By James Petras
US relations with Venezuela illustrate the specific mechanisms with which an imperial power seeks to sustain client states and overthrow independent nationalist governments. By examining US strategic goals and its tactical measures, we can set forth several propositions about (1) the nature and instruments of imperial politics, (2) the shifting context and contingencies which influence the successes and failures of specific policies (3) the importance of regional and global political alignments and priorities.
Method of Analysis
A comparative historical approach highlights the different policies, contexts and outcomes of imperial policies during two distinct Presidential periods: the ascendancy of neo-liberal client regimes (Perez and Caldera) of the late 1980’s to 1998; and the rise and consolidation of a nationalist populist government under President Chavez (1999-2012).
During the 1980’s and 1990’s US successes in securing policies favorable to US economic and foreign policy interests under client rulership fixed, in the mind of Washington, the optimal and only acceptable model and criteria for responding (negatively) to the subsequent Chavez nationalist government.
US policy to Venezuela in the 1990’s and its successes, was part and parcel of a general embrace of neo-liberal electoral regimes in Latin America. Washington and its allies in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) promoted and supported regimes throughout Latin America which privatized and de-nationalized over five thousand public enterprises in the most lucrative economic sectors. These quasi-public monopolies included natural resources, energy, finance, trade, transport and telecommunications. Neo-liberal client regimes reversed 50 years of economic and social policy, concentrated wealth, deregulated the economy, and laid the basis for a profound crises, which discredited neo-liberalism. Continent-wide popular uprisings and regime changes, led to nationalist populist governments.
The historical-comparative approach allows us to analyze Washington’s response to the rise and demise of neo-liberal clients and the subsequent ascendency of populist-nationalism and how regional patterns and changes influence the capacity of an imperial power to intervene and attempt to re-establish its dominance.
The key to understanding the mode and means of imposing and sustaining imperial dominance is to recognize that Washington combines multiple forms of struggle, depending on resources, available collaborators and opportunities and contingencies.
In approaching client regimes, Washington combines military and economic aid to repress opposition and buttress economic allies by cushioning crises. Imperial propaganda via the mass media provide political legitimacy and diplomatic backing, especially when client regimes engage in gross human rights violations and high level corruption.
Conversely when attempting to weaken or overthrow a nationalist-populist regime, the empire will resort to multiple forms of attack including (1) corruption (buying off government backers) (2) funding and organizing opposition media, parties, business and trade union organizations, (3) organizing and backing disloyal military officials to violently overthrow the elected government (4) support employers’ lockouts to paralyze strategic sectors of the economy (oil)(5) financing referendums and other ‘legal mechanisms’ to revoke democratic mandates, (6) promoting paramilitary groups to destabilize civil society and sow public insecurity and undermine agrarian reforms; (7) finance electoral parties and non-governmental organizations to compete in and delegitimize elections; (8) engage in diplomatic warfare and efforts to prejudice regional relations; (9) establish military bases in neighboring countries, as a platform for joint military invasions.
The multi-prong, multi-track policies occur in sequence or are combined, depending on the opportunities and results of earlier tactical outcomes. For example, while financing the electoral campaign of Capriles Radonski in April 2013, Washington also backed violent post-election assaults by rightist thugs attempting to destabilize the government.
Secretary of State Kerry while pursuing an apparent effort to re-open diplomatic relations via negotiations simultaneously backed a highly inflammatory declaration by Samantha Power, US United Nations representative, vowing aggressive intrusion in Venezuela’s domestic politics.
US-Venezuelan relations provide us with a case study that illustrates how efforts to restore hegemonic politics can become an obstacle to the development of normal relations, with an independent country. In particular, the ascendancy of Washington during the “Golden Age” of neoliberalism in the 1990’s, established a fixed ‘mind set’, which was incapable of adapting to the changed circumstances, of the 2000’s, a period witnessing the demise and discredit of “free market’ client politics. The rigidity derived from past success led Washington to pursue a ‘restoration politics’ under very unfavorable circumstances, involving military, clandestine and other illicit policies with very improbable possibilities of success.
