By Lucas Koerner
It’s been a year since Juan Guaidó began his US-anointed mandate as “interim president” of Venezuela.
Following the opposition leader’s failure to secure reelection as National Assembly president this month, Washington and its corporate media stenographers have hysterically decried a “coup” (FAIR.org, 1/10/20) against the coup leader, moving absurdly to recognize a new parallel parliament that he can still be in charge of.
However, the January 23 anniversary of Guaidó’s farcical self-proclamation has a darker legacy largely ignored by the corporate media: the almost unprecedented US decision to recognize a leader with no effective state control has unleashed a level of economic warfare unseen outside of Cuba, Iran or North Korea.
The recognition was a not-so-subtle signal to transnational economic actors to terminate their business with Caracas, and was followed by a crippling oil embargo, later upgraded to a blanket banon all dealings with Venezuela’s state. Last year alone, illegal US sanctions are estimated to have destroyed one quarter of Venezuela’s economy, which had already shrunk by half since 2013, in part due to longstanding US economic siege.
Why is it that Trump is able to get away with what is effectively a policy of mass murder in Venezuela, similar to simultaneous US economic warfare against Iran?
The Western media has certainly played a crucial role in delegitimizing the democratically elected Maduro government (e.g. FAIR.org, 5/20/19, 5/23/18, 5/16/18), while systematically concealing the deadly impact of sanctions (FAIR.org, 6/26/19, 6/14/19).
However, despite nominally opposing Washington’s Venezuela policy and its corporate media gendarmerie, global North progressive media have, like during the recent coup in Bolivia (FAIR.org, 12/10/19), tended to repeat imperial ideological tropes, casting the Maduro government as authoritarian, corrupt and/or guilty of much worse human rights violations than the US and its allies.
While invariably couched in the language of “left” analysis, this coverage weakens domestic opposition to the US and other Western states’ murderous onslaught on the Venezuelan people.
The 2019 Coup
Western progressive outlets have a peculiar habit of rolling out their “critiques” of leftist or otherwise independent governments in the global South right at the moment when these states are under imperial assault, echoing the corporate media’s unanimous regime-change chorus (FAIR.org, 4/30/19).
In the days and weeks following the January 23, 2019, start of the US-backed opposition’s sixth coup effort of the past 20 years, Northern leftist publications posted a number of articles featuring scathing attacks on the Maduro administration.
NACLA (2/5/19) and Jacobin (2/5/19) led the charge, simultaneously publishing a piece by sociologist Gabriel Hetland denying that Maduro was democratically elected and accusing him of “increasing authoritarianism.” On top of numerous factually problematic attacks on the Venezuelan government, Hetland went as far as to outline hypothetical conditions that “potentially warranted” foreign intervention—namely a “humanitarian catastrophe”—but declining to say that they apply to Venezuela, despite the existence of what he termed a “humanitarian crisis.” The Trump administration repeatedly cites “humanitarian catastrophe” as a justification for its coup and illegal sanctions, a charge that has been echoed by corporate media and the Western human rights industrial complex.
Also in NACLA (2/13/19), Rebeca Hanson and Francisco Sanchez professed their agnosticism regarding whether Guaidó’s US-backed self-proclamation constituted a coup, stating that “depending on how the constitution is interpreted, one of the two men has a rightful claim to assume executive power.”
They went on to anecdotally note a “general sentiment in many popular sectors…that neither [the government nor opposition] ‘side’ can be trusted,” conveniently ignoring the fact that around 31% of the Venezuelan electorate voted to reelect Maduro in May 2018 and a similar percent of the population told Pew they trusted the government a few months later. A smaller percentage of the electorate routinely wins elections in the US. That is, around 6 million people—overwhelmingly from Venezuela’s working-class and poor sectors—still support Maduro.
Despite the authors’ pretension of ethnographic “nuance,” the mask drops when they editorially decry Maduro’s “cronyism, corruption and exploitation”—claims they make no effort to factually justify. They also falsely accuse state security forces of having “killed 21,752 people” in 2016, when the very report they link to places the figure at 4,667, which is still quite high but must be properly contextualized (Venezuelanalysis.com, 7/12/19).
Vanessa Baird hit on similar themes a few days prior in the New Internationalist (1/24/19), lampooning Maduro as “hardly a model leader or democrat.” Indeed, the author appeared to be unaware that Maduro was ever elected at all, stating that his “lamentable rule…started when Hugo Chavez died in 2013.”
A month later, as the US prepared to force “humanitarian aid” into Venezuela and fears of war loomed large, Baird (New Internationalist, 2/12/19) mused about “the desirability of Maduro stepping down.” She then produced a laundry list of misrepresentations about Maduro, which appeared to have been partly lifted, albeit with even less nuance, from Hetland’s article for NACLA (2/5/19) and Jacobin (2/5/19). “Technically, Maduro was the winner of the May 2018 elections—but only after banning leading opposition parties and candidates from running,” she claims:
This—along with cancelling a recall referendum in 2016, dissolving the opposition-led National Assembly in 2017, and “stealing” the October 2017 governor elections—has seriously dented his democratic credentials.
