Defend Venezuela Against Imperialist Aggression!
Bolivarians Resist U.S. ‘Regime Change’ Attempt
On 8 March, Tom Riley of the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) addressed a meeting organized by the Brock Socialists in St. Catharines, Ontario regarding the current crisis in Venezuela. The following is a slightly edited version of his remarks:
Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 on the basis of a couple of big ideas. First, that the country with the world’s largest oil reserves, which generate huge profits every year, should not have millions of its citizens (mostly indigenous people, like himself) desperately poor and chronically hungry. His other, closely related, idea was that Venezuela’s natural wealth should be used to benefit Venezuelans, rather than American oil corporations. Those ideas turned out to be popular enough to get him elected. But of course they made him rather unpopular with the right-wing ruling class, which in 2002, organized a coup to depose him. This had a very unusual outcome—Chávez had so much support within the military that the coup was reversed and he was back in the presidential palace within a couple of days.
The CIA of course had supported the coup, but the U.S. at that point was focused on trying to get hold of Middle East oil and Venezuela was down the list of priorities. Chávez was left to pursue a new, cool “21st Century Socialism,” which was advertised as a great improvement on Lenin and Marx because it was going to benefit workers, the poor, and particularly indigenous people without offending or stepping on the toes of the traditional elites. At the time a lot of so-called Marxists jumped on the “Bolivarian Revolution” bandwagon, although most have since discreetly disembarked.
In fact Chávez was not a revolutionary; he was a sincere reformist populist who was begrudgingly handed the keys to the capitalists’ state machine for a while. He was fortunate that during his time in office oil prices soared—in 1998 it was $25 a barrel and it rose steadily over the next several years, topping out at almost $150. Oil is Venezuela’s chief export, so this provided a huge amount of revenue, much of which Chávez used to improve housing, healthcare, education and social programs for the poor. He also provided substantial quantities of deeply discounted oil to the Cuban deformed workers’ state, which, in exchange, sent 20,000 Cuban doctors to provide quality health care for millions of Venezuelans who had previously had none. This had a significant impact on a lot of peoples’ lives, but nothing fundamental changed—Venezuela’s big capitalists, who always identified closely with their imperial patron in Washington, retained control of most of the media, most of the land and the core elements of the economy. Venezuela’s continuing subordination to American imperialism was evident in the fact that the U.S. remained both the chief customer for its oil exports and the main source of its imports—including food, consumer and industrial goods, and medical supplies.
For the imperialists Chávez was an irritant who managed to carve out a larger space for maneuver than most neo-colonial rulers are usually allowed, but he posed no fundamental threat to capitalist rule. When he died of cancer (six years ago this month) his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, faced a more difficult situation because oil prices were plummeting, reaching a low of $35 a barrel in 2016. By 2018 Venezuela’s GDP had shrunk by roughly a third—a huge decline—and it is continuing to fall. The resulting collapse in living standards has helped fuel the growth of domestic unrest. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been winding up its disastrous military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, and refocusing on Latin America. In 2015 Barack Obama imposed the first sanctions on Venezuela, on the absurd grounds that Maduro’s regime somehow threatened U.S. national security.
Since then the pressure has risen steadily, and Trump has made control of Venezuela’s oil a very high priority. Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe reported, believably enough, that in a July 2017 White House meeting, Trump asked security officials why the U.S. had not gone to “war with Venezuela? They have all the oil and they’re in our back door.”
Of course sanctions are in themselves an act of war. The U.S. is able to wield the sanctions weapon so effectively because the dollar is the global “reserve currency” through which most international financial transactions are conducted. U.S. sanctions have substantially restricted Venezuela’s ability to finance imports, to issue bonds or to get loans. The intent is to strangle Venezuela’s economy and create a social crisis that sets the stage for a “regime change.”
