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Challenging The Liberal Case For Trump Administration’s Coup In Venezuela

In an analysis published by POLITICO Magazine, Frida Ghitis, a contributing columnist for CNN.com and the Washington Post, defended Democrats who support President Donald Trump’s policy of intervention in Venezuela.

To the extent that Ghitis’ arguments represent the best case that Democrats and the wider liberal establishment can make for backing a coup attempt in Venezuela, the case she put forward is worth challenging thoroughly.

Trump administration officials met with Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido as early as December, when he snuck out of the country and traveled to Washington, D.C. They planned to recognized Guaido as president after he declared himself the country’s new leader on January 23.

The announcement was followed by sanctions, further diplomatic efforts to isolate President Nicolas Maduro’s government, and a pledge of $20 million in “humanitarian aid” from the Trump administration.

Appeals were made to the Venezuela military by Trump officials to abandon Maduro and help the opposition mount their coup. The administration appointed Elliott Abrams, a former Reagan Administration official who has a history of supporting death squads in El Salvador, to be a special envoy to Venezuela. Military defectors apparently have urged Trump to arm them.

Top Democrats and Republicans in Congress largely support the Trump administration’s regime change operation. Most Western media outlets uncritically amplify the message of the opposition. There aren’t many columns at prominent U.S. media outlets, which make the case against recognizing Guaido as the country’s legitimate president.

Previously, Ghitis has criticized Trump for how he has damaged the reputation of the United States around the world. In 2016, she described Hillary Clinton as a candidate who the world saw as a potential “Goldilocks president,” someone who would strike an appropriate balance between George W. Bush’s militaristic foreign policy and Barack Obama’s “pendulum swing to the other end.” She wrote this column with the awareness that it is unusual for anyone on the left to support Trump.

Ghitis primarily argues “America’s leftists undercut their own criticism of Trump’s autocratic transgressions when they fail to call them out in Venezuela.” She contends Trump is not supporting the usual authoritarian allies on the right. He is “siding with those advocating [for] liberal democracy.”

“Guaido is a socialist.” This is a “21st century contest between populist authoritarianism and liberal democracy.” The authoritarian is obviously Maduro.

The Trump administration was the first to offer support for Guaido, as he appointed himself president.

“The initial reaction, understandably, was to doubt the wisdom of Washington’s position,” Ghitis wrote. “But very quickly other democracies in Latin America and elsewhere in the world joined in backing Guaido, suggesting that perhaps this time Trump got it right.”

Much of this is widely expressed by liberal Democrats and progressives so let’s go through four key arguments from Ghitis’ column one by one.

Trump is on the side of liberal democracy, as proven by support from Latin American governments.

The Latin American countries that support Guaido are largely a part of the Lima Group, which formed in August 2017 to help the Venezuelan opposition put pressure on the Maduro government. The Lima Group is made up of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru. (Mexico declined to recognize Guaido as the interim president.)

Jair Bolsonaro is the newly-elected far-right president of Brazil. He has spoken fondly of the military dictatorship that once ruled Brazil. Bolsonaro and his family are embroiled in a scandal after payments to the militia that assassinated city council member Marielle Franco in 2018 were exposed.

Juan Orlando Hernandez of the conservative National Party of Honduras is the country’s president. In 2017, Hernandez stayed in power after an illegitimate election, even though the secretary general of the Organization for American States (OAS) said there were many irregularities and it “lacked integrity.” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a report detailing how government and business interests, “out-and-out criminals, and violent groups” form a kleptocratic network that rules Honduras.

As highlighted by journalist Roberto Lovato, Guatemala is run by Jimmy Morales, who is linked to right-wing extremists responsible for the assassinations of indigenous activists. It is believed the country may be going back to the days of violence that gripped Guatemala when Elliott Abrams was at the State Department. Morales is also trying to stop a United Nations anti-corruption investigation.

Conservative Mario Abdo Benítez is president of Paraguay. His father was private secretary for Alfredo Stroessner, a dictator whose bloody rule lasted from 1954 to 1989. When he campaigned in 2018, he emphasized “family values and hinted at enforcing obligatory military service. He repeatedly refused to condemn the dictatorship outright, expressing regret for the 425 people killed and nearly 19,000 tortured under Stroessner but emphasizing what he called the ‘achievements’ of the military regime.”