The unfavorable outcome of US efforts to destabilize a democratically elected nationalist popular regime in Venezuela occurred when Washington was heavily engaged in multiple, prolonged wars and conflicts in several countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya). This validates the hypothesis that even a global power is incapable of waging warfare in multiple locations at the same time.
Given the shift in world market conditions, including the increase in commodity prices, (especially energy), the relative economic decline of the US and rise of Asia, Washington lost a strategic economic lever – market power – in the 2000’s, a resource which it possessed during the previous decade.
Given the shift in political power in the region, the rise of popular-nationalist governments in most of Latin America, Washington lost regional leverage to ‘encircle’, ‘boycott’ and intervene in Venezuela. Even among its few clients, like Colombia, Washington could do no more than create ‘border tensions’ rather than a joint military attack.
Comparative historical analysis of the strategic changes in international and regional politics, economies, markets and alignments provides a useful framework for interpreting US-Venezuelan relations, especially the successes of the 1990’s and the failures of the 2000’s.
US-Venezuela Patron-Client Relations 1960’s -1998
The 40 year period following the overthrow of the Dictator Perez Jimenez (1958) and prior to the election of President Hugo Chavez (1998) Venezuela’s politics were marked with conformity to US political and economic interests on all strategic issues. Venezuelan regimes followed Washington’s lead in ousting Cuba from the Organization of American States, breaking relations with Havana and promoting a hemispheric blockade. Caracas followed Washington’s lead during the cold War, backed its counter-insurgency policies in Latin America .It opposed the democratic leftist regime in Chile under President Allende, the nationalist governments of Brazil (1961-64) and Peru (1967-73), Bolivia (1968-71) and Ecuador (in the 1970’s) .It supported the US invasions of the Dominican Republic, Panama and Grenada. Venezuela’s nationalization of oil (1976) provided lucrative compensation and generous service contracts with US oil companies ,a settlement far more generous than any comparable arrangement in the Middle East or Latin America.
During the decade from the late 1980’s to 1998, Venezuela signed off on draconic International Monetary Fund programs, including privatizations of natural resources, devaluations and austerity programs which enriched the MNC, emptied the Treasury and impoverished the majority of wage and salary earners. In foreign policy Venezuela aligned with the US, ignored new trade openings in Latin America and Asia and moved to reprivatize its oil, bauxite and other primary resources. President Perez was indicted in a massive corruption scandal. Implementation of a US-IMF austerity program led to a massive popular uprising and the massacre of over a thousand protestors. The subsequent Caldera regime presided over the triple scourge of triple digit inflation, 50% poverty rates and double digit unemployment.
Venezuela touched bottom at the peak of US hegemony in the region. The inverse relation was not casual, as Venezuela under Caldera followed austerity, open markets and US centered policies which undermined any public policies to revive the economy. Moreover, world market conditions were unfavorable, as oil prices were low and China was not yet a world market power.
US and the Rise of Chavez: 1998-2001
The US viewed the Venezuelan elections of 1998 as a continuation of the previous decade despite significant political signs of changes. The two parties, which dominated and alternated in power, the Christian Democratic COPEI, and the social democratic Democratic Action Party, were soundly defeated by a new political formation headed by a former military officer, Hugo Chavez, who led an armed uprising six years earlier and who had engaged in a massive grass roots campaign, attracting radicals, revolutionaries, opportunists and defectors from the two major parties.
