Mr. Kerry, Stop Bullying Venezuela
I don’t believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don’t accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. Reality is telling us that every day. But if I am told that because of that reality you can’t do anything to help the poor, then I say, “We part company.” -Hugo Chavez, 2004
The hypocrisy of the government of the United States seems to know no limits. The current posture it’s taking toward the elected government of Venezuela is simply shameful.
Secretary of State John Kerry and two powerful US Senators are threatening economic sanctions unless the duly elected Venezuelan government changes its tune in on-going talks between itself and a collection of disgruntled right-wing parties and business elements. The headline in the New York Times reads: “Kerry Calls on Venezuela To Talk with Opposition.”  What it should have read was: “Kerry Threatens Venezuela With Sanctions: Do It Our Way, Or Else.”
The headline misleads because talks are already in process mediated by representatives from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and the Roman Catholic Church. Venezuela is talking; the opposition just hasn’t gotten what it or the US wants — hence the threats. Encouraging fair diplomatic talks is a good thing; but threats of an economic attack? The hypocrisy is laughable.
Can you imagine John Kerry threatening Israel with economic sanctions if it did not “demonstrate good-faith actions” or “honor the dialogue process” or “restore the civil liberties of [Palestinian] leaders who have been unjustly imprisoned.” Kerry’s Israel/Palestine diplomacy crashed and burned last month, and as most of the world knows, the Israeli decision to pursue new West Bank settlements in the midst of the talks had a lot to do with their demise. The Israelis failed miserably at “good faith actions.” So why not economic sanctions against Israel? You gotta be kidding.
The American right will say such a comparison is preposterous because Palestinians represent a different case from the opposition elements in Venezuela. And, of course, that’s true. They are different: Palestinians are a poor, beaten-down people with zero clout in the halls of the US government, while the Venezuelan opposition includes the wealthiest, most comfortable and fat-cat Venezuelans who have a direct line into the office suites of the US government, especially the State and Defense Departments.
In fact, the Venezuelan opposition is so tight with Washington and US corporate capital that elements of this US linkage supported a coup in April 2002 to overthrow duly elected President Hugo Chavez. Those planning and enacting the coup turned out to be overconfident bumblers and miscalculated how popular Hugo Chavez was among the majority poor in Venezuela — and among the bulk of the military. After 47 hours Hugo was flown by helicopter back to the presidential palace and coup leaders had to flee with their tails between their legs to safe haven in the United States. That episode says a lot about what’s going on right now. The charismatic Chavez has been knocked off the stage by cancer, the economy is in trouble and the opposition and their Washington friends sense vulnerability in the Miraflores Presidential Palace.
Of course we’re not supposed to talk about the 2002 coup here in the US. Once the coup fell flat on its face the instruments of forgetting went into gear, and thanks to our protective media, the coup disappeared from the minds of the American people quicker than a leftist victim of a Latin American dirty war. Your husband is missing? We know nothing. Maybe he went to live with a girl friend. Coup? What coup? After Chavez’s return to power, a hostile Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled that what happened on April 11th 2002 was not a failed coup but simply a “power vacuum” — whatever that means. By now, thanks to the US Supreme Court, we’re all familiar with sophist jurisprudence. The point was a power vacuum didn’t demand that anyone be prosecuted. End of story.
Which brings to mind the Obama Administration’s response to other coups. The Obama administration accepted the 2010 coup in Honduras like it was also a power vacuum, maybe more like a power hiccup. Since then, police killings have risen and violence against the poor and the left has become commonplace.
Then there’s the coup in Egypt that overthrew duly elected President Mohamed Morsi. The US refused to declare that one a “coup” so it could legally still send the Egyptian military millions in aid annually. The fact the military government of General, soon-to-be-President, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi gunned down over a thousand unarmed, peaceful protesters in the streets of Cairo didn’t make John Kerry threaten sanctions. It would have been silly for Kerry to threaten the post-coup Egyptian government with sanctions since he wanted so badly to keep sending them US tax dollars in what amounts to a bribe to keep Egypt as a putative ally of Israel.
Again, voices on the right might say this is arguing apples and oranges. And again, they’d be correct. The military government of Egypt is inclined to oppress and kill people sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, part of the International Muslim Conspiracy, whose disenfranchised street protesters simply deserved to die. The protesters in Caracas are different. They’re normal middle class people who want to drive around in Mercedes to the flashy Caracas malls without having to engage with poor people. And as anyone who has been to Caracas knows, lots of poor people live by the tens of thousands in barrios that look like colorful, tufted blankets spread over the city’s hillsides. The agenda of Hugo Chavez and his successor is to empower those people and ultimately lift them into the middle class. The comfy class finds this threatening.
In Venezuela, right-wing anti-Chavez businessmen control the major media and newspapers that constantly attacked and slandered Hugo Chavez and now do the same with Maduro and his government. It’s like the right-wing Tea Party attacks on Barack Obama in this country and the opposition Republicans’ willingness to stoop to anything to prevent President Obama, at first, a second term, now a positive legacy for his presidency. In the case of Venezuela, multiply this dynamic by ten and make it more vicious. Throw in the strategic use of violence and PR spin on that violence. Then add the full endorsement and apologetic oversight of the US government, the Pentagon, Wall Street and the mainstream US media.