Ivan Duque, a conservative, is the president of Colombia. He campaigned against a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Duque has failed to take any concrete action against right-wing armed groups that threaten indigenous activists in Colombia, even though activists are gunned down at an alarming rate. He hired an official who was behind a terrorist plot in 2004 that targeted activists and politicians in southwest Colombia.

Sebastian Pinera, a center-right billionaire businessman, is president of Chile. He profited immensely from the U.S.-backed coup against Salvador Allende in 1973 and has ties to former officials of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Not only did Pinera’s interior minister, Andres Chadwick, support Pinochet, but according to the Guardian, Chadwick and justice minister Hernan Larrain were “supporters and defenders of the secretive German enclave Colonia Dignidad, which was established by the fugitive Nazi officer and pedophile Paul Shafer in the early 60s. It later emerged that the enclave was used by security officials to torture and murder opponents of the regime.” Though they claim their views have changed, Pinera, Chadwick, and Larrain opposed the arrest and detention of Pinochet in London in 1998.

All of the above undermines Ghitis’ suggestion that “the left wrongly assumes Trump is supporting his usual authoritarian allies on the right.”

Juan Guaido is a socialist, and the opposition encompasses every part of Venezuelan society except the narrow base that still supports Maduro.

Guaido is from the Popular Will party in Venezuela, which is a center-right party. It was formed by right-wing opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, who is a mentor to Guaido.

As highlighted in a comprehensive report by journalists Max Blumenthal and Dan Cohen, Guaido graduated from the Andrés Bello Catholic University of Caracas in 2007 and enrolled in the Governance and Political Management Program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

He studied under the “tutelage of Venezuelan economist Luis Enrique Berrizbeitia, one of the top Latin American neoliberal economists. Berrizbeitia is a former executive director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who spent more than a decade working in the Venezuelan energy sector, under the old oligarchic regime that was ousted by [Hugo] Chavez.

Guaido returned to Venezuela to help lead anti-Maduro rallies and demonstrations that often involved violent tactics. One of those tactics involves setting up barricades known as guarimbas. They were responsible for the deaths of 43 people in 2014. Three years later, they caused the deaths of 23 people.

From Blumenthal and Cohen’s report:

In a televised appearance in 2016, Guaido dismissed deaths resulting from guayas — a guarimba tactic involving stretching steel wire across a roadway in order to injure or kill motorcyclists — as a “myth.” His comments whitewashed a deadly tactic that had killed unarmed civilians like Santiago Pedroza and decapitated a man named Elvis Duran, among many others.

Opposition activists have been involved in lynchings and burning people alive as well. These are fascist tactics.

In terms of politics, supporters and financiers of the opposition suggest Guaido would promote a neoliberal agenda that elevated market-based economic measures (such as privatizing oil). He would have little problem with aligning with right-wing elements to challenge socialist officials, who may challenge the opposition.

To the assertion that the opposition encompasses every part of Venezuela, as of October 2018, it was clear the opposition would not gain access to power without intervention and support from the United States and other countries.

Luis Vicente Leon, president of Datanalisis, a well-regarded polling firm in Venezuela, responded to an opinion poll that showed only 20 percent of country supported opposition. The poll demonstrated an “absolute disconnect” exists between opposition leaders and citizens.

Even CNN correspondent Nick Paton Walsh acknowledged the message from Guaido may resonate with parts of the middle class in Venezuela, yet it isn’t quite geared toward the poor that live in the barrios, or slums, and have different set of poverty issues. This is partly why the opposition is struggling to sustain protests after Guaido declared himself president.

In an authoritarian power grab, Maduro and his acolytes in the Supreme Court stripped Venezuela’s legislative body, the National Assembly, of its powers.

Venezuela’s Supreme Court announced in March 2017 that it would assume the functions of the National Assembly because the Assembly was in “contempt of court” in March 2017.

Opposition leaders in the National Assembly violated a Supreme Court order by swearing in deputies who were barred from taking office. Three delegates were under investigation for allegedly buying votes during an election.

The issue initially developed in December 2015, according to Rachael Booth Rojas, who is a journalist that lives in Venezuela. Around the same time, a pro-government lawmaker faced allegations of corruption as well. This lawmaker was barred from taking office too, but there was no effort to defy the Supreme Court and swear this official into the Assembly.

