If elections were held in Venezuela in the next few months, with international observers present, and the people re-elected President Nicolas Maduro, would the political establishment in the United States accept the outcome?
The question is key because the answer would likely expose how the push for regime change is not about helping those starving or suffering from dire poverty. Rather, it revolves around a fundamental disagreement about how the Venezuelan people, through Hugo Chavez and then Maduro, chose to organize their society and government by embracing programs of social democracy, which multinational corporations and wealthy elites oppose.
President Donald Trump and his administration are committed to a political fight that they have cloaked in the language of humanitarian intervention. With Elliott Abrams as the special envoy to Venezuela, they are perverting the global struggle of human rights just as Abrams and other officials in President Ronald Reagan’s administration did while the U.S. was engaged in dirty wars in Central America.
But even the few Democrats, who raise concerns about Trump’s agenda, do not clearly articulate the cynical nature of what the administration is really pursuing with Abrams, Vice President Mike Pence, national security adviser John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the forefront.
Let us consider Senator Bernie Sanders, who is a Democratic candidate for president in 2020.
Sanders has probably received more scrutiny for his statements on Venezuela than any politician, particularly because he has a record of opposing U.S. interventions. He also spoke out against U.S. regime change efforts in Latin America in the 1980s, and opponents have disingenuously accused him of supporting “strongman” leaders like Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega.
When Sanders spoke about Venezuela at a CNN town hall event on February 25, he was asked about his position.
“In light of the recent events in Venezuela, you came out against U.S. intervention, a contentious stance as many in Venezuela are currently suffering at the hands of Maduro through starvation and violence, and it is clear that he will not let humanitarian aid in,” Schanelle Saldanha, a American University student, suggested. “Under these circumstances, moving forward, do you have a clear position on U.S. intervention overseas, both economically and militarily, for nations that are under the regimes of these oppressive dictators?”
It was technically a general question about how Sanders views U.S. regime change policies overall, however, Sanders still spoke about what he believes is specifically happening in Venezuela.
“What’s going on in Venezuela is terrible. Their economy is a disaster. People are living in hunger and in fear,” Sanders responded. “I strongly believe there has to be an international humanitarian effort to improve lives for the people. I think evidence is pretty clear that the last election was not a free and fair election, and under international supervision, I want to see a free and fair election.”
He added, “I’m old enough to remember the war in Vietnam. I was as active as I could trying to keep the United States from going to war in Iraq. I was in the Congress at that point. And I am very fearful of the United States continuing to do what it has done in the past. As you know or may know, the United States overthrew a democratically-elected government in Chile, and in Brazil, and in Guatemala, and in other countries around the world.”
“So as someone who fervently believes in human rights and democracy, we have got to do everything. But I think sometimes you have unintended consequences when a powerful nation goes in and tells people who their government will be,” Sanders said.
“So my view is whether it is Saudi Arabia, which is a despotic regime, or Venezuela, I think we have got to do everything we can to create a democratic climate. But I do not believe in U.S. military intervention in those countries.”
Wolf Blitzer, host of “The Situation Room,” had a follow-up question. “Why have you stopped short of calling Maduro of Venezuela a dictator?”
“It’s fair to say that the last election was undemocratic, but there are still democratic operations taking place in that country,” Sanders answered. “The point is what I am calling for right now is internationally-supervised free elections.”
Prior to the town hall, on February 23, as the U.S. military, with the support of Brazil, Colombia, and the opposition, tried to force humanitarian aid through the border, Sanders tweeted, “The people of Venezuela are enduring a serious humanitarian crisis. The Maduro government must put the needs of its people first, allow humanitarian aid into the country, and refrain from violence against protesters.”
What Sanders tweeted resulted in a backlash from a number of supporters, who saw him as backing a part of Trump’s regime change agenda. So, it is noteworthy that Sanders’ remarks at the town hall did not include the admonishment that Maduro allow humanitarian aid.
For the record, over 900 tons of food and medicine were delivered last week at a Venezuela port in La Guaira. The aid came from China, Cuba, India, and Turkey. Russia also delivered 300 tons of medicine and medical supplies.
The Maduro government has accepted humanitarian aid into the country. What it has not done is permit aid that the U.S., Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and the opposition are trying to jam through the border as part of a tactic to stir rebellion and further a coup attempt that Juan Guaido, the self-declared president, has tried to cloak through a National Assembly process that is highly questionable.
Sanders has failed to acknowledge the weaponization of aid by the Trump administration. A coalition of groups involved in supporting and providing aid have raised concerns about the lack of political neutrality.
He also has not apparently said anything about the appointment of Abrams, who ordered planes carrying “humanitarian aid” to shuttle weapons to the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s when he was working for the State Department. A handful of other Democrats have.
Abrams’ role in advancing regime change policy is a key reason why Venezuela is wary about accepting U.S. aid. They have valid reasons to worry that weapons may be smuggled in through these trucks trying to cross the border.
