Plotting a soft coup?

Print edition : May 26, 2017

Nicolas Maduro speaking at a May Day rally in Caracas, as rallies supporting and opposing his government continued to be held. Photo: CARLOS BECERRA/AFP

A government supporter with an image of former President Hugo Chavez. Photo: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS

An anti-government rally in Caracas on May 1. Photo: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS

OAS General Secretary Luis Alamagro. Photo: NORBERTO DUARTEAFP

Julio Borges, one of the opposition leaders, at a news conference in Caracas. Photo: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS

Violent protests by the opposition in Venezuela, the biggest since President Nicolas Maduro’s election to the presidency in 2014, are backed by right-wing political groups in South America and the United States.

THE RIGHT-WING OPPOSITION IN Venezuela kick-started in April yet another concerted campaign to oust the democratically elected government headed by President Nicolas Maduro. There have been a series of violent demonstrations in Caracas since the beginning of April. Government supporters have also been staging huge counter demonstrations, but these have not elicited the kind of international media attention that the opposition rallies have. The Western media have glossed over the many acts of vandalism and killings the opposition provocateurs have carried out during the spate of street protests that have been organised all over Venezuela since April 4. More than 30 people have lost their lives so far.

The current anti-government protests are the biggest in the country since those seen after the election of Maduro to the presidency in 2014, in which 42 people lost their lives. The opposition alleged at that time, without providing any tangible proof, that the presidential election was rigged, although the Venezuelan Election Commission won praise internationally for the conduct of the elections. Voting is done electronically, and there is a paper trail to prevent any malpractice. Former United States President Jimmy Carter extolled the Venezuelan electoral system as one of the most transparent in the world.

This time, too, the agitation initially started on the pretext that the government had staged a “self coup” that would give the President dictatorial powers. Schools and hospitals have been destroyed in the current round of unrest; public transport has been disrupted; and even an army base came under attack. One of the Supreme Court buildings has been torched. The opposition also wants the dismissal of Supreme Court judges, who ruled in early April that the court had the powers to temporarily assume the powers of the National Assembly. The judgment came after the National Assembly was found to be “in contempt” of the court: the Speaker, Julio Borges, a leading opposition contender for the presidency, refused to remove three legislators who were under investigation for electoral fraud.

The judges’ decision was reversed immediately after Attorney General Luisa Ortega, a staunch Chavista, criticised the verdict, calling it a “rupture of the constitutional order”. But the opposition latched on to the Supreme Court’s original decision and called it an attempted “coup” by the government. The opposition got support not only from the U.S. but also from the new crop of right-wing leaders who have come to power in Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.

The right wing in Venezuela also has the backing of the Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary-General, Luis Alamagro, who has called the Supreme Court’s initial decision “a self inflicted coup”. He has been carrying out a personal crusade against Maduro, with U.S. support, for more than a year, even going to the extent of calling him a “petty dictator”. In May 2016, the OAS ruled that there was an “alteration of the constitutional order” in Venezuela. The U.S. and its regional allies in the grouping were unhappy that the “recall referendum” through which they hoped to achieve a regime change failed to fructify.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said that America favoured the invocation of “the Inter-American Democratic Charter” (IADS) by the OAS in Venezuela to “restore democratic institutions”.

The IADS has been controversial since its introduction in 2001. The majority of the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean feel that it is interventionist and violates state sovereignty. Tillerson was the former chief executive of ExxonMobil. It was during his watch that President Hugo Chavez nationalised Venezuela’s oil industry. ExxonMobil had taken Venezuela to an international tribunal. Tillerson, in short, has a personal axe to grind against Venezuela’s socialist government. The opposition’s objections to Venezuela’s oil deal with Russia could have been prompted by the concerns expressed by the U.S.

