On February 15, 2003, in the face of the looming US-led war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the Spanish state saw the biggest demonstrations in its history. Part of an immense worldwide anti-war outpouring, about 4 million people turned out.
Leaders of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) were among those at the head of these oceanic demonstrations, which directly targeted the conservative Spanish People’s Party (PP) government of then-prime minister José María Aznar.
Aznar had previously backed the failed December 2002 US-backed coup against then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. He was an enthusiastic partner in the “Coalition of the Willing” with then-US president George W Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair. His government sent troops to Iraq.
Partly due to the immense February 2003 mobilisations, the PSOE leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero won the 2004 general elections, replaced Aznar as prime minister. Zapatero brought Spain’s soldiers in Iraq back home.
Time for a coup
Fast forward to January 23, 2019 in Venezuela’s capital Caracas. It is the 61st anniversary of the 1958 overthrow of Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, traditionally celebrated with mass marches by the country’s different political formations.
The Donald Trump administration has decided the day has come to launch Washington’s next coup attempt against Venezuela’s Bolivarian government. It is guided by US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who helped build the myth of Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” as an under-secretary for George Bush.
National Assembly speaker Juan Guaidó is picked by Washington as its president to replace elected President Nicolás Maduro. Guaido is urged by US Vice-President Mike Pence to proclaim himself interim head of state before the crowd of opposition supporters. This is done on the pretext that article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution allows the National Assembly speaker to replace a president who has become “incapacitated for office”.
Guaidó is straight away recognised as the legitimate president by the US, right-wing governments in Latin America and obedient US allies such as Canada and Australia.
This new coup attempt became thinkable for Washington because Venezuela has been in deep economic crisis (partly the result of a growing US-led economic blockade). People are increasingly angry with the corruption, real and alleged, associated with state officials, and there’s a general atmosphere of repression created by the government’s handling of violent anti-government protests.
This disillusionment was reflected in the 2015 elections for the National Assembly, which were won by the opposition and initiated a situation of conflict between the country’s legislative and executive branches.
In an attempt to reconnect the Bolivarian government with its social base, the Maduro government’s response was to hold elections in 2017 for a National Constituent Assembly. The results of the vote, in which 41.5% of the electoral roll took part, were not recognised by the US, the European Union and various conservative Latin American governments.
The next precondition for a coup attempt against the “illegitimate” Maduro was fulfilled in early February last year: after pressure from former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, a draft agreement between the Venezuelan government and opposition covering conditions for holding presidential elections was rejected at the last moment by the opposition.
The agreement had been negotiated by Spain’s now ex-prime minister Zapatero, who defended the agreement and called on the opposition to respect it.
However, the divided opposition’s backers, led by the US, were concerned that it would lose any elections, creating the prospect of another six years of Maduro government. The campaign to delegitimise the May 2018 presidential poll was then launched, with the EU and the US refusing to send observers.
The election was won by Maduro with 67.8% but with an abstention rate of 54%, in part due to the opposition’s campaign of boycott.
After that, it was simply a matter of time before a president declared “illegitimate” by the US, the European Union and many Latin American governments would be subject to a coup attempt.
How did the PSOE government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez react to this operation, so blatant that Venezuela’s foreign minister Jorge Arreaza told the January 26 UN Security Council meeting on the crisis that “Washington wasn’t behind the coup: it was ahead of it”.
In the days immediately after January 23, it might have seemed as if the Spanish government were looking to favour a negotiated solution to the crisis: while calling for new elections it refused to recognise Guaidó.
Would Sánchez now continue Zapatero’s role or even act along the lines of Mexico, Uruguay and the countries of the Caribbean Community (which have offered to act as mediators in the conflict)? Might he be getting the message of the failure of the Organisation of American States and the UN Security Council to find majorities to endorse Guaidó?
The trio of Spanish conservative and far-right parties, the PP, Citizens and Vox, certainly thought so. Aznar said on January 25 that in not immediately recognising Guaidó, Sánchez was “committing to the consolidation of Maduro”.
