On March 9, US President Barack Obama issued an excutive order imposing more sanctions of Venezuelan officals and declaring the oil-rich nation a “national security threat”. It came after a long period of often violent right-wing protests and economic shortages facing the left-wing Chavista governmetn of President Nicolas Maduro.
US journalist and author of We Created Chavez, George Ciccariello-Maher, answers some key questions about the situation in the Venezuela and the US attacks. It is abridged from Jacobin Magazine.
What is the backstory to Obama's March 9 decree?
The pretext for these sanctions is so-called human rights abuses that occurred more than a year ago, during a wave of street protests against the government of Nicolás Maduro.
What actually happened in the streets a year ago has been systematically misrepresented. The opposition narrative is one of spontaneous, peaceful protests by all Venezuelans against a tyrannical government — in the vein of the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement — to which the government responded with brutal repression.
The reality was very different: the protests were hardly spontaneous, but part of a strategy by the opposition's radical right wing to overthrow a democratically elected government. The means were far from peaceful. In some cases the police and national guard responded brutally, but on the whole they were incredibly patient with the protesters, who they allowed to blockade entire areas of cities for more than a month.
In the end, the 43 deaths were distributed evenly among Chavistas, the opposition, and security forces. Many of the police responsible for violence were arrested, but the same can’t be said for the protesters who, for example, decapitated motorcyclists with barbed wire and shot at police from rooftops.
And their constituency was far from “all Venezuelans” — nearly all the protesters were from the middle and upper classes, as were the neighbourhoods featuring protests.
During the 2014 protests, the Obama administration insisted the sanctions being pushed by Florida Senator Marco Rubio and others would be counterproductive. What changed?
The timeline is revealing. On December 17, the Obama administration announced a historic thaw in relations with Cuba. On December 18, he announced a first round of sanctions on Venezuela — only a week after the release of the Senate torture report.
The second and most recent sanctions announcement came five days after the release of the Department of Justice’s report slamming systemic racism in the Ferguson police force.
And yet the White House has the temerity to accuse Venezuela of trying to “distract” attention from internal problems by inventing threats abroad.
But won’t the sanctions still be counterproductive in Venezuela?
Absolutely — and it is hard to understand how the Obama administration could fail to see this. The Venezuelan opposition on the ground has to live with the consequences of their catastrophic decisions.
That means radical right-wingers in Florida may celebrate the sanctions, but it would be suicidal for the opposition in Venezuela to do the same. They would simply prove what Chavistas already believe: that they are treasonous lapdogs of imperial power.
The Venezuelan opposition is a walking contradiction. Unable to become a majority, it is perennially torn between taking part in elections it will likely lose and boycotting them.
It can’t win as long as it is seen as undemocratic, and boycotts and coups only support this view. It lacks a political program or any proposals whatsoever, because any proposals it would make would be deeply unpopular. So the opposition swings wildly between lost elections and failed insurrections, each only confirming the other.
What about Maduro’s claims to have dismantled a coup plot?
Here’s a second way Obama’s executive order has been completely counterproductive. When the Maduro government recently announced the discovery of yet another coup plot, arresting several military officials as well as the opposition mayor of greater Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, the international media narrative was clear: here was a paranoid despot imagining threats and imprisoning his political enemies.
But the executive order makes it absolutely clear the US supports regime change in Venezuela. Maduro has taken full advantage of this clear violation of Venezuelan sovereignty, rallying an anti-imperialist front at home — giving some much-needed respite from the economic challenge. He has even secured a unanimous call by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to revoke the sanctions.
So, is Venezuela a threat?
Let’s hope so! Revolutionary poet June Jordan once wrote: “I must become a menace to my enemies.” Those who fight US hegemony do indeed represent a “menace”.
The Obama administration has every reason to worry. Venezuela is a threat like Mike Brown was a threat, like Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant were threats. Like it is threatening to even say “black lives matter” to a system that every day proves otherwise.
Venezuela is a threat in the same way that FBI Director J Edgar Hoover once declared the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. Venezuela is a threat like Ferguson is threat incarnate: both clearly show the world-making role of popular insurrections, riots, and rebellions — that what is made can be unmade and made again.
Venezuela is a threat because its people dare to demand control over their own lives. Venezuela is a threat because, in the words of Jordan, its people “will no longer lightly walk behind”.