To understand what is happening in Venezuela, we first need to examine what is happening in the United States. Under President Trump, there has been an important shift in the foreign policy that has prevailed since the beginning of the 21st century.
After September 11, President George W. Bush and the “neocons” launched the so-called “war on terror.” This was a euphemism that justified imperialist intervention in the Middle East and “regime changes” in countries that were not aligned with the United States. The aim was to take control of a strategic territory where the world’s main oil reserves are located. This is why the United States embarked on two wars, the Afghanistan War, started in October 2001, and the second Iraq War in February 2003. The latter conflict caused more than 1 million violent deaths in Iraq.
Under the administration of President Obama, the U.S. military presence continued in Afghanistan until 2011 and in Iraq until 2014. The Obama administration’s goal in the Middle East was to put a brake on the Arab Spring by helping overthrow Gaddafi in Libya and then intervening in the Syrian civil war.
This focus on the Middle East for much of the first 19 years of the 21st century has meant that American imperialism paid less attention to Latin America. But this did not mean that it stopped promoting coups d’état in the region: These included the attempted coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2002, the coup in Honduras against President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, and the “parliamentary coup” in Paraguay against President Fernando Lugo in 2012. By comparison, however, these were years of less direct imperialist interference thanks to the fall of neoliberal governments and the emergence of the so-called “pink tide” governments.
This “loosening of the chains” for Latin America began to reverse in the last few years. Last year, when the Pentagon drew up a foreign policy document that pointed to U.S. confrontations with China and Russia as central challenges, it was tacitly clear how important Latin America is for the Trump administration. This is because China has advanced its commercial presence, diplomacy and investments in a territory long considered the “backyard” of American imperialism.
The current coup attempt in Venezuela cannot be separated from this general orientation of American foreign policy. The goal of the Trump administration is to refocus on Latin America in order to regain the hegemony that has been lost to Chinese and Russian advances, and to discipline any government that confronts it. To paraphrase John Bolton in recent statements, this is an update of the Monroe Doctrine—formulated in 1823 by U.S. President James Monroe, the Monroe Doctrine used the motto “America for the Americans.” Since then, it has served as a principle to subjugate all the countries of the continent to U.S. dictates.
America for the (North) Americans
It is worth recalling some of the concrete expressions of the Monroe Doctrine throughout the region during the 20th century, including numerous direct military interventions (led by both Republicans and Democrats).
In 1934 the U.S. government decided to invade Nicaragua. The great anti-imperialist leader Augusto César Sandino led an uprising against this and was assassinated. In 1954 the CIA orchestrated a coup d’état against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. In 1961 the American army attempted to invade Cuba but was defeated by the revolutionary and anti-imperialist mobilization of the Cuban people at Playa Girón (the Bay of Pigs). Shortly after that, in 1965, the invasion of the Dominican Republic took place with 42,000 soldiers and Marines. Massive demonstrations against this invasion took place across Latin America.
In later years, the United States was behind the military coups that sought to stop the revolutionary ascent in the countries of the Southern Cone of Latin America. After the military coups in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina, the CIA, along with the local armies, organized the sinister Operation Condor to repress and massacre the resistance against the dictatorships. These same methods were used in Central America in the 1980s against guerrilla movements.
You may be interested in The U.S. Interventions in Latin America
In the case of the Caribbean island of Grenada, the United States invaded in October 1983 with 7,000 soldiers to overthrow a government that had good relations with Cuba. In 1989 the United States invaded Panama with 26,000 Marines and soldiers who occupied the country, employing blood and fire to topple President Manuel Noriega.
More recently, Clinton intervened in Haiti in 1994 and 2004, first to favor Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s accession to the presidency and then to overthrow him. And, as we mentioned before, there was the failed coup attempt against Chávez, the coup that overthrew Zelaya in Honduras, the Lugo coup in Paraguay and the “institutional coup” in Brazil that led to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and then former President Lula’s imprisonment.
Although it is impossible to present the entire history of U.S. imperialism’s criminal interventions in the region, it is worth considering this brief—and incomplete—summary when trying to understanding the current coup attempt in Venezuela and the enormous “democratic” and “humanitarian” hypocrisy used to justify it.
The Attempted Coup Against Maduro at an Impasse
The plan for the coup in Venezuela was designed in collaboration with the White House and the right-wing governments in Latin America that make up the Lima Group, particularly those of Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. The right-wing opposition in Venezuela had been very divided after the last presidential elections, when one sector of the opposition against Maduro ran candidates and another sector called for a boycott. A good part of the Venezuelan population sees the right as a representative of the traditional ruling class that sank when Chávez became president.