Senator Chris Murphy seemed to grasp the issue. As images of Maduro’s forces confronting aid trucks spread, Murphy tweeted, “Democrats need to be careful about a potential trap being set by Trump et al in Venezuela. Cheering humanitarian convoys sounds like the right thing to do, but what if it’s not about the aid? What if the real agenda is laying a pretext for war?”
Recalling how Trump supposedly expressed his interest in going to war in Venezuela as early as 2017, Murphy added, “Venezuela didn’t just lurch into humanitarian crisis. The aid is being sent there now as part of a regime change strategy. Many are hoping that it will be the match that lights a civil war against Maduro.”
While calling Maduro “evil,” Murphy went on to separately refer to the 1947 Rio Treaty, which is a Western hemisphere mutual defense treaty. Trump may be able to launch military action without a “war declaration” if Trump makes the case his administration is defending Colombia from a “national security threat” posed by Maduro.
Furthermore, both Sanders and Murphy refer to a humanitarian crisis. Specific Maduro government policies are responsible for pervasive economic problems that have affected Venezuela, however, the country is unable to recover because of sanctions. This greatly exacerbates the humanitarian crisis, something that should be acknowledged.
In fact, the Trump administration is effectively imposing a trade embargo on Venezuela, making it very difficult for the importation of food or medicine to continue. During a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing, Democratic Representative Andy Levin described this as a “game of chicken” with Maduro that carried the risk of starving Venezuelans.
The more people in Venezuela starve and diseases spread due to lack of medicines, the more people flee because they are struggling to find food, the more abominable Maduro appears to the world. But follow the logic of the political establishment: if Maduro is the kind of leader that they think, why would he resign because the U.S. is leading an effort to starve his own people? He is only going to blame Trump and give Venezuelans reasons to despise the U.S. government.
Then, there is the larger issue of what exactly happened with the election in 2018. On what basis does Sanders, Murphy, or any other official say the Venezuela presidential election was not free and fair?
It is widely claimed in the Western press that the Maduro government banned the opposition from running in the presidential election against Maduro. As Ryan Mallett-Outtrim made clear in 2017, no opposition parties were banned. Specific parties were told they had to re-register because they boycotted mayoral elections.
Anyone seriously claiming to be interested in democracy in Venezuela should read all of what Mallett-Outtrim wrote. But here’s a key excerpt:
Whether or not this is a reasonable measure is up to you to decide. There’s an argument to be made that any impediment to participating in democracy (whether as a voter or candidate) should be condemned. On the other hand, the opposition does have a bad habit of running only in elections it thinks it can win, while simply boycotting any it expects to lose. This isn’t just a sore loser strategy; rather, it’s a cynical show aimed at delegitimizing and attacking Venezuela’s democracy.
Months prior, the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced parties had to reapply if they failed to obtain 1 percent of the vote in the last elections. The opposition criticized the CNE, but the “sprawling bureaucracies of MUD parties like [Popular Will], [Democratic Action] and [First Justice] had no problems maintaining their legal status during that re-verification drive. And it actually hurt small leftist parties the worst, according to Mallett-Outtrim.
Such finer details matter because Trump is targeting Venezuela because he views the country as a failed socialist state. The cynical effort to “restore democracy” does not merely serve corporations and the billionaire class. It holds huge rhetorical value in Republican efforts to box in Sanders and other Democrats who promote popular democratic socialist policies, like single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, free child care, and a Green New Deal to escalate the fight against climate change.
“We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom, and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair,” Trump stated during his 2019 State of the Union Speech.
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump added. “America was founded on liberty and independence, not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
There was uproarious applause from Republicans, as well as clapping and grinning from Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
When Sanders announced he would run for president in 2020, the Trump/Pence campaign wasted no time sending out an email that warned of a “new wave of radical socialist Democrats” that would try to bring “full-blown socialism” to America.
The message from Trump is clear. If Sanders and like-minded Democrats expect to succeed in what they’ve called a political revolution, they have to be bold in standing up to Trump’s regime change agenda in Venezuela. They have to disarm his ability to advance a coup that not only will devastate the lives of people in Venezuela but also be wielded by Republicans to hold back struggles for economic justice and human rights in the United States.
But that does not simply mean the Sanders campaign has to do a better job of articulating the issues surrounding Trump’s regime change agenda. It does not mean the easy answer is condemn all Democrats who claim to care about progressive issues but only have rhetoric on Venezuela that feeds into Trump’s plans.
Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who is running for president in 2020, and Representative Ilhan Omar are two voices who have staked out strong positions in opposition. But both face smears intended to marginalize and discourage them from speaking out.
Grassroots organizations, Sanders supporters, and the Democratic Party base, along with the wider left, have to mobilize in public and create space for politicians to dissent. They need to know they will not bear the brunt alone when faced with the red-baiting that will inevitably come from the Trump administration and Republican Party, as well as establishment media organizations.
This will help efforts to counter Trump. It also will make it harder for Congress to continue to back a regime change policy that could potentially plunge Venezuela into a civil war.