The Venezuelan mess, again.

I continue to watch developments in Venezuela with interest, including the reaction of the international community to the crisis. Increasing numbers of democracies are lending their support to Juan Guaido’s presidential challenge, including 11 of 14 members of the Lima Group convened to facilitate negotiations on a peaceful resolution. Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia and Lithuania joined the UK, France and Germany (and Canada!) in siding with Guaido after the Maduro government refused to call for new elections within the eight day deadline demanded in an ultimatum issued by the EU members. It seems that much of the Western democratic world is now openly opposed to seeing Maduro continue in office.

That got me thinking more about Juan Guaido. How could this young (age 35) man emerge so quickly and be received so warmly by so many democracies? What I found out is interesting.

Guaido is a former student activist and industrial engineer who received post-graduate training at George Washington University in Washington DC. He got into politics when the Chavez government closed down the most popular private TV station in Venezuela and proposed constitutional reforms that strengthened the presidency at the expense of the other two government branches, and has reportedly spent time since entering public life at several Right-leaning think tanks in the US and Europe. After his introduction to politics he came under the wing of the well-known anti-Chavista Leopoldo Lopez. Lopez, now under house arrest, is a neoliberal economist by training (he has degrees from Kenyon College and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard). He is the son of a former president and former mayor of Caracas himself, so his elite credentials are impeccable (he even did his high school education at an exclusive private boarding school in the US). Reportedly a friend of Elliot Abrams (see previous post), he was a leader of the 2002 abortive coup against Hugo Chavez and spent several years in military prison as a result. In 2014 he led another failed uprising against Maduro, getting house arrest rather than popular support for his efforts. He agitates from his home, where he uses social media and encrypted apps to communicate with foreign and domestic allies and uses his telegenic wife to serve as his spokesperson.

In 2009 Lopez and Guaido formed the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) Party. Although it claims to be a Social Democratic Party affiliated with the Socialist International, VP gained notoriety for its uncompromising, hardline anti-Bolivarian orientation and direct action street tactics. Although some of its thuggery was in response to that of Bolivarian militias and para-militaries, the strategy employed by VP was essentially a two-track approach: work within the institutional framework as given by contesting elections for the National Assembly and presidency; and use direct action on the streets to foment mischief and undermine Bolivarian attempts to establish law and order.

Under an agreement with Lopez, Guaido became VP’s parliamentary leader while Lopez retained the party chairmanship. First elected as an alternate delegate in 2010, Guaido was elected to a full National Assembly seat in 2015 and, given that more senior party members were either under arrest or exiled, named Opposition Leader in 2018. Under the power sharing arrangement in the National Assembly, Guaido assumed the rotating parliamentary leader’s position on January 5 of this year. A week later he declared his presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election was illegitimate due to massive fraud and low voter turn-out (both of which are true). Under the Venezuelan Constitution, the National Assembly leader is declared president if the elected President and Vice President are disqualified, absent or cannot serve, which Guaido claims is the case here.

There is strong suspicion that Lopez has a direct connection to neoconservative circles in Washington, and through them, the Trump administration. There is speculation that some form of material assistance is being funnelled from the US, including from Venezuelan exiles, to VP in order to support its anti-regime efforts and the Guaido campaign. Although I have no direct knowledge of this, it would not be surprising if these claims prove to be true given the quickness in which Guaido emerged on the scene, the strength of the organisation supporting him and the rapidity with which the US recognised his claim. What is confirmed is that emissaries from a number of the region’s democracies as well as the US met quietly and exchanged secret messages with Guaido and his representatives in the weeks leading to his assumption of the parliamentary presidency.

