Disclaimer: These are some provisional thoughts from a U.S. American whose opinions should be given significantly less weight than the opinions of activists and citizens in Venezuela whose futures are at stake.
On January 23, massive anti-government demonstrations were held in Venezuela, an outpouring of rage at Nicolás Maduro following years of economic deprivation and increasingly authoritarian rule. While speaking at one of the rallies, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó assumed the title of interim president. I write that line with caution. The New York Times and other news outlets have used the term “self-declared president,” but that’s somewhat misleading. In an appearance on the Al Jazeera English program Inside Story, Christopher Sabatini, editor of the website Global Americans, noted that Guaidó has the backing of the National Assembly, the sole “legitimately elected body today in Venezuela.” In contrast, Maduro is now serving a second term as president by virtue of a 2018 election in which leading opposition parties were barred from competing. Sabatini argues that this election was illegitimate “by any international standard.” This illegitimacy opened the door for Guaidó to invoke Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, which enables the president of the National Assembly (Guaidó) to become interim president of the country in the absence of another president. The interim president then has an obligation to call new elections, which Guaidó has pledged to do. Sabatini makes the case that “this is really the only route right now. It’s not perfect, I’ll admit.”
It’s in this context that the U.S. and many countries in the Americas have declared their support for Guaidó. Asked about whether the involvement of outside countries like the U.S. and Canada was helpful, Sabatini replied:
I don’t know, I must admit. You know, there’s part of me… that says that something had to happen, there was a need for a moment of change… [Maduro] has crippled the country, caused over three million people to leave the country, it’s been a disaster. So, you have to look for that opening. Having said that, this is a bold move. Given the history of U.S. intervention in the hemisphere, which has, say in Guatemala in 1954 declared support for an unconstitutional president in a coup… the U.S.’s position is helped by the support of Canada and at least, at last count about seven to nine countries in Latin America that agree. I think it’s important, I think it’s a bold move, but I think what you’re going to see is a division not just in the region—of course you’ve got Nicaragua and Cuba and Mexico and Uruguay that have not recognized Guaidó as the president—but also globally, you’re going to see China and Russia back Maduro, so this is going to have implications beyond just the region and beyond domestic politics in Venezuela—it’s going to have a global reach. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think it’s a good move, it’s an important move, but I think history will have to be the judge of this, because it’s a bold gambit.”
A joint statement by several human rights organizations in the Americas concluded,
The only solution to Venezuela’s crisis lies in a credible negotiated process that leads to free and fair elections that allow Venezuelans to choose their own leaders. The conditions for such a solution cannot be achieved through international pressure alone; they must be created through careful diplomatic engagement. In this spirit, we applaud recent efforts by the European Union, the governments of Mexico and Uruguay, as well as past statements by the Lima Group, all of which have expressed an interest in advancing a negotiated solution. Pairing pressure with creative diplomacy is the best way to facilitate a return to democracy
Given all this, it’s reasonable for there to be disagreement in the U.S. about whether it was the right decision for our government to recognize Guaidó. In addition, it’s incumbent upon the U.S. left to ensure that U.S. interests are not imposed on Venezuela. But this discussion should be informed by the fact that Maduro has systematically attempted to consolidate power by dismantling democratic institutions even as the economic and humanitarian crisis in the country worsens. And the discussion should take it as a given that Guaidó does indeed have far greater moral and legal legitimacy than Maduro, regardless of whether the U.S. has a right to point that out. Unfortunately, leading figures in the U.S. left have skipped that nuance altogether.
On January 24th, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) wrote on Twitter,
A US backed coup in Venezuela is not a solution to the dire issues they face. Trump’s efforts to install a far right opposition will only incite violence and further destabilize the region. We must support Mexico, Uruguay & the Vatican’s efforts to facilitate a peaceful dialogue.
The tweet was ‘liked’ by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), a fellow progressive member of congress elected in last year’s blue wave (Tlaib has not herself written a statement on Venezuela).
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), responded to a call by commentator Rania Khalek for progressive criticism of “the Trump administration’s right wing coup in Venezuela” by writing,
Let me get this straight. The US is sanctioning Venezuela for their lack of democracy but not Saudi Arabia? Such hypocrisy. Maduro’s policies are bad and not helping his people, but crippling sanctions or pushing for regime change will only make the situation worse.
Khalek has also been retweeted by Rep. Omar.
In response to a statement by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) supporting U.S. recognition of Guaidó, Rep. Khanna wrote,
With respect Senator Durbin, the US should not anoint the leader of the opposition in Venezuela during an internal, polarized conflict. Let us support Uruguay, Mexico, & the Vatican’s efforts for a negotiated settlement & end sanctions that are making the hyperinflation worse.