The National Assembly tried to swear in the three lawmakers multiple times in 2016. In January, they flouted the order and then removed them from power. They did this again in July. In November, the lawmakers allegedly resigned but weeks later they were back in the Assembly.

Rojas contended the Supreme Court took this step to send a message that it would no longer tolerate the National Assembly’s defiance. The court may have played into the opposition’s hands because it allowed the opposition to argue to the world that the country was in a constitutional crisis.

Additionally, the opposition passed a number of laws in 2016 that were unconstitutional. These laws included an amnesty law and a law to privatize social housing. They were laws the Supreme Court would immediately throw out.

The National Assembly, as Rojas argued, used the Supreme Court’s actions against them as a way to galvanize followers. They were not necessarily trying to legislate. They sought to put political proposals forward that are not permissible under the Venezuela constitution in order to help them argue that the Maduro government was engaged in authoritarianism.

“America’s leftists undercut their own criticism of Trump’s autocratic transgressions when they fail to call them out in Venezuela.”

Ghitis mentioned an open letter co-authored by left-wing scholar Noam Chomsky, which denounced Trump’s actions against Venezuela, in her column defending Trump. It is only appropriate then that the following quote from Chomsky be referenced to counter the overarching statement she makes against leftists (including a few Democrats in Congress).

“My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons,” Chomsky declared. “For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that: namely, I can do something about it.”

Chomsky added, “Even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences.”

“It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century,” Chomsky concluded.

America’s leftists can do something about the transgressions of Trump or the wider U.S. government. But they are not citizens of Venezuela so they bear no responsibility for who governs Venezuela nor do they have much power to defeat politicians who mismanaged the economy and caused hardship for millions.

However, U.S. sanctions, especially the new oil sanctions levied by the Trump administration after officials backed Guaido for president, do raise ethical concerns that America’s leftists are right to oppose. Sanctions exacerbate a crisis, make economic recovery nearly impossible, and ensure medicine shortages will persist and hungry Venezuelans will struggle to access basic goods.

Former UN special rapporteur Alfred de Zayas concluded after his fact-finding mission to Venezuela in 2017 that sanctions by the U.S. (and the European Union and Canada) were “significant factors” in the crisis. They may even constitute crimes against humanity.

“Modern-day economic sanctions and blockades are comparable with medieval sieges of towns,” de Zayas stated. “Twenty-first century sanctions attempt to bring not just a town but sovereign countries to their knees.”

Despite this reality, Ghitis pays absolutely no attention to sanctions in her column. That may be because liberal Democrats view sanctions as an important tool for pressuring Maduro to step down from power. They are seen as more defensible than military intervention.

For many Democrats, the effects of sanctions are often the price of “restoring democracy.” Sanctions were used by President Bill Clinton’s administration to advance regime change against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the 1990s. That resulted in the deaths of over 500,000 children, but former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright infamously said, “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.”

The U.S. government has developed the Venezuela opposition into a proxy force through outfits like the National Endowment of Democracy, which have given millions of dollars to activists to help them destabilize the country and mobilize violent anti-government demonstrations over the past ten to fifteen years. The Bush administration supported a coup against Chavez in 2002. This is all part of a larger history of U.S. meddling in Latin America, which liberals like Ghitis seemingly overlook or ignore.

Fortunately, the Associated Press recognized the long history of interventions — military and otherwise — is relevant to the moment. The outlet compiled a list of past regime change operations to complement their coverage of Venezuela.

America’s leftists have the ability to act now and oppose Trump so such events do not repeat, causing devastating and potentially brutal consequences for the Venezuelan people.

The actions of Maduro, Chavez, or Chavistas are no justification for American meddling in Venezuela. Nor does it make sense to say leftists cannot protest Trump’s domestic agenda while failing to denounce Maduro.

It is imperial hubris to think Trump, Abrams, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and Steven Mnuchin are pursuing action to “restore democracy” in Venezuela. They are out to help fossil fuel executives enrich themselves and further engineer a crisis that will give oligarchs in and outside the country the justification needed to privatize services and unravel what is left of social democracy. And they are helping the right-wing or center-right leaders of countries in the region topple a regime that has been a thorn in the side of global capitalists since Chavez came to power in 1999.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."