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Venezuela’s Continuous Coup

When Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma was arrested last week, charged with organizing and leading a coup, the U.S. State Department’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “The allegations made by the Venezuelan government that the United States is involved in coup plotting and destabilization are baseless and false. The United States does not support political transitions by non-constitutional means.”

That remarkable quote — denying what has been a well-known and fully documented pillar of U.S. foreign policy for the last 30 years — tells us more truth than the lie Psaki was trying to spread. Why, at this point, would Washington make such a definitive and laughably false statement?

The evidence is overwhelming that the rich and powerful of Venezuela have followed a continuous, constantly morphing plan to de-stabilize the country and take over the government by any means necessary and that the United States government knows about that plan, supports it and, as much as it can, is assisting in it.

“There’s been an ongoing effort to destabilize the government,” said author Miguel Tinker Salas, a top authority on the Venezuela’s situation, [1] “to represent the government as a crisis in crisis mode, and to depict the country as if it’s on the brink of a precipice.”

Everything about Venezuela — including its progress and successes, its growing status as a leader in its continent and its difficulties, stumbles and failures — is driven by two realities. One is its government’s commitment to a genuine program of fundamental political and economic change and the other is an equally committed effort to sabotage that program and overthrow this government.

Is there a coup planned in Venezuela? All the time.

As Ledezma, a virulent right-winger and participant in Venezuela’s violent and aborted coup of 2002, was being dragged off to jail, people in the surrounding “barrios” of Caracas probably applauded. This is a man who made a career of initially ignoring them and, when finally forced to acknowledge their existence, insulted their work habits and intelligence. Now he was being jailed for trying to return their lives to the ones they led prior to 1999.

Back then, many of these residents had no water, sewers or electricity and very few paved streets. In fact, many of the neighborhoods that surround Venezuela’s capital weren’t even displayed on the map: they were unrecognized by the government so the government had no need to provide services, and they were politically powerless because people in unrecognized areas were seldom registered to vote.

Much of that was true of all the poor areas of the country and in the countryside, but all that has changed since 1999.

There is nothing in recent history like Venezuela. An oil-rich, modern and moderate-sized country in a continent whose production and consumption reaches the entire world, Venezuela set a precedent: it installed a revolutionary government by election — after a long history of social neglect, political repression and fawning collaboration with and domination bny U.S. corporations.

The Bolivarian Revolution

Led by Hugo Chavez, a career military officer and life-long leftist, the new government has re-defined Venezuelan democracy by registering millions of poor people who had never voted before, creating thousands of Popular Power committees to make local decisions and writing a constitution that guaranteed the vote for all adults.

On the shoulders of that heretofore untapped electoral army that is Venezuela’s poor, the Bolivarian Movement and its United Socialist Party has won every election since 1999. The poor people’s vote has become both the motor and the banner of a stunning social transformation that began with education.

The number of students in Venezuela’s primary schools (now 93 percent) has increased by more than seven million pupils since 1999, mainly in poor and agricultural areas, and the percentage of students who go on to University has risen from 28 to 78 percent thanks to the creation of the country’s first free university system (comprised of 13 institutions) in the following decade alone.

“Former president Hugo Chávez made significant changes to the laws regarding education in Venezuela that account for this drastic leap in attendance rates,” Emily Walthouse of the Bergen Project writes [2]. “By making education more accessible, the Ministry of Education could guarantee public schooling to all children and, therefore, feasibly mandate nine years of education.”

This educational modernization was accompanied by improvements in the infrastructure in much of the country and the tripling of health-care facilities in a system once notorious for excluding the poor, but that now excludes no one.

Poverty in Venezuela has been halved and the country, by mid-2014, boasted the highest average standard of living in Latin America. In 1999, half of the country was living under the poverty line, with 23 percent in “extreme poverty”. By 2011, there were 23 percent poor and 8 percent in extreme poverty. No other country in modern history has accomplished that in just a decade. This triumph was accompanied by a huge increase in consumption and a drop in malnutrition from 13.5 percent in 1990 to 5 percent in 2010.

