Spectacle, Internationalization, and the Elephant in the Room in Venezuela’s Crisis

Spectacle and internationalization in the battle for control in Venezuela distract from more fundamental issues: the future of constituent power and the unavoidable challenges of seeking energy alternatives

May 23, 2019

Operación Libertad, May 1, 2019. Caracas, Venezuela. (Wikipedia Commons/Voice of America)

On the morning of April 30, in a reportedly planned but accelerated move, the self-declared interim president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, announced via Twitter that a military coup had begun. In the video, Guaidó appeared with a small handful of uniformed military personnel as well as his mentor Leopoldo López, who military officials had reportedly released from house arrest hours earlier. Guaidó declared the insurrection the “final phase of Operación Libertad,” and claimed his military supporters had already seized the not insignificant eastern Caracas military airbase known as La Carlota.

Except they hadn’t. 

By the evening of April 30, it was clear the attempted putsch had failed. The military did not heed Guaidó’s call to arms, civilians did not flood the streets, and López had taken refuge (as a “guest”) first in the Chilean and then in the Spanish embassies. Twenty-five defected soldiers sought asylum in the Brazilian embassy. Days later, up to 120 deserters that earlier pledged allegiance to the self-declared interim president were evicted from a hotel in Cúcuta, Colombia, where they were awaiting orders after 19 nights without paying the bill.

Foiled and fractured from the outset, Operación Libertad immediately moved to another front. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton took to the airwaves to claim key figures of President Nicolás Maduro’s inner circle—Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, Supreme Court Justice Maikel Moreno, and presidential guard commander Iván Rafael Hernández Dala—had promised to join the uprising, only to get cold feet when Guaidó initiated the plan early. 

Whether or not the named individuals were in fact in cahoots with the opposition and the Trump administration is unclear. What is certain, however, is that Bolton’s public naming of names was intended to unsettle Maduro. Bolton also later floated the theory, quickly taken up by many commentators sympathetic to the opposition, that Cuban counterintelligence operations were behind the botched coup and that Padrino and company only entered the negotiations to expose weak links in the embattled Maduro government. In a similarly conspiratorial move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that Maduro had a plane on the tarmac at Maiquetía International Airport ready to flee to Havana, but was forced to remain in Venezuela at the orders of his Russian handlers

As Guaidó and the United States continue to threaten military intervention (either of the conventional variety, or as an intensification of “non-kinetic” tactics—ones that don’t involve physical military deployment) ostensibly middle powers have stepped up their efforts to oust Maduro through more peaceful means. Canada has approached Cuba to discuss “ways they could work together to support a peaceful resolution” in Venezuela, and the Lima Group has asked Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel to join its efforts to negotiate a dialogue. The International Contact Group convened a summit to step up pressure for fresh elections.

While not discounting the government’s role in the political and economic crisis, economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs estimate that U.S. sanctions could be responsible for the deaths of 40,000 Venezuelans between 2017 and 2018.

Like so much of the battle between the opposition and government in Bolivarian Venezuela, the April 30 military uprising was more spectacle than substance. This of course is not to suggest the crisis, threat of regime change, and the violence it would likely entail are not or have not been real. While the opposition’s coup attempt may indeed be a simulacrum of an actual civic-military alliance, it should also be recognized as an improvisation on an established script that continues to deepen the crisis in Venezuela. 

The Internationalization of Venezuela’s Opposition

The opposition in Venezuela has counted on international support in its efforts at regime change since the early Chávez years. Allied governments and businesses have provided public and private assistance ranging from political capital and sanctions to funding and training since the 2002-2003 opposition-backed oil lockout, whose explicit goal was to starve the Chávez government of funds by cutting off its most significant revenue stream and thereby hasten regime change. The following year, NATO governments supported the efforts ofU.S.-backed NGO, Súmate to recall Chávez. The default position of pundits and policymakers since these early efforts to end the Bolivarian Revolution has followed a script that either dismissed politics in Venezuela as petro-populism or a dangerous threat to the liberal order. The most recent expression of this international support has been on display since Guaidó named himself president in January. Foreign governments including the United States, Canadathe EU, and more recently the right-of-center governments in Latin America, not only publicly backed the “interim president,” but also froze Maduro’s access to public assets, including gold reserves and holdings of the state oil industry.

