying quiet injections of encouragement and support from larger nations whose ultimate interest is their own.  The key to understanding the mode and means of imposing and sustaining imperial dominance is to recognize that exploitative nations  combine multiple forms of struggle, depending on resources, available collaborators and opportunities and contingencies in maintaining or establishing their positions. When approaching client governments neo imperialism combines military and economic aid to repress opposition and buttress economic allies by cushioning crises. Imperial propaganda, via the mass media, provides political legitimacy and diplomatic backing, especially when client regimes engage in gross human rights violations and high level corruption.

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US-Venezuelan relations provide us with one modern example of how efforts to restore hegemonic politics can become an obstacle to the development of normal relations, with an independent country.  The US had previously enjoyed the benefits of an exploitative with Venezuela during the reign of  Dictator Perez Jimenez (1958). At this time Venezuela’s politics were marked with rigid conformity to US political and economic interests on all strategic issues. Venezuelan regimes followed Washington’s lead in ousting Cuba from the Organization of American States, breaking relations with Havana and promoting a hemispheric blockade. Caracas followed the US lead during the cold War and backed its counter-insurgency policies in Latin America. It opposed the democratic leftist regime in Chile under President Salvador Allende, the nationalist governments of Brazil (1961-64), Peru (1967-73), Bolivia (1968-71) and Ecuador (in the 1970’s). It supported the US invasions of the Dominican Republic, Panama and Grenada. Venezuela’s nationalization of oil (1976) provided lucrative compensation and generous service contracts with US oil companies, a settlement far more generous than any comparable arrangement in the Middle East or elsewhere in Latin America. During the decade from the late 1980’s to 1998, Venezuela signed off on draconic International Monetary Fund programs, including privatizations of natural resources, devaluations and austerity programs, which emptied the Treasury and impoverished the majority of wage and salary earners. In foreign policy, Venezuela aligned with the US, ignored new trade opportunities in Latin America and Asia and moved to re-privatize its oil, bauxite and other primary resource sectors. President Perez was indicted in a massive corruption scandal. When implementation of the brutal US-IMF austerity program led to a mass popular uprising (the ‘Caracazo’) in February 1989, the government responded with the massacre of over a thousand protesters.

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In steps Hugo Chavez. The US viewed the Venezuelan elections of 1998 as a continuation of the previous decade, despite significant political signs of changes. The two parties, which dominated and alternated in power, the Christian democratic ‘COPEI’, and the social democratic ‘Democratic Action Party’, were soundly defeated by a new political formation headed by a former military officer, Hugo Chavez, who had led an armed uprising six years earlier and had mounted a massive grass-roots campaign, attracting radicals and revolutionaries, as well as opportunists and defectors from the two major parties.

Strategically, Chavez succeeded in creating a strong political institutional base in the legislature, civil administration and military, which could (or would) approve and implement his national-populist agenda. Hugo Chavez first consolidated his political and military base of support and then proceeded to introduce socio-economic changes. By the end of 2000, Washington moved to regroup its internal client political forces into a formidable political opposition. Chavez was too independent, not easily controlled, and most important moving in the ‘wrong direction’ - away from a blind embrace of neo-liberalism and US-centered regional integration. In other words, while Chavez was still well within the parameters of US hegemony, the direction he was taking portended a possible break.

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The first decade of the new millennium saw, the neo-liberal model fall into deep crisis throughout the region, discrediting the US-backed governments in Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and elsewhere. Secondly, repeated major popular uprisings occurred during this crisis and populist-nationalist politicians came to power, rejecting US-IMF instructions and US-centered regional trade agreements. As this was developing, Washington launched a global ‘war on terror’, essentially an offensive military strategy designed to overthrow adversaries to US domination and establish Israeli regional supremacy in the Middle East. In Latin American. Washington’s launch of the ‘war on terror’ occurred precisely at the high point of crisis and popular rebellion, undermining the US hope for region-wide support.

