US destablisation of Venezuela part of larger picture

February 22, 2014
Violent opposition protests in Altamira, Caracas.

Since the 1990s, many critics of the United States have accused Washington of promoting the dismemberment of nations such as Yugoslavia, in accordance with neoliberalism’s drive to weaken central governments and nation states.

Today, Washington’s official policy in nations like Syria and now the Ukraine has been support for rebels seeking to overthrow the government, even though their chances of success are minimal.

In the case of Syria, the US has provided material support for rebels. In the case of the Ukraine, the Obama administration has threatened the government with sanctions even though the dissidents are armed and have attacked security forces.

Regardless of one’s evaluation of the two governments (and I’m not defending either), it could be said that regime change in highly unlikely.

The best-case political scenario for those opposed to both governments would be a prolonged armed conflict, perhaps even civil war. The worst-case political scenario for them would be government consolidation and the complete defeat of the rebels.

Washington obviously knows this. Could it be that in cases of governments considered adverse to US interests, Washington prefers a civil war over a normal situation free of discord and violence?

This analysis of US policy toward the Ukraine and Syria is even more applicable in the case of Venezuela. Indeed, there are several key factors favouring the Venezuelan government that make regime change even less likely.

First, the Chavistas (supporters of the process of change initiated by late president Hugo Chavez and continued by President Nicolas Maduro) have the electoral support of 50% or more of the population. They a mobilization capacity that, since 2003, has exceeded that of the opposition.

Second, less than two months, ago the Chavistas defeated the opposition at the polls by a substantial margin.

Third, it has solid support in the military, not just from an “institutionalist” faction but from officers who identify with Chavismo.

And fourth, Venezuela counts on a united Latin America, more so than at any other time throughout its two-century history, and solid backing during the current conflict from governments throughout the region.

Yet the US openly supports the opposition. While the entire world (including such non-leftist governments as Mexico and Colombia) recoginsed the triumph of Maduro in the April 2013 presidential elections, Washington was alone in siding with the Venezuelan opposition in refusing to recognize the results.

(If the opposition really won the elections in April, how can you explain the Chavista triumph in December whose results were accepted by the opposition?)

All the statements coming out of Washington, including those from Kerry to Obama explicitly support the position of the opposition with specific reference to Leopoldo Lopez (U.S. educated at undergraduate and graduate levels who comes from one of the historically richest families in Venezuela), who represents the most extremist current within the opposition. Lopez, with his slogan “salida” (exit) openly supports regime change.

Washington along with the opposition leaders are banking on a wearing out process, what is known as “low intensity war”. It may work.

It did in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Nicaraguan voters in 1990 felt that the only way to end the ongoing violence, which the US helped organise and fund, was by electing a “moderate”. This was Violeta Chamorro (whose candidacy and party received millions of dollars from the US). A similar scenario may play out in Venezuela.

Last year's opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles very skillfully is positioning himself to play the role of “moderate” (he even calls himself a “progressive”) and has distanced himself from the leader of the current protests Leopoldo Lopez, particularly on the social front (even though both come from the upper class).

Capriles says the only way for the opposition to triumph is by getting support from the popular classes, a position which represents an indirect criticism of Lopez for overestimating subjective conditions. In short, Capriles is following the “Chamorro strategy”.

While not minimising the effectiveness of low-intensity war, there are other scenarios in which the current protests may have a boomerang effect on the opposition and the US.

First, is the possibility of a backlash, which is already occurring in middle class areas that have been subject to nearly all the violence. Furthermore, events in the Ukraine, which inspired the Venezuelan opposition who were led to believe that “civil protests” could topple regimes, are demonstrating how easy it is for things to slide into armed confrontation with scores of deaths and civil war.

Second, members of the middle-class opposition are likely to lose hope in the absence of positive short-term results for this all-or-nothing strategy. The staying power of the enthusiasm of these sectors tends to be limited.

Washington also has much to lose. It has a long history of supporting subversive movements (as in the case of Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954) that after reaching power had disastrous long-term effects on the country. Venezuela is not a typical case. It is in the center of world attention.

The failure of U.S. government efforts to bring about regime change in country after country (Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela) after scoring “successes” in Iraq and Libya would come as a blow to US prestige. In short, much is at stake.
[Professor Steve Ellner has taught at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, since 1977. He is the author of many books on Venezuelan politics.]

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