The Fire This Time in the Americas
by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera
21 February 2019
With the US and countries across the Americas having recognised Juan Guaidó, head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s rightful president, Oscar Guardiola-Rivera makes sense of the timing and motives behind their support.
The question isn’t whether this is a coup. The question isn’t whether Juan Guaidó’s self-proclamation of leadership of Venezuela, recognised by rightwing and far-right leaders of the Americas before it actually happened and immediately after by Donald Trump, is more or less legal than elected president Nicolás Maduro’s rule. Lawyers like Antonio Ecarri, vice president of the opposition party Democratic Action will spout their scholastic interpretations of article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, which states that “when the president-elect is absolutely absent before taking office, a new election shall take place (…) And while the president is elected and takes office, the interim president shall be the president of the National Assembly.” They will argue that article 233 could be used because the absence is due to the “usurpation of the presidential office, which has left the position empty.”
You may be forgiven for thinking their aim is to invalidate not only the last presidential election but also the very moment when former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was brought to power by the people who elected him back in 1998. Let me warn you against such an act of critique. However well-intentioned it may be, it is already a distraction.
The ultimate aim of lawyers like Ecarri is not to demonstrate the legality of Guaidó or the illegality of Maduro’s rule, of which they are convinced already. Their aim is to erase the Venezuelan people; to vanish the role they played during the last decade and a half of the Bolivarian revolution from the annals of history and to proclaim their banishment from radical action in any future history. Why? Because these lawyers, along with puppet politicians like Guaidó, Colombian president Ivan Duque and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, know very well that, from the outset, the Bolivarian revolution wasn’t about Hugo Chávez or Maduro. Neither of them created nor sustain the revolution. To paraphrase the Trinidad historian C. L. R. James, it was the revolution that made Chávez. Or, as Venezuelan organizers would tell journalists if they actually bothered asking them, neither Maduro nor Chávez created these movements. They pre-date both, as you would know if you were around as I was back on 27 February 1989.
Chile and beyond.
Venezuelans woke up to an austerity-like, International Monetary Fund-imposed package of structural adjustment that saw gas prices double overnight and consequently bus fares, foodstuffs and everything else. The popular eruption that followed, known as El Caracazo, opened the space for people to organise themselves against the spread of neoliberal and foreign debt service-related reforms, not only in Venezuela but elsewhere in the Americas. The key date in the minds of many Venezuelans is 11 September 1973. That day, Augusto Pinochet overthrew the elected socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende. The script was the same as the one being followed today by Guaidó and his humanitarian patrons. In the midst of a profound economic crisis which included food and medicine shortages, Chile’s rightwing dominated legislature declared there was a power vacuum and a usurpation of power by Allende’s executive, thereby undermining support for Allende.
The problem was that even after US sanctions had wreaked havoc, with Allende’s government unable to stop the economic downward spiral, the rightwing opposition couldn’t defeat the socialist in elections. So, in the eleventh hour they managed to turn the army generals Allende trusted most against him. The rest is tragedy. Sound familiar? It does to many Venezuelans on the ground. Even those who don’t know the story of Allende have heard of its more recent repetitions, which have taken place in neighbouring Colombia for the last two or three decades. At least 7m people have been internally displaced in Colombia, many more than the 2.3m who have left Venezuela as the economic situation worsens there. During this time, more people have been disappeared in the dirty war that the Colombian state and its army than in all of the dictatorships in the southern cone combined.
Throughout all this, the lawyers, diplomats and political leaders have remained silent. These, of course, are the same people who signed a letter of support recognising Guaidó on 14 January 2019, an astonishing nine days before he proclaimed himself ‘interim’ president of the Bolivarian republic. In fact, one of them, the notorious Álvaro Uribe Vélez who presided over the darkest years of the war in Colombia, not only walks free, having allowed the US to establish a number of military bases in its territory, but also remains the most powerful politician in Colombia. Vélez even handpicked the then unknown Duque to lead his party to power after successfully painting the liberal Juan M. Santos as weak, corrupt, economically incompetent pro-Chavista, and a friend to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and feminist struggles. Duque is now one of the two main South American players, the other being neo-fascist Bolosonaro of Brazil, in the ‘soft’ (for now) effort to oust Maduro.
Sound familiar? Like Duque, Guaidó was educated in the elite economics and business schools of the country, becoming the latter-day version of Chile’s infamous ‘Chicago Boys’, a group of Chilean economists prominent in the 1970s and 1980s who trained at the University of Chicago under famed free-market economist Milton Friedman. He too was an unknown quantity until a few days ago, handpicked by far-right Alvaro Uribe sympathiser Leopoldo López to lead the shock troops (soldiers specially trained for leading sudden attacks) to power in Venezuela’s legislature. “Shock troops” may not be a metaphor. Guaidó has been linked to the Popular Will movement that came to prominence during the violent 2007 protests as the people behind the notorious guarimbas, a group of far-right shock troops known to have punished pro-Chavista opponents by burning them alive. But the lawyers and their political economic patrons would have you believe that Uribe, Bolsonaro, Duque, López and Guaidó, to say nothing of their masters in Washington – people like US national security advisor John Bolton, special envoy to Venezeula, vice president Mike Pence and secretary of state Mike Pompeo – have the answers. It is these men, whose record frankly speaks for itself, who intend to peacefully lead the suffering Venezuelan formless mass out of tyranny, repression, economic hardship and human rights violations.
