Belen Fernandez; Mark Weisbrot
February 19, 2014
The government has everything to lose from violence in the demonstrations, and the opposition has something to gain. Protests are initiated by ultra-right factions of the opposition in the hope of an eventual systemic overhaul. When is it considered legitimate to try and overthrow a democratically-elected government? In Washington, the answer has always been simple: when the U.S. government says it is.
Protesters light fires during an anti-government demonstration in Caracas, on Feb. 19, 2014., Leo Ramírez/AFP // The Tico Times,
Towards Another Coup in Venezuela? - Belen Fernandez in Al Jazeera
US Support for Regime Change in Venezuela is a Mistake - Mark Weisbrot in the Guardian (UK)
Towards Another Coup in Venezuela?
Protests are initiated by ultra-right factions of the opposition in the hope of an eventual systemic overhaul.
By Belen Fernandez
February 19, 2014
Five days after violent anti-government incitement in Venezuela led to the deaths of three people, the US State Department issued a press statement declaring: "The allegations [by President Nicolas Maduro] that the United States is helping to organise protestors. is baseless and false. We support human rights and fundamental freedoms - including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly - in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world."
Of course, US commitment to such freedoms is called into question by its own operating procedures, which have included police beatings of peaceful protesters and the incarceration and torture of whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
Maduro might - meanwhile - be forgiven for associating the US with efforts to overthrow the Venezuelan government given said country's intimate involvement in the 2002 coup d'etat against Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez - not to mention its general history of fomenting opposition to less-than-obsequious Latin American regimes.
George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor at Drexel University and the author of "We Created Chavez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution", remarked to me yesterday that, although "there's no reason to think that the US is directly involved in organising or calling these protests. we need to bear in mind that [it] continues to fund the very same opposition groups that have participated in violent, anti-democratic actions before and that continue to do so".
The great cake famine
The opposition cites insecurity, food shortages, and inflation as factors driving the protests.
However, pinning the blame for all of Venezuela's ills on chavismo - the left-wing political ideology developed by Chavez and continued by Maduro - is transparently disingenuous. Or rather, it would be transparently disingenuous if the dominant international media were not intent on parroting opposition propaganda.
In 2010, for example, the New York Times horrified the world with the news that Venezuela under Chavez was deadlier than Iraq. As noted in Richard Gott's Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, "much of the violence stemmed from the police itself (the highest crime rates were registered in the states of Miranda, Tachira and Zulia, where opposition governors ruled and controlled the local police forces)".
Since such details complicate the vilification of Chavez and company, they're often deemed unworthy of reporting. So is the fact that Honduras - neoliberal lap dog of the US - happens to be far deadlier than Venezuela, Iraq, and every other nation on earth.
As for the issue of food shortages, it's instructive to take a look at a recent episode of Al Jazeera's The Stream featuring an appearance by elite right-wing Caracas blogger Emiliana Duarte. Asked to elaborate on the circumstances of daily existence in Venezuela, Duarte launches into a sob story about having to visit 10 different supermarkets the previous year during a quest to bake a cake.
In addition to highlighting the sort of absurd hysterics that typify the Venezuelan opposition, the cake-baking anecdote constitutes less than persuasive evidence of the supposedly brutal tyranny under which Duarte and her socioeconomic cohorts are forced to reside.
Perpetual opposition ruckus about the government's alleged control of the media - which is said to be thwarting proper transmission of the protests - meanwhile - fails to account for the fact that the vast majority of Venezuelan media is privately owned. In 2012, the BBC noted that a mere 4.58 percent of television and radio channels belonged to the state.
Regarding Maduro's decision to indefinitely block the far-right Colombian news channel NTN24 from transmitting in Venezuela, Ciccariello-Maher commented that, "while we should be very concerned any time a media outlet is blocked, however briefly, we should also remember that the private media is far from neutral" and that "this is a government that has seen a coup d'etat led by the private media".
Indeed, the narrative spun by anti-Chavez outlets during the 2002 coup was instrumental to its initial success.
Polarisation by whom?
On the occasion of Chavez's last landslide victory in 2012, Keane Bhatt listed some aspects of the man's legacy thus far in a blog post for the North American Congress on Latin America: "[In the pre-Chavez years of] 1980 to 1998, Venezuela's per capita GDP declined by 14 percent, whereas since 2004, after the Chavez administration gained control over the nation's oil revenues, the country's GDP growth per person has averaged 2.5 percent each year.
At the same time, income inequality was reduced to the lowest in Latin America, and a combination of widely shared growth and government programmes cut poverty in half and reduced absolute poverty by 70 percent - and that's before accounting for vastly expanded access to health, education, and housing."
Such improvements might be of more interest to the majority of Venezuelans than, say, Duarte's cake saga. Although Chavez is relentlessly cast in the mainstream media as a "polarising" figure, the fact is that the late president laboured to reduce the already existing polarisation of Venezuelan society by reducing the income gap and offering the poor masses some acknowledgement as human beings.
The doom-and-gloom squawking of the elite in response to the effective anti-polarisation campaign of the chavistas has merely been a natural reaction to a perceived threat against formerly entrenched positions of arbitrary privilege.
As for the current opposition efforts against Maduro, it's not difficult to see that US support for regime change in Venezuela is itself quite polarising - both domestically and continentally.