In January the Trump administration made an aggressive attempt to spark a coup against Maduro when it decided that Juan Guaidó, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, should be Venezuela’s “acting president.” Nicolás Maduro, who had won the 2018 presidential election with 6.5 million votes, was branded a “usurper.” Canada and some 50 other countries soon recognized Guaidó. The capitalist media treated the whole thing as just routine, but in fact it is almost unprecedented—“recognition” of a government is supposed to be based on its ability to exert effective control over national territory. Guaidó does not control any territory, and never has. He has virtually no popular following and was almost unknown in Venezuela before the U.S. picked him out to become the country’s “legitimate” president. This whole thing is a U.S. operation—on 22 January, the night before Guaidó was to declare himself president, the American vice-president, Mike Pence, phoned him to make sure he wasn’t going to back out. Guaidó’s tenure as head of the National Assembly is almost accidental; his party has only 14 of a total of 167 seats, but because the opposition quarrels among itself constantly, they settled on a rotating leadership and Guaidó’s turn happened to come up in December .
On 24 January, a day after anointing himself interim president, Guaidó demonstrated his “democratic” credentials by announcing plans to introduce new “flexibility” into Venezuela’s nationalized oil industry—i.e., to turn it over to American multinationals. In recent weeks the U.S. has been seizing Venezuelan assets (on the pretext of holding them for the “legitimate” president). By far the most important of these is CITGO, the American subsidiary of Venezuela’s national oil company, PDVSA. CITGO refines 750,000 barrels of oil a day in the U.S., owns a chain of gas stations and also some pipelines. Revenues from CITGO have been Venezuela’s chief source of foreign income for years, so this is an enormous blow. Washington has also encouraged its imperialist allies to impound Venezuelan assets—the Bank of England recently refused Maduro’s government access to $1.3 billion in gold bullion it had deposited. This week PDVSA announced that it was moving its European HQ to Moscow from Portugal in an attempt to avoid further seizures.
U.S. sanctions, coming on top of plummeting oil prices, have made it extremely difficult for Venezuela to purchase essential goods, from machinery to medical supplies to food. The corporate media, the Trump administration and its cronies are endlessly proclaiming that the rapidly deteriorating economic situation results from Maduro’s mismanagement and “socialist” economic policies. This is simply not true—American obstruction and falling oil prices are the chief cause.
Trump has been mooting the possibility of a military assault to end the “suffering” of the Venezuelan people. But his real motivation is no secret. The same day Guaidó announced his plans to open up Venezuela’s energy sector to U.S. multinationals, National Security Advisor John Bolton told Fox TV: “We’re looking at the oil assets. That’s the single most important income stream to the government of Venezuela. We’re looking at what to do to that.” He went on to outline his ideas about the future of a post-Bolivarian Venezuela:
“‘Yeah look, we’re in conversation with major American companies now that are either in Venezuela, or in the case of Citgo here in the United States. I think we’re trying to get to the same end result here.
“Venezuela is one of the three countries [with Cuba and Nicaragua] I called the ‘Troika of Tyranny.’
“It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”
It would indeed “make a big difference to the United States economically” if it controlled Venezuela’s oil. But what about the Venezuelans?
Seizing Venezuela’s oil is part of the larger geo-political project of establishing “full spectrum dominance” over all potential rivals, particularly, China and its Russian semi-ally. The “troika” that really concerns the U.S. is not Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, but rather the Chinese deformed workers’ state, Putin’s bonapartist regime in Russia and, to a lesser extent, the Islamic republic in Iran. All of these countries have a substantial interest in blocking any further U.S. “regime change” initiatives of the sort that destroyed Iraq and Libya.
In a 5 March 2019 interview on CNN, Bolton referenced the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which asserts essentially that all of Latin America is U.S. turf. Jake Tapper asked: “do you not see that the United States’ support for other brutal dictators around the world undermines the credibility of the argument [against Maduro] you’re making?” Bolton responded:
“No, I don’t think it does. I think it’s separate. And I think, look, in this administration, we’re not afraid to use the phrase Monroe Doctrine. This is a country in our hemisphere. It’s been the objective of American presidents going back to Ronald Reagan to have a completely democratic hemisphere.
“I mentioned back in — at the end of last year that we’re looking very much at the troika of tyranny, including Cuba, Nicaragua, as well as Maduro. Part of the problem in Venezuela is the heavy Cuban presence, 20,000 to 25,000 Cuban security officials, by reports that have been in the public.
“This is the sort of thing that we find unacceptable. And that’s why we’re pursuing these policies.”
