Another coup bid?

Print edition : March 21, 2014

President Nicolas Maduro with his wife, Celia Flores, at a rally of elderly people who support him, in Caracas on February 23. Photo: Rodrigo Abd/AP

Supporters of President Nicolas Maduro during the "March of Seniors" in Caracas on February 23. Photo: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP

An anti-government demonstrator confronts the police in Caracas on February 15. Photo: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS

The protests in the major cities of Venezuela remind one of the attempts to bring down left-wing governments in eastern Europe in the last decade.

IT may not be a coincidence that there are simultaneous moves afoot in Europe, Asia and Latin America to remove democratically elected governments through unconstitutional means. Viktor Yanukovich, the democratically elected President of Ukraine, has been forced out of office by an unruly mob. Yingluck Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand, despite having got a renewed democratic mandate, is slowly but surely being removed by a creeping coup d’état. It is now the turn of Venezuela, where the right wing, which remains unreconciled to the electoral victory of President Nicolas Maduro a year ago, is encouraged by the victory of the right-wing groups in Kiev and the slow strangulation of the central government in Bangkok.

Unlike in the old days, when Washington encouraged military coups to oust left-wing governments in the region, the attempts at regime change these days come in the garb of public protests. The precursors to the current attempts at regime change were the “colour revolutions” that occurred in eastern European countries such as Georgia, Ukraine and Serbia in the last decade. In many of these countries, a noisy minority on the streets could override the will of the silent majority that had voted the governments to power.

This is precisely what violent protesters in Venezuela are trying to do with the active connivance of the Barack Obama administration. Washington tried similar tactics in 2002 in an abortive bid to overthrow the government headed by Hugo Chavez. The opposition at that time staged huge protests and resorted to violence. The short-lived military coup that followed was foiled after the people who voted for Chavez in successive elections came out on the streets in force.

The U.S. and sections of the right-wing opposition in Venezuela seem to have forgotten the lessons of 2002. The violent protests staged by the opposition this time come in the wake of the electoral defeat it suffered in the local elections held in December. The opposition had high hopes of winning the elections given some of the challenges the newly elected government led by Maduro faced. Maduro won the presidential election with a narrow margin but since then has proved himself to be a capable leader and heir to the legacy of Chavez. In the municipal elections, the ruling party won 76 per cent of the mayoral seats in the country. Venezuela can claim to be one of the most democratic countries in the world, with general elections, referendums and local elections held almost every other year.

Opposition strategy

The protests this time are spearheaded by Leopoldo Lopez, a right-wing politician who played a key role in the abortive 2002 U.S.-backed coup attempt. He was a signatory to the 2002 “Carmona Decree” issued after the arrest of Chavez following the coup attempt. Under the decree, the legislature and the judiciary were to be dissolved and a dictatorship established in the country. On February 12, he led a violent demonstration in a prosperous suburb of the capital, Caracas, leading to the death of three people. Lopez, who is part of the right-wing opposition grouping called the Democratic Unity Roundtable, has been openly encouraging violence against the government. He has claimed the authorship of the opposition’s “exit strategy” for President Maduro. Demonstrations were staged by the opposition in the major cities of Venezuela in the third week of February.

Lopez is now under arrest on charges of encouraging his supporters to engage in arson and violence. His supporters had vandalised the Attorney General’s office and burnt surrounding buildings. Molotov cocktails were thrown at police officers and passing commuters, resulting in the death of three people. From jail, Lopez has defiantly urged his supporters to keep on fighting until the government of Maduro is ousted from office.

Lopez is known to be a divisive figure even in the opposition ranks. He is keen to outflank the current leader of the opposition, Henrique Capriles, who he feels has been too conciliatory towards Maduro. Like Lopez, many extreme right-wing elements in the opposition are upset with Capriles for tacitly acknowledging the victory of Maduro in the presidential election. Capriles had lost to Maduro by a percentage point.

The majority of the protests staged by the opposition have been confined to upper-class neighbourhoods in Caracas and in the western cities of Merida and San Cristobal. In the capital, more than 40 government buses and trucks carrying essential supplies were burned. Many opposition leaders have admitted that the numbers they are attracting for their rallies is not impressive. Capriles has said that for their movement to be effective they have to attract support from the poorer areas and not just from affluent parts of Caracas and other cities.

