Historian: Venezuela Is “Staging Ground” for U.S. to Reassert Control Over Latin America

04.03.2019 - Democracy Now!

Historian: Venezuela Is “Staging Ground” for U.S. to Reassert Control Over Latin America
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While Mexico and Uruguay are calling for dialogue to address the crisis in Venezuela, much of Latin America has sided with the Trump administration by recognizing Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s new leader. We look at what this mean for the broader region with professors Alejandro Velasco and Steve Ellner.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Still with us is Alejandro Velasco, associate professor at NYU, where he’s a historian of modern Latin America. He has just returned from Venezuela on Tuesday. And in Washington is Steve Ellner, former professor and associate managing editor of the journal Latin American Perspectives.

I wanted to ask Alejandro on this whole issue of the pretty open U.S. involvement in trying to do regime change in Venezuela. A colleague of mine from Puerto Rico, Jesús Dávila, has been reporting now for several months, going back to October, that there’s been ongoing meetings. There was a meeting, supposedly, according to Dávila, in October of Venezuelan leaders in Puerto Rico, where they met and developed a manifesto to justify the overthrow of President Maduro. And supposedly, according to that report, that John Bolton, from the White House, specifically approved of it. And then, in early January, Jesús reported—Jesús Dávila reported that the coup was already scheduled, supposedly from between the 10th and the 15th of this month. It happened actually about a week later. But the only delay appeared to be that the opposition itself could not agree who would be the official leader of the coup. And now we know it’s Juan Guaidó. Could you talk about the conflicts within the opposition and how open the U.S. has been in trying to institute regime change in Venezuela?

ALEJANDRO VELASCO: Yeah, no, that’s—it was astonishing, actually, on January 23rd. I don’t think anybody really expected the rapid cascade of events. I mean, first, in the morning, the United States announces that it would possibly recognize Guaidó as a legitimate president. Then, about 15 minutes later, exactly that is what Guaidó said, that he was swearing in as president. And then, minutes after that, you had the confirmation from the White House, then the Organization of American States with them, with Almagro, who’s been incredibly aggressive throughout these last few years vis-à-vis Venezuela, and then a cascade of other countries coming out. So, the level of coordination suggests powerfully that this could not have just been very spontaneous. This must have had, you know, prior levels of consent and agreement.

But it’s not just that it comes from the last two weeks, or even in January. This is now about a year-and-a-half’s worth of—really, as we look back upon it in hindsight—of laying the foundations and the groundwork precisely for what happened on January 23rd. So, after the election—after 2017, when there was a massive protest that happened against the government of Maduro, people like Almagro and the United States explicitly took to calling anybody in Venezuela who would try to negotiate or to run in the presidential elections a “traitor.” This is the word that they used, which powerfully suggests that the center of gravity of the opposition around 2017 and 2018 shifted from the domestic plane to the international plane. And although the conditions on the ground continued to get worse, in part because of the sanctions that Steve mentioned, but also because of tremendous degrees of corruption and mismanagement on the government itself, that lays the groundwork for that international pressure, especially from more radical expatriate communities, to be able to say, “Well, the only solution here,” as, in fact, Pompeo said at the OAS, “was that the time is up. There’s no room for debate. If you do not recognize Guaidó as president, we, as the United States, will not recognize you and your dealings with Venezuela.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Steve Ellner, this whole issue of the problems within the opposition, could you talk about that, as well? I mean, there was people like Antonio Ledezma, María Corina Machado, Leopoldo López. These have all become known as major opposition figures, but very—but most of them don’t have a deep following among the population in Venezuela.

STEVE ELLNER: Well, Juan, for one thing, the opposition in Venezuela is extremely discredited. That’s something that the media, the mainstream media, really hasn’t reported. It’s true that Maduro’s popularity has decreased. His popularity, acceptance may be between 20, 30 percent. But the opposition also is very unpopular, and that’s because the opposition lacks a program—at least it hasn’t publicized its program. It has a program. It’s a neoliberal program. But that hasn’t been its message. Its message all along has been to oust Chávez, and now it’s to oust Maduro. So the opposition is very unpopular.