This has me wondering why so many democracies have been quick to jump on the Guaido bandwagon. They surely are not acting just out of ideological distaste for the Bolivarian regime. They surely have good information on Guaido’s background and connections to Lopez and US interlocutors. They surely must know that although Maduro and his cronies are reprehensible thieves posing as a popular government, Guaido’s connections to the US will make it very difficult for him to claim legitimacy and could in fact, spark a violent backlash from the 30 percent of the Venezuelan population that continue to support Maduro (mostly the poor and working class). They also must understand the perils of supporting a foreign-backed constitutional coup (which is essentially what being attempted), especially when the move is closely tied to the threat of US military intervention. So why would they abandon long-held commitments to upholding the doctrine of non-intervention?

Some will argue that the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela requires drastic action and that action cannot come from within Venezuela under present circumstances. Yet even the issue of humanitarian assistance has turned into a political tug of war. The Lima Group and European democracies, led by Spain, have pledged humanitarian assistance, mostly in the form of food and medical provisions, to Venezuela. The same is true for Argentina, Canada and Brazil. But they insist on having Guaido and his supporters administer the aid provision, something that the Maduro government categorically rejects. Neither contender is interested in talking to the other about jointly administering relief assistance and instead are busy staging demonstrations and claiming support from within the military (where so far Maduro has a considerable advantage).

Perhaps the show of external support for Guaido is designed to be no more than a form of pressure on Maduro to call for new elections under international supervision, and not really a vote of confidence in Guaido per se. Coupled with the redoubling of sanctions by the US, UK and others against Maduro, his entourage and state agencies suspected of money laundering, the idea seems to be that the combination of forces being applied to the Boliviarians will make them cave to the election demands. The reasoning may well be that Maduro will see this option as preferable to civil war or a coup because it gives him the chance to run again rather than be run out of town in a hearse. After all, the primary rule for coup-plotters is that the people being ousted must not survive the ouster less they come back to haunt the usurpers–something the failed coup against Chavez demonstrated in spades.

This assumes that the target of the foreign pressure a) feels it to the point of pain and b) has no other options other than to cave to it. At this moment there is no evidence to suggest that Maduro and company are close to either concern. And for all his foreign support, Guaido does not appear to have moved the dial with regards to popular support significantly in his direction.

What we have, thus, is what the Latin American political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell (of bureaucratic-authoritarianism and democratic transitions fame) once called (with reference to Argentina 1946-1983) an “organic crisis and hegemonic stalemate” where both sides can check the other but where neither can unilaterally impose its vision for arresting the national decline.

Under those conditions, it may well be external actors who play a decisive role in determining the outcome, something that does not bode well for the prospects of national reconciliation required to reaffirm democracy while returning peace and stability to Venezuelan life.

23 thoughts on “The Venezuelan mess, again.

  1. ‘A strong suspicion’ ‘Speculation’ ‘Although it claims’, all doing a lot of heavy lifting in this piece.

  2. Andrew:

    Since I am not on the inside I can only comment on what I have read. That means that I am getting things second hand (even if from multiple good sources), which is why I use the qualifiers. It is called honest writing.

  3. I have been a lifetime admirer, admittedly from a distance of Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. Quite possibly a totally misguided leftist with a taste for social justice. I wonder still how Chavez went so horribly wrong. I saw him as a flag bearer for the majority not the elite. I guess I have got it wrong every time.
    Now the struggle in Venezuela seems to pivot on the gold and the oil and the power of the US, no surprises there I guess.
    I have been to Cuba and seen its modern epiphany, inedible and scarce food supply. Venezuela is out of food now too.

  4. There’s an old saying, Barbara: `power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. I suspect Chavez & Maduro were good people originally. Those desperate are still leaving in a flood:

    “Pamplona, Colombia – Up to 50 Venezuelans sleep in what used to be 55-year-old Marta Duke’s dining room every night. Forty sleep in her former living room; more in what was once her son’s bedroom. Scores more sleep at the neighbour’s house, and 200 more sleep outside in this chilly mountain town 75km from the Venezuelan border.”

