Venezuela: Another Failure of Democracy… in the US

Jan 26, 2019
9:49 AM

There’s a school near my house in Oakland that still has a picture of Barack Obama on the wall, high and in a prominent location in their main office. I can imagine some of the sentiments behind keeping that portrait up: Obama is “Still My President,” “Never My President (referring to Donald Trump),” “We Miss You” etc.

President Obama’s election was historic. However, as hard as the current situation is to communities of color and immigrants, the reality is Obama is no longer in office. The ignorant and racist bigot Donald Trump is President. We cannot and should not deny his election. In fact, it should give us motivation to address those deficiencies within our problematic electoral system that led to the the rise of Trump to begin with.

It would be absurd for anyone to think that Trump isn’t the elected President of the United States, and it would be seen as an outrage and against international norms for anyone or any nation to unilaterally declare someone else in our country —Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden— the leader of the US.

Which is why it is so bizarre and outrageous that President Trump would feel that he has the right to legitimize the office of President of Venezuela, in spite of that country’s own electoral process which led to the second term of Nicolás Maduro. Not only that, it is absolutely shameful that the opposition Democratic Party, who for the last few years has decried from the hilltops and MSNBC suspected Russian interference in our own 2016 presidential election, would support such a ridiculous violation of Venezuelan sovereignty.

In the last few weeks and days, the United States encouraged and, as it is looking more clear, attempted to coordinate this coup d’état with a usurper legislator, effectively undermining Venezuela’s democratic order from without. By effectively anointing to pro-Western governments this person they had been scheming with the Trump Administration, has essentially opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box. It is anyone’s guess how this will work out but sadly the likelihood of bloodshed and even civil war has skyrocketed. An awful and incredibly thoughtless disruption of international norms and internal Venezuelan affairs, part of a long history of such U.S. actions, all in the name of oil, profit, and power.

For decades though, Venezuela was a non-issue to the United States. Its large deposits of oil and its profits were controlled by the two largest traditional parties in a shared power arrangement, and the extracted wealth benefited their leadership, Venezuela’s elites (the majority of whom prospered from colorism and the racialized stratification of society), U.S. businesses, politicians, and high-end malls in Miami. Meanwhile the overwhelming majority of Venezolanos, of mixed Indigenous and African descent, stayed in abject poverty.

Things changed in 1998 when Hugo Chávez, an outsider in the political world and ex-military officer, was elected president. Immediately he began to implement a social justice platform that would evolve into two major characteristics: participatory democracy and steering the economy towards a socialist model. This was the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Immediately Chávez’s vision came into conflict with the United States, mainly around how Venezuela would use it key resource: oil. Venezuela has some of the largest deposits of oil in the world, and for years was a reliable exporter to the U.S., to the profit of both elite Venezuelans and U.S. businesses.

Chávez sought to change all that by making the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) more responsive to the people. This dramatic shift in focus angered the rich oligarchs and business interests in Venezuela and the United States. A poorly planned and executed coup d’état occurred, supported by the U.S. Two days in April, 2002, which had many in the Latino community and wider immigrant communities watching in despair, as yet another one of our homelands was undermined by the United States from forces on the right with a complicit Democratic Party doing little to nothing to stop it.

Thankfully, the coup was brief. Chávez returned on a wave of people’s power in an incredible show of self-determination and strength against empire and hegemony. What followed were more and more actions by the upper and middle classes and the wealthy of Venezuela to drive both the economy and Chávez’s popularity down so that he could be removed from office, either via extralegal means or through the ballot box. The amount of subterfuge used to reach their goal was only rivaled by the vitriol the elites spewed against Chávez and supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution, glaringly told in classist and racist terms. They failed on every front.

In fact, Venezuela now prides itself on how many elections it has held since 1999 to empower the people to mandate either particular policies or in presidential votes. In spite of US and Venezuelan opposition-led propaganda, these numerous elections over the last 20 years have been some of the best run, most fair, and most transparent of any in the world according to international observer organizations including former US President Jimmy Carter’s The Carter Center..