You speak to people on the ground, people who would never vote for Maduro, and they tell you that they very much dislike the opposition leaders because they have vacillated so much. Firstly, they don’t have a program. They don’t stand for anything. And so they’re considered opportunistic. And secondly, because they vacillate so much. For instance, they promoted the demonstrations that Alejandro referred to, in 2017. And then, overnight, when the National Constituent Assembly, the ANC, called for gubernatorial elections in October of 2017, they ceased calling for demonstrations, they dropped the protests, and they participated in the elections. So, they’ve gone back and forth, and they’ve been very much discredited.

Now, the opposition, as Alejandro also stated, is divided. And there is a hardcore, you know, radical opposition that is led by María Carino Machado, and there’s a moderate opposition. Even though the entire opposition supports neoliberalism, the moderates support dialogue with the government. For instance, two presidential candidates, ex-presidential candidates, and candidates of the major—the two major traditional parties, AD and COPEI—that is, Eduardo Fernández and Claudio Fermín, who were presidential candidates in 1988 and 1993—they supported participation in the presidential elections, that most of the opposition boycotted. And they support recognizing Maduro and promoting dialogue. So the opposition is divided. What the Trump administration has done has been to radicalize the situation in Venezuela and pull the rug out from under the moderates and favor the more radicals in the opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to President Trump’s remarks before the U.N. General Assembly last September.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Currently, we are witnessing a human tragedy, as an example, in Venezuela. More than 2 million people have fled the anguish inflicted by the socialist Maduro regime and its Cuban sponsors. Not long ago, Venezuela was one of the richest countries on Earth. Today, socialism has bankrupted the oil-rich nation and driven its people into abject poverty. Virtually everywhere socialism or communism has been tried, it has produced suffering, corruption and decay. Socialism’s thirst for power leads to expansion, incursion and oppression. All nations of the world should resist socialism and the misery that it brings to everyone. In that spirit, we ask the nations gathered here to join us in calling for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President Trump in September. And then, over the next months, the troika of John Bolton, the national security adviser, Vice President Pence and the Secretary of State Pompeo, as everything is going on in Washington, and most recently with the shutdown, are consistently making statements on Venezuela, threatening statements, in fact, talking about, for example, coining the term, like we knew “axis of evil” from George Bush before he invaded Iraq, “troika of tyranny.” Alejandro Velasco, can you respond to what President Trump has said, and also talk about the role of the United States in this coup that is taking place?

ALEJANDRO VELASCO: Yeah. I mean, as Arreaza said to you last week, this is—U.S. intervention in Venezuela is nothing new. Back certainly in 2002, the United States supported the coup against Chávez. And ever since, under Bush, and then less so to the extent that Obama was less involved in Venezuela because it was at the height of the pink tide and left-wing governments, but nevertheless there was still significant pressure coming from the United States. So, the idea that the U.S. is interfering in Venezuela by backing certain sectors of the opposition is not new.

What is new is, as you mentioned before, just the openness and the brazenness with which it’s been happening, over certainly the last year in particular. And even though Bolton and Pompeo and Mike Pence certainly are the visible faces of it, the real driver behind this policy is actually Marco Rubio, senator of Florida, where there’s a significant amount of very radical expatriates who have come not just over the last year and a half or two, but back from 2001 and 2002, Venezuelans have settled in Miami. And they have now significant kinds of weight, the same kind of weight that Cuban exiles used to have. And so, Marco Rubio has really been the one to whom Trump basically outsourced Venezuela policy.

