Venezuela

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Print edition : June 24, 2016

President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters next to a placard with an image of the late President Hugo Chavez, during a rally against gender violence at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, on May 24. Photo: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS

Pro-opposition students march near the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, on May 26 for a recall referendum on Maduro. Photo: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

Emboldened by the “coup in Brazil”, the right wing in Latin America, aided and abetted by its allies in the United States, has now set its sights on destabilising Venezuela.

Fresh after its success in implementing regime change in Brazil through patently undemocratic means, the right wing in Latin America, aided and abetted by its allies in the United States, has now set its sights on Venezuela. Mainstream newspapers in the U.S. are busy writing the obituary of the Left in the American continent. An electoral setback for the Left in Argentina earlier in the year, where the Peronists lost the presidency by a narrow margin, was welcomed as great news in the West. The new President, Mauricio Macri, is an unabashed free marketeer who has already veered the country closer to Washington. The Western media have chosen to ignore stories about Macri’s name figuring in the Panama Papers and have instead preferred to focus on the alleged acts of omission and commission against his left-wing predecessor, Christina Kirchner. Macri has been among the few world leaders who rushed to recognise the new interim President of Brazil after the unconstitutional ouster of the left-wing government led by Dilma Rousseff. Macri is also lending a helping hand to the U.S. in the ongoing efforts to remove the popularly elected government in Venezuela. He has called for the expulsion of Venezuela from the important regional grouping Mercosur.

Two of the biggest countries in Latin America are back in Washington’s orbit. A “pink” socialist revolution had swept the continent after the election of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1997. The enormous political shift that had taken place in Latin America resulted in the considerable waning of U.S. influence in the region and a rejection of the neoliberal ideology. In 2005, Left governments in the region unitedly stood up against the U.S.-sponsored “Free Trade Pact” for the Americas. The U.S. senses that the recent events on the continent have once again given it the political and economic initiative to emerge as the regional hegemon and convert Latin America into its backyard.

Evo Morales, the Bolivian President, recently urged socialist governments in the region to launch “democratic revolutions” to combat the strategies deployed by the U.S. to regain its influence. “It is the plan of the American empire that wants to regain control of Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said recently during a trip to Cuba. Morales, however, was of the view that it would be difficult for the U.S. to achieve its objectives as the people of the region had a good memory of recent history.

Destabilisation plan

The next target for destabilisation is Venezuela, which has the largest proven hydrocarbon reserves in the world. Since Chavez took over, Venezuela has been the fulcrum of the anti-imperialist grouping in the region. He not only used the country’s oil wealth to benefit his own people but also subsidised other poorer countries in the region in different ways. Venezuela has played a key role in the creation of regional groupings, such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), that have supplanted U.S.-dominated groupings like the Organisation of American States (OAS). The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was also established to mediate disputes between member states without interference from the U.S.

Chavez was, of course, among the most vociferous critics of the U.S. The U.S. tried to oust him through a military coup in 2002. Now it is trying slightly more sophisticated measures to get rid of his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela used its bountiful oil revenues for the benefit of the masses. Millions of Venezuelans were lifted from poverty in the past decade and a half. Health and education benefits reached remote areas of the country. But the precipitous decline in global oil prices for more than two years has severely impacted the country’s economy. Unfortunately, despite the radical reforms undertaken by Chavez, the country remained largely dependent on revenue from oil exports. In Brazil too, it was the fall of commodity prices globally that precipitated the political crisis. In both Venezuela and Brazil, influential media outlets remained in the hands of oligarchs and the right wing.

The opposition in Venezuela, with help from U.S. State Department-funded groups such as Endowment for Democracy, has been working overtime to bring down the popularly elected government. The Barack Obama administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela in 2014 on the flimsy charge that the government was violating the human rights of citizens. The U.S. renewed the sanctions again in March this year. While renewing the sanctions, President Obama reiterated the position he had taken two years ago that the situation in Venezuela constituted “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”.

UNASUR and CELAC were quick to issues statements condemning the Obama administration’s move. The Foreign Ministers of UNASUR had in an earlier statement condemned the U.S. move to impose sanctions, saying that “it constitutes an interventionist threat to the sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states”. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) also issued a statement expressing solidarity with the Venezuelan government.