Internationalization has also taken the form of opposition coordination with foreign governments to isolate and pressure Maduro. This has gained momentum publicly since 2017, when Maduro convoked a National Constituent Assembly (ANC) in order to circumvent the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Since the election of the ANC, which the opposition boycotted, the Lima Group has worked to isolate and remove Maduro from power via diplomatic means with a stated goal to “restor[e] democracyin [Venezuela], through peaceful and negotiated means.” While cloaked in the language of human rights and democracy, the Lima Declaration and the Lima Group have been clear that “restoration of democracy” entails the end of what they have concluded is an illegitimate government. The Lima Group is an international and diplomatic extension of the lawfare the opposition has waged since taking control of the National Assembly in 2015. While in control of the legislative branch of government, the opposition worked all but exclusively to undermine the rest of the government rather than trying to pass laws that could actually respond to the crisis. For example, opposition lawmakers passed a blanket amnesty for participants in previous and future coup attempts. They also attempted to curtail the president’s fiscal and political powers. These actions led the government to clamp down on power, including its convening of the ANC, which contributed to a series of escalating conflicts and intensified paramilitarization of opposition protests and increasingly violent crackdowns that left over 160 dead in 2017 alone.

By convoking the ANC, Maduro broke with the spirit and practice of constituent power —the grassroots, generative, inclusive, creative, and egalitarian people power than has arguably been the most admirable aspect of the Bolivarian Revolution. Far from an expression of protagonistic democracy, the sort of open-ended, transformative, inclusive, participatory, and emancipatory process that defined the 1999 ANC, this was plainly a move designed to remove a legislative obstacle to power. The Lima Group, however, did not call itself to arms in defense of constituent power. The group’s statements and alliances have instead been partisan, picking a side in a battle within the Venezuelan state rather than trying to mitigate polarization. 

The Lima Group has opposed direct military intervention in Venezuela, always cloaking its positions behind the niceties of “dialogue” and “negotiation.” However, with the victories of Álvaro Uribe’s puppet Iván Duque in Colombia and the ultra-right Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, a more potentially violent South American front has opened in the opposition’s international strategy. Far from cowing Maduro, however, the potential involvement of the continent’s largest and most counter insurgency-ready militaries, combined with the increased role of U.S. advisors and supportive words from the U.S. Southern Command, have instead pushed Venezuela to seek deeper military ties with Russia. There are certainly parallels with the civil war in Syria, in which an internal conflict ratcheted up to a proxy battle between Washington and Moscow. 

Thus far, military coordination and support has played a less prominent directrole than civil society work and polyarchy promotion in Venezuela; support for dictators and death squads of the Cold War has by and large been replaced with sponsoring economic and political reforms that benefit the same elites and limit popular participation in politics, but do so with less immediately violent consequences. The opposition party Primero Justicia, for example, was founded in the late 1990s as a U.S.-sponsored NGO. María Corina Machado, the head of Súmate (the NGO behind the 2004 presidential recall) was welcomed to George W. Bush’s Oval Office before any official of the Chávez government. Less formal elite networks have also been key. Leopoldo López, North American publics are often reminded, is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The reality of the class dynamics at play in contemporary Venezuela is that many opposition figures share López’s pedigree, speak unaccented English and French, and share social ties and cosmopolitan experiences with many world leaders. Such organic links facilitate the spread of and support for opposition messaging. They also grant a degree of sympathy and credibility to opposition leaders among a general public in the North Atlantic in which the exclusionary institutions of higher education convey a high degree of social capital.    

Major media outlets in the North Atlantic have also been key allies. Opinion-making organs like the New York Times concluded 15 years ago that Chávez’s 21stcentury socialism was either a populist aberration riding an oil boom or a dangerous anachronism. More recently, Fox News has barely been able to contain its glee as it beats socialists like Alexandria Ocasio Cortéz with the cudgel of Venezuela’s ostensibly socialist catastrophe. Even MSNBC, ostensibly the bastion of the anti-Trump resistance, has failed to criticize the bellicose noises coming from administration officials. Occasionally the casual lie reinforces the narrative of a righteous opposition facing off with a totalitarian strongman, as in the case of a CNN report on a helicopter crash in Caracas that referred in passing to “elections in January in which voters chose opposition leader Juan Guaidó over him [Maduro] for president.”There were no elections in January. Maduro was sworn in for his second term, and Guaidó declared himself president, but there were no elections. That this made it past a series of editors and fact-checkers should alarm us all.

The Elephant in the Room 

Despite the unbridgeable chasm separating the government of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition currently headed by Juan Guaidó, both sides share two common positions. The first is that their conflict is fundamentally a contest for state power. The second is that this state is and will continue to be one based in oil extraction. 