.And when you can’t win at the ballot box, the Venezuelan saying went “Chávez los vuelve locos” (Chávez makes them [the opposition] crazy). Besides the coup, they pushed dozens of large marches and mobilizations, oil production sabotage, a employer lockout that forced millions to be out of work, a constant stream of racist and classist propaganda in the corporate media that would make Fox News look like Jacobin Magazine, and the boycotting of several elections, including the presidential one last year in which Maduro won his second term  What is that saying in the U.S.? “If you don’t vote you shouldn’t complain”? That’s exactly what the Venezuelan opposition is doing right now.

The irony… the hypocrisy… is lost on many in our country, because of Empire. Not only does the United States covet Venezuelan oil, it has been aggrieved that another nation in our hemisphere would buck U.S, power and hegemony in favor of a multipolar approach to foreign policy —making alliances with China and Russia— as well as being so outright in favor of shifting its economy towards a socialist model and funneling those oil profits into projects that would help uplift the lives of the majority of Venezuelans currently still in poverty. It doesn’t matter that these policies have been given mandate after mandate at the ballot box since Hugo Chávez was first elected President in 1998, continuing through Bolivarian Revolution, his death, and the ascension of his successor, Nicolás Maduro, to the presidency.

Yes, the Maduro’s tenure has been wrought with economic turmoil and mismanagement. There isn’t a leftist activist or scholar that would say otherwise. Venezuela has been dependent far too long on the volatile oil market and its continued reliance on a single commodity trade-dependent export economy. These issues inherent in its system have been compounded in recent years by the expansion of efforts by the U.S. to find other sources of oil, at the environment’s expense, from fracking in the Midwest or from Canadian tar sands, as well as increased Saudi Arabian oil production to keep prices low. In addition, the United States has continued to tighten the grip of sanctions on Venezuela making it extremely hard for the country to stabilize its currency and its inflation rate.

Maduro has stated many times the need to sit down and work out differences he has with both the Venezuelan opposition and with adversaries in Washington, but to no avail. Venezuela has and continues to threaten the U.S.’s perceived oil, profits, and power. Regardless of invitations to talk, regardless of results at the ballot box, the U.S. supports democracy, only when it’s convenient to the United States.

One only need look at our foreign policy over the last 10 years:

We supported the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak when he was leader of Egypt. After the Arab Spring toppled his government, Mohamed Morsi, leader of the formerly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, became the first duly elected leader in Egyptian history. Immediately, the U.S. began to undermine his authority, leading the head of the military Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to overthrow Morsi’s elected government in a military coup. Sisi is now, unsurprisingly, Egypt’s current leader, and a staunch U.S. ally.

In Israel, the United States continues to back the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose internal policies perpetuate an apartheid-like situation for its Arab residents, locking them into second-class citizenship within the State of Israel, and literally locking them into a prison-like existence throughout the rest of Palestine from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip.

Then there’s the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia and its fake “reformer,” the despotic leader Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud. The United States has for decades bent over backwards to keep this relationship, in spite of the horrific nature of the Saudi dictatorship —lacking any semblance of democracy, the status of women who are less than second-class citizens under this oppressive patriarchal regime, and the brutal treatment of migrant workers and ethnic and religious minorities— not to mention its bloody campaigns of war and terrorism abroad, whether it was initial Saudi support of groups like Al-Qaeda, or their current military intervention in Yemen’s civil war. Yet even after all these issues were put on display with the vicious assassination of prominent journalist and vocal Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, the United States continues to count Saudi Arabia a close friend and ally.

In Honduras, Manuel Zelaya was duly elected President in 2005. Previously a political centrist, his policies turned leftward with alliances being made with Venezuela’s Chávez. This caused a fragmentation of politics in the country. Honduras, for years considered a puppet state of the U.S., had a very restrictive constitution that many said had been dictated by the State Department itself. When Zelaya attempted to conduct a poll just to see if the electorate would entertain modifying it, the opposition seized upon this and with the military led a coup which overthrew Zelaya’s government and forced him into exile. The U.S. government under President Obama gave tacit support to these maneuvers, going as far as to have then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refuse to call the overthrow a “coup” lest Honduras by U.S. law lose funding and military aid. The U.S. once again prioritized its position of power over the will of a sovereign country’s people.

Four cases of democracy undermined by US foreign policy.

Suffice to say if these four are U.S. examples of good governance, every country in the world should fear our ability to determine their country’s governing acceptability.  

