Some things never change. The petulant and undemocratic Venezuelan opposition is at it again, with the full backing and check-writing support of the U.S. government. Recent protests have inflamed the streets of Caracas, as opposition groups, as they have in the Ukraine, called for the ouster of the sitting president. I suppose it’s needless to note that Nicolás Maduro is Venezuela’s democratically elected president, and that he won by a higher victory margin in a cleaner election than did Barack Obama in 2012. Nor is it worth asking, one supposes, that if the entire country is engulfed by dissent, as The New York Times insidiously suggested by claiming the “The protests are expressing the widespread discontent with the government of President Nicolás Maduro, a socialist…”, then why did Maduro’s party, Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), claim wide majorities in municipal elections in December? Or why are these “widespread” protests largely confined to middle-class or student areas of Caracas and not rife within much larger poor neighborhoods? Or if a government has the right to arrest opposition leaders (in this case Leopoldo Lopez, the latest rabid ideologue) for inciting violence?
Public Virtue, Private Vice
Secretary of State John Kerry has ratcheted up the drivel stateside, claiming to be “alarmed” by reports that Maduro has “detained scores of anti-government protesters” and that the crackdown would have a “chilling effect” on free expression. A bit rich coming from a man whose own government has been icing free speech since the Snowden revelations. Kerry failed to mention whether the millions of American taxpayer dollars being funneled to the opposition were behind the violence. The Los Angeles Times described Maduro’s administration as an “autocratic government.” Opposition leader Henrique Caprilles, demolished by Maduro in last year’s landslide election, rejected Maduro’s invitation to talks and claimed one of the Latin America’s most popular political parties was a “dying government.”
For its part, Mercosur, the alliance of South America’s southern cone countries, denounced the violence as an attempt to “destabilize” a democratic government. Of course, the behavior of Maduro’s government in response to these street provocations ought to closely watched, as this is the new president’s first real test coping on an international stage with the intrigues of a small but virulent neoliberal opposition.
There’s plenty to suggest that this is, like Ukraine, another external attempt to uproot a democratically elected government through a volatile cocktail of in-country agitation and violence paired with global media defamation of the existing administration. It wouldn’t come as a surprise. Like a frustrated and petulant infant, the United States has repeatedly attempted to derail the Bolivarian Revolution launched by former President Hugo Chavez in the late nineties, as CEPR’s Mark Weisbrot has noted. It backed an anti-democratic coup by business elites in 2002 that actually succeeded for a couple of days and happily dissolved parliament before Chavez regained power. It supported an oil strike in an attempt to destabilize the economy and perhaps bring down the government. It encouraged opposition members of parliament to push for recalls (failed) and boycott National Assembly elections (useless) and clamor incessantly that last year’s national presidential election was rigged (false). Of course, despite being widely held to be a superior electoral process than that of the United States, Kerry was only shamed into recognizing the legitimacy of the election long after the rest of the world had.
The U.S. has poured millions into opposition activities on an annual basis since the failed coup in 2002. (NGOs are convenient destinations for this money since foreign contributions to political parties are illegal in both countries.) Just look at 2013 alone. Washington would hardly stand for interference of this kind from, say, China. Or, better, from Venezuela itself. Imagine if it was discovered that Chavez had been seeding major American metropolises with anti-capitalist pamphleteers. Obama wouldn’t be able to hit the “signature strike” button fast enough. Nevertheless, Kerry, in his role as Secretary of State, has turned out to be a masterful mimic capable of registering a fusty outrage on short notice, especially over claimed violations of civil liberties. Curious, since the ceaseless trampling of civil liberties by his own Democratic party have elicited nothing from this flag-bearer for democratic values.