In this last assertion, she goes well beyond what even anti-Maduro analysts like Francisco Rodriguez and Dorothy Kronick have claimed.
Following the devastating March blackouts, The Nation (3/13/19) likewise posted a piece by Hetland, lambasting Maduro as “corrupt and increasingly repressive” and claiming that his “authoritarian” government “bears primary responsibility for the country’s dire situation,” though conceding that “US sanctions and violence by the US-supported opposition have contributed to Venezuelans’ suffering.”
The article contained wild factual inaccuracies, including the claim that Caracas residents were collecting water from the extremely polluted Guaire River, as well as misleading death statistics from the blackouts. Hetland also cites pro-opposition pollster Datanalisis to assert that an “estimated 15% of the population” supports Chavismo, a dramatic underestimation refuted by the fact that Maduro won 6.2 million votes in 2018—or 31% of the total electorate—which is firmly in line with Chavista turnout levels since 2013. Datanalisis also badly overestimated what opposition turnout would be in both the 2017 regional elections and the 2018 presidential elections, undermining its credibility.
Around the same time, NACLA (3/26/19) published an article with the claim that
Maduro’s record includes suffocating democratic institutions and procedures, colossal economic mismanagement, vast corruption, repression, human rights violations and a humanitarian crisis.
The author, Dimitris Pantoulas, offers no evidence to support his accusations and, more incredibly, makes no mention of illegal US sanctions, which have severely exacerbated Venezuela’s crisis, blocking political and economic solutions. Pantoulas goes on to blame the US-led coup on democratically re-elected Maduro, whose “resistance to democratic solutions made his opponents…concentrate their efforts on ousting him by any means necessary.”
Just one day after the failed US-backed April 30 military putsch, Dissent (5/1/19) published an article with the sensational claim that “Venezuela today is simply not a democracy.” The author, Jared Abbott, fired off a series of deceptive claims, including repeating US propaganda that illegal sanctions “were supposed to target” only government officials, rather than intentionally destroy what was left of Venezuela’s economy. Not content to delegitimize the 2018 elections with the canard that an opposition victory “was close to impossible,” Abbott recited US State Department talking points impugning “past elections under Chavismo” as “hardly models of fairness” on the grounds of unequal access to state resources, ignoring the US government’s massive support for the opposition over the course of its six coup attempts since 2002. The author also rehashes Hetland’s dubious Dananalisis-sourced claims about Maduro’s support, lamenting the “insidious pathologies” and “authoritarianism” of a global South political movement under murderous imperial siege.
A few weeks later, Jacobin (5/23/19) published another article by Hetland. The university professor backpedaled on some of his previous claims, but nevertheless made a point of excoriating “government repression of peaceful protest and dissent amid a broader turn away from political democracy and towards authoritarian rule.” Hetland appeared to be entirely unaware that the opposition attempted a coup d’etat scarcely three weeks before, and that top opposition figures were permitted to lead sizeable anti-government street rallies literally the day after.
Likewise writing in Jacobin (9/30/19), just weeks after the Trump administration escalated its sanctions regime to a sweeping embargo, Michael Brooks and Ben Burgis rightly blamed imperial violence for blocking the sovereign development of global South countries like Venezuela. But the authors also felt compelled to echo Washington in “acknowledg[ing] the reality of the Venezuelan government’s authoritarianism.” They went on to state that
the premise that [presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders’] brand of democratic socialism would involve anything like the kind of repressive crackdowns that have happened recently in Venezuela is absurd.
It’s hard to know whether to judge such an incredible statement as condescendingly Eurocentric or just plain naive, given that a Sanders administration would likely face some kind of establishment coup effort if it tried to implement its radical agenda, and its legitimate attempts to defend itself would inevitably be deemed “repressive” by elites.
The 2017 Insurrection
This pattern of progressive “critiques” of Chavismo and the Maduro government just at the moment when the country is under heightened imperial onslaught is not new.
From April through late July 2017, Venezuela’s right-wing opposition launched a violent street insurrection aimed at ousting the president, similar to the leadup to Bolivia’s November 2019 coup d’etat. Over 125 people were killed, including protesters, bystanders and government supporters.
