Preventing civil war and US intervention in Venezuela

  • March 14, 2019

Imperialism & Insurgency

In this interview, sociologist Edgardo Lander reflects on the crisis in Venezuela and calls on the international left to recognize the complexity of the situation.

For almost two months now, Venezuela has been caught in a tense stand-off between the incumbent government of Nicolás Maduro and the US-backed right-wing opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who proclaimed himself president in January and who has since been trying to force Maduro from office with the active support of the Trump administration and various right-wing regional leaders. Over the next weeks, ROAR will be publishing a series of interviews with Venezuelan activists and intellectuals to help share local perspectives on the origins of the current crisis, the risks of an escalation in the conflict, and possible ways out for radical-democratic forces.

The first interview, published below, is with the Venezuelan sociologist and left-wing intellectual Edgardo Lander, who is a Professor Emeritus at the Central University of Venezuela and a Fellow at the Transnational Institute (TNI). Lander was a critically constructive supporter of former president Hugo Chávez, and served as a consultant to the Venezuelan commission negotiating the Free Trade Area of the Americas. He was one of the organizers of the 2006 World Social Forum, and is currently involved in TNI’s New Politics program. In this interview, he calls on the international left to recognize the complexity of the situation, and not to conflate the need for firm opposition to the ongoing US intervention with unconditional support for the Maduro government.

As the perceptive reader will notice, Lander’s position differs in several important respects from the reading offered by the Venezuelan sociologist and former government minister Reinaldo Iturriza in our second interview, published here. We offer these different perspectives on the assumption that the critical and intelligent reader will be able to make up their own mind as to which reading they find most persuasive, and which position they are most comfortable to align themselves with. We are currently preparing two more interviews with Venezuelan activists that we hope to publish over the next weeks. We consider these grassroots perspectives particularly important in the present context, given the international media’s systematic inattention to (and active marginalization of) the voices of ordinary Venezuelans.

In the process, we hope to relay some of the complexity of the present situation on the ground, while at the same time continuing to insist on the importance of the key principles of anti-militarism, non-intervention, self-determination, radical democracy, and solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed.

Professor Lander, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Could you please tell us a little bit about everyday life in Venezuela right now? What is the situation like on the streets, and how do people experience the current crisis?

The situation is extremely tense. Everyday life is becoming more and more difficult, more and more complicated. Inflation last year was over a million percent. Just this January it was estimated to be over 200 percent. People’s salaries have absolutely dissolved. There is no way people can afford to buy basic necessities. Oil production, the source of 96 percent of the value of the country’s exports is just a third of what it was six years ago. Public services have severely deteriorated.

Venezuela’s GDP is today just 50 percent of what it was five years ago. Per capita GDP is lower that it has been for quite a few decades. There is a profound health crisis. Severe child malnutrition will have a long term impact on the country’s future. According to the International Red Cross, the two countries in the world that worry them most today in terms of their respective social crises are Yemen and Venezuela.

There is such a high level of discontent and desperation among the population and the threats to their well-being that they are facing are so severe that all this could lead to an extremely negative outcome. We know from history that desperation is a breeding ground for fascism. People who are really desperate are willing to accept any alternative to the present state of things. A US military invasion and/or civil war are today real possibilities. Many people are just so fed up and so desperate that they are willing to accept basically anything, which makes for an extremely dangerous situation.

Venezuelan society today is not only extremely divided; people seem to live in two completely different realities. There is widespread distrust and fear of the “other.” In this context, people are willing to believe anything said by “their side.”

How did the situation get to this point?

The government seems decided to try to remain in power by any means necessary. And this has only been possible — so far — because of the backing from the military, which up until this point has shown no signs of fragmentation, divisions or doubts about its support for the government. But this is something that could change as external pressure increases.

On the other hand, as US policy has demonstrated in the cases of Iraq, Libya and Syria, the number of people who suffer or are killed as a consequences of economic sanctions or military intervention are not a matter of much concern to the hawks (figures like John Bolton, Elliot Abrams, Mike Pence) who, along with Donald Trump, are today in charge of US foreign policy. The new level of economic sanctions is leading to an even more catastrophic situation.

In a policy characterized by extreme cynicism, the US government is simultaneously worsening an already dire situation for the population by strangling the Venezuelan economy, with a cost of tens of billions of dollars, and offering a few million dollars in “humanitarian aid” to alleviate the socio-economic crisis to which it is actively contributing.

These two opposing forces — the Maduro government with the backing of the armed forces, and the National Assembly with the backing of the US, including the threat of armed intervention — are slowly moving the country towards the brink of war.