These dramatic domestic changes are mirrored by the changes in Venezuela’s foreign policy and activities. A genuinely independent foreign policy boosted Venezuela to a position of leadership in Latin America and made its oil reserves a source of political clout and a tool of international solidarity — as demonstrated by the vital petroleum contributions to several countries, including Cuba, made by its nationalized oil company: PDVSA. The government also founded the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) whose 11 members — Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Grenada, Nicaragua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Venezuela — coordinate mutual economic support and serve as an alternative to the U.S. controlled Organization of American States.

While continental impact is impossible to quantify, most observers and political leaders credit Venezuela with influencing the emergence of six left-wing governments in Latin America and the unprecedented predominance of elected governments in the region, replacing the US-backed dictatorships that were Latin America’s “normal” 25 years ago.

In a just world, this social project would be universally acclaimed and supported. In today’s unjust world, Venezuela has lived under relentless political and physical sabotage as a result of its successes.

The Continous Coup

“When a member of your family makes mistakes or has problems, you immediately try to help,” says an economist working for the Venezuelan government. “We stumble, the reactionaries and the imperialists beat and kick us. This is part of our recent history.”

(Note: Two people working at mid-level for the Venezuelan government are quoted in this article and asked not to be identified.)

In 2013, a tape was released [3] featuring a conversation between opposition leader Maria Corina Machado and another anti-Chavista. Part of it detailed a conversation between right-wing leader Ramon Aveledo and Roberta Jacobsen, US Under-Secretary of State for Latin America.

“Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told the State Department that the only way to resolve this is by provoking and accentuating a crisis, a coup or a self-coup,” Machado says on the tape. “Or a process of tightening the screws and domesticating to generate a system of total social control.”

Elsewhere in that tape, referring to the Maduro government, she says, “We have to raise the political costs for these vagabonds (the Maduro government), beginning with the gringos and followed by the Colombians, the Brazilians…”

To oppose a government because it’s ineffective is politics that leads to elections. To work to make it ineffective is sabotage or even treason that leads to a coup. The tapes demonstrate that opposition leaders have been telling the U.S. State Department about their plans to overthrow this government for years now.

Psaki’s insistence that President Maduro’s charges against the U.S. are absurd tap what Tinker Salas calls “historical amensia”. He says, “We tend to forget that coups have happened in Honduras against (Honduran President) Mel Selaya or in Paraguay against the president of that country, and that they happened in Venezuela in 2002.”

During the 2002 attempted coup [4], President Chavez was arrested and transported to a remote military installation when opposition leaders (including some generals) falsely claimed that he had resigned in response to riots and building burnings their supporters had organized. Reports of his resignation swept through the privately owned television stations’ broadcasts with an immediacy only possible in a coordinated response. Those same television outlets refused to interview elected government officials who were trying tell the Venezuelan people that Chavez had, in fact, done no such thing. When these government officials tried to use the state-owned TV and radio outlets to get the true message out, those outlets were quickly closed down by the plotters.

The US-backed Coup Attempt in 2002

Almost immediately, the U.S. government (which had been informed of the coup [5] at least two weeks before it happened) hailed the “new government”, blamed Chavez’ policies for the crisis and promised diplomatic recognition very shortly. But, with typical myopia, the coup organizers, their media cohorts and the U.S. powers forgot how this government had come to power.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators spontaneously mobilized and marched to the Presidential Palace as the news spread by word-of-mouth, leaflets and bull-horn announcements throughout poor communities. The Presidential guard (which had always supported the President) finally arrested some of the plotters — others went into exile — and the television stations that had been broadcasting congratulations and celebrations about the coup now switched to cartoons and talk shows. The failure itself wasn’t reported until Chavez had returned to full power two days after the failed coup began.

That fiasco was only the most obvious example of a constant ongoing campaign of pressure, harassment and economic and political sabotage that has included major incidents of sabotage of the country’s water supply and power systems, organized and violent right-wing demonstrations such as those in 2013 and daily denunciations in that same media. The U.S. has supported that campaign with a program of economic de-stabilization characterized by the pull-out of U.S. corporations from the country, the freezing by the U.S. of some of Venezuela’s assets, trade restrictions, limitations on how many diplomats Venezuela can have in the U.S. (a remarkable insult) and non-recognition of the Venezuelan government for five years, as well as financing of opposition groups.

Like its Venezuelan cousin, the U.S. media has been derisive and insulting toward Venezuela for the past decade and a half. The reportage on Venezuela in the mainstream US media is almost entirely negative.

