March 30, 2014
Venezuela: Another Coup Bid!

Yohannan Chemarapally

IT may not be a coincidence that there are simultaneous moves afoot in Asia, Europe and Latin America to remove democratically elected governments through unconstitutional means. The democratically elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, has been forced out of office by an unruly mob. The prime minister of Thailand, despite having got a renewed democratic mandate, is slowly but surely being removed by a creeping coup d’état. IN THE GARB OF PUBLIC PROTEST And now it is the turn of Venezuela. The right wing in Venezuela which remains un-reconciled to the electoral victory of President Nicolas Maduro a year ago is no doubt encouraged by the success rate achieved by right wing groups in Kiev and the slow strangulation of the central government in Bangkok. Unlike in the old days, when Washington encouraged military coups to oust Left wing governments in the region, these days’ attempts at regime change are cloaked in the garb of public protests. The precursors to the current attempts at regime change were the “colour revolutions” of the last decade that had occurred in Eastern European countries like Georgia, Ukraine and Serbia. In many of these countries a minority in the streets was able to override the will of the silent majority who had exercised their ballots at the polls. This is precisely what the violent protestors in Venezuela are trying to do with the active connivance of the Obama administration. Washington had tried similar tactics in 2002 in the abortive bid to overthrow the government headed by Hugo Chavez. The opposition had at that time staged huge protests and perpetrated violent incidents. A short-lived military coup that followed was foiled after the people who voted for Chavez in successive lections came out on the streets in force. Washington and sections of the right wing opposition in Venezuela seem to have forgotten the lessons of 2002. This time the violent protests being staged by the opposition come in the wake of the electoral defeat they again suffered in the local elections held in December. The opposition had high hopes of winning the elections, given some of the challenges the newly elected government led by Maduro was facing. Maduro had won the presidential elections by a narrow margin but has since proved himself as a capable leader and heir to the legacy of Hugo Chavez. In the municipal elections, the ruling party won 76 percent of the mayoral seats in the country. Venezuela can claim to be one of the most democratic countries in the world with general elections, referendums and local elections held almost every other year. The protests this time are being spearheaded by a notorious right wing politician, Leopoldo Lopez, who had also played a key role in the abortive 2002 American backed coup attempt. He was a signatory to the 2002 “Carmona Decree” issued after the arrest of Chavez following the coup attempt. Under the decree, the legislature and the judiciary were to be dissolved and a dictatorship established in the country. On February 12, he led a violent demonstration in a prosperous Caracas suburb, leading to the death of three people. Lopez, who is part of the right wing opposition grouping called the Democratic Unity Roundtable, has been openly encouraging violence against the government. Lopez has claimed authorship of the opposition’s “exit strategy” for President Maduro. There were demonstrations staged by the opposition in the major cities of Venezuela in the third week of February. EXTREMISTS OVERTAKE OPPOSITION PROTESTS Lopez is now under arrest on charges of encouraging his supporters to engage in arson and violence. His supporters had vandalised the attorney general’s office and burnt the surrounding buildings. Molotov cocktails were thrown at police officers and passing commuters, resulting in the death of three. From jail Lopez has defiantly urged his supporters to keep on fighting till the government of Nicolas Maduro is ousted from office. Lopez is known to be a divisive figure even in the opposition ranks. He has been keen to outflank the current leader of the opposition, Henrique Capriles, who he feels has been too conciliatory towards Maduro. Many extreme right wing elements in the opposition like Lopez are upset with Capriles for tacitly acknowledging the electoral victory of Maduro in the presidential elections. Capriles had lost to Maduro by a percentage point. A majority of the protests staged by the opposition has been confined to upper class neighbourhoods in Caracas and in the western cities of Merida and San Cristobal. In the capital, more than 40 transport buses and trucks carrying essential supplies were burned down. Many opposition leaders have admitted that the numbers they are attracting for their rallies is not impressive enough. Capriles has said that for their movement to be effective they have to attract support from the poorer areas and not just from affluent parts of Caracas and other cities. Government supporters have been also staging their own counter-protests, with the two sides clashing violently on a few occasions. Ten people have already died since the violence erupted in the second week of February. The first person to be killed was a member of a “collective.” The collectivos