To the victor go the spoils.
Contradictions abound: mere hours or days after having accused Maduro’s government of being a repressive, lawless violator of human rights, Bolton let it be known that his intention was to send him to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The infamous site is well known among investigators not only for being a veritable legal black-hole but also for mounting evidence that the US uses it to conduct practices that amount to inhuman treatment and torture. Bolton also made it clear during an interview with Fox News that their aim was to guarantee US oil and gas corporations rights to exploration and exploitation. In fact, it has come to light that major oil companies Chevron and Haliburton would’ve been exempted from the last round of sanctions that will further deepen the suffering of the everyday Venezuelan people these liars claim to protect. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump repeatedly claimed during the presidential race that his problem with the Iraq war, which both Bolton and Abrams helped design, was that America hadn’t kept the oil. “To the victor the spoils,” Trump was alleged to have said at CIA HQ. Together with Bolton’s clarification that he dislikes interventions elsewhere “but thinks differently about this hemisphere”, this principle of plunder re-enacts for the 21st century the ages-old Monroe Doctrine, according to which the Américas are America’s own.
The doctrine also reinvents the rules for a coup: gone are the creepy generals dressed in green fatigues and dark glasses, at least for now. In their place, are young, educated, tie-wearing, God-fearing, camera-friendly, baby-kissing white guys. Of course, it has to be a white guy. White supremacist Washington, black-hating Bolsonaro and the racist elites of Latin America wouldn’t have it any other way. Few have noticed that hidden between the news lines alleging that “the majority of countries in the Americas and Europe” back Guaidó, lurks the ugly head of what French philosopher Etienne Balibar calls neo-racism. Look at the maps and infographics that show in bright heavenly blue the countries supporting Guaidó. Evil red is left for Afro-Latin-American Cuba and Amerindian Nicaragua and Bolivia. Tellingly, Mexico has also come out against intervention during a recent encounter between Lopez Obrador and Spain’s Pedro Sanchez in which the former lectured the latter on 200 years of history of Latin American search for independence and contribution to a new international order. Didn’t Trump just call them “rapists”? Hasn’t he effectively militarised the Mexican-American border having sparked a frenzy of sentiment against Mexican and central American “invasion” and contamination? They’re next on Bolton’s list.
As for the countries of the Caribbean that spoke against US-led intervention in the last gathering of the UN Security Council, they’re almost invisible to the eye of the casual reader in these maps; news anchors don’t even mention them. Would they be able to pinpoint Trinidad and Tobago in the already problematic mainstream map of the Americas? Would Bolton? Has Washington considered the Afro-Amerindian archaic formations behind the longer history of rebellions and revolutions behind the Bolivarian revolution?
A new cold war.
Like most observers, those in political power and the media tend to reduce the progressive history of the last decade, if not the entire history of popular uprisings, to some moralising cautionary tale about why ‘socialism always ends badly’. That’s the other problem with the Venezuela story: it’s almost never about Venezuelans, especially recently empowered black and Amerindian Venezuelan and women community leaders: it’s almost always merely a stick with which to hit Jeremy Corbyn in the UK or Podemos in Spain. Behind this erasure of Venezuelan people lurks deep-seated imperialist assumptions staged within racializing frameworks. Of course, they remain in the background. Yet, when the media refers to the ‘major’ countries of the Americas and Europe as Guaidó’s backers, aren’t they implicitly saying that the other countries are ‘minor’, at best, non-existent at worst? This has nothing to do with political correctness. For it amounts to drawing a ‘new’ colour line on the world’s geopolitical map. Take stock of the fact that Russia and China, and the Turks, are said to be Maduro’s only important allies. If so, what we’re witnessing being referred to as the Venezuela crisis isn’t just a new cold war, but rather an attempt to redraw geopolitical allegiances in terms of a new colour line.
Let’s then conclude where we began. The question isn’t whether this is a coup, or a matter of law as Jeremy Hunt would have it. The question is, why now? The answer might be that behind the macho war-like posturing and the colouring of lines, what’s revealed is that this is the moment of extreme weakness for the powerful. Washington neoconservatives know Trump’s days are numbered and that he might not be replaced by a Democrat hawk. Socialism is now a word in the US, however ambiguous it may appear for now. They also know Bolsonaro is mired in a huge scandal involving his wife and son and links to the paramilitary militias seemingly responsible for the political assassination of Rio city councillor Mareille Franco, among others.
They know the other rightwing regimes backing Guaidó are no less unpopular: Colombia’s Duque just managed to scrape a few more points with his warmongering posture but remains in the lower levels of the political order; Argentina’s Mauricio Macri is presiding over an economic meltdown of epic proportions that could easily rival those reported in the case of Venezuela in terms of their impact on common people.
Chile’s Sebastián Piñera isn’t doing much better. The victory of Lopez Obrador in Mexico has been read as a hangover of the past ‘pink wave’, but could easily herald the beginning of a new much more interesting one, which could even catch on in the US. That’s why the time is now. Yes, the bastards are back, but not for long. They know it, which makes them and the war, the fire they threaten to start this time in the Americas, all the more dangerous.
This article was amended on 26 February 2019. It previously stated at least 7m Colombians had been displaced to neighbouring countries, rather than internally displaced.