Washington’s successes over the previous decade, the entrenched ascendancy of neo-liberalism and the advance of a regional US free trade agreement blinded the Clinton regime from seeing (1) the economic crises and discredit of the neo-liberal model; (2) the deepening social and economic polarization and hostility to the IMF-USA among broad sectors of the class structure; (3) the decay and discredit of its client political parties and regimes. Washington tended to write-off Chavez’s promises of a new constitutional order and a new “Bolivarian” foreign and domestic policies which included promises of nationalist-populist reforms, as typical Latin campaign rhetoric. The general thinking in the State Department was that Chavez was engaging in electoral demagogy and that he would “come to his senses” after taking office. Moreover Washington’s Latin Americanists believed that the mix of traditional politicians and technocrats in his motley coalition would undermine any consequential push for leftist radical changes.
Hence Washington under Clinton did not adapt a hostile position during the first months of the Chavez government. The watchword among the Clintonites was “wait and see” and count on long-standing ties to the major business associations, friendly military officials, and corrupt trade union bosses and oil executives, to check or block any new radical initiatives emanating from Congress or the Executive. In other words Washington counted on using the permanent state apparatus to counter the electoral regime.
Chavez recognized the institutional obstacles to nationalist socio-economic reforms and immediately called for constitutional changes, convoked elections for a constituent assembly, which he won handily. Washington’s growing concerns over the possible consequences of new elections were tempered by two factors: (1) the mixed composition of the elected assembly (old line politicians, moderate leftists, radicals and ‘unknowns’); (2) the ‘moderate’ appointments to the Central Bank and the orthodox economic policies pursued by the finance and economic ministry. Prudent budgets, fiscal deficits and balance of payments were at the top of the agenda.
The new constitution, included clauses favoring a radical social and nationalist agenda, and led to the defection of some of the more conservative early supporters aligned with Washington which in turn signaled the first overt signs of US opposition. Veteran State Department officials debated whether the new radical constitution would form the bases of a leftist government or whether it was standard symbolic fare ,rhetorical flourishes to be heavily discounted,merely symbolic changes by a populist president to satisfy the Latin temperament in hard times but not likely to be followed by substantive reforms. The hard liners linked to the exile Cuba lobby argued that Chavez was a “closet” radical, who was preparing the way for more radical ‘communist’ measures. In fact Chavez policies were both moderate and radical. His political zig-zags, reflected his efforts to navigate a moderate reform agenda without alienating the US and the business community on the one hand, and on the other hand he sought to retain and respond to his mass base among the impoverished slum dwellers (rancheros’) who voted for him.
Strategically Chavez succeeded in creating a strong political institutional base in the legislature, civil administration and military which could (or would) approve and implement his national-populist agenda. Unlike Chilean Socialist President Allende, Chavez first consolidated his political and military base and then proceeded to socio-economic changes.
By the end of 2000, Washington moved to regroup its internal client political forces into a formidable political opposition. Chavez was too independent, not easily controlled, and most important moving in the “wrong direction”, away from a blind embrace of neo-liberalism and US centered regional integration. In other words while Chavez was still well within the parameters of US hegemony, the direction he was taking portended a possible break.
The Turning Point: Chavez Defies the ‘War on Terror’ 2000-2001
The decade beginning the new millennium was a tumultuous period which played a major role in defining US-Venezuelan relations. Several inter-related events polarized the hemisphere, weakened Washington’s influence, undermined collaborator client regimes and led to a major confrontation with Venezuela.
First, the neo-liberal model fell into deep crises throughout the region; discrediting the US backed clients in Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and elsewhere. Secondly, repeated major popular uprisings occurred during the crises and populist-nationalist politicians came to power, rejecting US-IMF tutelage and US centered regional trade agreements. Thirdly, Washington launched a global “war on terror”, essentially an offensive military strategy, designed to overthrow adversaries to US domination and Israeli supremacy in the Middle East. In Latin American, Washington’s launch of the “war on terror” occurred precisely at the high point of crises and popular rebellion, undermining any regional support. Fourthly, beginning in 2003, commodity prices skyrocketed, as China’s economy took off, creating lucrative markets stimulating high growth for the new left of center regimes.
