For my BA Sociology Dissertation I focused on Venezuela, with a specific consideration of ‘beauty’ ‘ideals’ linking into a discussion regarding its political economy. When researching into Venezuela’s political, economic and social history and development, I learnt about the encouragement and fostering of more participatory economic and politically democratic organisations and processes related to the government being elected on a promise to look after the majority of people who had been ignored for so many years. Yes, there have been problems and conflicts, but the intentions behind the revolution were and are something that many in the country were and are behind and part of, as shown by the popular revolt against the 2002 US-backed coup of then President Hugo Chávez.
One of my biggest concerns when researching into this was the economic and ecological sustainability of the revolution’s reliance upon oil, as I wrote:
Nevertheless, there are rightful reservations regarding the revolution’s – and the related missions’ funded by the oil that target areas such as education, and social welfare – longevity…Venezuela is still integrated within the increasingly globalised neoliberal relations, especially through oil.
This is so important to remember when discussing the recent attacks upon Venezuela. As Pete Dolack argues in his recent article regarding the situation in Venezuela, Venezuela is very much integrated into a capitalist international system and is reliant upon capitalism for its economy to function.
However, whilst this is a concern it is one that has been used to take attention away from the effects of US sanctions, which violate international law. Supposedly in opposition to Venezuela’s human rights abuses towards protesters, in 2014 the US approved measures “to impose sanctions against Venezuelan government officials responsible for human rights abuses against protesters” which included “freezing Venezuelan government officials’ assets and preventing them entry to the U.S…[alongside authorising] $5 million to be spent on behalf of assistance to Venezuelan civilians”. In 2015, President Obama categorised Venezuela as “a national security threat…and ordered sanctions against seven officials” again citing concerns regarding human rights (whilst the US arm Saudi Arabia despite grave human rights abuses), as Obama’s administration “prevented Venezuela from obtaining much-needed foreign financing and investment.”
President Trump has talked up military action against Venezuela whilst bringing in more sanctions again citing concerns that “people are suffering, and they’re dying” (ignoring how people die every year in the US due to not having adequate health care or children dying at the US border because of Trump’s policies). Trump has also threatened US bondholders that meet with Nicolas Maduro – the President of Venezuela (even though many US corporate media channels don’t want to use the word ‘President’) – regarding re-structuring Venezuela’s public debt with 30 years in prison and potentially $10 million fines! FAIR explain the effects these Trump issued sanctions have had on Venezuela:
The US government added further sanctions that prevent Venezuela from doing what governments routinely do with much of their debt, which is “roll it over” by borrowing again when a bond matures. The sanctions also made it difficult if not impossible for Venezuela to undertake debt restructuring, a process wherein interest and principal payments are postponed and creditors receive new bonds, which the sanctions explicitly prohibit.
Trump has recently recognised the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó (with one poll showing that until recently “more than 80 percent of Venezuelans had no idea who Guaidó even was”), as the country’s interim President (which apparently “was pre-arranged following secret talks with Trump officials”), with this causing the breakdown of diplomatic ties between the two countries. In a brilliant example of American exceptionalism, the US State Department issued the following statement in response to Maduro issuing US diplomatic personnel with 72 hours to leave the country:
The United States does not consider former president Nicolas Maduro to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata. (my emphasis)
The US’s support for Guaidó has been backed by Britain (who have helped by preventing Venezuela from pulling “$1.2 billion worth of gold out of the Bank of England” with sanctions seeing Venezuela relying on gold to raise money it needs), Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Chile, and France with President Macron tweeting, with absolutely no irony at all, as widespread police brutality attacks the yellow vest protesters, he “salutes the courage of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marching for their liberty”. These supporters conveniently ignore how “the opposition was involved in lynchings, burning people alive, and erecting barricades that cause deadly accidents in 2017. Some opposition leaders, including exiles like Lorent Saleh, have ties to neo-fascists.” It ignores how the opposition have deliberately not wanted to sit down with Maduro and sort things diplomatically. Guaidó himself is a product of US interference and right wing politics:
While Guaidó seemed to have materialized out of nowhere, he was, in fact, the product of more than a decade of assiduous grooming by the US government’s elite regime change factories. Alongside a cadre of right-wing student activists, Guaidó was cultivated to undermine Venezuela’s socialist-oriented government, destabilize the country, and one day seize power. Though he has been a minor figure in Venezuelan politics, he had spent years quietly demonstrated his worthiness in Washington’s halls of power…Diego Sequera, a Venezuelan journalist and writer for the investigative outlet Misión Verdad, agreed: “Guaidó is more popular outside Venezuela than inside, especially in the elite Ivy League and Washington circles,” Sequera remarked to The Grayzone, “He’s a known character there, is predictably right-wing, and is considered loyal to the program.” While Guaidó is today sold as the face of democratic restoration, he spent his career in the most violent faction of Venezuela’s most radical opposition party, positioning himself at the forefront of one destabilization campaign after another. His party has been widely discredited inside Venezuela, and is held partly responsible for fragmenting a badly weakened opposition.
