Democracy in the Americas: the U.S. Pot and the Venezuelan Kettle

Venezuela has as much right to call itself a democracy as does the United States. Until that is understood by enough people, the Trump administration will continue to devastate Venezuela’s economy with illegal sanctions and push it towards civil war. People can oppose President Donald Trump’s economic sanctions and incitement of a military coup without acknowledging President Nicolas Maduro’s democratic legitimacy, but by not acknowledging his legitimacy they needlessly weaken their position.

Millions around the world opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the many years of sanctions that came before that invasion, while also accepting, in that case appropriately, that Saddam Hussein was a monstrous dictator. However, massive global opposition to U.S. aggression in Iraq failed to prevent the war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The most horrifying thing about Venezuela’s case is that it shows (for at least the third time in this century alone) that democratic legitimacy provides very little defense for a government when the U.S. and its allies decide that it “must go.”

On May 20 of last year, Maduro received the votes of 6.2 million people, about 31 percent of the eligible voters, about the same percentage that U.S. presidents generally receive (Obama received 31 percent in 2008 and 28 percent in 2012, while Trump received 26 percent in 2016). Four different groups of international observers (reports hereherehere and here) concluded that Maduro’s electoral victory was clean. If you look beyond vague appeals to the authority of establishment groupthink — statements that typically say the election was “widely dismissed as fraudulent” — you’ll find the arguments to support that claim appallingly thin.

Turnout (at 46 percent) was very low by Venezuelan standards because the bulk of the U.S.-backed opposition to Maduro not only called for a boycott and refused to run candidates, it also attacked Henri Falcon, who defied U.S. threats to run in the election. On May 6, Falcon’s economic advisor, Francisco Rodriguez, said on Twitter that people from the opposition side promoting theories that he was in cahoots with Maduro must have taken a “strong dose” of drugs. In another tweet on the same day, Rodriguez asked the opposition party Voluntad Popular to “stop spreading lies” that a secret pact existed between Maduro and Falcon. Incidentally, Voluntad Popular is the party of the previously obscure legislator, Juan Guaido, whom Trump just anointed as Venezuela’s president.

Falcon began his presidential campaign with an incendiary 35-minute speech on Venezuelan state media, in which he repeatedly called Maduro the “hunger candidate.” In an interview on a large private network, Falcon said that Maduro’s government was an “unscrupulous monster” but insisted that Maduro was also “beatable” at the polls. During the interview, Falcon also advised government opponents that it’s foolish to wait for a “military invasion to save Venezuela.” Aside from hinting at the obvious objective of the electoral boycott, it’s surreal that this was said on TV in a country labeled a “dictatorship” and accused of perpetrating a “crackdown” on dissent. Falcon’s advisor also traveled all over Venezuela and made numerous TV appearances (examples herehere and here) campaigning for Falcon.

A secret ballot precludes vote-buying

Reuters, whose headlines have often been quite open in their contempt for Maduro’s government, conceded that voting is secret in Venezuela, but tents set up by the government close to voting centers on Election Day (known as Punto Rojos) were hyped as “voting buying.” Puntos Rojos (Red Points) are used for exit polling, and have also been used by the opposition, except in a different color, in numerous elections over the past 20 years. By law, they are required to be 200 meters away from voting centers.

On May 3, Maduro said that people who came to a Puntos Rojo after voting could “probably” win a prize. This is hardly an exemplary practice, but voting is secret, so nothing prevents people from voting for the opposition and then showing up for a chance at a prize. An opposition blog referred to these tents as “The Perfect Blackmail” but even this account concedes that the government can’t know how people voted.

U.S. sanctions as the real “blackmail”

As an argument for calling the election invalid, this is stunningly weak and that’s before you consider a huge offsetting factor: U.S. economic sanctions that effectively hold a gun to the Venezuelan electorate. It’s perfect blackmail indeed when Western journalism can’t detect a disqualifying electoral problem with sanctions that have cost Venezuela’s government $6 billion dollarsin the 12 months following August of 2017 when Trump imposed financial sanctions. That’s about 6 percent of its GDP in a region where most countries spend about 7 percent of GDP annually on health care.

Bear in mind also that Venezuela was only able to import $11.7 billion in goods in 2018 according to Torino Capital, where Rodriguez is the chief economist. Aside from being electoral blackmail, U.S. sanctions are clearly murderous, as they drastically cut into the government’s capacity to import essential items like food and medicine. This is simply ignored by a media that often hyperventilates over very dubious allegations of significant “Russian interference” in U.S. elections through email hacking and clickbait operations.