This is not a conspiracy. It’s the facts of life.
One truism about the Latin American left is that it won’t take any more of the sort of US bullying that characterized the past. For this reason, when Secretary Kerry makes threats it does nothing but stiffen the spines of Latin American leftists. Look what threats and embargoes did with Cuba, which has been able to hold off the United States behemoth for 44 years. Had the US been less arrogant and belligerent, things might have been very different and a dialogue might have been possible so that the island of Cuba might have opened up long ago. But that would have required humility.
I was on Hugo Chavez’s Sunday TV show Alo Presidente! back in 2006. A friend and I took with us a resolution from the city of Macon, Georgia, declaring solidarity with progressive change in Venezuela. We were one of many guests on his show. I’ve been called names and hooted at by right-wing loonies aware of my appearance on the show. Hugo held forth at a little table before a studio audience talking extemporaneously and interviewing people for seven hours and 58 minutes. I timed it. He was informed; he was funny; he was mercurial. And he was in the service of improving the lives of the poor over the lives of profit-hungry capitalists.
I’m not a lockstep ideologue, but I’m not ashamed to say I respect the legacy of Hugo Chavez. Could he be a flaming jerk? Sure. What great public man was not wrong or a fool now and then? That time on the UN podium when he talked of smelling the sulfur following George W. Bush was a great moment, but it was a stupid, un-statesman-like indulgence that cost Venezuela an important leadership post in the Organization of American States. And that wasn’t the only time he went too far. But he was a left-leaning reformer with cojones who could be amazingly calm in the face of the things his powerful opposition did to thwart him.
What the US and its allies most resented about Hugo was he was an unabashed leftist who understood he needed to be well armed. Daniel Ortega put it best in a reference to the 1971 Chile coup and other US interferences. Like Ortega before him, Hugo did not believe in “post mortem solidarity” of the sort Chilean President Salvadore Allende received after he was dead. The lesson was don’t let them kill you — actually or metaphorically.
But Nicolas Maduro is no Hugo Chavez, and the Venezuelan economy is in trouble with serious inflation and other problems that become more difficult when there are volatile protests in the street.
The Kerry threats do raise the question whether there is a place for some kind of real-politic synthesis in Venezuela between the thesis of Chavez’s Bolivarian socialism and the anti-thesis of capitalism as practiced by much of the world in 2014? But as the Chavez quote at the top suggests, some of that mixed-economy reality actually flourishes in Venezuela, which only resembles a hermetically-sealed Cuba in the malicious imagination of the right-wing in both Venezuela and the US.
I certainly can’t speak for Venezuelan leaders, but I imagine a synthesis is possible. If only the two sides could actually speak with each other reasonably. But they can’t do that while the Secretary of State of the United States of America and US senators like Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio make threats. Do it our way … or else! Having US imperial muscle standing behind them lends the Venezuelan opposition too much unreal bravado in negotiations. It’s no longer a Venezuelan dialogue. It’s an imperial US-Venezuela dialogue.
In such an intimidating climate, it’s hard to blame the Maduro government for digging in its heels. “I reject, I detest the interference of these right-wing sectors of the United States,” Maduro said earlier this week. Given the bad history, the next step for Venezuela will have to be to beef up its military and police forces — when it should be focusing on its economic problems.
Our leaders seem locked in a Cold War time warp, nostalgic for a time when the US was clearly the big dog that could push others around. On one hand, our expectations of compliance by others has grown as we have become richer and our feelings of exceptionalism more deeply entrenched. At the same time, in the eyes of others our arrogance has significantly squandered much of the legitimate aspects of that authority. While we’re far from toothless, the rest of the world sees this happening. It’s a little like the drunk abuser who’s losing his grip; those he abused no longer fear him so much, though they still give him a wide berth.
In the May/June issue of The National Interest, Michael Lind has an article titled “The Promise of American Nationalism.” Here’s the nut of his thesis:
“It is time to reject the strategy of perpetual U.S. global military hegemony and the doctrine of postnationalism that justifies it, and replace them with enlightened American nationalism.” In other words, let Europe protect itself. Pull back our bases and let the regions of the world sort out their own problems. Don’t give up our military, just whittle it down to size. Focus and apply more resources to domestic national problems. That is, become a nation again, rather than an empire, a path Lind says “should have been taken following the Cold War. After a quarter century of delusion and debacle and folly, it is time for an American foreign policy based on the national interest.”
This means leaving Venezuela alone to sort out its own problems in conjunction with its close Latin American neighbors — but not completely without its Western Hemisphere neighbor to the north, since no one is suggesting the US roll up its carpet and disappear. It means stop threatening the government of Venezuela based on an impulse rooted in the bullying of the last century. It’s not isolationist to address your own problems at home. In the process maybe we could set an example for places like Venezuela, instead of aggravating them.
Plus, we’d stop being such damn hypocrites.
JOHN GRANT is a member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent three-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper. His work, and that of colleagues DAVE LINDORFF, GARY LINDORFF, ALFREDO LOPEZ, LORI SPENCER, LINN WASHINGTON, JR. and CHARLES M. YOUNG, can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net