The opposition has been central to political and economic turmoil in Venezuela, but this is not covered in the corporate media:
Maria Paez Victor notes that “The opposition orchestrated economic sabotage, corporate smuggling, black market currency manipulations, full scale hoarding of food and essential products. They closed highways, burned public buildings including a packed maternity hospital, from a helicopter dropped grenades on to the Supreme Court offices, have assaulted, lynched and even burned alive [at least 21] young men of dark skin ‘who looked Chavista’. This is a violent opposition steeped in racism and classism against their own people and in the service of foreign powers and Big Oil.
Importantly, recent US led sanctions have targeted the oil revenue of Venezuela:
The latest, issued on January 28, freezes all property and interests of PDVSA subject to U.S. jurisdiction — in other words, blocking Venezuela from any access to the profits generated by PDVSA’s U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, or any PDVSA activities in the United States. The Trump administration expects Venezuela to lose US$11 billion this year.
The BBC provided an analysis of the sanctions hitting the Venezuela’s oil sector and how they see this as key for their political and economic coup:
Now new sanctions will finally hurt the one sector that is responsible for more than 90% of the government’s revenues….US National Security Adviser John Bolton says the US wants oil revenue to reach Mr Guaidó, giving his National Assembly some economic power to combat Mr Maduro. One of the ways of doing so is through PDVSA-owned refineries based in Texas, through a subsidiary called Citgo. Mr Bolton has already met Citgo executives and there is an effort to change its management with executives appointed by Mr Guaidó’s National Assembly. In effect the opposition is trying to set up a parallel government to Mr Maduro’s with its own cabinet.
The role of Citgo is important:
Reuters described Citgo as “Venezuela’s most important foreign asset”; Bloomberg calls it “the crown jewel of PDVSA’s assets.” Citgo is the largest purchaser of Venezuelan oil, although crippling sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have prevented the company from sending revenue to Venezuela, starving the government of funding.
The fact the BBC openly admits that the US’s “end goal is to force Mr Maduro out of power either through a negotiated solution or by giving incentives for a military coup” shows we aren’t even trying to hide from the reality of US imperialism (even if the corporate media aren’t calling it out!), the same way John Bolton didn’t when making it very clear that the US want to control the oil supply in Venezuela with him saying it would make a big difference “economically” if “we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.” FAIR noted that John Bolton has “wasted little time in declaring Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua a ‘troika of tyranny,’ echoing the infamous ‘axis of evil’.”
The sanctions are damaging to Venezuela, as discussed by FAIR, hurting the population through affecting access to everyday and needed resources, as “the sanctions deprive the Venezuelan government of billions of dollars to buy foods and medicine.” FAIR have reported on the blind media support of US sanctions, citing the UN’s criticism of the sanctions, which has not been covered in the corporate media:
The UN Human Rights Council has formally condemned the sanctions, noting they “disproportionately affect the poor and most vulnerable”; it called on all member states to break them, and even began discussing reparations the US should pay to Venezuela. A UN rapporteur who visited the country described Trump’s actions as possible “crimes against humanity” (London Independent,1/27/19). This has not been reported by the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN or any other US national media outlet.