Maduro has managed to keep the economy afloat because a few countries, principally China and Russia, have provided loans in exchange for promises of future oil shipments. Last September China loaned Maduro another $5 billion, which brought its total since 2008 to $70 billion (much of which has been repaid.) Faced with the American weaponization of the global financial system, Russia, China and a few other countries have been working on ways to circumvent U.S. dollar transactions. Russian financial experts were involved in Venezuela’s attempt to launch a crypto currency last year according to the 24 December 2018 Washington Post:
“Russian advisers are inside the Venezuelan government, helping direct the course of President Nicolás Maduro’s attempts to bring his failing government back from bankruptcy. They helped orchestrate this year’s introduction of a new digital currency, the ‘Petro,’ to keep oil payments flowing while avoiding U.S. sanctions on the country’s dollar transactions.
“Venezuela’s still-formidable defense force, once an exclusively U.S. client, is now equipped with Russian guns, tanks and planes, financed with prepaid oil deliveries to Russian clients.”
The Post reported that Russia has “repeatedly restructured, refinanced or taken in-kind payments from Venezuela.” Because of the desperate situation Russia recently announced that it will forgo repayments of the principal until 2023. Although the Post projects that “Venezuela may well turn out to be a money-loser for Russia,” Putin apparently considers it worth the gamble. A Bloomberg News item estimated that Russia has sunk a total of $10 billion into Venezuela.
The Post also reported that Russia’s intervention for the past few years “was managed by Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Rosneft [Russia’s largest oil company] who also served as Putin’s deputy prime minister.” So they have put in a top guy to try to help the Bolivarian regime. The Rosneft boss was quoted as saying, “We will never leave [Venezuela], and no one will be able to kick us out.” In fact, that’s not exactly true. With a serious effort the U.S. military could certainly topple Maduro and “kick out” his Russian allies. Russia will not be able to do for Maduro what it did for Assad in Syria. The dispatch of two Tu-160 nuclear bombers last December, which outraged Washington, was a gesture of solidarity designed to boost the morale of the Venezuelan military. But it was more theatre than anything else.
On the other hand, a serious military intervention carries a lot of risks for the U.S., and particularly for its Latin American quislings. The potential for a disaster on an even larger scale than Iraq and Afghanistan is very real. The Venezuelan military has been substantially reorganized and reequipped by Russia over the past decade and is generally considered the best in South America—in part, perhaps, because the U.S. connection was severed. This began when George W. Bush abruptly refused to supply spare parts for the very expensive F-16 fighters the Venezuelan air force had purchased earlier. After that they took their business elsewhere (to Russia).
While the Venezuelan army’s capacity has undoubtedly been significantly eroded in recent years by its extensive involvement in smuggling and the other black market activities that have arisen in response to U.S. sanctions, it remains capable of offering pretty serious resistance to an invasion, and an American occupation of Venezuela would likely face very serious resistance.
There are some 300,000 soldiers in the Venezuelan military and National Guard. According to Maduro, there are another 1.6 million in the Bolivarian militia, who he has promised to arm “to the teeth.” As part of Russia’s assistance program, TASS reported last year that a factory is being built in Venezuela that should be capable of turning out 25,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles annually. It is supposed to be completed this year. This is pretty clearly more an investment in the security of the Bolivarian regime, than a profit-seeking venture.
At this point it is very difficult to project how things will turn out. The Russians are worried. Last month Bloomberg News reported:
“’Unfortunately, time isn’t on Maduro’s side,’ said Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament. ‘In a situation of worsening economic crisis, the mood in society can quickly turn against him.’’’
The U.S. strategy is to make life so unbearable for so many that the country becomes ungovernable and the regime splits or collapses. So far the military has remained loyal to Maduro, who also retains the support of millions of poor people who remember life before Chávez, under an American-approved government. But the economic situation is deteriorating and the regime is having increasing difficulty meeting the essential needs of the population.
On the other hand, the “humanitarian” provocation at the border on 23 February was a gigantic flop. Bloomberg News carried a report two days ago [6 March] that 200 heavily-armed mercenaries led by a former Venezuelan general accompanied the supposed civilian “relief” caravan. Their plan, apparently, was to initiate a fire-fight, which would have inevitably resulted in lots of casualties and provided a pretext for a U.S. military rescue operation. But when the right-wing Colombian regime found out they stopped it cold.