President Chavez rejected Washington’s ‘War on Terror’, rejecting the logic of ‘fighting terror with terror’. By the end of 2001, Washington dispatched a top State Department official and regional ‘enforcer’ to Caracas where he bluntly threatened dire reprisals – destabilization plans – if Caracas failed to line up with Washington’s campaign to reimpose global hegemony. Chavez dismissed the official’s threats and re-aligned his nation with the emerging Latin American nationalist-populist consensus. In other words, Washington’s aggressive militarist posture backfired: polarizing relations, increasing tensions and, to a degree, radicalizing Venezuela’s foreign policy.

Washington’s intervention machine (the ‘coup-makers’) went into high gear: Ambassador Charles Shapiro held several meetings with the FEDECAMARAS (the Venezuelan business association) and the trade union bosses of the CTV (Venezuelan Trade Union Confederation). The Pentagon and the US Southern Command met with their clients in the Venezuelan military. The State Department increased contacts and funding for opposition NGO’s and rightwing street gangs. The date of the coup had been set for April 11, 2002. With the buildup of pressure, preparatory for the threatened coup, the Chavez government began to assess its own resources, contacting loyal military units, especially among the armored battalions and paratroopers.

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In this heated and dangerous atmosphere, local neighborhood committees sprang up and mobilized the poor around a more radical social agenda defending their government while the US-backed opposition unleashed violent street clashes.  The coup was warmly welcomed by Washington and its semi-official mouthpiece, the New York Times. The illicit coup regime seized President Chavez, dismissed Congress, dissolved political parties and declared a state of emergency. The masses and leading sectors of the military quickly responded in mass: Millions of poor Venezuelans descended from the ‘ranchos’ (slums surrounding Caracas) and gathered before Miraflores, the Presidential Palace, demanding the return of their elected President - repudiating the coup. The constitutionalist military, led by an elite paratroop battalion, threatened a full-scale assault against the palace. The coup-makers, realized they were politically isolated and outgunned; they surrendered. Chavez returned to power in triumph. The traditional US policy of violent regime change to restore its hegemony had been defeated; important collaborator assets were forced into exile and purged from the military.

The invasion of Iraq and the bloody occupation of Afghanistan, looming conflicts with Iran and low intensity warfare in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, had weakened the empire’s capacity to intervene militarily in Venezuela. Every country in the region would have opposed any direct US intervention and Colombia was not willing to go it alone, especially with its own full-scale guerrilla war against the FARC.

Venezuela’s trade surplus and high export revenues rendered the traditional Washington financial levers like the IMF and World Bank impotent.  Likewise, Venezuela had signed multi-billion dollar arms trade agreements with Russia, undermining any US boycott. Trade agreements with Brazil and Argentina reduced Venezuela’s need for US food imports.

All the oil multinationals continued normal operations in Venezuela, except US companies. The government’s selective nationalization program and gradual increases in taxes and royalty payments undercut EU support for the US, given the high world price of oil (exceeding $100 dollars a barrel). Chavez’s left-turn was well-funded. The oil revenues funded a wide-range of social programs, including subsidized food, housing and social welfare, healthcare and educational programs led to a sharp drop in poverty and unemployment.

The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has prompted the international left to acknowledge two key features about him and Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution. The first is Chávez's commitment to fighting for the poor and oppressed. Plenty of statistics demonstrate this. Literally millions have been lifted out of poverty and given new opportunities to improve their lives. Examples from daily life abound. I remember speaking to an upper class anti-Chavista once who was complaining about how, since Chávez came to power, it had become difficult to find maids. Many of the poor women she used to hire, she explained, had enrolled in a free education program provided by the government, one of the highly successful ‘missions.’ Another time, an empanada maker who lived with his son in the same 10-foot by six-foot stand he cooked out of told me how, since Chávez arrived, his community became emboldened to organize themselves into a cooperative with the mission of fighting the hotel and restaurant chains in the area, and create a community controlled tourist zone.