Alongside sanctions, the US has engaged in other methods to destabilise and attack Venezuela. For instance, the US has been blamed “for the collapse in oil prices in 2014, noting that U.S. ally Saudi Arabia flooded the market with cheap oil in order ‘to weaken those opponents of Wall Street, London, and Tel Aviv, whose economies are centered around [state-owned] oil and natural gas exports,’ including Venezuela, Ecuador, Russia, Brazil and Iran” with John Pilger saying the “’current conspiracy between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to lower the price of oil’ in order to cause a ‘coup’ in Venezuela ‘so they can roll-back some of the world’s most important social reforms.’” FAIR also mention how there has been little coverage of the protests against the US interference, with Western corporate media organisations being unapologetically pro-coup – see how The Economist and Reuters changed their Twitter headers:
Both Reuters and The Economist have changed their header images to photos of Juan Guaidó, the US’s pawn in Venezuela. They’ve abandoned any pretense of non-bias and are serving as regime change propaganda outlets. pic.twitter.com/CO8b1NfjBL— Dan Cohen (@dancohen3000) February 1, 2019
There also has been long-term economic and political interference and support from the U.S for the Maduro opposition forces, as The National Endowment for Democracy “NED” and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) “filtered more than $14 million to opposition groups in Venezuela between 2013 and 2014, including funding for their political campaigns in 2013 and for the anti-government protests in 2014.” This reflects a history of US interference to stop the revolution:
This continues the pattern of financing from the US government to anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela since 2001, when millions of dollars were given to organizations from so-called “civil society” to execute a coup d’etat against President Chavez in April 2002. After their failure days later, USAID opened an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Caracas to, together with the NED, inject more than $100 million in efforts to undermine the Chavez government and reinforce the opposition during the following 8 years. At the beginning of 2011, after being publically exposed for its grave violations of Venezuelan law and sovereignty, the OTI closed its doors in Venezuela and USAID operations were transferred to its offices in the US. The flow of money to anti-government groups didn’t stop, despite the enactment by Venezuela’s National Assembly of the Law of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination at the end of 2010, which outright prohibits foreign funding of political groups in the country. US agencies and the Venezuelan groups that receive their money continue to violate the law with impunity. In the Obama Administration’s Foreign Operations Budgets, between $5-6 million have been included to fund opposition groups in Venezuela through USAID since 2012…Another significant part of NED funds in Venezuela from 2013-2014 was given to groups and initiatives that work in media and run the campaign to discredit the government of President Maduro.
Oliver Stone, whose Untold History of the United States is a fantastic serial documentary about the scale and extent of US interference – often violent – in other countries, especially those that they see as threatening their ‘interests’, tweeted reference to an article that provides more context to this interference:
Since the end of World War 2, the United States has:
1. Attempted to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments, most of which were democratically-elected.
2. Dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.
3. Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.
4. Attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 countries.
5. Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.*
6. Plus … although not easily quantified … has been more involved in the practice of torture than any other country in the world … for over a century … not just performing the actual torture, but teaching it, providing the manuals, and furnishing the equipment.
Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, so their resistance to opening this up to privatisation has been something the US have actively opposed and is central to their backing of Guaidó (who is also considering funding from the neoliberal structural adjustment fund obsessed International Monetary Fund):
The oil reporting agency S&P Global Platts reported that, in the immediate wake of the US anointing Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s supposed “president,” the opposition leader already drafted “plans to introduce a new national hydrocarbons law that establishes flexible fiscal and contractual terms for projects adapted to oil prices and the oil investment cycle.” This plan would involve the creation of a “new hydrocarbons agency” that would “offer bidding rounds for projects in natural gas and conventional, heavy and extra-heavy crude.” In other words, these are rapid moves to privatize Venezuela’s oil and open the door for multinational corporations.
Furthermore, it is not just Venezuela’s oil the US want control of:
Celebrated Venezuelan writer and member of the Venezuelan Council of State, Luis Britto Garcia, recently wrote: “The current economic situation Venezuelans are going through result from political actions undertaken by those who want to seize power of a country that has the largest oil reserve, the second largest gas reserve, and the largest freshwater reserve, gold and coltan in the world. They intend to impede the success of a system other than capitalism.”
Venezuela has also faced attacks on “its international credit rating (making foreign loans increasingly expensive), by weakening the foreign exchange value of the national currency through purposeful speculation” by the US and its allies. Private capital and neoliberal supporting institutions are key to making the situation harder:
Another economic warfare weapon that Curcio investigates is the “country-risk indicator,” a calculation that suggests the probability of foreign debt payment default by any country. The higher the country-risk, the higher the risk-premium, or the interest-rate paid on debt. Curcio reveals that the “Large banks and rating agencies are responsible for continuously monitoring the credit risk of countries.” Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings are involved in the country-risk calculation, as are “Credit Suisse, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank.” Curcio writes, “Since 2013, when an escalation of the country-risk [for Venezuela] started, to the present, Venezuela has paid US $63.566 billion for foreign public debt service [interest charges]. The country has fulfilled all its commitments in a timely manner,” and yet its country-risk index was “hiked by 202%”.