“Look at how Mexico is depicted and how Venezuela is depicted,” Tinker Salas points out. “Mexico’s actually experiencing a real human rights crisis, with over 100,000 dead, thousands disappeared and displaced, and millions immigrating. And Venezuela, a very small number, a very deplorable number, but a very small number of people who have actually perished. But the reporting is completely obviously one-sided and really depicts the country, as I suggested earlier, as somehow on the verge of the crisis.”

Among the greatest casualties of this menacing campaign has been the ability of Venezuela and its leaders to plan their country’s future and deal with the very real problems it faces.

In 2010, a group of left-wing activists and intellectuals published an extensive and powerful critique of the government’s policies and its centralization of power and influence in its charismatic leader. While the statement never led to serious conversations about reform, its criticisms have lingered in the thinking and evaluations of many who essentially are Bolivarian comrades.

Chief among those criticisms, ranging from the rejection of consensus politics by the government to sloppy and sometimes bullying imposition of policies, was the problem that Venezuela now confronts: Venezuela’s revolutionary motor runs on oil.

As one of the world’s major oil producers, Venezuela has always been a plumb for foreign petroleum companies and the web of corporations that live off the oil industry. It has always made money and the money has always gone to a few people.

An Oil-Funded Revolution

The Bolivarian revolution’s prime strategy was to turn the concept of a mono-culture on its head. Instead of one productive “crop” making people rich, it would now be used to end people’s poverty.

While oil was selling at around $100 a barrel internationally, the government could fund its economic and social miracles among the poor while tentatively maintaining the life-style of the privileged and improving things for parts of the middle-class. Its popularity reflected that success.

Even then, however, there were hints at severe structural and political problems. “Chavez was one of the world’s greatest revolutionary leaders,” said a second government official who is involved in planning. “He mobilized an entire nation and region with powerful ideas but he failed to see the less obvious problems.”

The most glaring of these is, in part, a result of Venezuela’s progress. A more economically stable poor population raised the level of consumption [6] and the country simply couldn’t develop its production fast enough to meet these growing demands. It relied almost exclusively on its petroleum revenues as a kind of economic supplement.

Says the government economist, “We have never really diversified our economy. We sold oil to the world and fed ourselves with what the world paid us. In a socialist world, that’s as it should be. In a world still dominated by capitalism, it is potential disaster. When the Yanquis pulled out corporations and industry, we didn’t replace them. We let them deepen our dependence on petroleum.”

From a purely economic standpoint, the most glaring reflection of these problems is inflation: at any moment, it is now ranging from 60 percent to over 100 percent. Says Tinker Salas: “The fact that they spend 60 percent of their oil revenue profits for social programs means that those areas have been taking a hit. Also means that they have less money with which to import food products and others. And with large amounts of money following a small amounts of goods, you’re going to have inflation.”

That problem accompanies a serious difficulty that faces any socialist government in a capitalist world, even those with more diverse production: While you can mandate the flow of goods and services to people, it’s much harder to control the price of those goods and services. All countries rely on trade and much of the goods that are traded are bought and sold at local businesses which reflect that pricing.

The Chavez government’s response to that ever-present contradiction was to institute a set of price controls starting in 2003 and continuing throughout the decade that forced many smaller businesses into crisis and, in many cases, failure. Small businesses (particulary retail shops) that resisted the controls were fined and even raided. Some of those small retail establishments were actually taken over by the government as part of its nationalization plan.

On the other hand, much of the country’s large industry remains in private hands [7] so that products can be routed to other countries where higher prices can produce more profit with little social impact.

Chavez Dies, Maduro Takes Over in a Time of Crisis

When oil prices dropped, these contradictions became unbearable for many and when Chavez died, the new President, socialist organizer and former bus-driver Nicolas Maduro, found himself leading a government with a huge problem and a staggering decision to make.

“We were forced to develop policies in a very short time that should have taken many years to try and test and reform,” said the planner. “If our revolution offers any lessons, it is how difficult and complicated it is to make a revolution like this in a world like this one. But we had no choice but to continue the most important changes we have made. Our country is on the defensive every day.”

The Venezuelan government has opted to maintain its flow of social service and economic maintainence programs for the poor while enacting sharper consumption control and export-limit policies to combat profiteering and inflation. The policy has had a harsh impact.

