Nicolas Maduro Venezuela
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. (Image: EPA/Christian Hernandez)

May you live in interesting times.

Apocryphal Chinese curse

The support/staging of a legislative coup in Venezuela by the US creates one of those “interesting times” that the Chinese “curse” warns us of. President of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó has declared himself to be president of Venezuela, following the new inauguration of sitting President Nicolás Maduro, a Chavista, on January 10.

Maduro was elected in a snap presidential election in 2018, which was called by the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly, dominated by Chavistas (followers of Hugo Chavez). However that is a recently created body, designed to displace the older National Assembly, which is dominated by the opposition.

Maduro won the 2018 election with 70% of the vote, but only after two major opposition parties had been excluded/boycotted the process. “Excluded”, say the Chavistas, because they had backed violence against the government; “boycotted”, the parties themselves say, because the election itself was illegitimate and rigged.

Guaidó’s claim to the presidency comes at the end of five years of political turmoil and contested legitimacy in Venezuela, as the country’s Chavista brand of state socialism started to come badly unstuck. To get a true picture of the state of Venezuela is very difficult. Half the stories of shortages, political repression and violence appear to be well-founded; the other half are being pumped out by political PR consultancies for the Venezuelan diaspora of once-landed families, and for the US government.

The Saudi-dominated OPEC’s decision to keep the oil price artificially low appears designed to short a country that might otherwise offer ideas to the citizens of feudal petro-monarchies. Restrictions on Venezuelan use of the global banking system through sanctions imposed after the cancellation of a 2016 recall referendum (which the government alleges had been gained through faked signatures) have also had an effect. But personal corruption is rife through the Chavista elite, and the oil industry was managed for the purpose of political clientelism – offering virtually free petrol to maintain the support of the poor, coupled with a lack of reinvestment that has now crippled it.

Despite all that, the US backing of regime change is going to be no slam dunk. It would not have been done without the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — who could now lend military support to the opposition should things come down to civil conflict, which now seems likely. It is unquestionably at the behest of John Bolton and the neocons in Trump’s administration, the baboon-in-chief being led along by the nose, with promises that this will serve as a distraction from the shutdown.

Previously, this would have been nothing other than the straightforward exercise of power in the US backyard but, yes, we have no banana republics today. The US’ recognition of Guaidó gained the support of France, several South American countries (Bolivia and Uruguay have backed Maduro), and others. But Russia, Turkey, Iran and others have explicitly backed Maduro, and China — with substantial Venezuelan investments — is yet to take a position.

There’s also a chance that the global right are drinking their own banana smoothies on this. Chavismo retains substantial support because many things are still better for the Venezuelan poor now than they were in the ’80s and ’90s, when government forces massacred thousands of protesters, and none of the country’s prodigious oil wealth trickled down to them. Aggregate statistics lie. The infant mortality rate may have gone up from the low point it hit in the 2000s, for example, but for the bottom 35% it is still lower than it was pre-Chavismo. As suggested by Mike Pence’s syndicated speech/article in the Oz today, the right are trying to represent Venezuela as a people against an isolated dictatorship – rather than a matched social and class struggle. If they proceed on the “will be greeted as liberators” basis, they may be in for a rude shock.

There’s clearly also a calculation among Republicans that a full-force attack on Maduro will play havoc among the Democrats. No one advocating democratic socialism — i.e. social democracy — in the US is going to want to be associated with the Maduro government; but if they don’t stand against intervention, Bernie and others will be attacked from the left.

Mind you, there’s a lot of blowback potential to this. I mean, why on Earth would Vice-President Mike Pence come out strongly in favour of the idea that a lot of problems can be solved by removing an erratic and unpopular president?

Interesting times, but as for the prospects for Bolivarian socialism, sigh, yes, we have no mañanas today.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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