A lot of people seem confused about what’s happening in Venezuela. We see thousands of protestors facing off with police and soldiers and think popular uprising against government repression, right? After all, that’s how it’s being portrayed in both corporate media and much of social media.
But let’s take a moment for some fact checking. No question that violence has been rocking Venezuela in recent days. Hundreds of thousands of pro and anti-government demonstrators have taken to the streets. Several people have been killed, dozens injured and arrested.
But what’s it all about? The current crisis has its roots in the 1999 democratic election of Hugo Chavez, when the conservative oligarchy and their allies (including transnational corporations) lost control of the government and the country’s rich oil fields. Let me emphasize the latter: the largest oil reserves in the world! Chavez put the nation on the path towards a humanist and socialist society, began implementing programs to help poor and working people, and all hell broke lose.
For the past 15 years, the right has been relentless in its attempts to destabilize the socialist project – using boycotts, coup attempts, economic sabotage, propaganda campaigns, attacks on free health clinics, recall elections and violent protests. When all else fails, you can always blame the Cubans:
“Venezuela is a military regime controlled by the Cuban regime…They control the military, the police, the intelligence agencies, so they are in full control today in Venezuela.”
— Diego Arria, former governor of Caracas and former representative of Venezuela to the UN (1991-93), speaking to Al Jazeera America, February 19, 2014
After Chavez died in 2013, then Vice President Nicolás Maduro, a life-long trade union leader, assumed the office and was elected President in a special election. The right lost at the ballot box once again and though they have tried to decry those elections as fraud, international observers and organizations have negated those charges. Chilean writer Pedro Santander, responded to the charges of the lack of democracy in Venezuela:
“Regarding the supposed "democratic deficit of the Venezuelan regime", the facts speak for themselves. Since 1998 there have been four national plebiscites, four presidential elections, and eleven parliamentary, regional, and municipal elections. Venezuela is the Latin American country with the highest number of elections and it also has an automatic electoral system (much more modern than Chile's one), described by Jimmy Carter, who has observed 92 elections in all continents, as "the best system in the world".
So why is it important to stand with Venezuela? What’s at stake here and why should it matter to progressives within the United States?
1. Venezuela represents the rejection of neo-liberal economics and corporate capitalism. The Bolivarian Revolution, while not perfect by any means, has set it sites on social justice for all its people, not just the 1%. Significant inroads have been made in reducing poverty, infant mortality rates and illiteracy and providing free public education, housing and health services. Profits from the nationalized oil industry, that used to line the pockets of a handful of families and corporations, now goes to fund social services and programs to help the country’s poor and working class.
If you take a look at the class composition of the most recent demonstrations, what’s at stake becomes all the more clear – anti-government forces are students from private universities and the middle and upper classes tied to the old economic elite, transnational oil interests and the United States. The pro-government forces include the country’s working class and trade unionists, the poor, and people from Indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan communities.
2. Venezuela has served as a beacon to other Latin American countries seeking to break with neo-liberal policies and U.S. hegemony. With the election of Chavez, Venezuela initiated the movement to the left that has swept across Latin America. Left-leaning governments were elected in a number of countries and in 2011, this shift resulted in the formation of CELAC – the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a regional alternative to the Washington-dominated Organization of American States (OAS). The United States is not a member of CELAC and Cuba, which has been excluded from the OAS, is.
Centuries of Washington’s supposed “right” to dominate Latin America have been broken and U.S. leaders are not happy. Latin America was once the domain of U.S. interests and power (aka backyard) but with its focus in recent years on the Middle East and Asia, Washington has been losing ground here (including ground that contains the huge oil reserves so coveted by U.S. transnationals).
3. Washington is behind the recent violence to topple the Maduro government. While it’s not clear exactly what the U.S. role is in recent protests, what is clear is that Washington has been funding organizations opposing the government here ever since Chavez was first elected. That this continues is no secret. It’s right there in the 2014 federal budget where $5 million dollars has been earmarked for opposition activities inside Venezuela. And knowing our government as we do, it’s safe to assume that there are millions of dollars being covertly funneled to the opposition as well. Given the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America, it is clear that the current violence aimed at toppling the Venezuelan government has Washington’s hand written all over it.
What is happening in Venezuela right now matters. Whether or not the socialist project will survive matters. For progressives and leftists in the United States, the least we can do is cast light on the role of our own government in the upheaval and counter the narratives that attempt to demonize the left-leaning government of Maduro. Too much is at stake to remain confused or silent.
There is not space here to go into all the details of my points above. I would encourage you to read some of the following articles for more background as well as analysis of the current situation in Venezuela:
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project
Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.
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