Dollars & Bolivars
This is not to say that Venezuela does not have protest-worthy problems. Inflation has been chronic since the pre-Chavez days. Now food shortages are trying the patience of the population. And in one sense, these shortages are self-inflicted. According to Gregory Wilpert of VenezuelAnalysis.org, the government’s currency controls have been undermined by an all-too-predictable black market. While the government has placed strict criteria on the ability of citizens to purchase dollars with bolivars, the black market allows citizens to buy dollars without any criteria whatsoever. The government’s exchange rate is likewise controlled, and has over time begun to distort the real value of the bolivar. The black market exchange rate, by contrast, reflects the external value of the currency. The gap between these exchange rates has grown rapidly, such that there is now exist huge incentives for citizens to play currency arbitrage. If they satisfy the federal criteria—such as needing dollars to travel or import goods—Venezuelans can buy dollars cheaply using the government exchange rate. They can then pay those dollars to import goods, then export those goods in exchange for the dollars they just spent on the imports. From there it is a simple step to the black market, where they can sell those dollars for many times what they paid at the government’s official rate, making a tidy profit for themselves. If they happen to be rabid anti-socialists, they can enjoy the companion thrill of generating food shortages that can be blamed on the government. Ah, the timeless magic of import/export.
These are legitimate grievances, however, as are crime figures, which top the regional table. Yet the question is, do they merit the overthrow of a legitimate government backed by a wide majority of the population at the behest of a small but fierce oppositional faction openly funded by an imperial power committed to its overthrow? To do so would risk the absurdity of gratifying the strident demands of a few at the expense of the many. Nor would it wouldn’t be far removed from the recent episode in Watertown, New York, where the city council banned residents to have roommates based on the complaint of a single citizen. (This even more amusingly recalls the opposition of Ambrose Bierce to the concept of prayer, since to Bierce the devout were requesting that “the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.”) The fact is, despite the inflation and shortages, the population continues to support the Bolivarian Revolution because of its accomplishments—massive reductions in poverty, extreme poverty, and illiteracy. Significant growth in per capita GDP and other important metrics.
A Doctrine in Decline
We’re seeing in clear images the viciousness with which neoliberal factions resent the loss of power and seek to restore it by any means necessary. Democracy is the least of their concerns. But this has been the Latin American backstory for a couple of centuries. Much of the U.S. activity in Latin America feels like a frantic and desperate last-ditch effort to preserve the Monroe Doctrine, by which we essentially declared Latin America to be our own backyard, off-limits to European empires. What was ostensibly a call to respect independent development in the Southern hemisphere rather predictably evolved into an excusive for self-interested intervention. But now, for the first time in centuries, Latin America has struck out on its own, slipping from beneath the clutch of the eagle’s claw to form organizations like Mercosur and CELEAC, PetroCaribe and Petrosur, the Bank of the South as well as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). Aside from Columbia, an implacable outpost of American influence, the region has shunned greater U.S. involvement, and begun to view its proffered trade agreements with far more suspicion, particularly in the long wake of NAFTA, the poster child for lopsided and economically destructive trade treaties.
Whether the U.S. will eventually succeed in a cynical ploy to unseat Maduro remains to be seen. If recent events in the Ukraine are any indication, that may have been a test run for Venezuela, as Peter Lee suggests. It hasn’t helped that, as in practically every country that comes to mind, an elite class of neoliberal ideologues own the mainstream media. The tools of propaganda have rarely been more fiercely deployed than since Chavez launched his socialist revolution. And yet, since then, practically the entire continent has experimented with left-leaning leadership: Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Nicanor Duarte in Paraguay, Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay, to some degree Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and Maduro in Venezuela. Nor should exiled Honduran president Manuel Zalaya be forgotten. These figures have collectively stepped back from the brink of dubious integration with North America and sought stronger regional ties and continental autonomy.
The U.S. has replied with a predictable confection of threats, lies, and sacks of cash for ferociously anti-democratic elements. Perhaps it most fears the bad karma it generated for itself with Operation Condor, which on September 11, 1973 overthrew and murdered Chile’s socialist leader Salvador Allende and replaced him with a gutless sadist, Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet—a repressive militarist—happily instituted the untested prescriptions of the Chicago School of Economics’ sermonizing armchair guru Milton Freidman, with predictable results. Now, Maduro, carrying the mantle of Chavez and his Bolivarian manifesto, is arguably the spiritual vanguard of the socialist left in South America. Venezuela’s efforts to continue to forge its own independence in the coming decade will surely influence the mood and courage of other leftists in the region. The stakes are obviously high. Hence the relentless American effort to destabilize and publically discredit the PSUV. The fate of the global left is in a very real sense being tested in the crucible of Caracas.
Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at email@example.com.