In this vortex of change, President Chavez rejected Washington’s “War on Terror”, arguing against “fighting terror with terror”. By the end of 2001, Washington dispatched a top State Department official (Grossman) to Caracas where he bluntly threatened dire reprisals – thinly veiled destabilization measures – if Caracas failed to fall-in with Washington’s attempt to reimpose global hegemony. Chavez dismissed Grossman and realigned with the emerging Latin American nationalist populist consensus. In other words Washington’s aggressive militarist posture polarized relations, increased tensions and to a degree radicalized Venezuela’s foreign policy.
Washington’s interventionary machinery went into high gear: Ambassador Shapiro held several meetings with FEDECAMARAS (the business association) and the trade union bosses of the CTV. The Pentagon and the Southern Command met with client military officials. The State Department increased contacts and funding for opposition NGO’s and rightwing street gangs. The date of the coup was set for April 11, 2002. Meanwhile, the Chavez government began to assess its resources. Loyalist military groups especially in the armored battalions and paratroops were contacted.
Local neighborhood committees emerged and set out to mobilize the poor around a more radical social agenda and to defend the government, as the US backed opposition escalated street fighting. The coup was welcomed and openly supported by Washington and its semi-official mouthpiece the New York Times, and the rightwing Spanish Prime Minister Aznar. The illicit regime moved quickly to arrest President Chavez, dismiss Congress, dissolve political parties and declare a state of emergency. The masses and leading sectors of the military quickly and massively responded: millions of poor Venezuelans descended from the ranchos and amassed before Miraflores, the Presidential Palace, demanding the return of their elected President and repudiating the coup. The constitutionalist military led by an elite paratroop battalion threatened a full scale military assault. The coup makers ,politically isolated and militarily outgunned, surrendered. Chavez returned to power.The US policy of regime change to restore hegemony was defeated; important assets were forced into exile and purged from the military. Washington played a risky card and lost on several fronts.First of all US support for the coup, strengthened the Bolivarian anti-imperialist sectors of Chavez’s movement. Chavez discarded illusions of “reaching an accommodation” with Washington. Secondly, the loss of key military assets weakened the possibility of Washington launching a future coup. Thirdly, the complicity of the business groups weakened their role in influencing Chavez’s economic policies, forcing him toward a more statist economic strategy. Fourthly, the mass mobilization of the poor to restore democracy pressured the government to increase social spending on welfare programs. Anti-imperialism, social welfare and national security concerns led Chavez toward strategic ties with Cuba, as a natural ally.
Washington’s escalation of aggression and overt commitment to regime change altered the entire relationship to one of permanent hostility. Spurred on by its backing of a failed coup, Washington resorted once again to ‘direct action’, backing a “boss’s lockout” of the strategic oil industry led by “client assets” among the executives and sectors of the petroleum workers union.
Washington put into practice in Venezuela the global militarization of US foreign policy. Under the subterfuge “War on Terror” formula for global intervention, (which included the invasion of Afghanistan, 2001) and later the war against Iraq (2003)imperial policymakers plunged ahead with new aggressive policies.
The pretext for aggression against Venezuela was not directly linked to oil or Chavez’s appeal for Latin American integration The trigger was Chavez’s rejection of Bush’s world view of global empire conquered by force of arms and sustained by collaborator vassal states. The oil conflicts – Chavez nationalization of US oil concessions and his appeal for regional integration excluding the US and Canada, were a result of and in response to US overt aggression. Prior to the US backed April 2002 coup and the oil-executives lockout of December 2002 – February 2003, there were no major conflicts between Chavez and US petrol companies; Chavez’s conception of Bolivarian unity of all Latin American states was a “vision” not a concrete program for action. Chavez’s takeover of US oil concessions was a defensive political move to eliminate a political adversary controlling the strategic export and revenue sectors. He did not intervene European oil companies. Likewise, Chavez’s move to promote regional organizations flowed from his perception that Venezuela required closer ties and supportive relations in Latin America to counter US imperial aggression.