This is significant, because like Brazil’s new rightist government, the Colombians have no love for Maduro. Yet at this point they want no part in any U.S. or other foreign military intervention because they fear that the left-nationalist/anti-imperialist resistance movement that would arise in response could easily end up severely destabilizing the entire region. This was probably the main reason why a U.S.-supported motion to endorse Guaidó’s legitimacy failed to get a majority in January in the usually pliable Organization of American States.
One other thing that should be noted—Trump’s appointment of Eliot Abrams, who is intensely hated throughout Latin America for his role in the death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s. This is almost too stupid to believe. Abrams was notorious for covering up the December 1981 mass murder of 900 unarmed peasants in the village of El Mozote by American-trained troops. Later he helped organize support for the murderous Nicaraguan contras in their savage war against the leftist Sandinista regime. People in Latin America know who Abrams is, and they know that his appointment signals the sort of death-squad “democratization” that awaits if the U.S. and its quislings get the upper hand.
Leftists and class-conscious workers in imperialist countries like Canada have a duty to do everything possible to actively oppose U.S.-led aggression against Venezuela. Of course the Trudeau Liberals are eager participants, while the leaders of the pro-imperialist New Democratic Party have some reservations. In the U.S., however, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, America’s best known “socialists,” who are also prominent members of the Democratic Party, know that being onside on Venezuela is necessary if they expect to be permitted to pursue their political careers as leftist shills for American imperialism.
In opposing U.S. aggression against Venezuela revolutionaries defend Maduro and his supporters—but this does not mean that we in any way politically support his bonapartist capitalist regime. A revolutionary workers’ party in Venezuela would agitate for the creation of armed workers’ defense guards to prepare to resist the imperialists and their quislings. But while entering into a military bloc with Maduro’s forces, it would maintain complete organizational and political independence from the Bolivarians.
We side militarily with Maduro’s regime for the same reason we defended the Afghan Taliban and the various Baathist and Islamic resistance formations in Iraq against the U.S. and NATO—revolutionaries do not endorse their politics, but are nevertheless prepared to militarily support them against imperialist aggression.
The key lesson to be drawn from Chávez and his Bolivarian experiment is that fundamental problems confronted by the masses of humanity cannot be solved within the framework of maintaining bourgeois property relations. The combative Latin American workers’ movement has the evident capacity to uproot capitalism once and for all—but only if it is organized independently of all wings of the exploiters and their agents, as well as “anti-imperialist” bonapartists like Chávez and Maduro. Above all it depends on the creation of a competent revolutionary leadership.
Venezuela today is balanced on the edge of a precipice. The criminality of U.S. imperialism, as well as its Canadian and other cronies is blatant and indisputable. But while the situation is dire, there is a tremendous reservoir of anger, energy and a willingness to fight among imperialism’s victims. That gives reason to hope that a new generation in Venezuela (and elsewhere) will come to see that in order to break free of imperialist domination, and to end exploitation once and for all, it is necessary to embrace the program of permanent revolution, and follow the path blazed by the Russian workers, under Bolshevik leadership, in October 1917.
Published 26 March 2019
⇑  An outstanding example is the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) led by Alan Woods, which spent a decade celebrating Chávez and offering advice on how to proceed with his supposed revolution. The IMT now disowns the Bolivarian path it embraced for so long. In a 29 January statement it piously observed that Venezuela’s current problems result from “attempting to make half a revolution, introducing elements of regulations and controls on the normal functioning of the capitalist ‘free market’, while at the same time leaving key levers of the economy in private hands.” http://www.marxist.com/trump-is-going-for-regime-change-we-say-hands-off-venezuela.htm
⇑  “Guaido plans to introduce a new national hydrocarbons law that establishes flexible fiscal and contractual terms for projects adapted to oil prices and the oil investment cycle…. A new hydrocarbons agency would be created to offer bidding rounds for projects in natural gas and conventional, heavy and extra-heavy crude, the sources added.” Standard & Poors, 24 Jan 2019