are neighbourhood watch programmes that were formed during the beginning of the Chavez presidency to implement the government’s programmes. President Maduro has been calling on the opposition to urgently start a dialogue with the government to end the violence. At the same time, he also called for national solidarity in the face of ongoing violence across the country. In a speech, Maduro also warned radical Chavistas not to carry arms or be provoked by the anti government demonstrators. “The people want justice, justice against fascism and violence. There’s going to be justice --- fascism is fought with the law, justice and severe punishment,” he said. The government had arrested around 120 people after the violence broke out. A majority of them were released within a few days. The interior ministry stated in late February that only 12 people involved in the violence remain in jail. HEINOUS ATTEMPTS AT DESTABILISATION While regional Latin American groupings like the Mercosur have described the violent activities of the opposition “as attempts to destabilise the democratic order,” the US State Department openly sided with the protestors, calling on the Venezuelan government “to respond effectively to the legitimate economic and social needs of the government.” The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has been regularly issuing statements criticising the Venezuelan government’s handling of the situation. President Barack Obama has also weighed in with a statement demanding that the Venezuelan government “engage in a real dialogue” with the opposition “and address the real grievances of the Venezuelan people.” The Obama administration has officially allotted five million dollars for the promotion of democracy (!) in Venezuela for the year 2014. The US has been financially helping the opposition for the last 12 years through the auspices of the State Department, USAID, and National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute. Various youth outreach programmes sponsored by the groups based in the US have funnelled in more than 40 million dollars in the last decade. Venezuelan big businesses as well as the media outlets they control are all vociferous backers of the opposition and they are not starved of funds themselves In the third week of February, the Venezuelan government ordered the expulsion of three American diplomats for involvement in the protests. The Venezuelan foreign ministry accused the Obama administration of carrying “out a new and gross interference in the internal affairs” of the country. The Venezuelan government demanded that the US government “explain why it finances, encourages and defends the opposition leaders who promote violence in our country.” A statement from the Venezuelan foreign ministry emphasised that the government “would continue monitoring and taking necessary actions to stop US agents seeking to sow violence and destabilisation.” The opposition, after having failed at the ballot box, now sees violence and third party intervention as the only shortcut to power. The opposition had hoped to capitalise, in the last elections, on the serious economic problems the country is facing. High inflation, currently at around 50 per cent, coupled with a shortage of some basic goods, has impacted adversely on daily life. At the same time the average Venezuelan is also aware that the country’s elite has profited by their discomfiture by indulging in excessive hoarding and smuggling of consumer products. They are also involved in massive speculation on the foreign currency market that has helped in bringing down the buying power of the bolivar, the Venezuelan currency. All these practices are similar to the tactics adopted by the Chilean right wing to destabilise the left wing government of Salvador Allende in Chile prior to his overthrow in 1973. The Bolivarian revolution, kick-started by Chavez after he came to power in 1998, now gives every Venezuelan citizen access to free health care and education. Venezuela’s vast oil wealth is now used for the benefit of the majority of its people, and not for the elite as was done earlier. During the last ten years, poverty has been reduced by over 50 percent. State subsidies provide affordable food and housing for all those who are in need of it. Pensions are guaranteed for those citizens who have worked for 25 years. Even those working in the informal economy are guaranteed a pension. The opposition’s destabilisation campaign coincided with the Maduro’s government’s efforts to reign in the currency speculators and businessmen breaking the new laws on price controls. “In Venezuela, the revolution is here to stay and the interests of the one percent are not going to overcome the interests of the 99 percent who are already in power,” observed Eva Golinger, an expert on the region who has extensively covered and written on the Bolivarian revolution. According to Maria Paez Victor, a Venezuelan sociologist based in Canada, the protests were largely orchestrated and the real opposition to the Venezuelan government is the US. “Venezuela represents the rejection of neo-liberal economics and corporate capitalism. The corrupt elite-governed Venezuela, darling of corporate capitalism, that had impoverished its own population during 40 years, is no more,” she said.