The OAS is the only pan-American grouping that includes the U.S. and Canada. It played a key role during the Cold War in propping up right-wing dictatorships and ostracising socialist Cuba. Chavez and left-wing leaders in the region such as President Lula de Silva of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador had succeeded in making the OAS irrelevant by forming genuine regional groupings such as CELAC and Unasur, with only Latin American and Caribbean nations as members. After repeated attacks by the OAS Secretary General on the country’s national integrity, Venezuela announced in late April that it was quitting the organisation. Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said that the decision was taken because of the “intrusive, arbitrary, illegal, deviant and crude” actions of the OAS.

Basically, the current round of protests is a continuation of the efforts to overthrow the socialist-inspired democratic process initiated by the charismatic Chavez after he took over the presidency 17 years ago. The opposition and the Western media would like to portray it as a struggle for the “restoration of democracy”.

Venezuela has the distinction of holding the highest number of elections and referendums in the region. The opposition, which gained a big majority in the legislative elections two years ago, wants the democratic process to be circumvented. Its non-negotiable demands include an immediate presidential election, though Maduro has three years left in office. The opposition also wants the release of all “political” prisoners. Some of these prisoners, serving terms imposed by the judiciary, are in jail because of their involvement in the violent protests in early 2014, while others have been found guilty of corruption.

Social projects under attack

All the current leaders of the opposition, Julio Borges, Henrique Caprilles, Henry Ramos Allup and Leopoldo Lopez, were implicated in one way or the other in the 2002 U.S.-supported military coup. Immediately after it got a big majority in the National Assembly two years ago, the opposition started efforts to dismantle the popular social projects that Chavez had begun, including housing for the poor. The parliament has been trying for some time to reduce the President to a figurehead by unconstitutionally delegitmising his authority. According to Hinterlaces, a respected pollster in the region, 61 per cent of Venezuelans want a solution to the economic crisis and only 33 per cent want the current government to be replaced; 87 per cent disapprove of any outside interference to remove Maduro. Nine out of 10 people, according to the poll, reject all forms of violent protest.

Maduro has repeatedly called for a broad dialogue, but the opposition has been rejecting talks for more than a year. The talks brokered by the former Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Zapatero, along with the former Presidents of Panama and the Dominican Republic, Martin Torrijos and Lionel Fernandez, collapsed because of the obduracy of the opposition. The opposition is not willing to make any concessions and continues to demand “la salida” (exit) of the government. There have been calls for dialogue from civil society as well. In the last week of April, there was a massive women’s rally in Caracas to protest against the violence being perpetrated by the opposition.

Maduro, speaking on national television in late April, accused the U.S. of orchestrating a right-wing coup attempt. “The U.S. government, the State Department, has given the green light for a coup process to intervene in Venezuela,” he said. Maduro revealed that the government had intercepted an “armed commando group sent by the opposition” to “generate violence and death” in the country. The U.S. State Department had warned of an “international response” in the event of “peaceful protesters being repressed”. The majority of those who have been killed so far are bystanders and supporters of the government. In many cases, the police and the security forces have been forced to take action when opposition supporters tried to break out of designated protest areas and march towards key government buildings.

Most independent observers in Latin America believe that the opposition, aided and abetted by the U.S. and its allies in the region, is trying for a regime change through a “soft coup”. In 2002, right-wing oligarchs, who bankroll a significant section of the opposition, tried to use the route of a military coup. That attempt, backed by the U.S., failed spectacularly.

Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution he launched then went from strength to strength. The untimely demise of Chavez, coupled with the precipitous decline of global oil prices, on which the country’s economy depends, are key factors that have contributed to the current political turmoil. Oil prices have failed to rebound for more than two years now, putting the government under pressure. All the same, the policies instituted by the government since the beginning of the last decade have resulted in a fair redistribution of wealth. The poor for the first time have enjoyed the benefits generated by oil revenues, which had peaked in the period.

The country is right on top of the United Nation Development Programme’s 2016 Human Development Report for the region. The report ranks countries on a human development index that measures advances in life expectancy, literacy and the quality of life of the general population.

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