NACLA (4/28/17) and Jacobin (republished 5/14/17) fired the opening shots on that occasion as well, posting yet another article by Hetland declaring that “opposition violence and the government’s increasing authoritarianism are both to blame” for the bloodshed. As in his more recent NACLA (2/5/19)/Jacobin (2/5/19) piece, the academic cited a laundry list of “authoritarian” abuses riddled with factual errors and outright misrepresentations. Hetland urged leftists to “reject any and all calls for imperialist interventions,” yet declined to acknowledge his own government’s illegal sanctions targeting Venezuela, which, according to economist Mark Weisbrot (The New York Times, 6/30/16), “helped convince major financial institutions not to make otherwise low-risk loans, collateralized by gold, to the Venezuelan government.”
As the deadly anti-government protests continued to escalate, Jacobin (5/19/17) went after Caracas-based Latin American television network teleSUR. The author, Patrick Iber, quoted several academics describing the state channel as “a totally useless source of information” and a “lapdog” for the government. Readers may find it painfully obvious that teleSUR, like every other state outlet on the planet, has an editorial line largely shaped by its state’s geopolitical interests. Nevertheless, Iber and his editors decided to prejudicially exceptionalize teleSUR in this regard, while amazingly ignoring the fact that Venezuela was under assault by their own imperial state at that very moment.
With the danger of civil war looming larger and larger, Jacobin (7/8/17) went on to publish a particularly unhinged “think” piece by Mike Gonzalez, which went as far as to suggest that a helicopter terrorist attack against government installations perpetrated by a rogue police officer was a false flag operation. The article was so scandalous that the editors allowed the publication of a contrasting perspective by George Ciccariello-Maher (Jacobin, 7/29/19) debunking Gonzalez’s falsehoods.
The deck was, however, already stacked in favor of those voices assailing the Venezuelan government as “authoritarian” or “anti-democratic,” which one might resonably conclude to be the editorial line of the magazine. It would appear that dissent from this orthodoxy is the exception, not the rule, for Jacobin’s editors, who have all but refused to publish contrarian opinions, including this author’s critiques of Gabriel Hetland (Venezuelanalysis.com, 5/19/17; Mint Press News, 2/25/19) submitted to the leftist journal.
This editorial line also appears to be well-entrenched at Dissent and the New Internationalist, which have both declined to provide their readers with dissenting viewpoints.
It’s worth noting that NACLA has displayed more balance in its Venezuela coverage, publishing a broader spectrum of perspectives on both the Maduro government and the position of the international left (e.g., 5/11/17, 7/21/17, 7/26/17, 10/4/17, 5/18/18, 5/25/18). In 2019, the journal likewise published alternative viewpoints critiquing US regime change and the right-wing Venezuelan opposition (2/8/19, 5/23/19; 5/31/19, 8/14/19), though none addressed the controversial issue of international left solidarity with the Maduro government. Nevertheless, the number of articles repeating US imperial discourse portraying the Venezuelan government as “authoritarian,” “corrupt,” “repressive” or otherwise illegitimate (e.g., 2/5/19, 2/13/19, 3/26/19) notably increased relative to 2017. For its part, The Nation has been more consistent in publishing a more expansive range of perspectives on Venezuela (e.g., 5/1/17, 5/26/17, 1/25/19, 5/2/19).
As I explained in my previous article on Bolivia (FAIR.org, 12/10/19), the purpose is not to censor leftist debate on Venezuela and the Bolivarian process. The problem is that the progressive media overage we have reviewed above largely amounts to what Lenin termed “uncritical criticism.”
Despite rightly repudiating US sanctions and threats of military intervention, Western leftist critics accept the very imperial ideological premises justifying the murderous onslaught.
By employing the thoroughly Orientalist discourse of “authoritarianism” and “human rights,” these critics wittingly or unwittingly delegitimize a government which is arguably more legitimate than any number of regional governments that face no credible external threat at all.
In critiquing the Maduro administration, Northern leftists would be wise to heed the words of real revolutionaries on the ground in Venezuela, such as El Maizal Socialist Commune spokesperson Angel Prado, who told this author:
We have indeed been very critical of some policies of our government. Honestly we don’t support some of the pacts made with reformist sectors, with certain economic sectors. But we take a firm position supporting our government as long as it maintains an unwavering stance against imperialism….
We are working very hard in our popular movement—the political base for this process—and one day we are going to have enough strength not only to combat US imperialism, but also those [internal] sectors that have been unfortunately harming our process, enriching themselves in a context of war….
But above all, we as a people have preserved our unity, despite the difficult situation of the last six years, and we have refused to allow US imperialism to put its boots here. I think it’s a very important victory on the part of the Venezuelan people, and the world should know it.
With total clarity, Prado identifies the national confrontation with US imperialism as primary, while recognizing that final victory depends on defeating bureaucratic elites intent on using the crisis to entrench their class power.
If revolutionaries like the El Maizal communards are unequivocal in backing their government against imperialism—despite being on the receiving end of state repression—then Western progressives ought to show similar integrity in uncompromisingly opposing their own states’ rapacious violence abroad.