The Council on Hemispheric Affairs Opposes US-led Coup Attempt Underway in Venezuela and Supports a Resumption of Dialogue

A Statement from the COHA Editorial Board

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs is deeply concerned about the US-led attempted coup underway against the constitutional President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, and supports efforts to resume the dialogue between the Venezuelan opposition and the government that had come very close to an accord last year. The Trump administration’s escalating intervention is a major obstacle to the resumption of talks. It further polarizes political divisions inside Venezuela as well as between states throughout the hemisphere. Today there are more than enough nations of goodwill, such as Mexico and Uruguay, that have offered to facilitate dialogue. It is, therefore, still not too late to shy away from the precipice and opt for politics over violent confrontation.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs was formed by its late Director, Larry Birns, not long after the catastrophic US-backed coup against Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, a tragic blow against Chilean democracy that led to the murder and disappearance of thousands of citizens under the Pinochet dictatorship. Birns always believed it was possible for US policy to evolve and gradually come to respect the sovereign equality of its Latin American neighbors. Today, however, it appears that Washington has not moved beyond the Monroe Doctrine towards a policy based on mutual respect among nations. In fact, it rejects the reality of a multipolar world and still insists on subordinating the hemisphere, by “all options on the table,” to its own neoliberal imperatives, regardless of the cost in human life.

As this statement goes to press, the Trump administration is in the process of preparing its right-wing allies in Colombia and Brazil for possible participation in a so-called “humanitarian” mission. The idea that its interventionist agenda is based on some kind of humanitarian concern for the Venezuelan people is self-evidently preposterous. For one thing, Washington’s complete inaction (and, in fact, considerable complicity) with regard to the humanitarian crises in Honduras, Colombia, Yemen, and along its own border with Mexico, shows its willingness to (at best) turn a blind eye to human suffering when it suits its geopolitical and economic interests. And if the US were so concerned about the suffering of Venezuelans due to the economic crisis, it would not be imposing a virtual blockade on this nation’s ailing economy.

Washington is using the exact same dishonest posturing with respect to democratic norms and human rights discourse. If the US were genuinely concerned about democracy and human rights, it would be putting pressure on some of its closest regional allies, including Honduras, where the United States and OAS ratified the election of Juan Orlando Hernandez despite the electoral fraud of November 2017; or Colombia, where community leaders are murdered each week with impunity; or Brazil, where the Bolsonaro government impinges on environmental, Afro-descendant, poor, Indigenous, and LGBT rights.

Venezuela is the immediate target for regime change not because it is an affront to Washington’s humanitarian, human rights or democratic sensibilities; Larry Birns called such high-minded meddling “selective indignation.” Today we are witnessing this duplicity at its worst. Far from being predicated on “humanitarian intervention” and “transition to democracy,” US policy seeks to attain privileged access to Venezuela’s oil and other natural resources, curtail Russian and Chinese commercial and political influence in the region, eliminate the so-called “troika of tyranny” of leftist governments, and the overthrowal of not only the constitutional President, but also the institutions and symbols of Chavismo. In service of these goals, the Trump administration is deploying every tactic in the regime change toolbox against the Maduro government, including preparation for use of a potential “military option.”

If there were any doubt about the sort of peril now facing not just Venezuela, but the entire region, the Trump administration has placed some of the most notorious defenders of militarism, such as Elliott Abrams and John Bolton, at the helm of hemispheric policy. Indeed, there is no greater reductio ad absurdum to expose the Trump administration’s disingenuous commitment to human rights in Latin America than its appointment of Abrams (former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs under the Reagan Administration) as special envoy to Venezuela. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says Abrams will be in charge of  “all things related to our efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela.” Abrams is notorious for his conviction in 1991 on charges of withholding information from Congress about the illegal US covert support for paramilitary “contras” who sought to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua (1979-1990). He also claimed that reports about hundreds being murdered in El Mozote (1981) during the civil war in El Salvador “were not credible,” and argued that “it appears to be an incident that is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.” His assessment of the war in which more than 75,000 Salvadorans were killed, in large part by state security forces and death squads, was that: “The administration’s record in El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement.”

Sadly, the Western mainstream media has overwhelmingly parroted Washington’s duplicitous narrative. Some mainstream publications, for example, have characterized the Maduro administration as a dictatorship propped up by Russia. And it appears that The New York Times has learnt nothing from the grave mistakes in its reporting on Iraq prior to the disastrous US-led invasion and occupation of that other oil-rich nation. Given this largely complicit stance from the major gatekeepers of information, progressive forces have faced an uphill battle. There is, however, an ethically imperative obligation to prevent war, especially considering that the vast majority of Venezuelans want peace and abhor foreign domination. And despite a call for a boycott of the May 20, 2018 presidential elections by the hardline opposition and the State Department, moderate opposition candidates Henri Falcón and Javier Bertucci participated in the contest and Maduro was re-elected by a 67.84% majority with a participation rate of 46.07%.

There is no doubt that the Trump administration is playing an activist role in the attempted coup and establishment of a shadow government in Venezuela. According to a recent AP exclusive report, during December of 2018, a series of secret meetings were held between Juan Guaido (of the right-wing party, Voluntad Popular), and officials from Brazil, Colombia, and the United States, to plan a coup in Caracas. AP reports:

The decision to confront Maduro directly was only possible because of strong support from the Trump administration, which led a chorus of mostly conservative Latin American governments that immediately recognized Guaido.

The succeeding events bear this out. On January 5, 2019, Guaido was elected president of the National Assembly. A few days later, on January 10, the day of Maduro’s inauguration for a new term, Guaido spoke from the National Assembly and referred to Maduro as a “usurper.” He urged the military to revolt and called for street mobilizations against the government. But he stopped short of declaring himself president until almost two weeks later.

