The threats run the other direction

March 17, 2015

Anderson Bean examines the U.S. allegations against the Venezuelan government.

PRESIDENT BARACK Obama has signed an executive order declaring Venezuela a threat to U.S. national security. He supported this action by citing concerns about the Venezuelan government, including allegations of mistreatment of political opponents, penalties against freedom of expression and human rights abuses.

The White House didn't stop there. It issued sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials, freezing any property or financial interests they might have in the U.S. To judge from the examples of Iran and Syria, Obama's order is likely the prelude to wider-ranging sanctions directed at the whole government and country--it is necessary under U.S. law that the target of sanctions be deemed a "national security threat."

"Venezuela's problems," lectured White House spokesperson Josh Earnest, "cannot be solved by criminalizing dissent." But Obama's executive order isn't about human rights violations or the repression of political opponents. This is the latest attempt in a long history of actions by the U.S. government, working in conjunction with the right-wing opposition in Venezuela, to destabilize and undermine the Chávista government.

A student demonstrator sets fire to a barricade in Caracas
A student demonstrator sets fire to a barricade in Caracas

President Hugo Chávez, who led the left-wing government until his death two years ago, was faced with several coup attempts and a continuous right-wing campaign to topple him--he remained in office because of his wide support among Venezuela's workers and the poor. Now, President Nicolás Maduro is facing a similar challenge from the right, despite his attempts to reach out to business interests and reach an accommodation. Obama's order is further evidence that the enemies of Chávismo won't be satisfied with the concessions Maduro is offering--and that the future of Venezuela depends on mobilizing the power of the popular masses.

THE FIRST step in contextualizing Obama's executive order is to recognize the hypocrisy of the White House expressing its "deep concern" about human rights and "criminalizing dissent." Let's look at the human rights records of some of the staunchest U.S. allies in the hemisphere.

Venezuela's neighbor to the west, Colombia--the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the region for many years now--is the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, more than 2,500 labor activists have been killed in the last 20 years, more than every other country in the world combined. On average, between January 1986 and April 2010, one Colombian unionist was killed every three days.

Furthermore, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. Human Rights Watch estimates that 5.7 million people have been displaced since 1985.

Recent reports of killings, disappearances and torture perpetrated by Mexican security forces have likewise exposed the human rights abuses of another major recipient of U.S. aid. Not only were 43 student activists kidnapped and almost certainly killed last year in Iguala, Guerrero, but in early March, mayoral candidate Aide Nava of the populist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) was kidnapped from a political event and her body was later found decapitated near Chilpancingo, Guerrero. These are but a few examples of violent repression of dissenters in the region.

The cases of Mexico and Colombia paint a different picture of the U.S. government's "deep concern" about political repression. If the Obama administration was sincere in its concern about human rights abuses, its attention would be directed elsewhere.

The real intentions of the U.S. government are plain enough, dating back to its involvement in an aborted 2002 coup attempt against Chávez. According to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. "provided training, institution building and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster" of the democratically elected president of Venezuela.

Almost immediately after the coup, the U.S. celebrated the new government that claimed power. But less than 48 hours later, a mass mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people who marched on the presidential palace forced the coup-makers to back down, and Chávez returned to Venezuela in triumph.

Since the coup, the U.S. has continued to fund anti-government opposition groups. In February 2011, Obama requested $5 million for opposition groups as part of the 2012 budget--but this represented only a quarter of the total funds Washington sent to anti-Chávez groups that year. According to left-wing writer Eva Golinger, the U.S. has funneled more than $100 million to Venezuelan opposition groups since 2002, via the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and U.S. Agency for international Development (USAID).

OBAMA'S ELECTION in 2008 gave many people in Latin America hope that U.S. foreign policy would change from the aggressive posture of the Bush administration. Obama claimed to want an equal partnership with the countries of Latin America, he opposed a free trade agreement with Colombia, and he proposed to meet with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and other adversaries of Washington.

Unfortunately, this hope was misplaced. The Obama administration failed to reverse the Bush administration's policies, including reestablishment of the U.S. Navy's Fourth Fleet, which now patrols the coasts of Latin America. He also changed his position on the Colombia trade deal, becoming a vigorous supporter--and he authorized the expansion of the U.S. presence in Colombia at seven military bases.