For several years now, Venezuelans who have been accustomed to supplementing their basic consumption by purchasing imported items, have confronted shortages in just about every area. The country is in a state of informal rationing with a clamping down on profiteering and the higher-priced goods non-poor people have always counted on are becoming much more scarce.

“While mismanagement and corruption are problems, as the government itself has admitted,” writes film-maker Dario Azzellini [8], “the shortages were caused mainly by speculation, smuggling and intentional reduction of production and hoarding by the private sector.” But without alternative production, attacking that profiteering has served to make life more difficult in the short term.

The gains of the past are now being threatened and it’s clear that the Maduro administration’s strategy is to hold on as best as it can until the price of oil rises again. All those spoken to believe that will happen within a year and the price will rise to between $60 and $80 a barrel.

“I am sure it will rise,” says the government economist, “And it will relieve some of our problems. But the real problem is that we will remain dependent on the instability of capitalist markets and always being attacked. That is a horrible situation.”

Or as Venezuela Reports puts it [6], “It is unlikely that the gains that have been made over the last decade will be able to continue improving without profound changes to the primary export dependence that has long plagued the Venezuelan economy.”

The Right on the Move

All of this didn’t spark the opposition to the government, which was always there, but it has damaged the government’s fragile support among urban middle-class Venezuelans and increased the urgency by right-wing and privileged forces to get rid of it.

There is strong evidence that this is what they aimed to do.

There have been several instances of arrests in Venezuela this year charging people with planning coups. The most spectacular, until last week’s, was the arrest of several military leaders who were found with maps and other materials that suggest a plan to bomb several major installations and locations in the country, including the Presidential Palace. The captured materials also seemed to imply that some “transitional government” would be installed after this spasm of violence and a hoped-for eruption of confusion and chaos.

Around the time of their arrests, politician Leopoldo Lopez (who is now in jail accused of fomenting riots) stated clearly that the strategy of the “La Salida” (The Exit) movement he founded is to “unseat the President through protests” [9].

The stage was set for the Ledezma arrest. In 2014, Lopez joined Machado and Ledezma in writing a curious declaration called the “National Transition Agreement” [10] that they allegedly planned to release on February 12 of this year.

Suggesting that the Venezuelan government is in its “terminal phase”, the declaration states the need to “name new authorities.” It then goes on to describe a restructured economy and a completely revamped society. Virtually everything the Bolivarian Revolution has put in place — from nationalization of utilites and the petroleum industry to education and social programs — would be scrapped. The picture that emerges is of the pre-Chavez Venezuela of old.

Some of the trio’s defenders insist that this was a plan for a transition based on legal, electoral processes. But there’s no mention of elections in the document and the plan’s language is couched not in the terms of an electoral pitch but as a concrete strategic plan for immediate implemention. The fact that all three of its authors have participated in government de-stabilization in the past and have all been linked to the 2002 coup has many Venezuelans convinced that this is the plan that would be implemented after a military take-over.

The State Department’s Psaki’s comment can only be seen against the suspicious fact that President Obama has never recognized the government of Nicolás Maduro years after his and his supporters’ clear and unquestionable election win. The president of the United States still sends periodic veiled threats cloaked in the language of a human rights advocate. What is the US waiting for? What does it know that it’s not revealing this time around?

Venezuela’s Importance

In the end, the importance of allowing Venezuela to continue its development without disruption and outside pressure lies at least in part in what experiences like this can teach the rest of the world. The impact Venezuela and its Bolivarian revolution has had on the world is enormous and clear. That impact is what has sparked the constant coup it faces.

Eyes are now on the elections for Venezuela’s National Assembly, which take place later this year. With the opposition starting to adopt populist rhetoric in attacking the government, Maduro’s administration faces another set of tough choices.

“If Maduro follows Ledezma’s arrest with other decisive actions that show real commitment to popular desires –- increased state control of the economy, fighting corruption and smuggling on all fronts, and widening democracy in the PSUV party and Gran Polo Patriótico –- the events of last week could mark an important and favorable turning point in the post-Chavez era,” writes Chris Gilbert in CounterPunch [11]. “The alternative, which is to simply score a point and continue the government’s almost two-year-long retreat from the socialist project, would prove highly unpopular and risk producing unfavorable results in the parliamentary elections coming later this year.”

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