And I should make one thing clear vis-à-vis Venezuela’s role in—the United States’ role in Venezuela. On the one hand, yes, of course, there is this—you know, there is this intervention that has taken place. But on the other hand, the play, the larger play here, I think, is not actually Venezuela. What is happening vis-à-vis Venezuela in terms of the United States, in Pompeo and Bolton’s vision, is reasserting control over the agenda in Latin America, basically reasserting hegemony that had been lost, really, under the pink tide. So, this is—you know, Venezuela is the staging ground, but really this is a much larger sort of continental move, that has drawn players like Piñera in Chile, like Bolsonaro in Brazil, like Macri in Argentina, to say, you know, we are now turning back to the pre-pink tide days, where it was the United States that primarily set the agenda for what happens in Latin America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, but I’d like to follow that up with Steve Ellner, because even though many of the pink tide countries have now been replaced by a more right-wing government, Latin America is not the Latin America of old. It’s no longer the U.S. backyard. Clearly, China plays a much bigger role in Latin America now as a financier of projects and an investor. And just yesterday, President Putin warned the United States not to intervene in Latin America. So, even Russia is exercising a much more sort of aggressive position toward what used to be called the U.S. backyard. I’m wondering if you could talk about that.

STEVE ELLNER: Sure. Juan, there are some experts on the right side of the political spectrum who claim that the pink tide is over. There was an article that Jorge Castañeda, the former foreign minister of Mexico, that was published in The New York Times, that stated—that was headlined “The Latin American Left Is Dead.” But the fact of the matter is, as you stated, that the pink tide, those governments, those progressive governments, some more leftist than others, but governments that ruled—in Brazil with Lula; the Kirchners in Argentina; in Uruguay, which—the Frente Amplio, which is still in power; Bolivia; Ecuador with Correa; etc.—they framed certain issues in terms of state intervention in the economy, in terms of economic nationalism, which had been a banner going way back in time, specifically the case of Venezuela.

The Venezuelan economy of the 1990s, in the age of neoliberalism, at the height of neoliberalism, the Venezuelan economy ceased to be Venezuelan practically. The privatization meant that foreign capital bought out state companies, in the case of steel, in the case of telecommunications, and that was happening with the oil industry, and the private sector, as well, in the case of cement, two of the most important banks in Venezuela, the cement company and also the chocolate company Savoy. So, Chávez came along, and he promoted economic nationalism. He renationalized those companies that had been privatized, that had been bought by foreign capital.

And so, it seems to me that this is a banner. Now, it’s true, as some of the people in the opposition state, that some of these state companies had been mismanaged. But the fact of the matter is that they represent a symbol. The nationalization, the economic nationalism represents a symbol, just like the nationalization of oil in Mexico in 1938 represented a symbol, even though Pemex, the state oil company in Mexico, was poorly managed after that. But still, it stands out as an important development in 20th century Latin American politics. Same thing with the social programs. The social programs have promoted participation, integration, incorporation of the marginalized sectors of the population, and a sense of empowerment.

So, those goals and those achievements of the pink tide governments will not be just wiped away. And the idea that the pink tide is out of the picture completely, I think, is really overstating things. What’s going to happen in Venezuela, we don’t know. But Morales is in power in Bolivia. The pink tide is in power in Uruguay. López Obrador was just elected in Mexico last year. So that the situation is definitely in flux.


STEVE ELLNER: Let me also say—

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, and then we have to break.

STEVE ELLNER: Yeah, sure. Let me also say that the alternative to the pink tide, which are the governments that are now in power, the conservative governments, these are not the traditional political parties that have—that used to have large backing. These are right-wing parties. Bolsonaro in Brazil, Piñera in Chile, these are very wealthy politicians. They’re not the standard politicians of the old days. And so, it really remains to be seen whether they can consolidate power in the short-term future.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Ellner, Venezuela-based scholar and author, I want to ask you to stay with us, along with Alejandro Velasco, associate professor at NYU. We’re going to break, and we’ll also be joined by Medea Benjamin, who just interrupted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he addressed the Organization of American States. Stay with us.

Categories: North America, Politics, South America
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