By Eric Krasnow, Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR).
On February 2nd, 2014, a student in the college city of San Cristobal in Venezuela’s western state of Táchira was sexually assaulted. Far from being an isolated incident, this violent act was just one of the myriad that have elevated Venezuela to the status as one of the worldwide leaders in homicide (80 per 100,000 citizens in 2013), insecurity, kidnappings and violence. This assault is noteworthy in that it catalyzed local students to protest the crime epidemic and insecurity. Within a week nationwide protests and demonstrations, fueled by those who oppose the current economic, political and social landscape of Venezuela, had swept the country. At stake in the conflict are not only the livelihoods of millions of Venezuelan citizens but also the structure of one of the most influential governments in South America and the future relationship between the United States and Latin America. In order to understand the role and response of the United States in the 2014 Venezuela Uprisings, I believe it is important to first understand the domestic actors involved in the crisis.
On one side of the conflict various opposition groups are protesting the Venezuelan government’s role in the country’s high rates of crime, corruption, goods shortages, inflation, unemployment and certain human rights violations. The opposition is made up of a combination of student protesters, who want concessions and change within the government, and opposition parties, such as the Voluntad Popular, who are trying to use this uprising to wrest control from the current administration. Together, these groups have fought the Venezuelan government through a combination of peaceful protests/demonstrations as well as disruptive tactics such as barricades, roadblocks, vandalism and violence.
On the other side is the government of Venezuela, led by Nicolás Maduro, and the pro-government chavistas. Vice President at the time of Hugo Chávez’s death, Nicolás Maduro narrowly won a special Presidential election in April 2013 (though the results were contested, the outcome was recognized by Secretary of State John Kerry). One of Maduro’s first presidential programs was dubbed “Safe Homeland,” a massive army campaign that sent three thousands soldiers to decrease violence and build security throughout the country. The campaign was Maduro’s response to a rate of homicide in 2013 that was over four times greater than that of Mexico in the same year, and the program boasted a 55% homicide reduction rate a few months after implementation. However, Maduro’s views on the origin of the violence in his country are skeptical – drawing a correlation between violence and “capitalist inspired cultural decadence” as well as United States action films such as Spiderman. Ironically, the very police force Maduro created to curtail violence, along with paramilitary gangs known as colectivos armados, have now been ordered, and at times have taken it into their own hands, to violently crack down on opposition, using tear gas and gunfire to suppress and detain protestors.
In addition to the police and military Maduro is backed by chavistas, pro-government protestors who are suspicious of the opposition as a right wing grab for power backed by a fascist and violent minority. These chavistas take their name and ideological leanings from charismatic ex-President Hugo Chávez, a man who was either a democratic savior or a malevolent dictator depending on whom you ask. Democratically elected in 1999, Chávez implemented socialist reforms such as the nationalization of key industries and the increase in government funding to health care and education. Chávez also spearheaded waves of anti-Americanism in Latin America by decrying Washington’s misuse of its far-reaching power and funding socialist leaders within the ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra America) bloc composed of Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Critics of Chávez’s socialist government, such as the Bush Administration, argued that Chávez was turning Venezuela into an authoritarian state, establishing ties with terrorist organizations in countries such as Iran, Syria, Libya and Colombia and allying with communist governments in Cuba and China.
Threatened by Chávez, the United States began to funnel money and resources to his opponents under the guise of democratic aid. The problem with this is that Bush’s administration was applying democratic aid to a country that democratically elected its officials and President. This led many to believe that the U.S. policy was driven by business interests, such as the desire to control Venezuela’s vast oil reservoirs, as opposed that of promoting democracy.
Furthering the chasm between the two governments were allegations of U.S. involvement in the 2002 coup d’état that ousted Chávez for two days. While certain details remain sketchy, according to the U.S. State Department’s Office of Inspector General it was “clear that U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chávez government.” Furthermore, the Bush Administration had advance knowledge of the coup but then denied that knowledge when it occurred, claiming it was not a coup at all. Though Chávez regained power, the trend of the United States distributing democratic aid to those who have opposed the governments of Chávez and Maduro has continued into the Obama administration. This year alone, Obama earmarked over 5 million dollars to support political competition building efforts in the Bolivarian state. A Wikileaks cable has revealed that organizations such as USAID spent over $450,000 a year to provide opposition political parties information on how to design, plan and execute of electoral campaigns.
As the Venezuela protests have worsened Maduro once again pointed his finger at the United States, accusing the nation of being the puppet master controlling the opposition. In response Secretary of State John Kerry stated “Regrettably, President Maduro keeps choosing to blame the U.S. for things we are not doing…we are prepared to have a change in this relationship…but we are not going to sit around and be blamed for things we have never done.” This idea was propagated by Press Secretary Jay Carney who stated, “This is not a U.S.-Venezuela issue but rather an issue between Maduro and the people of Venezuela…we have been clear all along that the future of Venezuela is for the Venezuelan people to decide.” These comments disconcertingly mirror those that White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer made in a press briefing on April 16, 2002. In reference to the coup d’état, Fleisher stated “These are issues for the Venezuelan people to resolve. And this is a matter of listening to the people of Venezuela.”
Additionally, the United States House of Representatives, in a resolution that was near unanimously passed on February 25th of this year, labeled the issue as one between Maduro’s government and the people of Venezuela. In the resolution, Congress condemned the Venezuelan government’s “inexcusable violence perpetrated against opposition leaders and protestors” and claimed that they “support the people of Venezuela in their pursuit of freedom.”
While I see validity in Kerry’s statement that Maduro is using the United States as a scapegoat (he did blame violence on imported US action films) I believe the rhetoric leaving the White House is misguided. It seems suspect for Press Secretary Jay Carney to claim that the “future of Venezuela is for the Venezuelan people to decide” when the U.S. government has spent the last 13 years pumping over 90 million dollars into the country to change the political landscape. It is also not difficult to see why Nicolas Maduro would be chary of Carney’s claims – White House spokesman Ari Fleishcer’s made similar comments in April 2002 yet the United States continued funding Venezuelan opposition parties. And while the 5 million dollars earmarked for Venezuela in 2014 is just over one percent of the 432 million dollars that will enter Latin America this year from the United States government, Venezuela remains the only country in the Western Hemisphere to have a democratically elected government while simultaneously receiving democratic aid from the U.S.
Furthermore, for Congress to draw a line in the sand dividing the conflict in Venezuela as one between the citizens versus the government is not an accurate representation of the conflict and shows a lack of understanding surrounding the actors involved on both sides. It does not take into consideration that Maduro was democratically elected by a majority and still has many supporters within Venezuela. However, I do agree with Congress that Maduro’s administration needs to answer the legitimate concerns facing many Venezuelans such as crime, corruption, severe shortages and violations of human rights. Additionally Maduro should cease using violence as a way to suppress protesters and investigate the murders carried out by police, military and paramilitary bodies in reaction to the protestors.
Though Obama has based his foreign policy in Latin America on the premise that the Western Hemisphere needs to forget the past and have a fresh start in order to move forward and improve relations, the fact of the matter is that the past actions of the United States are very much a part of the present situation in Venezuela. Maduro has even given the U.S. the key to how to improve relations, stressing that dialogue will be difficult and complex until the U.S. government accepts the full autonomy and independence of Latin America. Now more than ever is the time for the United States government to assume responsibility for its past actions in Venezuela and accept Venezuela as autonomous and independent. Now is the time for the U.S. to stop hiding from a conflict it played a role in creating.