While the Mercosur member states - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela - have condemned the violent "attempts to destabilise [Venezuela's] democratic order", US Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned "this senseless violence" and exhorted the Maduro government "to provide the political space necessary for meaningful dialogue with the Venezuelan people".
To be sure, it's more convenient to blame Maduro for the phenomenon of "senseless violence" than to ponder, say, the practice of assassinating civilians with US drones. That the anti-chavista crowd is cast in the role of "the Venezuelan people" also raises the question of what the millions of people who support the government qualify as.
Initiated by ultra-right factions of the opposition, this bout of violence was far from "senseless"; it did, after all, have a point. And that point, as usual, was to agitate on behalf of an eventual systemic overhaul and the deliverance of Venezuela into the imperial embrace.
[Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.]
US Support for Regime Change in Venezuela is a Mistake
The US push to topple the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro once again pits Washington against South America
By Mark Weisbrot
February 18, 2014
The Guardian (UK)
When is it considered legitimate to try and overthrow a democratically-elected government? In Washington, the answer has always been simple: when the US government says it is. Not surprisingly, that's not the way Latin American governments generally see it.
On Sunday, the Mercosur governments (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela) released a statement on the past week's demonstrations in Venezuela. They described "the recent violent acts" in Venezuela as "attempts to destabilize the democratic order". They made it abundantly clear where they stood.
The governments stated:
their firm commitment to the full observance of democratic institutions and, in this context, [they] reject the criminal actions of violent groups that want to spread intolerance and hatred in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as a political tool.
We may recall that when much larger demonstrations rocked Brazil last year, there were no statements from Mercosur or neighboring governments. That's not because they didn't love President Dilma Rousseff; it's because these demonstrations did not seek to topple Brazil's democratically-elected government.
The Obama administration was a bit more subtle, but also made it clear where it stood. When Secretary of State John Kerry states that "We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protestors," he is taking a political position. Because there were many protestors who committed crimes: they attacked and injured police with chunks of concrete and Molotov cocktails; they burned cars, trashed and sometimes set fire to government buildings; and committed other acts of violence and vandalism.
An anonymous State Department spokesman was even clearer last week, when he responded to the protests by expressing concern about the government's "weakening of democratic institutions in Venezuela", and said that there was an obligation for "government institutions [to] respond effectively to the legitimate economic and social needs of its citizens". He was joining the opposition's efforts to de-legitimize the government, a vital part of any "regime change" strategy.
Of course we all know who the US government supports in Venezuela. They don't really try to hide it: there's $5m in the 2014 US federal budget for funding opposition activities inside Venezuela, and this is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg - adding to the hundreds of millions of dollars of overt support over the past 15 years.
But what makes these current US statements important, and angers governments in the region, is that they are telling the Venezuelan opposition that Washington is once again backing regime change. Kerry did the same thing in April of last year when Maduro was elected president and opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles claimed that the election was stolen. Kerry refused to recognize the election results. Kerry's aggressive, anti-democratic posture brought such a strong rebuke from South American governments that he was forced to reverse course and tacitly recognize the Maduro government. (For those who did not follow these events, there was no doubt about the election results.)
Kerry's recognition of the election results put an end to the opposition's attempt to de-legitimize the elected government. After Maduro's party won municipal elections by a wide margin in December, the opposition was pretty well defeated. Inflation was running at 56% and there were widespread shortages of consumer goods, yet a solid majority had still voted for the government. Their choice could not be attributed to the personal charisma of Hugo Chávez, who died nearly a year ago; nor was it irrational. Although the past year or so has been rough, the past 11 years - since the government got control over the oil industry - have brought large gains in living standards to the majority of Venezuelans who were previously marginalized and excluded.
There were plenty of complaints about the government and the economy, but the rich, right-wing politicians who led the opposition did not reflect their values nor inspire their trust.
Opposition leader Leopoldo López - competing with Capriles for leadership -has portrayed the current demonstrations as something that could force Maduro from office. It was obvious that there was, and remains, no peaceful way that this could happen. As University of Georgia professor David Smilde has argued, the government has everything to lose from violence in the demonstrations, and the opposition has something to gain.
By the past weekend Capriles, who was initially wary of a potentially violent "regime change" strategy - was apparently down with program. According to Bloomberg News, he accused the government of "infiltrating the peaceful protests "to convert them into centers of violence and suppression".
Meanwhile, López is taunting Maduro on Twitter after the government made the mistake of threatening to arrest him: "Don't you have the guts to arrest me?" he tweeted on 14 February:
Hopefully the government will not take the bait. US support for regime change undoubtedly inflames the situation, since Washington has so much influence within the opposition and, of course, in the hemispheric media.
It took a long time for the opposition to accept the results of democratic elections in Venezuela. They tried a military coup, backed by the US in 2002; when that failed they tried to topple the government with an oil strike. They lost an attempt to recall the president in 2004 and cried foul; then they boycotted National Assembly elections for no reason the following year. The failed attempt to de-legitimize last April's presidential election was a return to this dark but not-so-distant past. It remains to be seen how far they will go this time to win by other means what they have not been able to win at the ballot box, and how long they will have Washington's support for regime change in Venezuela.
[Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy. He co-wrote Oliver Stone's documentary South of the Border.]