This was retweeted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
Again, it’s not a problem in and of itself that some progressive Democrats disagree with Trump’s recognition of Guaidó as interim Venezuelan president. But there are several things that I do find troubling:
First, the description of a U.S. “coup” ignores the legal and constitutional context of Guaidó’s assumption of the interim presidency and U.S. recognition of him. On the possibility of a coup, Venezuelan journalist Reynaldo Trombetta writes:
Of course, some think this is a coup organised by Donald Trump. That it’s all about oil. It’s impossible to know for sure, though the dissatisfaction on the streets of Venezuela is clearly very real and justified. There are probably some very excited oil executives somewhere fantasising about getting their hands on the largest crude reserves in the world. It will be up to the Venezuelans to stop them. But as things stand, those reserves are right now in the hands of Russia, China and Cuba, and those shouting about Venezuela’s sovereignty don’t seem to mind that at all.
The labelling of the entirety of the Venezuelan opposition as “far right” is clearly unfair. Trombetta notes, “Guaidó is 100% working class” and his “fight is about rebuilding Venezuela, not about giving back power to the politicians who ruled the country between 1958 and 1998.”
Second, Reps. Khanna and Omar have retweeted and borrowed the arguments of commentators who routinely apologize for authoritarians. Omar retweeted an episode of Empire Files, a program on TeleSUR English (which is funded in part by the Venezuelan government) hosted by former RT anchor Abby Martin. Khanna has retweeted Glenn Greenwald, whose misinformation on Syria has been extensively documented (here, for example). And Rania Khalek—who, as mentioned above, both Khanna and Omar have engaged with on Twitter—obfuscates war crimes committed by the Assad regime in Syria. I’d like to think that the small group of writers on the left who are willing to whitewash atrocities have relatively little influence. But it’s become clear that—like the alt-right commentators who have the ear of Donald Trump—Martin, Greenwald, Khalek, and others are able to drive the narrative and influence members of congress.
Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, these criticisms of U.S. policy have not, so far as I can tell, been paired with any comments resembling support for Venezuela’s popular movement against Maduro. The statements hint at solidarity with Venezuela as a state (at least against U.S. interference) but not solidarity with Venezuelans themselves. There is no recognition of Venezuelan anti-government activists as people with agency who are determined to change the direction of their country.
My intention here is not simply to attack otherwise progressive members of congress. We’ve seen far too much of that from the right-wing and even mainstream press. Further, I do not wish to discredit everything said in the tweets. I frankly do not know what the impact of U.S. sanctions has been on the Venezuelan economy. A majority of Venezuelans (56% to 32%) oppose U.S. sanctions, according to a December 2017 poll. In a January 2018 article, Francisco Rodríguez, former head of the Venezuelan Congressional Budget Office, made the case against further sanctions. And the recent statement by human rights organizations in the Americas said:
It is fundamental that the international community ensure that any sanctions that may be imposed against the Maduro regime are coordinated, linked to concrete and clearly-communicated objectives and that they avoid worsening the country’s dire humanitarian emergency. In this context, we are deeply concerned by indications of renewed interest in an embargo on Venezuelan oil or other forms of broad economic sanctions, which would undoubtedly impact everyday Venezuelans and further restrict the ability to pay for imports of already scarce food and medicines.
Finally, the appointment of Elliot Abrams as U.S. special envoy for Venezuela highlights the serious risk of the U.S. opting for a disastrous neoconservative intervention utterly at odds with the spirit of the anti-Maduro uprising. A CNN piece summarizing Abrams’ bloody past is worth quoting at length:
Abrams’ controversial past in the region included his downplaying of human rights abuses by Central American governments close to the United States while serving at the State Department under President Ronald Reagan.
One instance involved the largest mass killing in recent Latin American history: the December 1981 massacre of nearly 1,000 men, women and children in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote by US-trained and -equipped military units.
A Human Rights Watch report on the massacre said that Abrams at Senate hearings “artfully distorted several issues in order to discredit the public accounts of the massacre,” insisted the numbers of reported victims were “implausible” and “lavished praise” on the military battalion behind the mass killings.
In 1991, facing a multi-count felony indictment, Abrams agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts for withholding information to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair. He was sentenced to two years probation and 100 hours of community service, and later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.
Progressive politicians have a right and a responsibility to vigorously oppose any neoconservative moves taken by Abrams (Ocasio-Cortez has already taken notice, retweeting this post). But a watchful eye on U.S. policy must be accompanied by solidarity with the popular uprising against Maduro.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, advocacy group The Syria Campaign posted the Dr. King quote,
True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.
The demand for more than a “negative peace” has historically animated the left. But in response to suffering in places that we do not have personal ties to, the U.S. left has often been willing to call for peace without justice. In Venezuela, with global solidarity and “creative diplomacy” there is a chance to achieve both. It’s not too late for U.S. activists and politicians to meet that challenge.