He added: “All processes [of negotiation], beginning with the one begun by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, were an attempt to consolidate the regime of Nicolás Maduro.
“Spain forges opinion in the European Union on Iberoamerican affairs. If Spain doesn’t move, there is no opinion.”
At a January 23 rally of Venezuela opposition supporters in Madrid, PP leader Pablo Casado said Sánchez was delaying recognition of Guaidó because of his government’s dependence on the United Left and Podemos,
He added: “In the city of Madrid we are governed by a party [the progressive Madrid Now coalition, including Podemos and the United Left] that has been a consultant to chavismo on repression and on the misery of what is happening in Venezuela.”
Within the PSOE, opponents of Sánchez, like former prime minister Felipe González, were also demanding immediate recognition of Guaidó. Former deputy prime minister Alfonso Guerra even said as dictators go, Maduro was worse than infamous Chilean mass murderer General Augusto Pinochet, because “in Chile at least the economy didn’t collapse”.
On Sánchez’s left flank, the United Left demanded recognition of Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Podemos called on Sánchez to condemn the coup and support negotiations for new elections in Venezuela.
The reason for Sánchez’s caution became clear within three days — the PSOE leader was manoeuvring to get a common European Union position in support of recognising Guaidó.
On January 26, he announced that he had spoken to Guaidó and that four major European Union powers — Spain, France, Germany and Britain —were giving the Maduro government eight days to call new elections or they would recognise the National Assembly speaker as Venezuela’s president.
Missing from the powers issuing the ultimatum was Italy: the ruling Lega Nord-Five Star coalition government was split on the issue with Five Star leader Luigi di Maio refusing to support the eight-day ultimatum.
Five Star feeling was reflected in a Facebook post by former MP Alessandro Di Battista: “Signing an ultimatum to Venezuela is bullshit. It’s the same identical scheme that was put in practice years ago with Libya and Gaddafi.
“We’re not talking about defending Maduro. We’re talking about avoiding an escalation of violence that could even be worse than the one Venezuela has been living for years.”
Even the communique issued on January 26 by Francesca Mogherini, the EU’s de facto foreign minister, avoided specifying the eight-day deadline of the gang of four powers.
To help force a single EU position in support of Guaidó, Sánchez next heightened his anti-Maduro rhetoric while portraying support for Guaidó as obligatory for any democrat. At the same time, PSOE foreign minister Josep Borrell tried to calm fears of EU support for a military intervention into Venezuela.
Borrell said: “The EU and Spain as part of it are radically opposed to any military intervention. Military intervention is an accursed phenomenon in Latin America that would take us back to times that no-one wants to return.”
On January 29, in the Dominican Republic capital Santo Domingo, Sánchez told the closing session of a Socialist International congress that had expelled Nicaragua’s governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN): “Whoever replies with bullets and prisons to the desires for freedom and democracy is not a socialist but a tyrant, and the Venezuelans should feel today the inspiration of the Socialist International.”
On January 30, the difference between the PSOE government’s approach and Mexico’s was on clear view at a joint Mexico City press conference of Sánchez and Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Obrador insisted that México would not recognize Guaidó but was available as a facilitator of negotiations. For his part, Sánchez expressed appreciation for Mexico’s offer of diplomacy.
It was all a polite show. The PSOE government is determined to use the Venezuelan crisis to carve out a new role for the Spanish state in Latin American affairs.
In the same days that the Mexican government left the anti-chavista Lima Group of 11 right-wing Latin American governments plus Canada, the Sánchez government decided to enter it as an observer.
Even Mariano Rajoy, Sánchez’s PP predecessor, had never gone that far.
On January 31, the end point of the PSOE’s support for Trump’s coup became clear in the European Parliament, when a joint resolution of the European PP and socialist groups was carried demanding the immediate calling of presidential elections in Venezuela and the recognition by the European Union of Guaidó.
And it’s all in the name of socialism and democracy.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]