But perhaps the most revealing event was the Obama administration's response to the 2009 Honduran military coup, which unseated the democratically elected populist President Manuel Zelaya. The U.S was one of the few countries in the Western Hemisphere to recognize the controversial 2009 Honduran elections that took place after the military coup. The White House kept silent about the subsequent repression perpetrated by the Honduran military and police, which included, as author Michael Parenti pointed out, "kidnappings, beatings, disappearances, attacks on demonstrators, shutting down the Internet and suppressing the few small critical media outlets that exist in Honduras."

Washington never formally acknowledged that a coup had taken place, which would have required the U.S. to suspend all economic aid. The Obama administration continues to provide aid to the Honduran government--to the tune of $27 million for the Honduran military and police in 2013 alone--despite the fact that the country ranks first in the number of journalists killed per capita, according to Human Rights Watch.

MANY OF the Obama administration's accusations against Venezuela today are linked to recent coup plots and the Venezuelan government's response.

According to President Maduro, the government recently foiled a plot whose intent was to assassinate him and install a new regime. Maduro's government claims the coup plotters mapped out plans to bomb strategic government buildings, assassinate key Chavista officials and had a transitional government program ready to implement. Those who the government says were involved in the plot were subsequently arrested.

The U.S. government has censured the Venezuelan government in the past for arresting opposition leaders, and in this case, officials also claimed that Maduro's allegations about a U.S.-backed coup plot were dubious. But in reality, the right-wing opposition has made its intentions plain for years.

For example, top opposition leaders Antonio Ledezma (arrested for sedition and conspiracy), Leopoldo López (arrested for inciting riots) and María Corina Machado authored a so-called "National Transition Agreement" that was due to be released on February 12. The document claims that the current Venezuelan government is in a "terminal phase" and outlines a revamped and completely restructured economy--but makes makes no mention of democratic elections.

As writer Alfred López suggested: "The fact that all three of its authors have participated in government destabilization in the past and have all been linked to the 2002 coup has many Venezuelans convinced that this is the plan that would be implemented after a military take-over."

A meeting between Venezuelan opposition leaders; the Democratic Internationalism Foundation, headed by former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez; the First Colombia Think Tank; FTI Consulting, a U.S. based firm; and the director of the USAID in Latin America resulted in the "Strategic Plan for Venezuela". The document details a plan that would involve inciting violence to justify international intervention and Maduro's forcible removal from office. The chief method is to sabotage the electoral system to project an image of crisis in Venezuela on the international stage.

The Maduro government has produced other evidence of a coup in the making, including, according to journalist Mark Weisbrot writing in Al Jazeera, "the recording of a former deputy minister of the interior reading what is obviously a communiqué to be issued after the military deposes the elected government, the confessions of some accused military officers, and a recorded phone conversation between opposition leaders acknowledging that a coup is in the works."

BOTH THE White House and the international press cite examples of government repression that stem from the anti-government protests launched after the opposition lost national presidential elections in 2013. The majority of these protests took place in wealthy neighborhoods and involved participants in the right-wing opposition, consisting of mostly the upper class and students from elite universities.

Though supposedly about scarcity of food and goods and insecurity--very real concerns for the working class and poor--the demonstrations actually centered around the goal of returning Venezuela's traditional economic and political elites to power.

Leaders of these protests, including López, Machado and Ledezma were not only participants in the defeated coup of 2002, but were also signatories to the Carmona Decree under the short-lived coup regime, which outlined the dissolution of the country's democratic institutions, including the democratically elected National Assembly and Supreme Court, and suspended the offices of the Attorney General, Comptroller General and mayors elected during Chavez's administration.

After losing narrowly to Maduro in the presidential election, sections of the opposition resorted to violence to destabilize the country. Supporters of the government report that right-wing protesters targeted some people for assassination; used Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs to set fire in government and university buildings; attacked government vehicles carrying medical personnel and foodstuffs; pulled barbed wire across roads, resulting in the decapitation of motorcyclists; and attacked more than 100 public buses.

The violence resulted in at least 43 deaths and hundreds of injuries, both at the hands of the government and anti-government protesters. An article written for the pro-Chavismo website cites press reports and official sources to show that the majority of deaths were the result of the actions of militant opposition groups. The article also shows that of the 1,854 arrests during the first year of protests, only 121 of those detained remained in custody. The majority of arrestees were granted bail while the rest were released without charge. Compare this to the more than 7,000 peaceful protesters arrested during the police crackdown on the Occupy movement in the U.S.

