Juan Contreras was born and raised in Caracas’s 23 de Enero barrio, famous for its revolutionary political activism and internationalism. A graduate of Venezuela’s Central University, Contreras was active in Bandera Roja, under the direction of Comandante Geronimo (Carlos Betancourt) in the late 1970s. Today he heads up the community organization, Coordinadora Simon Bolivar, in the heart of working class Caracas. In this exclusive interview with Venezuelanalysis, Contreras looks at the historical echoes of the current coup attempt and reminds us of all that is a stake.
The claim that politics inevitably involves a struggle over historical meanings received spectacular confirmation in recent weeks. That’s because the political crisis that we are in the midst of right now – following Juan Guaido’s declaring himself president – saw the opposition to trying evoke the memory of pro-democracy rebellion that began on January 23, 1958. How do you understand this effort of Juan Guaido and his imperialist masters to appropriate that historical event, which was essentially a leftist victory, in the name of a coup d’etat?
I would begin by saying that there would never have been a February 4, 1992 [when Chavez tried to take power by insurrection] without the [democratic rebellion of] January 23, 1958. If indeed it’s true that the opposition and the right-wing Venezuelan oligarchy have been trying for some time to appropriate symbolic dates such as January 23 or February 12 [Youth Day], it’s still true that those events are symbolic for our people.
The great protagonist over all these years has been the popular masses, whose trajectory of struggle reaches a long way back. There is a powerful historical current that reaches back to [indigenous leader] Guaicaipuro who struggled against the colonizers, to Jose Leonardo Chirinos who fought to establish a republic and to abolish slavery, to our nineteenth-century liberators Miranda, Bolivar, and Sucre, and to Ezequiel Zamora with his call for freeing the land and people in 1846. We could also include the democratic rebellion of January 23, 1958, the Caracazo of February 1989, and the civilian-military insurrections of February 4 and November 27, 1992
We descend from all this! That historical legacy is the work of our people, and it has accompanied us in these times as one of our important strengths. Well, that legacy belongs to the people and not to a few “leaders” who are bowing down to the designs of US imperialism. To rally their followers, they have to use the US flag! They even call for an invasion, when all of us know that even in the twenty-first century there are no bombs that kill only Chavistas or only hunt down Chavistas!
That revolutionary historical legacy is the antithesis of everything that the opposition is doing today. What they are doing doesn’t have any basis in our revolutionary history, because that history is marked by a high degree of popular participation. The popular masses paid for this struggle with their lives: they paid a high price in blood. That is to say, the struggle during all of these years and even centuries – 500 years of struggle, in fact – has been the work of the poor people: the Bolivarian and Chavista people.
Opposition march with a US flag as stage backdrop. Caracas, February 2, 2019. (Archive)
In examining the international panorama, would you say that Trump is taking a step back in the Middle East to recuperate US power in its so-called backyard? What is going on in the continent today appears similar to the rollback process of the ‘80s under Reagan: US interventionism in Grenada, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. How would you interpret, from a geopolitical standpoint, our current situation?
I would like to begin by saying that what is happening now is quite similar to what happened in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fidel Castro had a conversation with Che Guevara, and Che told him that the crisis would unfortunately be resolved from above: Cuba would not have a say in the missile issue. Indeed, the meeting happened in the upper spheres of world power, between the USSR and the United States. Cuba was not an actor in its own history. It is possible that we may be in a very similar moment in history today. History is cyclical, and there are episodes that repeat themselves.
Why does today’s situation recall the Missile Crisis? Well, after the meeting between Putin and Trump, a shift in the geopolitical chessboard began to take shape: the US starts pulling troops out of Syria (although troops still remain there), and more recently a withdrawal of troops from Iraq was signed by US authorities. Thus, it would seem that, from a geopolitical point of view and when faced with an important crisis, the current relations of power are such that only the big players can sit at the table: our government doesn’t sit at the table. I believe we could be facing a situation in which these two powers came on to an agreement: what is happening in Syria points to that and the developments in Venezuela could be a counterpart.
Venezuela is the “backyard” of the US while Russia needs control of Syria and the region around it to ensure the construction of a gas pipeline… In barrio slang what we are facing might be a “cambalache” [exchange]: I let you have Venezuela, and in return you let me have Syria. This resembles what we saw in 1962.
We could also look back to the 1980s, as you suggest. That was the era of the US-led intervention in Central America. And that disastrous episode seems all the more close, when we learn that the US advisor for the Venezuelan crisis is Elliott Abrams. He is a well known figure, with a warmongering history. Abrams was convicted for his participation in the Iran-Contra affair, but he also supported counterinsurgency in El Salvador and Guatemala, and he encouraged the Panama invasion. All this reveals the US’s undeniably hawkish attitude towards Venezuela. There is no doubt about it: they are determined to having full control of their “backyard.”
That takes us back 200 years. The Monroe Doctrine , which was designed by John Quincy Adams but got James Monroe’s name attached to it, can be summarized with the phrase “America for the Americans.” It was a warning from the US to Europe: any European participation in Latin America would be considered, by the US, an act of interference. That doctrine is alive and well today, two centuries later.
The current confrontation has two elements. The obvious one has to do with the US’s open interest in our resources, but I would dare to say that more important than that is the US’s deep antagonism to the Bolivarian doctrine, which is the one that has oriented this process for the past two decades. Bolivar wanted to construct a bloc of republics as one nation … [Tellingly] when reflecting on this in the 1820s, Bolivar said: “The United States appears destined by Providence to plague America with miseries in the name of liberty.”
We are going through this first-hand once again. Two hundred years later, the confrontation continues the logic of the Monroe Doctrine: the US’s pretensions to control what they always considered their backyard. And just as at that time, Venezuela was in the vanguard of the independence struggle, so today we have to play again the role of a continental vanguard.