    She told the reporter “far more than 1,000 Venezuelans pass by her home each day”. Yet the regime claims to represent the people! When we see headlines proclaiming the daughter of Chavez as the wealthiest citizen in Venezuela, we suspect that’s due to inheritance of money obtained by corruption. An authentic socialist regime would not starve the people, or make them desparate to flee, or use organised corruption to enrich a cabal.

  5. ” both sides can check the other but where neither can unilaterally impose its vision for arresting the national decline.”

    Somewhere, the ghost of Montesquieu chuckles

  6. Yes Montesquieu chuckles, for he knows its not Maduro who is the problem, and its not Guaido who is the solution.

    Just as some Russians still yearn for the rule of Stalin, and above, a presumably educated commenter has mass murderers & tyrants as her heroes, its the mindset of the people that has brought Venezuela to ruin.

    Socialism eats into a nation’s character & causes generational mind damage that shortcuts Tytler’s 200 year cycle, bringing dependency and bondage where there should be independence & liberty, and then there’s no escape for generations after.

    The US is a Constitutional Republic founded on ideals of liberty, but a couple of hundred years later it elected Obama, a Marxist.

    Seeping socialist ideas into the minds of schoolchildren for three of four generations achieved its objective.

    Nothing will save Venezuela in the short term, or any country infected with the disease of socialism. Its at least a 50 year cycle, more likely 100 years to undo the population’s mind corrosion. Those fleeing the country understand this.

    And Venezuela is only the first. Its bell tolls for all of our countries similarly infected.

  7. Rb, great analysis. If somewhat dispiriting. Parts of Eastern Europe are still suffering from a delusion that socialism works even after 30 years. Orban is having to inflict harsh medicine and a somewhat patriarchal nationalist approach to gradually change the Hungarian mindset. Corruption also saps the will of a country to change. Compare the paths of Singapore and Malaysia. There are reasonable comparisons between the approach of Lee Kuan Yew and Orban as well as other modern politicians with a non socialist approach.
    UK Labour members and the Democrats seem to think that moving further left will bring them success.

  8. …a presumably educated commenter has mass murderers & tyrants as her heroes,

    So says the fellow who has a picture of a mass murderer as his avatar. A million irony meters just died.

    If Obama’s a Marxist then we are all Marxists now. I don’t know your early history, Rusty, but I suspect you were scared by someone singing ‘The Red Flag” when you were a child.

    The happenings in Venezuela are not new, the US has been waging a covert war there since Chavez was elected. Yes, even under the Marxist Obama.

    This has the same smell as “WMD” and “Aluminum pipes”.

    To those who support intervention in another nation’s affairs, I ask, if Venezuela, then why not China, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Israel, and every other nation where tyranny rules?

  9. @Roj Blake: Well, depends what you mean by intervention.

    Nobody, not even war hawks like Trump or Bolton, is saying they intend to directly intervene in Venezuela – the closest they get is saying that the military option is “open”, which might be considered an implicit threat, but it’s still quite far from saying that military intervention would be a good idea.

    Sure, lots of people are taking sides, and even offering economic and military support to the opposition or the government. But it’s not limited to the USA.

    Surely the countries voicing support for the Maduro regime are also getting involved in Venezuelan internal affairs? In many cases it goes beyond vocal support – China and Russia have been providing economic and military support to the government for years. Isn’t that equally disrespectful of Venezuela’s sovereignty?

  10. Regimes develop, decay and die. Plato held this view, outlined in his Five Regimes. Charismatic leaders seduce the people, gain mass following, become corrupt and as Trump would say, in his grade school vocabulary,then something really “BAD” happens:
    assassination, revolution, apathy, sycophancy, economic collapse. Plato posited that democracy is a prelude to tyranny. How’s that for something to be going on with! Some feel nostalgia for the believed hope proffered by the original leaders.

