AMERICANS NEED TO WALK THE WALK ON SOVEREIGNTY
This is an interesting moment in history. On one hand, we all wait patiently for the Mueller Report to fall from the printer. Over two years ago, it was revealed that Russia was trying to influence the U.S. presidential election through e-mail leaks, social media bots and false flag campaigns. It was clear that this foreign influence exclusively favored a preferred candidate. He was, arguably, the worst presidential candidate in American history, a shallow-thinking buffoon, a reality-tv laughing stock, a moral reprobate, a man whose incompetence as a businessman was masked only by his flagrant corruption. That his campaign was openly pro-Russia and insinuated with blatant conflicts of interest with Moscow was a dubious coincidence. Everyone along the political spectrum agreed that this scandal required an investigation into the possibility that a Putin puppet may be sitting in the Oval Office.
Americans were outraged that a foreign power would dare try to influence a U.S. election. This trespass against our sovereignty was condemned by both parties. Congress responded with bi-partisan sanctions against Russia that mostly continue to this day. Robert Mueller, universally admired, was tasked with digging out the truth about possible collusion between the candidate and Russia. For almost two years he has conducted his investigation with discretion in the face of many very public indictments. We will soon learn the truth about how deep this Russian incursion was in our Executive branch. Even if the report is kept from the public, we’ll know the truth.
While we wait for the hammer to drop¹ we sit back and yawn as the United States intervenes in Venezuelan electoral politics in ways that Putin could only have dreamed. It’s understood that Russia, a nefarious nation, must have nefarious reasons for trolling an American election. The United States, however, only disrupts the politics of a sovereign nation with the best of intentions. This retreat into American Exceptionalism is betrayed by the history and reveals a deep seated ignorance and arrogance.
This is old hat. For many years, since the ascension of socialist and Boliverian Hugo Chávez to power in Venezuela, the United States government under George W. Bush and Barack Obama worked to destroy Chávismo. This was especially true when it looked like the Chávez reforms were working. It began with a failed, U.S. backed coup to unseat Chávez in 2002.
U.S interference continued with criminal sanctions on the struggling nation. These sanctions became more intense after Chávez’s death in 2013 and the instability resulting from the appointment of his handpicked, but as yet unelected successor, Nicolás Maduro. Maduro was formally elected later in 2013 in what were widely understood as fair elections. His margin, however, was narrow. It was clear that Maduro lacked the popular appeal of his mentor. With such a narrow mandate, Maduro’s opposition felt empowered and stepped up their organizing.
Maduro also faced a deep, economic crisis. This crisis was not of Maduro’s making. Venezuela is a petro-state. In other words, most of its revenues are derived from the production and export of oil. In 1976, Venezuela nationalized its oil industry under the state-run company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). When Chávez became president he had the good fortune of benefiting from surging oil prices. These revenues he used to expand social programs like health care and education. He further consolidated control of PDVSA after his political opposition organized a strike to shut down oil production. This consolidation came at a cost, however, as Chávez kicked out experienced foreign and opposition workers and replaced them with much less experienced Chávez cronies. Still, the petroleum market was enough to sustain Chavismo.
Maduro, however, was not so fortunate. When a nation puts all of its eggs in one economic basket, it becomes vulnerable to the vicissitudes of that market. When oil prices tumbled after the Great Recession Venezuela’s economy collapsed. The popular public sector programs that depended on oil revenues became unsustainable. It turns out that Maduro was unsuitable for this particular crisis. His fiscal response, not to mention the open corruption of Venezuela’s political-economy, involved printing money based on debt with little to no backing. The result was massive inflation, with little hope of relief.
Oil revenues account for 94 percent of export earnings, 50 percent of budget revenues, and 30 percent of GDP. But since 2001, overall oil production has fallen by roughly one-quarter,while since 1997; oil exports have dropped by almost 50 percent.
Despite the domestic causes of Venezuela’s financial crisis, the U.S. sponsored international response made the situation worse. This was intentional. Ordinarily, when a nation experiences a devaluation of its currency on the world market, this attracts investment from foreign sources wishing to take advantage of increased buying power. Such investment tends to have a stabilizing effect over the economy. Venezuela, however, was not allowed to benefit from global markets and foreign investment. Instead of trying to help Venezuela stabilize its economy, the United States weaponized Venezuelan suffering and poverty against Maduro. U.S. imposed sanctions, with international acquiescence, denied the Venezuelan people necessary infusions of foreign capital and investment that they so desperately needed.
In an interview with Democracy Now!, Steven Ellner points out that the United States simply blocking remittance from PDVSA owned oil company CITGO is, by itself, denying Venezuela over $1 billion in capital. According to CBC News, “there are about a dozen [PDVSA] oil tankers idling either off the Venezuelan coast or elsewhere in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, about half of which are loaded up with Venezuelan crude that suddenly has no place to go.” Ellner further elaborates:
…the sanctions also stipulate that Venezuela practically cannot refinance its foreign debt, which is something logical that any country facing a difficult economic situation would do. The sanctions prohibit US financial institutions from having any transaction, any interaction with the Venezuelan government and the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA.