We do not need to be Latin American political or historical experts to know that this is an awful series of events. Just a casual look at history since World War II reveals repeated examples of U.S. intervention in other democratic countries: Mosaddegh, Iran, 1953; Árbenz, Guatemala 1954; Lumumba, Congo, 1960; Allende, Chile, 1973; Chávez, Venezuela, 2002; and (as stated above) Zelaya, Honduras, 2009. These weren’t dictatorships. They were democracies whose governments were overthrown with the help, either covert or overt, of the United States.

Which brings to mind the old saying, “Why has there never been a coup in the United States? Because there’s no U.S. embassy in Washington.”

And now there are people in the U.S. who rail against foreign interference in our elections.

And there are people in the U.S. who rail against migration from asylum seekers who most often were driven from their homelands by the ramifications of U.S. interventions abroad. In Honduras, for instance, the ouster of Zelaya exacerbated an already challenging situation, and violence continued to degrade any sense of safety amongst the populace. Many choose to flee towards what they perceived as the relative peace of the United States, rather than stay and risk extortion, rape, and murder. Many of those same folks we now see at our border, requesting asylum, and being scapegoated by the Trump Administration and anti-immigrant groups.

It’s the same story we’ve seen time and again when the United States interferes with the internal politics of our Américas, whether it be the usurping of one third of Mexican territory in the 1840s, the colonization of Puerto Rico in the 1890s, the stifling of liberation movements in Nicaragua in the 1930s, and the brutal right-wing repression in El Salvador during the 1980s. U.S. actions abroad time and again have not uplifted these populations. Instead they have brought pain, sorrow, and degrading conditions, compelling folks to risk everything for what they hope is a better tomorrow in El Norte.

Then Trump wonders why we have so many migrants fleeing to our borders. Either he’s ignorant, doesn’t care, or both. He certainly is foolish to think that his actions with regard to Venezuela won’t have similar consequences.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are things we can do to fight against this hypocrisy, and to fight against the belligerence of Trump.

We can call upon the Trump Administration to respect Venezuela’s sovereignty and electoral process and recognize that until there’s a new election, Nicolás Maduro continues to be the legitimate President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. We should also demand that the Trump Administration respect all people’s rights to self-determination.

We can call upon those Democratic leaders, who cry “Russia” whenever the 2016 election results are discussed, to be principled and demand that the U.S. keep from interfering in the internal politics of Venezuela and that it is up to the Venezuelan people to choose, at the ballot box and free from coercion and outside interference, their leader.

We can call upon this new wave of left-leaning politicians and groups, many of whom rally around the term Democratic Socialism, to remind them that there are already examples of Democratic Socialists in América. And yes they are vibrant and beautiful, chaotic and contradictory, imperfect and struggling to be free. We don’t have to replicate them, but we can learn from and be inspired by them, and support and defend their democratic efforts from being undermined—especially by our own government.

We can work with community groups, immigrant and refugee organizations, faith and sanctuary networks, and peace activists to help educate people on the dire issues facing Venezuela, and all of Latin America: continued poverty and inequity, the rise of violent right-wing and fascist governments, and the usurping of political power by the U.S.

Ten years ago, a rising pink/red/left tide of popular movements was spreading throughout Latin America. From Paraguay to Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, and of course Venezuela, countries began to throw off the shackles of dozens (hundreds) of years of colonialism, exploitation, and oppression. One by one these countries reasserted their sovereignty and began to fulfill the dream, through the ballot box, of the Second Declaration of Havana, when Cuban President Fidel Castro said that “No nation in Latin America is weak, because each forms part of a family of 200 million brothers who suffer the same miseries, who harbor the same sentiments, who have the same enemy, who dream about the same better future, and who count upon the solidarity of all honest men and women throughout the world.” And though the day seems dark now for democracy, for hope, for Venezuela and América Latina, with a world united in solidarity, a world united for peace and justice, from the streets of Caracas, to Mexico City, to East Oakland, we can help keep alive that dream of a better future for Venezuelans, and for us all.


Joel Tena is a long-time parent and community activist living in Oakland, CA. In 2002 he helped found the Venezuela Solidarity Group and helped organize the first U.S. solidarity delegation to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. When he’s not finding plot holes in the dominant U.S. paradigm, he is arguing with his son over who should be in the Mexican National Team’s starting XI at this year’s Copa Oro. He tweets from @joeltena.