  11. As i’ve mentioned in a recent thread, Maduro has run his country into the ground but external regime change could well cause more problems than it fixes – Cuba and Iran in 1953 come to mind. We’re hoping Juan Guaido will usher in a Carnation Revolution, but at the same time we need to plan for him doing a Fulgencio Batista, General Franco or Antonio Salazar.

    Roj Blake: if Redsterbaiter was American, he’d most certainly be a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society or Ayn Rand Institute.

  12. Good link Edward.

    What many people do not realise is that after the 1958 Pacto de Punto Fijo which established the grounds for Venezuelan democracy, the traditionally dominant centrist parties–COPEI and Action Democratica–both attempted to use the country’s oil revues to create and alternative “southern” developmental model that decreased Third World dependence on Western banks and monetary organisations like the IMF and World Bank. Their initiatives were resisted and sabotaged time and time again by OPEC and its Western allies, to the point that by the 1990s the support for such endeavours waned within the Big 2 parties and their corruption escalated.

    Chavez entered the scene at that point, first with his attempted 1992 coup and then with his election. The irony is that he basically resurrected the international projects of the Big 2 parties under Bolivarian names, be it via ALBA, TeleSur and other foreign policy initiatives. And once again, those projects were resisted and undermined by the West in general and the US in particular because, as in the case of governments of the 1970s and 1980s, it represented a threat to the liberal world order based on Bretton Woods and, in time, the Washington Consensus.

    They say that history is repeated as farce but in this case it returns as a tragedy of poorly thought out ambition confronting and being overpowered by imperial greed.

  13. Huh.. “imperial greed”.. yeah right.

    There’s a certain local (NZ) branch of big oil that has a mighty big reservoir of natural gas down Taranaki way.

    Almost overnight the value of the gas in that reservoir doubled, and will most likely quadruple in the future.

    And Big Oil didn’t have to do anything to achieve this mighty increase in the value of their company. They just sat on their hands, while Jacinda Ardern and the Labour govt did their stuff.

    “Look at the price of gas today..!!” say the people.

    “Look at those greedy imperial bastards selling it” says the left.

  14. So what? Irrelevant comments add no value. The point is that American imperialism is sociopathic. They ought to be trying to help countries in difficulty, not destabilise them.

    I’ve been complaining about Maduro’s stalinism. But the facts about his regime’s infiltration and takeover of the organisations that were designed to administer democracy are only part of the story. Intelligent foreign policy by the USA would have induced democratic participation by the socialists in Venezuela, not forced them into stalinism.

    Here in New Plymouth petrol costs $1.87 according to the sign on the local gas station, so your citation of market value increase seems like hot air. Your attempt to wave a strawman consequently seems puerile.

  15. Let’s try to use terms precisely here? “Stalinism” doesn’t mean “everybody on the left I dislike” or even “everybody on the left who is authoritarian”.

    Maduro is, at worst, an autocratic-populist leftist. But this doesn’t make him a Stalinist. Stalinism is a very specific form of left-totalitarianism that has many features which don’t appear in Venezuela.

  16. I agree with you Gorkem, that calling Maduro, Chavez or the Bolivarian as a whole “Stalinist” is overkill. I continue to be amazed that in spite of the fact that I have spelled out in a number of posts why the Bolivarian Revolution was a left-leaning national populist movement rather than a genuinely socialist regime. readers overlook, ignore or simply refuse to believe anything other than that it is a socialist or commie regime (the parallel is all those who label as “fascist” any Right authoritarian regime when in fact interwar fascism had very specific characteristics only possible at that time. Subsequent right authoritarians may have adopted some aspects of European fascism (say, charismatic leadership at the head of a mass mobilizational one party system), but the overuse of the term has now made it meaningless (witness, for example, the references to Trump as a fascist. That is just lazy).