Hugo Chávez had broken off Venezuelan relations with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund through repaying Venezuela’s debts off early. Instead, Chávez helped set up the Bank of the South, promoting Latin American integration (Mallen). Chavez also promoted decentralised democratic organisational forms, as I summarised in my Dissertation:
Ellner refers to the Law of Communal Councils (2006), which created the communal councils with neighbourhoods receiving funding to form a council, with at least 150-400 urban families, 20 rural families or 10 indigenous families needed.
These new forms of organisation provided people with more power and involvement in community projects and issues:
Each communal council has a financial branch in the form of a cooperative. Eight months after the Communal Council Law was approved in 2006, over 12,000 councils had received funding for community projects. This has amounted to over $1 billion in micro loans (Ibid.). The councils and its members can raise additional resources through local fundraising initiatives and donations. Councils may also set up communal banks and use them to dispense loans to neighbouring councils.
I also wrote about the changes to the constitution that Chavez led on and how this was seen as a move forward in terms of women’s rights:
The Constitution (1999) was an important step for women’s rights, with Article 88 providing a government pension to those who undertake household labour (for at least 15 hours a week), for example. Furthermore, the non-sexist language used within the Constitution, as both masculine and feminine forms (Spanish) are utilised, has been widely praised. Despite problems with women’s representation within politics, Rakowski argues that many see the Constitution as meeting most of the demands women have been campaigning for since the 1970s.
The Constitution was also praised for its encouragement of decentralised, participatory democracy:
According to sociologist Jesús Pacheco, the Constitution contains some 70 articles dedicated to the promotion of citizen participation (Marco 2017). Article 62 in particular guaranteed participatory democracy in Venezuela by stipulating that not only do “all citizens have the right to freely participate in political affairs, directly or via their elected representatives,” but it is the duty of the state to ensure the “participation of the people in forming, carrying out and controlling the management of public affairs.” (Constitution, 1999).
There are also the social programs known as “missions” that are based on the direct participation of the beneficiaries. Begun in 2003, there are more than two dozen missions that seek to solve a wide array of social problems. Given the corruption and inertia of the state bureaucracy, and the unwillingness of many professionals to provide services to poor neighborhoods, the missions were established to provide services directly while enabling participants to shape the programs. Much government money was poured into these programs, thanks to the then high price of oil, which in turn enabled the Chávez government to fund them. Among the approximately two dozen missions are Alimentación, which incorporates the Mercal network that provides food at subsidized prices and a distribution system; Cultura, which seeks the decentralization and democratization of culture to ensure that all have access to it and stimulate community participation; Guaicaipuro, intended to guarantee the rights of Indigenous peoples as specified in the constitution; Madres del Barrio, designed to provide support to housewives in dire poverty and help their families overcome their poverty; Negra Hipólita, which assists children, adolescents and adults who are homeless; Piar, which seeks to help mining communities through dignifying living conditions and establishing environmental practices; and Zamora, intended to reorganize land, especially idle land that could be used for agriculture, in accordance with the constitution.
I also wrote in my dissertation about the introduction of a Women’s Development Bank, again helping further women’s rights:
The introduction of the Women’s Development Bank (Banmujer) in 2001 has been essential to reducing inequality between men and women (Friedman). The bank provides women who are often isolated from economic resources, financial and non-financial opportunities (Spronk and Webber). Wagner provides a detailed outline of the bank’s structure. The bank has a network of promoters that visit poor and overpopulated communities each week to provide personal services that certain women could not otherwise reach. The group needs between 5-10 people to start its own business, and those who cannot read and write are provided a business partner to help whilst the bank promotes the Mission Robinson (government’s literacy campaign). The promoters help pick suitable projects to fit with the bank’s vision. Men can take part, but are unable to access loans. The bank also provides workshops on personal development and gender rights. However, there have been problems with loan defaults, with the follow-up system requiring reform (Cannon).