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Chavez is larger than life in Venezuela, a country where “Chavismo” is both a movement and an ideology, one rooted in the legacy of this hero and leader, even in death. His face adorns billboards. His signature is plastered on the sides of buildings. His eyes have literally come to be the symbol of the PSUV, the Venezuelan socialist party that he built into a political force in the Bolivarian Republic (also a Chavez creation) and throughout Latin America.

But one cannot help but be struck by the difficulties the country now faces. Many basic necessities of life such as deodorant, sunscreen, and toilet paper are either missing from store shelves, or are in such short supply that lines wrapping around the block are a common sight at busy drug stores in the city. Inflation has wreaked havoc on daily life for ordinary Venezuelans who have been forced to wait for hours at the ATM just to withdraw Bolivars whose official exchange rate is 6.5 to 1 U.S. dollar, while the unofficial rate is hovering around 800 to 1. Even the cafes and restaurants that line the major avenues of Caracas are often out of basic foods such as beans, pork, and more.

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While many in North America and Europe argue that these harsh realities are the result of mismanagement and corruption by the government or, worse still, endemic to socialism, such reductionist analysis overlooks the very real economic war being waged by the U.S. and its allies in Venezuela and throughout Latin America. As economist and former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations Julio Escalona carefully explained to us:

The majority of Venezuela’s imports and distribution networks are in the hands of the elite, the same elite who once also controlled the government until 1999 and Chavez’s ascendance. Many of the goods needed for Venezuelan consumption are diverted to Brazil and Colombia. We are experiencing manufactured scarcity, a crisis deliberately induced as a means of destabilization against the government. For example, we have a huge company that processes chicken, the majority of chicken for the country in fact. That chicken company closed but continues to pay employees to do nothing, deliberately reducing the supply of chicken in the country in order to deprive the people of this critical staple food. This is psychological war waged against the people of Venezuela in an attempt to intimidate them into abandoning the government and the socialist project entirely.

Of course it is difficult to convince a mother with three children and no chicken for dinner that she should consider the political, economic, and psychological dimensions of the issue. Just as it is easy to understand the frustration even of government supporters as they wait on line just to get cash whose value diminishes by the day. But these aspects of the situation are critical to understanding the broader context within which Venezuela is now operating, the new reality that has been thrust upon it.

President Maduro and the government cannot, and does not, control the economy to the point of being able to stop speculation which continues to drive the currency through the floor.

Here again Julio Escalona succinctly stated the all-important truth, “Our currency is not being devalued by speculation, but by hyper-speculation.” This sort of economic warfare can be understood by looking at the statistics, but it can also be felt on the streets. The people, millions of whom will still vote for leftist pro-government parties on Sunday, are struggling, their standard of living has decreased almost as fast as the price of oil has collapsed. And the correlation between those phenomena is not merely incidental.

Listening to the corporate media, one would think that Venezuela was a barbarous place where men, women and children are gunned down in the streets for seemingly no reason. One could be forgiven for envisioning a city where murals of Che and Chavez are exceeded only by the chalk outlines of dead bodies on every street corner. However, the truth is that the violence and crime – both very real phenomena – are symptoms of the larger affliction: economic and psychological war.

The enemies of Venezuela, both in the country and in the U.S., foment just this sort of crime and violence in order to manipulate the collective consciousness of the people in an attempt to coerce them into abandoning the Bolivarian Revolution in favor of a right-wing, pro-U.S., pro-IMF, neoliberal ruling class that will theoretically restore order and guarantee safety.

Ultimately, that’s what this Sunday’s election is really about: courage in the face of intimidation.

Venezuela is not always as beautiful as it appears from an airplane window. It is a country fighting for survival against the Empire, such fights are rarely pretty. But in doing so, Venezuela is also fighting on behalf of all countries targeted by the U.S. And that is truly something beautiful.

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