On February 8, 2018, Guaidó declared that he would call for a US military intervention “if necessary.” He also announced that he would organize “volunteers” to open up a “humanitarian corridor.” This could easily have led to a confrontation with the Venezuelan military controlling the border between Venezuela and Colombia. After the failed attempt to bring in US aid into the country on February 23, “no matter what,” he has been actively asking the United States government to “use force” to oust the Maduro government.

Military backing makes Maduro believe that he has no need to negotiate. US backing make the opposition present in the National Assembly think that it is just a matter of time before they can overthrow Maduro. The risk of more violence — by February some 40 people had been killed, according to the United Nations Human Rights Office — increases by the day. At this moment both sides are playing a zero-sum game in which they want to annihilate the other. Some form of negotiation or agreement is urgently needed if this escalation of violence is to be stopped.

The Maduro government still has some popular support. It is not true that the support for the government among the popular sectors of Venezuelan society has completely disappeared. But it is smaller than it used to be two, or even one year ago, and certainly much, much smaller than it used to be during the Chávez years. The humanitarian crisis, the difficulties in everyday life, as well as the government’s authoritarian and repressive policies continue to erode popular support.

According to UN sources, 3.4 million people have fled the country over the last five years, representing more than 10 percent of the total population. A large proportion of Venezuelan families have close relatives — their sons, their brothers and sisters, as well as dear friends — that have left the country. This family fragmentation is a source of widespread pain.

How does Guaidó legitimate his claim to the presidency?

It is really important to highlight that the rest of the opposition coalition was not really aware about the fact that Guaidó was planning to declare himself president at the rally of January 23. But the US, in contrast, was absolutely aware of what was about to happen. A few minutes — literally less than ten minutes — after Guaidó declared himself president, there was an official public statement put out by the Trump administration recognizing Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. So it is clear that this has all along been a highly coordinated script written in strict collaboration with the US government.

It is impossible to imagine that the US government could have put out an official statement — not just a tweet by Trump, but an official written statement — just a few minutes after Guaidó declared himself president if this had not been coordinated beforehand, with the US being fully aware of what was about to happen. This was absolutely prepared: the largest flag at the podium of self-proclaimed president Juan Guaidó’s rally on February 2 in Caracás was the US flag. They knew because they were involved in writing the script. I have no doubt in my mind that all this was designed in Washington.

There are several constitutional and legal issues regarding whether Guaidó had or did not have the right to declare himself president. And that has to do with whether Maduro is a legitimate president or not, or whether there was a “power vacuum,” the main justification used by this opposition.

These are complicated issues. On the one hand there has been no power vacuum. Whether you like him or not, Maduro heads the government and is in control of the armed forces. In May last year, we had presidential elections. The elections were supposed to be carried out seven months later, in December, but the government decided that they should be held in May. Practically all the main opposition parties had been outlawed by the government, because Maduro had the so-called Constitutional Assembly approved an arbitrary retroactive law, according to which political parties that had not participated in the previous (municipal) elections that had been held a few months before were no longer recognized as legal political parties that could participate in elections. This implied that to be recognized as legal political parties they would have to go through a long complicated process of, once again, gathering signatures across the country. It was in this context that the Electoral Council convened these elections seven month before they were due.

It was clear that the main opposition parties would not have time to re-register as officially recognized parties in order to participate in those elections or hold primary elections to select a single opposition candidate as they had done in previous elections. So these were not, by any stretch of the imagination, free elections. The conditions were highly controlled to ensure that Maduro would be re-elected. The whole process was a fraud. You cannot have free democratic elections if the government decides when they are convened, regardless of what the Constitution and the electoral law dictates, if it gets to decide which parties and which candidates can participate and which cannot. Ever since the government lost the elections for the National Assembly in December 2015, the government has taken an increasingly anti-constitutional route.

In those parliamentary elections, the opposition parties won two thirds of the National Assembly, which gave them a tremendous amount of state power. According to the Constitution, they had enough votes to select the members of the Supreme Justice Tribunal as well as to decide the composition of the National Electoral Council. At that moment, Maduro and his government were confronted with a crucial dilemma. Should they recognize these election results, the will of the people, and respect the Constitution, or decide to remain in complete control of state power, no matter what? They clearly opted for the second option.

Since early 2016, Maduro has been governing by means of successive decrees of State of Exception and Economic Emergency. This means that he attributed powers to himself to decide on practically anything he wants. According to the Constitution, the president can decide on a sixty-day state of economic emergency, which can be extended for a further sixty days if approved by the National Assembly. Currently, the state of emergency is in its third year.

How has this affected the country, and how have the people of Venezuela responded to this?