Francisco Rodriguez has noted (approvingly) that Trump’s recognition of a “new government” could prevent Venezuela from getting paid for oil shipments to the United States. In other words, Trump is now poised to make the sanctions still more devastating.

Apologists for Trump have dismissed the impact of U.S. sanctions by saying that Venezuela’s crisis was not caused by them. It’s true that Maduro could have prevented the crisis — most easily in the first year and a half of his government when oil prices were still very high – and therefore prevented Trump from ever being able to put his foot on the throat of Venezuela’s economy. But would it have been acceptable for a foreign government to deliberately make the financial crisis in the United States worse in 2008 by arguing it was not the original cause? Is it acceptable to assault a cancer patient provided the assailant can prove he did not give the patient cancer?

Confusing competence with legitimacy

The competence of a government is also a totally separate issue from its democratic legitimacy, but the two are often conflated in Venezuela’s case. If bad policies that produce needless suffering make a country a dictatorship then was the United States a dictatorship during the Great Depression, or is it today as a result of its scandalously poor health care system for a wealthy country? Was Greece a dictatorship during its economic meltdown after 2010?

Moreover, U.S. support for coup attempts in Venezuela since 2002 was partly responsible for the policies that led to the crisis. It saddled Venezuela with opposition leaders who knew they’d be supported by the world’s most powerful country no matter how they seized power. The exchange rate system that ended up being the Achilles heel of the government’s economic policy, was set up after the second major attempt by the U.S.-backed opposition to depose the government by force: that time through the sabotage of the state oil company. The first coup “attempt” briefly succeeded and established a dictatorship under Pedro Carmona that was welcomed by the Bush Administration, the New York Times editorial board (among others), and the IMF, whichimmediately stepped forward to offer Carmona’s dictatorship loans.

Another complaint about Maduro’s electoral victory last year was that two prominent opposition leaders were disqualified from running: Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles. Both were participants in, not just supporters of, the coup that installed Carmona. In the United States, anyone who participates in a violent uprising that threatens the life of a sitting president would not be complaining about being disqualified from running for office. That would be the least of their worries, for them and any foreign government foolhardy enough to support them.

Additionally, opposition-aligned pollster Datanalisis claimed, three months before the election, that Falcon was one of the opposition’s most popular leaders — basically in a statistical tie with Leopoldo Lopez for the top spot.

The U.S. pot and the Venezuelan kettle

The opposition has other reasons for rejecting Maduro’s legitimacy but, even when they have some validity, one struggles to see how very similar objections could not also apply to the United States. It was certainly a disproportionate Venezuelan Supreme Court ruling that disqualified the entire National Assembly in 2017 because it flouted the court’s authority. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court made a very dubious ruling that gave George W. Bush the presidency. Should the Democrats, backed by a foreign power, have disregarded the Supreme Court and named their own president? Then there is mass incarceration, political brutality, voter suppression, and other forms of corruption in the U.S. political system. The U.S. Electoral College is a bad joke that has, twice since 2000, allowed the loser of the popular vote to take the White House.

Does all that make United States a dictatorship? Which foreign government (if a powerful enough government existed) is anyone willing to authorize to “fix” the U.S. political system through economic blackmail, threats of invasion, or by inciting the U.S. military to perpetrate a coup?

Trump has predictably found some willing allies around the world for his recent escalation against Venezuela. Unpopular as the Iraq War was around the world in 2003, the U.S. managed to get dozens of governments to join the ”coalition of the willing” to perpetrate the supreme international war crime – including two with very progressive reputations: Norway and Denmark. The more widely loathed the U.S. president, the more important allies become. Hence, on February 29, 2004, George W. Bush — who was thoroughly discredited around the world, owing to the invasion of Iraq — was happy to be fully supported by the governments of Canada and France when U.S. troops kidnapped Haiti’s democratically elected president and installed a dictatorship under which thousands of loyalists to the deposed government were murdered.

It is possible that Trump may eventually succeed in producing a kind of “electoral victory” similar to that which Ronald Reagan produced in 1990 in Nicaragua through a combination of terrorism and economic strangulation. It is fine and necessary to promote dialogue and negotiations, but if Maduro’s democratic legitimacy is not recognized, a “negotiated solution” is not only less likely but also less likely to lead to anything good.


Joe Emersberger is a writer based in Canada whose work has appeared in Telesur English, ZNet and CounterPunch.