…in addition to that, there is a major impact in terms of discouraging commercial and financial interests throughout the world from any kind of transaction with Venezuela. There is a list of 70 — approximately 70 Venezuelan officials who are being sanctioned. And that translates into a situation in which the US government, and specifically Steven Mnuchin, the secretary of the treasury, has undertaken different investigations, workshops with representatives of Japan, Europe, Latin America, in order to find out where the shell companies are. In other words, he has created a situation in which commercial interests throughout the world are afraid to have anything to do with Venezuela. That amounts to virtually a block — an economic blockade.
Denying a struggling, developing nation access to foreign capital, trade and stable currency is a death sentence. This is not hyperbole. UN rapporteur, Alfred de Zayas, referred to U.S. backed sanctions as “economic warfare” and a possible crime against humanity that is killing Venezuelan civilians. Francisco Monaldi, of Rice University, compared U.S. sanctions on Venezuela to a ‘nuclear bomb.’ The clear intent of engaging this devastating economic weapon is to make the population suffer to the point where they will support Maduro’s overthrow.
The economic disaster has had its effect. Venezuela’s elections last year were universally condemned as corrupt. The opposition boycotted the election, driving participation to less than fifty percent of the electorate. With opposition non-participation and government strong-arm tactics, Maduro claimed a questionable 68% of the vote, but the opposition made a credible claim that the election was illegitimate. This is an unfortunate turn of events for a nation that, just five years earlier, enjoyed a clean election with high voter turnout.
In the face of reasonable questions about Maduro’s legitimacy, the current U.S. administration intervened. Last September, the New York Times reported that administration officials met with anti-Maduro military officers in an effort to establish what amount to back-door channels of support. Despite administration rhetoric, the Times points out that this is hardly a move to defend or to “restore” Venezuelan democracy. The Times points out that many of these officers “have been accused by Washington of a wide range of serious crimes, including torturing critics, jailing hundreds of political prisoners, wounding thousands of civilians, trafficking drugs and collaborating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.” In other words, they are known criminals, but they will serve Washington’s agenda.
In a rare moment of candor from the mainstream media, the Times admitted:
Establishing a clandestine channel with coup plotters in Venezuela was a big gamble for Washington, given its long history of covert intervention across Latin America. Many in the region still deeply resent the United States for backing previous rebellions, coups and plots in countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil and Chile, and for turning a blind eye to the abuses military regimes committed during the Cold War.
America’s checkered history is only reinforced by the selection of former Reagan Administration official General Elliot Abrams to lead the State Department’s team on Venezuela. If America’s history of brutal intervention is checkered and dismal, Elliot Abrams is a main antagonist in that story. As Jeremy Scahill pointed out on his Podcast, Intercepted, Abrams “played a central role in the mass-slaughter of tens of thousands of people across Central and Latin America in the dirty wars of the 1980s.”
Against this backdrop, opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced during a protest that Nicolás Maduro was not the legitimate president of Venezuela. Therefore, Guaidó announced, he would stand in as interim president until new elections could be held. The United States almost immediately recognized Guaidó and proceeded to open up funds to the self-proclaimed Guaidó government. This is punctuated by the surreal Maduro response of blocking foreign aid for suffering Venezuelans because it was being offered in Guaidó’s name and could benefit the opposition politically. Again, the suffering of the Venezuelan people was weaponized.
Meanwhile, the United States is signalling that it is willing to go all-in in support of the interim president. The U.S. administration states outright that military intervention in Venezuela is “an option.” To emphasize this, National Security Adviser John Bolton was recently photographed conspicuously?unintentionally? holding a notepad with the ominous note “5000 troops to Colombia.” Accidental or not, this is a clear signal of U.S. intentions to Guaidó, his supporters and to the Venezuelan military . No surprise, after all, Guaidó and the U.S. government have something in common. They both met with the Venezuelan military in the last few months.
U.S. goals are clear. A U.S. friendly administration in Venezuela is a huge strategic advantage in the region. It’s also good for business. Since the beginning of Chavismo, foreign access to the Venezuela’s chief export and other resources has been limited. American support for opposition is clearly contingent upon a quid pro quo arrangement of economic access. After all, according to Eva Golinger, author of The Chavez Code, there are plenty of left wing and liberal opposition groups in Venezuela who are equally disgusted by Maduro’s despotic policies. None of them receive U.S. financial, rhetorical or intelligence support like the right-wing, pro-business opposition.
State Department cables from back in the early ‘90s talked about how important Venezuela was to U.S. interests, not just because of the oil, but because of its geopolitical positioning in the region as the port of South America and the fact that they needed Venezuela to be the example of democracy for the region — as you know, a democracy that was clearly subordinate to U.S. agenda so that other countries would replicate that model.