Government supporters have been staging their own counter-protests, with the two sides clashing violently on a few occasions. Ten people have already died since the violence erupted in the second week of February. The first person to be killed was the member of a “collectivo”. Collectivos are neighbourhood watch programmes that were formed during the beginning of the Chavez presidency to implement the government’s schemes.

President Maduro has been calling on the opposition to start talks urgently with the government to end the violence. At the same time, he also called for national solidarity in the face of the violence across the country. In a speech, Maduro warned radical Chavistas not to carry arms or be provoked by the anti-government demonstrators. “The people want justice, justice against fascism and violence. There’s going to be justice—fascism is fought with the law, justice and severe punishment,” he said. The government had arrested around 120 people after the violence broke out but released the majority of them within a few days. The Interior Ministry stated in late February that only 12 people involved in the violence remained in jail.

U.S.’ interference

While regional Latin American groupings such as Mercosur described the violent activities of the opposition “as attempts to destabilise the democratic order”, the U.S. State Department sided with the protesters, calling on the Venezuelan government “to respond effectively to the legitimate economic and social needs” of the people. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been regularly issuing statements criticising the Venezuelan government’s handling of the situation. President Barack Obama has also weighed in with a statement demanding that the Venezuelan government “engage in real dialogue” with the opposition “and address the real grievances of the Venezuelan people”.

The Obama administration has officially allotted $5 million for the promotion of democracy in Venezuela for the year 2014. The U.S. has been financially helping the opposition for the last 12 years through the auspices of the State Department, USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the International Republican Institute. Various youth outreach programmes sponsored by groups based in the U.S. have funnelled in more than $40 million in the past one decade. Venezuelan big businesses and the media outlets they control are vociferous backers of the opposition and they are not starved of funds themselves.

In the third week of February, the Venezuelan government ordered the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats for their involvement in the protests. The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry accused the Obama administration of carrying “out a new and gross interference in the internal affairs” of the country. The government demanded that the U.S. “explain why it finances, encourages and defends the opposition leaders who promote violence in our country”. A statement from the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry emphasised that the government “would continue monitoring and taking necessary actions to stop U.S. agents seeking to sow violence and destabilisation”.

The opposition, after having failed in the elections, now sees violence and third-party intervention as the only way to power. It hopes to capitalise on the serious economic problems the country has been facing since the last elections. High inflation, currently at around 50 per cent, coupled with a shortage of some basic goods, has impacted daily life adversely. At the same time, average Venezuelans are also aware that the country’s elite has profited from their misery by resorting to excessive hoarding and smuggling of consumer products. The elite is also involved in massive speculation on the foreign currency market that has helped bring down the buying power of the bolivar, the Venezuelan currency.

All these practices are similar to the tactics adopted by the Chilean right wing to destabilise the left-wing government of Salvador Allende before his overthrow in 1973.The Bolivarian revolution kick-started by Chavez after he came to power in 1998 gives every Venezuelan citizen access to free health care and education. Venezuela’s vast oil wealth is used for the benefit of the majority of its people, not for the elite as was done earlier. During the past 10 years, poverty has been reduced by over 50 per cent. State subsidies provide affordable food and housing for all those who are in need of them. Pensions are guaranteed for those citizens who have worked for 25 years. Even those working in the informal economy are guaranteed pension.

The opposition’s destabilisation campaign coincided with the Maduro government’s efforts to rein in currency speculators and businessmen breaking the new laws on price control. “In Venezuela, the revolution is here to stay and the interests of the 1 per cent are not going to overcome the interests of the 99 per cent who are already in power,” observed Eva Golinger, an expert on the region who has extensively covered and written on the Bolivarian revolution.

According to Maria Paez Victor, a Venezuelan sociologist based in Canada, the protests were largely orchestrated and the real opposition to the Venezuelan government is the U.S. “Venezuela represents the rejection of neoliberal economics and corporate capitalism. The corrupt, elite-governed Venezuela, the darling of corporate capitalism, that had impoverished its own population during 40 years, is no more,” she said.