The White House also cites supposed suppression of freedom of the press as a reason for its recent sanctions. The most commonly cited example is the government's decision not to renew the broadcast license of one of the most prominent opposition television networks Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV).

All countries license radio and TV stations because only a limited number of broadcasters can use the available airspace. In most democratic countries, a license is given for a specific term and subject to renewal. In Venezuela, the term is 20 years--in the U.S., it is eight. It is not uncommon for broadcast licenses to not be renewed and generally goes unnoticed when it occurs in other countries--but not in Venezuela.

One of the primary reasons that RCTV's license wasn't renewed was because it used its airwaves to repeatedly call for the overthrow of the democratically elected Chavez government. According to media experts Robert McChesney and Mark Weisbrot, RCTV:

mobilized people to the streets against the government, and used false reporting to justify the coup. One of their most infamous and effective falsifications was to mix footage of pro-Chávez people firing pistols from an overpass in Caracas with gory scenes of demonstrators being shot and killed. This created the impression that the pro-Chávez gunmen actually shot these people, when in fact the victims were nowhere near them. These falsified but horrifying images were repeated incessantly, and served as a major justification for the coup. RCTV then banned any pro-government reporting during the coup.

When Chávez returned to office, this, too, was blacked out of the news. Later, the same year, RCTV once again made all-day-long appeals to Venezuelans to help topple the government during a crippling national oil strike. If RCTV were broadcasting in the United States, its license would have been revoked years ago. In fact, its owners would likely have been tried for criminal offenses, including treason.

Despite this, RCTV remained on the air for another five years until its license expired and was not renewed because of its role in the coup and in order to open up space for a new public service television station, as mandated by the constitution. It is also worth mentioning that RCTV is still operating on cable and satellite television systems, and has millions of viewers.

The claims that the Venezuelan government is repressing freedom of speech break down even further when you take a look at the country's media landscape. While it is true that state-owned media tend to be more supportive of the government, the private media--which dominate the airwaves--have a strong bias towards the opposition. Some 70 percent of the media in Venezuela is privately owned, 25 percent is community owned and only about 5 percent is controlled by the state.

OVER THE last decade or more of right-wing provocations and attempts to overturn Chavismo, the government was able to rely on mass popular mobilizations to push back the right. This was because the Chávez governments had won the support of the mass of the population, both through the expansion of democracy with participatory institutions like cooperatives, co-managed factories, worker and communal councils, and communes, as well as by using the country's oil wealth to greatly expand health, education and income support. These policies, aided by high oil prices, helped to cut country's poverty rate in half.

Today, with oil prices and government revenues plunging, and inflation soaring, scarcity of everyday household items is a genuine problem in the country. Corrupt businesses--both those that oppose and those that support the government--pocket black-market profits, while contributing to shortages of food and medicines.

Yet the Maduro government has failed to take decisive action against corruption, instead trying to placate Venezuelan big business. Through a series of negotiations with business and representatives of the opposition, the government has taken steps like raising the price of gas and returning land to large landowners, which threaten the gains of the Chávez period. If these concessions to business undermine popular support for the government, the opposition could make gains or even win in elections to the National Assembly, scheduled later this year.

Daniel Lozano, a pro-opposition journalist for La Nación, commented that Obama's executive order may end up being a "lifeline" for Maduro, by allowing him to paint all opposition to the government--including from the left, among those opposed to the government's concessions to business and committed to challenging both the right-wing opposition and the political and economic elite that has grown up around the state apparatus--as being in Washington's pocket.

For now, Maduro is playing for time, hoping that making some concessions to the right, while standing with the left against U.S. meddling, will be enough to stave off election losses. Government economists hope that if the price of oil rises back to $60 to 80 per barrel, much of the current pressure on the budget will let up.

But whatever the direction of the government in the coming months, Venezuela does not pose a national security threat to the U.S. Rather than representing a deep concern for human rights, Washington's sanctions are another cynical attempt in a long history of attempts to isolate Venezuela.

If anything, the real national security threat is to Venezuela's left-wing government--and it is coming from the United States.

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