This permanent government by decree has had severe consequences. One particular negative consequence with potentially disastrous long-term effects was the decision to create the Orinoco Mining Arc (Arco Minero del Orinoco), opening up more than 120.000 square kilometers — 12 percent of the national territory, approximately the size of Cuba — to transnational mining corporations. This is a very critical part of the country. It includes the territories of several indigenous people, is the most biodiverse part of the country, the most important source of water and hydroelectricity. It is part of the Amazon basin, with its absolutely critical global role in limiting climate change.

As a consequence of this decree, there are now tens of thousands of miners who are rapidly carrying out an accelerated process of large scale socio-environmental devastation. This is probably the most serious socio-environmental crisis in all of Latin America today. All this is the result of a decree issued by Maduro, with no public debate, with no involvement from parliament, and in direct violation of the country’s Constitution and its environmental, indigenous peoples and labor laws.

Since 2016 the government has become more and more authoritarian. It has completely closed the door to the possibility of free trustworthy elections where the population is able to decide on the present and future of the country. At the same time it has become more and more repressive.

In this increasingly desperate situation, it is not surprising that the population is open to solutions that would have previously been completely unthinkable. Even the presence of US troops is seen by many as an acceptable possibility because they see no other way out of the crisis. This is not only a middle-class phenomenon; it shows how deeply the country has changed. Now, unfortunately, part of the population is no longer particularly scandalized by this possibility, simply because they see no other way out.

What are the implications of this for the future of Chavismo and the Bolivarian revolution?

The immediate future is open, but extremely dangerous. There are high degrees of uncertainty. As long as Maduro stays in power, the destruction of the country’s economy will continue, living conditions will continue to deteriorate and repression will increase. As I said before, there is still a significant, though much reduced, hardcore support for Maduro and his government. Many seem to be willing to take up arms if necessary to defend their government and their country.

The top brass of the armed forces has so far shown no signs of division and repeatedly reaffirmed their backing for the government. The upper echelons of government and the military have much to lose if they have to give up power, so they will not give up without a fight. The government’s discourse has become more militaristic by the day. They are willing to participate in negotiations as long as nothing much changes — that is, as long as Maduro remains president.

For the extreme right wing of the opposition — and this obviously involves the US government — the “solution,” or the salida (exit), is not only to get rid of Maduro, but to crush the Bolivarian experience. For the far right, the so-called “transition to democracy” is not just to have an election and have another president. They want to completely destroy the Bolivarian experiment. The aim is to teach the Chavista popular movement a lesson: you cannot confront capitalism or try to even imagine an alternative. The collective and personal costs are simply too high.

In this tense situation, in which neither side seems willing to yield, the space for talks and negotiations has been greatly reduced. As opposed to the interventionist policy of the US government, as I said before, we welcome the offers by the Secretary General of the UN, as well as those of the presidents of Uruguay and Mexico, to mediate for a peaceful, constitutional, electoral alternative to violence, military intervention and civil war.

How likely is the possibility of an actual US invasion at this point?

The threat of a US military intervention is more than just paranoia. The US government has stated again and again that every option is on the table, and President Donald Trump has explicitly stated — and repeated almost daily — that one of those is a military intervention. The recent experience of Iraq, Libya and Syria would indicate that this is not a far-fetched possibility.

For the objectives of US policy (regime change), a direct military intervention might not even be necessary if — as a consequence of economic sanctions and blockades — there is a total collapse of the economy. Additionally, the presence of troops is not a necessary requirement for state-of-the-art military interventions. Missiles and drones could do the job, as they did in Libya.

The economic blockade that was recently intensified by the US government will no doubt have very serious implications, not only for the Maduro government, but also for the Venezuelan population who are already facing a severe humanitarian crisis. This is the reality we are facing today, and it could lead to a complete collapse of the country. Besides a strict financial blockade, all oil-related trade has been prohibited. CITGO, the Venezuelan-owned subsidiary of the national oil company (PDVSA) has been practically taken over by the US government.

The decisions to boycott the oil company will have a serious impact that will increase the already severe social crisis. It is expected that in no more than a few weeks this could lead to a general scarcity of gasoline in the country. There will also be shortages of medicine and food at even higher levels than we have right now, because the government will lack the cash required to pay for these imports and most of its credit lines are closed.

In recent weeks, there has been increasing tension on the border between Venezuela and Colombia, near the city of Cúcuta. So-called “humanitarian aid” has been concentrated by the border and Maduro has said repeatedly that it will not be allowed into the country. Guaidó has called for volunteers to create a “humanitarian corridor” in order to get these USAID packages into the country. This could easily lead to an armed confrontation. It could even be the spark that starts a civil war.

