By Richard Gaunt
For the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
When it comes to Venezuela, the rich and powerful hope that we might have historical amnesia, that we might forget the kind of “democracy” they have promoted in the past.
On April 11, 2002, working-class families — the residents of Caracas’ sprawling hillside barrios — filled the streets around Venezuela’s presidential Palacio de Miraflores. President Hugo Chavez had been kidnapped, and the presidential office was occupied by a wealthy businessman, Pedro Carmona. The United States government had immediately recognized the coup as “legitimate” and “democratic.”
Carmona’s first act as the “democratic” leader was to annul the constitution and dissolve all public bodies.
Less than 48 hours after the coup, mass protest and members of the armed forces restored Chavez to the constitutional presidency. It was later revealed that top George W. Bush administration officials had played an active role in the events of April 2002, meeting with Carmona and members of Venezuela’s oligarchy in the weeks prior to orchestrate the plot.
History, of course, repeats itself.
On January 23, 2019, Juan Guaidó declared himself the interim president of Venezuela at a political rally. This declaration did not result from any election. Guaidó is the recently sworn-in leader of the National Assembly, a legislative body that has been in contempt of court for two years, after having insisted on seating legislators who were accused of electoral fraud. The National Assembly is not constitutionally permitted to appoint a president except when the president has “abandoned” the office, which President Nicolas Maduro has most certainly not done.
Venezuela’s armed forces have remained loyal to the constitutionally elected President Maduro, so no hard power has been usurped by Guaidó. It remains unclear what is going to happen and what way forward there is from here. Maduro calls for dialogue, but the opposition is uncompromising.
“Venezuela has two presidents, one with the legitimacy, and the other with the guns,” The Economist reported after the declaration.
“Legitimacy,” or rather, the good blessings of the United States government and its allies.
U.S. President Donald Trump immediately recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president, and the right-wing governments of the region followed Trump’s lead. In recent days, it has been revealed that support from Trump and the regional right goes much deeper than recognition.
Former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma told the Associated Press that Guaidó secretly travelled to Washington D.C., Colombia, and Brazil in mid-December. The election of far-right Presidents Ivan Duque in Colombia and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil no doubt opened up the space for a bold move from Venezuela’s oligarchy-backed opposition, and the two have emerged alongside Trump as Guaidó’s strongest supporters.
The major media outlets have all joined in chorus, painting Guaidó and his backers as great defenders of democracy. Their record speaks otherwise. Are we to believe that Trump, who locks up immigrant children, Duque, whose paramilitary ties terrorize Colombian campesinos, and Bolsonaro, a veteran who openly celebrates Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship, are on the side of Venezuela’s working people? Are we to believe that an intervention led by such a coalition is truly a progressive, democratic action?
The idea that this is a conflict between the Venezuelan people and a brutal, unpopular dictatorship, depends on our forgetting.
Venezuela possesses the largest petroleum reserves in the world. Perhaps in a different world this might have been a blessing. Instead, it meant the nation’s people would be subject to a century of domination, with the wealth and wellbeing of the people controlled by a domestic comprador oligarchy allied with foreign economic interests. It is commonly said as a truism that Venezuela, before Chavez, was the wealthiest country in Latin America. It is rarely pointed out that it was also among the most unequal, with the vast majority lacking decent work, decent housing, or basic necessities like medicine and gas.
The struggles of the people were met with a paquetazo, or neoliberal shock therapy, cutting already limited social programs at the behest of the International Monetary Fund.
The rise of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution in 1998 was without a doubt one of the great popular movements of history. It involved the people; it was built by them. It didn’t stop at simply assuaging the worst effects of poverty, but sought to uproot their causes, to reorder the political structure of the country.
The vast profits from the oil wealth were nationalized and directed back to the people in the form of social programs. In a country that historically had substandard urban housing, 2.5 million public homes were built. Local medical missions were set up that provided free healthcare services where they were most needed. Communities were able to self-organize, to form hyper-local communal councils that oversee local development projects and give people power over their own communities.
Perhaps the only thing the rich and powerful, those who for a century hoarded wealth that belonged to the people, want us to forget more than their own crimes, is the success of the people’s movement. The Bolivarian Revolution showed the world a new horizon of possibility, that it is possible to reclaim power for the people, for the community — to create a truly radical democracy.
With many of these gains now buried beneath the crisis of financial war and sanction, we are told daily by politicians and media figures that the revolution failed. Let us remember that the very ones who say that it failed are those who have worked tirelessly since the beginning to see that it does. Since the opposition has been unable to produce an electoral platform to regain political power legally, it has had to plot undemocratic schemes for nearly two decades through coup, violence, and economic warfare.
There’s a great deal at stake in our remembering. Will we maintain the horizon of a society built by the people?
Richard Gaunt is an alumnus of CUSLAR. He lives in Delaware.