In Venezuela, what is at stake is not only the destiny of the Bolivarian Process, but also the destiny of Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole. Together they make up what Bolivar called “Meridional America,” and it is an open battlefield in which the destiny of Latin America and the Caribbean is at stake.
Monroe Doctrine cartoon. (Archive)
As Bolivarians and Latin American patriots, how should we respond to the imperialist offensive which attempts to generate conflicts among nations in the region? You mention that US imperialism is against Bolivarianism. It aims to rupture continental alliances using governments such as those of Brazil and Colombia, which now are towing the US line. How can we counteract the US’s efforts to undermine Latin American unity?
Here we have to go back to Bolivar again. Bolivar sought to integrate the Latin American republics, aiming to make them into one single nation. By contrast, the Monroe Doctrine tries to divide our peoples. Today, we see that they are determined to do so once again. We only need to look at the rise of figures such as Colombia’s president, Ivan Duque, who represents the Colombian oligarchy and the interests of the Global North, or Jair Bolsonaro, who represents the ultra-right of Brazil, or Mauricio Macri in Argentina.
The rise of these figures marks a setback for the left in the continent, compared with the two previous decades in which the processes of building Latin American unity were advancing. Clearly, we are now going in reverse in as much as these new governments are imperialist puppets. They are the local representatives of US interests, and their aggression take place not only on the frontier, but also in the sphere of public politics and media campaigns, working constantly to divide Latin America.
In contrast with diplomacy on a state and government level (which is often penetrated by foreign interests), there can also be “people’s diplomacy.” In other words, the popular sphere should try to coordinate and organize itself [across national boundaries]. The International Assembly of the Peoples[ link] that is going to happen at the end of February in Caracas could be an important step in this direction, if it’s not co opted. People’s diplomacy is the way to resolve this conflict and avoid confrontation among sister nations.
How to push for integration? It can only be achieved from below, in the popular sphere. There are so many projects in Latin America that should be brought together! Campesinos, factory workers, the indigenous peoples, students, and barrio dwellers. There is a local saying here in Venezuela: “lo que es igual no es trampa” [If there’s a level playing field, things are fair]. Our enemies believe in diplomacy from above and they try to attack the Bolivarian Process with those tactics, by pitting governments against each other, and with the threat of a military intervention. Our self-defense has to work in the opposite way. It has to be like the people and reach beyond borders. Bolivarianism is equivalent to the ideology of popular continental unity.
We should not fall into isolationist positions, but rather work with those who struggle and those groups that break with chauvinist attitudes (which although they aren’t new in Venezuela need to be overcome). In Colombia there are the guerrilleros of the ELN and in Brazil, there are the campesinos of the MST who have a long trajectory of struggle. I think that those kinds of groups are the people that we can count on and with whom we must work. Pursuing popular integration and fraternity would allow us to consolidate the process of continental integration in the face of the disintegration that the US wants to foster.
In la Pastora, Caracas, a mural that reads “For the sisterhood of Latin American peoples.” (Archive)
Defending the country doesn’t have to be limited to responding to media attacks or mustering legal arguments. Those kinds of defenses often risk becoming part of a spectacle. There could also be a popular response, which would advance the revolutionary process and have nothing to do with pacting between power groups.
I think there are three elements that have kept the Bolivarian Process going during these twenty years. First is the historical memory of the emancipation struggle that took place 200 years ago and the Bolivarian teachings that accompanied it… This is one of the most important legacies that our people have. It has been with us during those twenty years of the process, where it serves as a kind a guiding light.
Secondly, there is the well-known unity of the civilians and the military. There are people-in-uniform, on the one hand, and people-who-are-civilians on the other, but in the end it is the same popular mass. Some of the popular classes went to the military because of conviction or because of a career, but it is the same popular base. The “uniformed people” go through the same stuff that that the civilians live through too, which is something we should be aware of.
Thirdly, there is the disposition for change that the Venezuelan people have shown. That disposition for change has been evident since the Caracazo rebellion of February 1989 when people went to the street and buried the International Monetary Fund’s prescriptions. The popular revolt against the neoliberal policies that the IMF was trying to hoist on our country cost us about 5000 lives.
Those same people who led the revolt and in 1998 elected Chavez as president of Venezuela, later approved the new constitution with a new presidential period. On October 7, 2012, they re-elected President Chavez for the third time and on April 14, 2013 – being loyal to Commander Chavez – they elected Nicolas Maduro as president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
I think that in this [trajectory] you can discern the effort that the Venezuelan people have been making. The Venezuelan people’s disposition for change has continued, and it is not limited to Chavez’s leadership. It has its own life apart from the direction of the revolution: the Bolivarian process’s “political-military leadership.”
In Venezuela, the popular masses said “enough.” They are the people that got the political process going, and they are the ones who believe in the revolution. There is a wide swath of the population that took seriously Chavez’s calling for a communal state as a way to advance toward Bolivarian socialism. They are the popular masses, and they have a history of struggle. It’s these people who make history. As brilliant as individuals may be, as important as Bolivar and Chavez are for us today, they are but a straw caught up in the winds of revolution.
In Venezuela, the people said “enough” and organized themselves. Despite all the things that we can criticize, I am convinced that there is a solution, and that solution is with the people. That is to say, the path forward for the Bolivarian Process is with the popular masses, with the organization of our people: workers, farmers, indigenous peoples, students and the popular sectors from the barrios. Our way out is with them, with us. There is no solution possible through high-level negotiation with power groups. There is no solution that involves accepting the blackmail from the North. The solution is with the people. And it’s with the people that one has to negotiate, sit down and talk. There is no other way!