When after the failed attempt to introduce US “humanitarian aid” into the country on February 23, the Lima Group met in Bogotá with the participation of Guaidó and Pence, the group put out an official statement against military intervention in Venezuela. The US government promptly declared that it did not belong to the Lima Group, and thus was not bound by its decisions. That was something for Trump to decide.

What do you propose as a way out of the crisis?

We, as the Citizen’s Platform in Defense of the Constitution (Plataforma Ciudadana en Defensa de la Constitución, PCDC), and the newly created coalition, the Alliance for a Constitutional Consultative Referendum (Alianza por el Referéndum Consultivo), are pushing for an alternative to this path that is leading to an escalation of violence and the possibility of a civil war or a US military intervention.

The first step on this alternative peaceful path would be a basic agreement between the two sides to name a new transitional National Electoral Council in other to carry out a Consultative Referendum to ask the population whether general elections should be convened for all levels of government, in order to achieve a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral solution to the present crisis. Most importantly, it would put the decision in the hands of the people.

In practical terms this is a very simple process with one question: yes or no. The National Electoral Council has all the required infrastructure. It could be carried out in less than a month, as opposed to the organization of national elections, which would take at least six months. This negotiated option is quite different from what Guaidó and the so-called “international community” have as their route: first to get rid of Maduro and then to convene elections. This would require the unconditional defeat of the Maduro government, something that is not likely to happen without a foreign military intervention.

It was in our pursuit of this path towards a negotiated peaceful solution to the crisis that we, as the PCDC, had a meeting with Juan Guaidó as President of the National Assembly — not as president of Venezuela, since we do not recognize him as such. Basically, we told him that the route of a parallel government, increasing confrontation and the threat of US military intervention could lead to a civil war in Venezuela for which he and Maduro would be responsible. To avoid this scenario, a negotiated alternative is urgently required. We have been trying — so far unsuccessfully — to arrange a meeting with President Maduro for the same purpose.

We have been calling on international progressive activists, intellectuals and organizations, governments and multilateral organizations to recognize the threat represented by this escalation of violence, and step in to contribute to an end to this descent into death and destruction. We celebrated the initiative taken by the governments of Uruguay and Mexico to call for an international conference on Venezuela in Montevideo to contribute to a non-violent, electoral solution to the current crisis facing the country. We also value the statements by the Secretary General of the United Nations, who has repeatedly declared his willingness to contribute to a peaceful negotiated solution.

A negotiated alternative based on a consultative referendum, where the Venezuelan population can decide on the way out of this crisis in free and trustworthy elections, with a new consensus-based Electoral Council, is absolutely critical at this moment to avoid a violent outcome.

What do you expect from the international left, in this respect?

The historical experience has been that at least part of the left tends to analyze conflicts like the present one in Venezuela today in Cold War terms — imperialism vs. anti-imperialism — and thus give backing to governments like the one in Nicaragua that have a radical, leftist, anti-imperialist rhetoric, even if at the same time they carry out policies and engage in practices that have nothing to do with the principles of the left: corruption, repression, blocking democratic expressions, a neoliberal opening up to transnational corporations, and so on.

We expect the left internationally to understand the complexity of the situation we are facing in Venezuela, a confrontation between a corrupt, increasingly repressive, undemocratic militaristic government on one hand, and active US intervention on the other. A rejection of imperialist intervention can in no way justify unconditional support for the Maduro government. Support for the Maduro government from the international left will do profound harm to the future of popular struggles, because, as was the case with the Soviet Union, people will identify this repressive regime as constituting “the left.” For this reason, unconditional solidarity with the Maduro government can do much harm, both to the Venezuelan population and to the future of popular anti-capitalist struggles.

What we need today is not solidarity with Maduro, nor support for an imperialist intervention, but solidarity with the Venezuelan people. At this moment this means basically two things. First, to do everything possible to prevent a civil war or a military invasion in Venezuela. This means actively rejecting economic sanctions and the threat of military intervention and pushing for a negotiated solution with multilateral participation, not unilateral intervention. And second, to recognize that there is an extremely severe social crisis in the country, that a multilateral solidarity effort has to be made to help provide Venezuelan’s with food and medicines, as an alternative to the politically motivated, militarily backed “humanitarian” US aid that is today threatening the country.

Edgardo Lander

Edgardo Lander is a sociologist. He is a retired professor from the Universidad Central de Venezuela (Carácas) and a visiting professor at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar (Quito). He is also a Fellow at the Transnational Institute (Amsterdam), where he currently participates in the New Politics Project.

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