On January 23, during a day of mass demonstrations by both opposition supporters and Chavistas, and with assurances of support from Washington, Guaido went ahead and declared himself president of Venezuela, receiving the prompt backing of the Trump administration and 11 out of 14 members of the overwhelmingly right-wing Lima Group (with the notable dissent expressed by Mexico). In response, on January 23, in a speech before supporters in front of Miraflores Palace, Maduro broke diplomatic relations with the United States.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dated January 24, Guaido requested humanitarian assistance and on the same day Pompeo promised twenty million dollars in aid, a drop in the bucket compared to the billions lost due to the crippling economic sanctions and confiscation of Venezuelan government assets, including 1.2 billion dollars worth of gold held by the Bank of England. Nonetheless, it seems that not everything is going according to plan. The Venezuelan military has not succumbed to threats and pressure. Guaido has not gained any significant traction among the popular sectors in Venezuela, despite the hardships and legitimate criticisms of the government. And the US was unable to muster a majority in the OAS (January 24) to recognize Guaido as interim President, nor did similar efforts succeed at the UN Security Council meeting (January 26).

In light of what appears to be a stalled attempted coup, many are wondering, what is next? For the last few nights many businesses that usually stay open late into the night are closing their doors early in Caracas. There is a tension in the air. As COHA analyst William Camacaro observes from visits to the popular barrios of Catia, El Valle, and Caricuao, “people feel as if something is going to happen, and many, including persons who are critical of the government, blame the opposition for bringing this on them.” But these voices appear to have fallen to deaf ears.

With the exception of a group of all too few principled legislators (notably, California Rep. Ro Khanna, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard), the US-led attempted coup in Venezuela does not seem to pose either a moral or political problem for Congress. On the contrary, there is general bipartisan support for regime change, as witnessed by the stances of Senators Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez.

Those in the Democratic Party who today condemn the debacles in Iraq and Libya that were consequent on US intervention, yet are eager to see regime change in Venezuela under the false cover of a humanitarian mission, ought to think twice about the likely catastrophic consequences for Venezuelans, for the wider region, and beyond. As Jill Stein, Green party presidential candidate in 2012 and 2016 tweeted on January 25:

The Democrats are backing Trump on regime change in Venezuela, just like they backed disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Honduras, Libya, Syria, Ukraine & Yemen. When it comes to regime change, the two parties of War & Wall Street are still marching in lockstep.

Even unconscionably conservative estimates, such as that posited by Daniel Di Martino, put the estimated number of casualties that would result from military intervention in the thousands. And the situation is very different from those which prevailed in the run-ups to other US-backed coups. The Venezuelan armed forces, which is allied with the more than 1.6 million militia members, has, with the exception of a handful of isolated defections, so far stood united and firm in supporting the constitutional order and rejecting the imposition of a shadow government by a foreign power. This is not Grenada or Panama, both of which succumbed quickly to a US invasion.

Today, the memory of the short-lived US-backed coup against former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in April 2002 is front and center in Venezuelan political consciousness. After coup leaders kidnapped Chavez at gunpoint and held him hostage on a remote island, head of the Venezuelan Chambers of Commerce (Fedecamaras), Pedro Carmona, was sworn in as President. His first order of business was to suspend the constitution and dissolve the other branches of government. As would be expected, the US endorsed Carmona and his treasonous government. Far from succeeding, however, the coup was overturned within two days by a largely loyal military and a popular uprising in support of the democratically-elected government. Some of the major figures behind the 2002 coup are today key protagonists in the present one.

The OAS has played a deplorable role as well, helping the US in a strategy that goes against the Democratic Charter. Secretary-General Luis Almagro has abandoned his duties as a representative of all American countries and has instead advanced the agenda of the US State Department. Worse still, Almagro has declared publicly his support for keeping the “military option” on the table and also has supported illegal unilateral sanctions by the US against the Venezuelan government and economy. Despite all his efforts, Almagro has not attained majority support in the OAS for recognition of Guaido as President of Venezuela.

At the time of writing, the Colombian paramilitaries, notorious for their human rights abuses, and Brazilian armed forces, whose commander-in-chief wants to purge his own country of leftists, are both poised to help form a so-called “humanitarian corridor” into Venezuela. Given this reality, we ought to remind ourselves of the devastation wrought in Colombia by the paramilitaries. Throughout the decades-long Colombian armed conflict and continuing to the present day, these death squads have been responsible for a concerted campaign of violence against social leaders including trade unionists and Indigenous rights activists. And in Chile during Pinochet’s brutal reign of terror, Brazilian “experts” were invited to Chile to train soldiers on torture techniques; these criminals hail from the same dictatorship that Brazilian President Bolsonaro praises. These are no liberators. How could the threat of armed aggression be more naked and transparent?

Clearly, two distinct paths lie ahead: dialogue or escalating confrontation. So far the US opts for the latter. Mexico and Uruguay, Pope Francis, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, as well as other voices for peace, however, are prepared to facilitate a dialogue among Venezuelans instead of stoking the flames of discord. The Venezuelan government calls for dialogue with the opposition. And as Steve Ellner points out, “there are moderates in the Venezuelan opposition who support dialogue.” More than 70 experts on Venezuela have published a declaration against US intervention and for dialogue. There is also an awakening among progressive communities around the world who are increasingly raising their voices against the Trump administration’s drive toward regime change. It is urgent that Washington change course and opt for diplomacy over intervention, dialogue over bloodshed, peace over war – before it is too late.