The sanctions are part of the effort to destabilise the country and the popularly elected government. The Venezuelan government said in a statement that the Obama administration’s move encouraged the anti-democratic forces in the country to indulge in more violence and to undermine the country’s legitimate institutions. The Venezuelan government has recalled its ambassador from Washington.

Street protests

The right-wing opposition is following a strategy of staging violent street protests while at the same time calling on the government to agree to a recall referendum. The opposition is also trying to use its brute majority in the parliament to amend the Constitution to cut short the term of President Maduro. The President has only completed two years of his six-year term in office. The Venezuelan Constitution has a clause for a recall referendum if more than 20 per cent of the electorate demands such a move. The Venezuelan Election Commission is looking into the issue.

The Venezuelan government would prefer the referendum to be held next year and not this year. Under the country’s Constitution, if the President is recalled during his first two years in office, the Speaker of the National Assembly takes over the presidency until new elections are held. If the referendum is held next year and Maduro loses, then his Vice President can take over for the remainder of his term, which ends in 2019.

The Venezuelan Supreme Court has struck down the move by the legislature to curtail the President’s term through a constitutional amendment. The U.S. now wants Venezuela’s neighbours to intervene in the country’s affairs by invoking the democracy charter in the OAS Constitution. According to the charter, “any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order” in a member state can justify its suspension from the organisation. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he would “in principle” support the move to suspend Venezuela from the OAS if the right-wing opposition in the country made such a demand.

Former Colombian President Alviro Uribe, who seems to be spending his years in retirement dreaming of plots to uproot the Bolivarian revolution, called for outside military intervention to effect regime change in Venezuela after first calling on the Venezuelan army to stage a coup. He along with some other former right-wing Presidents of the region and Jose Maria Aznar, former Prime Minster of Spain, issued a statement accusing the Venezuelan government of maintaining “a discourse of institutional conflict” and “developing actions of political persecution against members of the National Assembly”. Uribe is facing charges of running death squads and collaborating with drug cartels in his own country.

On May 13, shortly after Uribe made his provocative statement, Maduro announced the imposition of emergency rule in the country after getting the clearance from the Constitutional Court, citing a conspiracy hatched by outside powers to overthrow the government. The Venezuelan leader has accused the U.S. of “activating measures at the behest of the Venezuelan right, who are emboldened by the coup in Brazil”. Maduro said that the emergency decree was also aimed “at oligarchical parasites and speculators” who have been exploiting the economic and political turmoil in the country. The Constitutional State of Exception and Economic Emergency Decree will only be renewing the powers granted to President Maduro in January by the Supreme Court as part of an economic emergency decree.

The latest decree gives President Maduro the necessary powers of “protecting the people from the constant attacks of the national right wing allied with imperialist powers”. Under the emergency decree, the country’s armed forces will be playing a hands-on role in combating domestic crime and more actively participating in the distribution of food and medicine to the most needy. Acute shortages of essential commodities have made life very difficult for the common man. The government had to cut down on food imports after the oil revenue was reduced to a trickle. With oil prices again looking up and the government planning to streamline distribution in an efficient way, there are reasons to be optimistic.

The new decree strengthens the Local Production and Distribution Committees that are tasked with distributing food directly to households through the auspices of the communal councils. Scarcity of essential items has led to corruption at all levels. Products from the state-run supply chain are diverted to the black market. The Venezuelan elite had diverted much of the scarce foreign exchange allotted to food imports into their bank accounts by finding loopholes in the system.

Owing to many factors, most of them beyond the government’s control, the country is today stalked by hyperinflation. Maduro has warned the business community of strict action if it does not play by the rules. When he announced he was assuming emergency powers, he stated that “any factory that a capitalist paralyses, we will take it over and hand it to the communal power”.

Many Venezuelans are saying that the Chavistas during their long stint in power should have moved more decisively towards the goal of socialism. Only the oil sector was really under state control. All other key industries continued to be under the control of an oligarchic elite that was not in favour of the Bolivarian revolution. Well-wishers of the Venezuelan revolution have been warning the government that it must understand that the economic war against it can only be defeated if it embraces socialism in all its aspects. “These are times of decisiveness, either you are a revolutionary or you are a capitalist. The ability of making fiery speeches and then acting as a firefighter to put them down is coming to an end,” warned the Venezuelan activists Tony Valderrama and Antonio Apporte in a recent article.

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