–Eva Golinger, Author of The Chavez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela, Speaking with Jeremy Scahill at the Intercepted Podcast
Overthrowing Maduro also gives the United States an important symbolic victory at a time when American hegemony appears to be on the wane. First, overthrowing Maduro and ending Chavismo is a symbolic victory against socialism. A new generation of Americans is discovering democratic socialism through high profile advocates like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. American support for presumably “socialists” programs like Medicare for All, is on the rise. Meanwhile, support for capitalism among the young, a group notably victimized by the false promises of neoliberalism, is low and falling. The most immediate whipping boy of the pro-corporate right is Venezuela. Every attempt to suggest improving conditions for working people in the U.S. is decried as the first step of turning the United States into the desperate, South American dictatorship. Nevermind the fact that Venezuela was not a thriving, capitalist economy before Chávez. Overthrowing Maduro represents an increasingly rare victory against “socialism” as defined by the U.S. economic elite.
It also constitutes a significant victory for American geopolitics. Venezuela was a leader in the movement for South American independence at the turn of the century. Breaking with American Hemispheric dominance, Venezuela demonstrated that it was possible to defy Washington, the Washington Consensus and the push for global neo-liberalism. The current crisis reminds those within the traditional American sphere of influence that such independence comes at a steep cost. The end of Chavismo represents a capstone to such a brutal lesson.
That’s not to say that Maduro shouldn’t be deposed. His leadership has been a disaster for Venezuela. Maduro has demonstrated his despotic intentions. His has been an administration of brutal repression. The left should not candy-coat this or qualify it with “yes, but…” arguments. Maduro represents the opposite of what the left values.
Maduro’s disposition, however, is a matter for the Venezuelan people to decide. Despite our historical pretensions to hegemony, the United States has no business intervening in the sovereignty of another nation. Does Juan Guaidó have a legitimate claim? Maybe he does. That’s not for the United States to decide.
As it stands, Guaidó does not have a demonstrated mandate from the Venezuelan people legitimizing his self-proclaimed status. The situation, as it stands in Venezuela, is analogous to Nancy Pelosi, as Speaker of the House, standing up during a protest and declaring that the 2016 election was fraudulent because it did not represent a majority of the electorate and, therefore, being next in line to succession according to the Constitution, she was appointing herself President until a better election was held. True, there are plenty of people in the United States who prefer a Pelosi presidency over what we have. However, how many Americans, would support such a blatant power grab?
Furthermore, what would happen to support for Nancy Pelosi, if it were discovered that she was backed by a foreign nation? If her motives were questionable from the beginning, foreign backing could only serve to de-legitimize her further in the eyes of the people. In such an event, it does not matter if Pelosi’s intentions are sincere. She could not speak as a legitimate voice of the people.
This is the contradiction that Guaidó faces. Even if his motives are sincere², the fact that a nation with long-standing, imperialist pretensions in the region is backing him calls to question the very legitimacy of his cause. Maduro is using exactly this pretext to attack Guaidó and the opposition. Guaidó is linked to American imperialism, presenting him as a puppet for Washington.
“Nobody voted for Guaido, [his party] was invited to participate in the election process and they did not show up, they did not participate. How is it that they now want to assume power if they did not participate?”
–Venezuelan Maduro supporter Fredy Jose Peña
Of course, we already know this. Relatively minor Russian interference in America’s election were the dominant stories of the last two years. To put this in perspective, we have a nation that used email leaks, Twitterbots and ad hoc Facebook pages to discredit politicians and to spread fake news related to the 2016 election. On the other hand, the United States is literally starving a whole population while at the same time funding the opposition and holding out the possibility of military invasion to influence Venezuelan politics. Furthermore, the United States is leading a coalition of other powerful nations to do the same.
Imagine Putin leading an international boycott of American goods, while at the same time funding one of America’s political parties, openly backing that party’s leader and threatening to invade the United States in order to overthrow the President and to secure his preferred candidate in office. Certainly, that is interference that goes beyond Twitterbots.
If Americans really care about sovereignty, perhaps it is best to stand up for the sovereignty of other nations. Venezuela deserves to exist and to use its resources as the people of that nation see fit. They should have the first, last and only say about who leads them and how that leadership is exercised. American interference is a trespass against the very concept of modern, democratic sovereignty. Furthermore, it de-legitimizes the party it supports. It also encourages even more dictatorial, militaristic behavior from the targeted despot, driving him further into the arms of our enemies.
There’s a reason why the values of democratic sovereignty spread throughout the world. There’s a reason why it is a bedrock foundation of American political thought. The alternative to democratic sovereignty is despotic hegemony. We know where that leads. If Americans are to demand respect for our own sovereignty as a nation, we must lead by example by demanding the same respect from our own government with respect to others.
- To be fair, the hammer may not drop. The Mueller investigation is noteworthy in how tight-lipped it has been. There have been very few leaks, so nobody outside of the investigation team, really knows the content of the report. It may, for all we know, completely vindicate the President.
- Anyone who makes a claim to power should be suspect from the start.