Thus far, Guaidó has extended a personalistic approach to politics long practiced by Venezuela’s opposition. It is a politics summed up by opposition pollster José Gil Yepes as a visionless program that says “vote for me, when I get to power, I’ll give you solutions.” Rather than offering specifics about meaningful participation, this is a politics that begins and ends with the state and the strongman president. Nothing Guaidó or López have indicated thus far suggests any intention of breaking toward more democratic or participatory horizons. If anything, what plans and “interim” appointments Guaidó has announced suggest a return to the policies of the 1990s, with a technocratic mix of piecemeal neoliberalization and elite-driven democracy, both of which require a strong state to enforce order, stability, and the absolute sanctity of private property.

At the same time, Maduro’s actions since becoming president have intensified aspects of centralization and overdependence on the military that worried many during the later Chávez years. In spite of this focus on the state, comuneros and colectivos– local,  grassroots projects in mutual aid and direct democracy—have made important strides in developing new forms of public life that are autonomous, more inclusive, and pushing toward sustainability. As one comunero recently related to a foreign observer, “If [the Maduro government] was to fall, that organization will still be here; this huge spirit of participation will still exist, and it will be a problem for any government that tries to dismantle it.” If the demonization of colectivos common among opposition supporters and amplified by media outlets in the North as racialized hordes of criminals is any indication, such an attempted dismantling has little prospect of unfolding peacefully.

In other words, the conflict between Maduro and Guaidó is a competition between forms of state-constituted power. In the heat of this confrontation over the commanding heights of the state, questions about substantive democracy, modes of civic and public engagement, and  more equitable practices of quotidian governance—that is, popular power—have been systematically relegated to the slogans and staged spectacles of both the government and opposition.

Given the depth of the economic crisis facing Venezuela and the very real human costs it entails, talk of phasing out fossil fuels seems detached and misguided. However, the prolonged collapse of oil prices offers a preview of what decarbonization could likely mean for Venezuelans and other hydrocarbon exporting nations if the country does not formulate a more aggressive and proactive energy transition.

At this point, neither the Maduro nor Guaidó camp has taken this challenge seriously. The government has by and large repeated recent and longer-term established discourses. Maduro has echoed Chávez’s calls for the construction of sustainable “eco-socialism.” However, like his predecessor, in the same breath he has also intensified hydrocarbon and other extractive enterprises (notably in the Orinoco mining belt), while increasing the internationalization of natural resources through mixed enterprises and deepening Venezuela’s oil debt to China. As the scramble for new extractive revenue streams intensifies in the context of the current crisis, so too has the militarization of Venezuela’s resource frontiers. While the world watches Guaidó’s made-in-the-USA show of aid convoys and fake coups, the multi-sided conflict over land and the environment in Venezuela’s interior has become increasingly bloody. 

Guaidó’s policy agenda proposes a return of the neoliberalization of the 1990s. The International Monetary Fund and Inter-American Development Bank reportedly have plans ready, should Guaidó take power, to invest tens of billions of dollars into Venezuela’s various resource sectors, prioritizing revitalizing and accelerating oil extraction. While the realities of the global political economy reinforce the inevitable conclusion that oil and other extractives offer Venezuela’s most readily available resources for reconstruction, medium- and long-term outlooks point toward the need for the structural overhaul of Venezuela’s petroleum-based economy.

The need to transition away from dependence on the extraction and export of petroleum is by no means a new realization. I have argued elsewhere that oil occupies an ambivalent position in Venezuela’s popular imaginary. After all, every government since 1936 has cited the need to sembrar el petróleo, to “sow the oil” into a more productive industrial and agricultural base. Dictators and democrats have been enchanted by the magical abilities oil rents have promised in the pursuit of development and modernization. However, oil is also “the devil’s excrement,” as Venezuela’s former ambassador to OPEC Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo put it in the 1970s, which Venezuela has been drowning in for a century. Drowning, and stuck. 

The prospects for a “post-extractivisttransition out of Venezuela’s current political, economic, and social crises may seem dim, especially when the threat of military intervention by some of the least stable individuals in the hemisphere present such a clear and present danger. It is increasingly certain, however, that the question of transition is not one of “if” but rather of “what kind.” It is a question that Venezuelans and their leaders have wrestled with for nearly 100 years, and it is a question obscured by the spectacle of international confrontation for state power currently unfolding. 

Donald Kingsbury lectures in Political Science and Latin American Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Only the People Can Save the People: Constituent Power, Revolution, and Counterrevolution in Venezuela (SUNY Press, 2018) and is currently at work on a manuscript examining the politics of extractive states in post-Pink Tide Latin America

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