    It is to be expected that the Right yammer on about socialists and commies when refering to the Bolivarians because truth and facts are not its forte, but when the Left does it I despair, just as I do when I see non-Venezuelan lefties still trying to defend Maduro. If there is one thing that makes me doubt a writer’s knowledge is when they indulge in analytic or conceptual stretching or imprecision. That may be the old academic in me getting pedantic, but in the clash of ideas and explanations precision is exactly what we need.

  17. An academic without his pedantry is like a Clinton without a body bag.

    Authoritarian right… pffft, not sure who that is directed at, but just want to say that I am a Conservative for one main reason, and that is I perceive that political idea as being most capable of providing a bolster to the tyranny of both Communism and Fascism.

    Basically, all the ills of the world can be sheeted home to big govt, and any ideology that relies upon big govt to achieve its aims (Nazism, Fascism, Socialism/ Communism) is a danger to humanity in so many ways.

    History has proven this true time and time again, and its being proven once again in Venezuela today. It will also be likely proven true in NZ, Australia the UK & Canada in the not too distant future. Maybe even the US too.

    All of this suffering could be avoided simply by a return to small govt Conservatism, mostly completely abandoned in those countries I have listed.

  18. Ha Ha Red, that was a good line even if the inference about the Clintons is not true. Didn’t you mean “Putin?”

    I was not referring to you or any other keyboard warrior for that matter with my reference to the authoritarian Right. I was referring those who practice it, like the various Latin American dictatorships of the 60s-80s, the Saudis, el-Sissi and various other Arab autocrats, the Burmese military junta with or without electoral garb, assorted African despots–you get my drift.

    The thesis about small versus big govt is interesting but you cannot divorce the nature of the State (and its size and functions) from the nature of productive relations. In capitalism the democratic State ideally serves as a buffer against the excesses of the market and capitalists and helps mitigate against structurally-determined inequalities in the relations between owners of capital and productive assets and those who ultimately produce the wealth in society but who accept a commodified exchange of a wage in exchange for relinquishing claims to ownership of the labour process.

    In democratic socialism the State coordinates the political affairs and social well-being of the producers of wealth–workers. Both types of State hold a monopoly over organised violence within given territorial limits, which is legitimated by the consensual nature of political rule.

    Authoritarian states, on the other hand, serve the interests of those who control the means of production. This instrumental approach to the State corresponds with a starker interpretation of class struggle, where notions of sharing the riches is replaced with Darwinian “survival of the fittest” and “might makes right” philosophies.

    In democratic states the is always the possibility of peaceful reversal of policy using electoral mechanisms, to include reducing the size of the State from historical levels. That is not the case with authoritarians, where reversal of policy is most likely to be coerced rather than volunteered. So I see the big divide being the nature of rule over a given economy rather than the size of the State per se.

    Incidentally, for some reason all of your comments are sent to the “pending” comment box and need to be manually approved. I am not sure why that is as your email, web site and IP address are legit, but that is why sometimes there is a delay in getting your comments published. Apologies for that while I try to figure what is happening.

  19. Hola Eduardo.

    I cannot say that I am a fan of any pro-Russia writing and found the “Anglo-Zionist” reference a bit over the top, but completely agree that Pompeo’s claims and Trump’s bluster are patently ridiculous. The idea that the Russians convinced Maduro not to flee while a plane was waiting on an airport tarmac is laughable. Presumably that would be a tarmac that the Venezuelan Air Force controls, so perhaps Mr. Guaido’s call to arms did not resonate in the officers quarters on that base. In any event, whatever one may think of the Venezuelan armed forces, they have not abandoned Maduro in significant numbers, much less joined Guaido.

    Guaido moved too soon with his calls for a military revolt, and if the US urged him to do so then it will have blood on its hands once the wanna-be coup plotters are arrested or killed. And if the US did in fact urge this move, then its intelligence collection abilities inside Venezuela are sorely lacking. At best this is just more US chain-pulling in a destabilisation campaign that will play out over weeks and months. At worst it was just jerking a puppet in order to see what happens but with no real idea of what the outcome will be.

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