What allows the right-wing opposition to attempt this maneuver? The first factor is the relation of forces on the continent since the right has come to power in several South American countries. These governments, including President Sebastián Piñera in Chile, President Mauricio Macri in Argentina, President Iván Duque in Colombia and above all President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, endorsed the coup plan alongside the United States.
The second factor is the social and economic situation in Venezuela itself, which has led to massive discontent with Maduro. The economy collapsed as a result of the sharp fall in the price of a barrel of oil, which fell from $150 to only $25, rising again last year to about $55.
Such a drop in oil prices would have been a blow to any government, not just Maduro’s. But after 20 years of Chavismo, the Venezuelan economy is still as dependent on oil exports as it was in 1999. Despite all that was said about the “Bolivarian revolution” and “socialism of the 21st century,” there was no consistent initiative that would have broken the structural foundations of economic dependence on imperialism.
You may be interested in The Imperialist Plot Against Venezuela
On February 23, the Venezuelan right suffered a major defeat in an operation orchestrated by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The objective of imperialism and the right was to force the entry of “humanitarian aid” into the country in order to break the army’s loyalty to the government—but this did not occur. The gambit’s failure made clear that the self-proclaimed interim president cannot decide anything. Despite the triumphalist rhetoric in the run-up to the operation, it ended in a fiasco. The future of the coup is now uncertain, but the threat of an imperialist intervention hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the Venezuelan people.
Anti-Imperialism as a Condition for a Revolutionary Policy
A revolutionary policy for the situation in Venezuela must be based on the understanding that an imperialist country is orchestrating a right-wing coup in a country that is oppressed by imperialism. This is not about “authoritarianism vs. democracy,” as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently put it. Imperialist countries always talk about “democracy” when intervening in semicolonies.
The revolutionary, anticapitalist and anti-imperialist left must side with the oppressed country against the oppressor country, regardless of the regime that exists in the oppressed country. For example, Saddam Hussein led a regime in Iraq that was much more repressive than Maduro’s, yet all the anti-imperialists of the world mobilized against the invasions of Iraq, first in 1991 and then in 2003.
In 1982, anti-imperialism required taking the side of Argentina in the Malvinas War (i.e., the Falklands War). Despite Leopoldo Galtieri’s bloody military dictatorship in Argentina, it was essential to fight for the defeat of the British military operation. The correctness of an anti-imperialist position in this case was proved by the fact that the defeat of Argentina led to the further subjugation of all of Latin America with the chains of foreign debt. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, fortified by the triumph in the war, got a new impulse for the neoliberal offensive all over the world.
Had imperialism been defeated, in contrast, a renewed national and democratic consciousness would have given a powerful impulse to the masses in Argentina to defeat the military dictatorship with revolutionary means, while at the same time strengthening the struggle of the British working class against Thatcher.
Although we did not support Chávez at the time and do not support Maduro today, we consider it a matter of principle to be at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism and the coup in Venezuela. If the coup succeeds, the plans of the IMF and imperialism in Latin America will be strengthened.
To some it might seem paradoxical that we are opposed to the imperialist offensive against Venezuela, since we have always maintained that Chávez’s “socialism of the 21st century” was no such thing and that Venezuela never ceased to be capitalist. Consistent anti-imperialism can only be based on the working class and not on bourgeois nationalism in any of its variants.
Today, we need a massive anti-imperialist campaign, with the broadest mobilization against the coup attempt in Venezuela and against U.S. interference in the region. We must reject all economic sanctions and denounce the hypocrisy of the Trump administration and the right-wing governments of the region. At the same time, no confidence should be placed in Maduro’s ability to defeat this offensive. It is the workers and the oppressed who must mobilize independently to defeat this offensive, with a program for a workers’ solution to the crisis. Such a program would include the nonpayment of the foreign debt, the forced repatriation of Venezuelan capital abroad, the complete nationalization of oil and mining, the full validity of collective labor agreements and a minimum wage that covers the living expenses of a family—and all this as part of a plan for establishing a real workers’ government. The victory of the coup attempt would be a defeat for the mass movement in all of Latin America. No one who has a modicum of political understanding can be indifferent to it or stop opposing it.
This article was first published in Spanish on March 3 in Ideas de Izquierda. It based on a talk given by Christian Castillo on February 26 at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina. It was translated and condensed by Wladek Flakin.