These missions and policies helping historically disadvantaged and marginalised groups and people aren’t exactly what the US wants the money raised from oil revenue to be going towards. Whilst there are problems that Venezuela has to address, this is something they should be left to do themselves through democratic processes. The historic and significant scale and extent of US interference has to be critically acknowledged and highlighted, alongside their total hypocrisy and double standards and long-standing role in destabilising countries that are seen as a ‘threat’ to their US neoliberal capitalist interests. However, this isn’t happening in corporate media, as can be illustrated in regards to the reporting of the 2018 Venezuelan election:
Last year, the Trump administration preemptively declared as fraudulent the elections they had previously been demanding, instructing the opposition (whom the US has been funding for two decades) to boycott the process. It even tried to “persuade” (i.e., intimidate) opposition presidential candidate Henri Falcón not to run. With complete unanimity of outlook, the supposedly oppositional US media served to delegitimize the elections as well (FAIR.org, 5/23/18), with the New York Times (5/20/18) describing them as “heavily rigged” and the Miami Herald (5/2/18) christening them “fraudulent,” a “sham,” a “charade” and a “joke” in one column alone. Yet this perception of events can only be sustained through the careful curation of information: informing readers of certain facts, while ignoring strong evidence to the contrary…In reality, Venezuela has one of the most intensely monitored election system in the world, and the government called on the United Nations to send observation teams. This was blocked by the US on the grounds that the UN would “validate” the elections. Despite this, numerous international election monitoring organizations attended and attested to the vote’s quality.
Maduro won his first election in 2013, recognized by every country in the world except the US, and which even the Washington-funded organization the Carter Center declared free and fair. Indeed, former President Jimmy Carter in 2012 stated the Venezuelan election system to be the “best in the world.”
Despite all this, Venezuela is not a socialist country. It still has the private sector involved in some aspects of the political economy, who have also helped create problems in Venezuela that has hurt the mass population:
As Caleb T. Maupin wrote for Mint Press News last year (July 12, 2016), “It’s odd that the mainstream press blames ‘socialism’ for the food problems in Venezuela, when the food distributors remain in the hands of private corporations,” who are “running general sabotage” of the system. That sabotage by the private sector has taken the form of hoarding of selected items, price speculation, keeping supermarket shelves empty, sending food shipments to neighbouring countries, even setting food warehouse stockpiles on fire. This purposely-generated scarcity creates chaos and discontent, further undermining the government…A new book by Venezuelan economist Pasqualina Curcio Curcio – called The Visible Hand of the Market: Economic Warfare in Venezuela – reveals more precisely just how some of this economic sabotage is being done: through multinational corporations, whose brand names we all recognize. For example, Curcio shows that Big Pharma is “responsible for the import and distribution of 50% of pharmaceuticals in Venezuela,” while companies like “Procter & Gamble, Colgate, Kimberly Clark and Johnson & Johnson” control the Venezuelan market for personal and household hygiene products. In league with local private distributors, these multinationals appear to be re-routing and withholding products, and/or bypassing Venezuela completely.
This illustrates the problems and challenges socialist and democratic socialist political movements face given the international power structures and relations shaped by US dominance – relating to neoliberal institutional relations such as the IMF and World Bank – alongside the role of the dollar and capital and finance markets.
With a recent poll finding “86 percent of Venezuelans would disagree with international military intervention. And 81 percent oppose the US sanctions” it is important to look beyond faux concerns for human rights and see the US’s position for what it is: consistent with its capitalist, imperialist, violent approach to other countries that don’t fall into line. There are more and more people speaking up against this though (see here and here and here and here and here for instance) despite attempts to stop this (see here) and whilst the corporate media, as reported by FAIR, don’t want to use the term we have to call it out for what it is: a coup. When calling out the corporate media, FAIR rightly said “for a media so focused on allegations of foreign interference in US politics, it is remarkable how accepting they are of Trump becoming personal moral arbiter of Venezuela.” Venezuela is facing the full wrath of the neoliberal international system, as it refuses to conform.
Jane Watkinson (she/her) is an anti-capitalist, intersectional feminist and vegan interested in Marxism, social ecology, sociology, revolutionary humanism, and studying radical social, economic, and political theory and how this can be applied in practice. She is a freelance researcher working in the community sector. Her LinkTree is here.