In other words US empire builders used (and sacrificed) economic assets to restore hegemony via military means. The military and strategic dimensions of the US Empire took precedence over Big Oil. A pattern evident in all of its subsequent imperial endeavors in Iraq, Libya and Syria and its severe economic sanctions against Iran. The same hegemonic priorities were evident in Washington’s intervention in Venezuela.
Contrary to some theorists of imperialism, who argue that imperialism expands via economic “dispossession”, recent history of US Venezuela relations demonstrates that 21st US imperialism grows via political intervention, military coups and by converting economic collaborators into political agents willing to sacrifice corporate wealth to secure imperial military-political domination.
The decision by imperial policymakers to overthrow Chavez was based on his opposition to Washington’s global military strategy. The White House thought it had strong assets in Venezuela: the mass media, two major opposition parties, the principle business federation (FEDECAMARAS), the official trade union bureaucracy, sectors of the military and the church hierarchy … Washington did not count on the unorganized masses and popular movements with powerful loyalty and affection for President Chavez. Nor did imperial strategists recognize that strategic military units like the paratroops retained national, personal and political ties with the democratically elected President.
The rapid restoration of Chavez to power (48 hours) was the first blow to Washington’s restorationist pretentions. The second was the defeat of the US backed oil executives lockout. Washington counted on its close ties with the senior executives of the state oil company (PDVS) and the heads of the oil workers union. Washington failed to take account of the minority of executives and close to half of the oil workers who opposed the lockout and the fact that Latin American oil producers would supply Chavez and break the lockout.
The twin defeats, the military-business coup and the bosses’ lockout had a profound impact on US-Venezuelan relations. The US lost strategic internal assets – business and trade union elites fled to exile or resigned. Pro-US oil executives were replaced by nationalists. Moreover, Washington’s direct imperial intervention radicalized the Chavez government, which moved decisively from conciliation to confrontation and opposition. Venezuela adapted to the new active radical mood of the country by launching a nationalist, populist agenda and actively promoting Latin American integration. Venezuela launched UNASUR, ALBA,PetroCaribe and scuttled a US centered free trade treaty.
The loss of key assets undermined Washington’s direct action military strategy. The White House turned to is remaining political and social assets channeling funds to the electoral parties and especially to so-called non-governmental organizations(NGOs). Washington via the National Endowment for Democracy and other “front groups” bankrolled a recall referendum which was decisively defeated, demoralizing the rightwing electorate and weakening remaining US assets.
Having lost on the military, economic and electoral front, Washington sought to delegitimize the government by boycotting Congressional elections, leading to the final debacle. Pro-Chavez parties swept the election, gained an overwhelming majority, and proceeded to approve all of the government’s nationalist-social reform agenda. The US backed opposition lost all institutional leverage.
The US imperial failures between 2002-2005 did not merely reflect mistaken policies but had a deeper cause: the incapacity to make a proper estimate of the correlation of forces. This strategic failure led it to continue to throw its shrinking domestic assets into conflict with less resources and backing. Despite repeated defeats, Washington failed to realize that popular power and nationalist allegiances within the military could successfully counter US business-military intervention. Political hubris informed by military-driven imperialist ideology blinded Washington to the on-the ground realities that Chavez possessed popular support and was backed by nationalist military officers. Acting under increasingly unfavorable conditions, but desperate for some political ‘victory’, Washington plunged from one adventure to another, without reflecting on lost assets or declining opportunities. It failed to take account of decisive political shifts in Latin America and favorable conditions in the world economy for petrol exporters. To support a recall referendum in the face of double-digit growth, a radicalized mass public and booming commodity prices, was the height of imperial imbecility.
Imperial Policy During the Commodity Boom 2004-2008
With virtual no active assets of consequence, Washington turned toward an ‘external strategy’ linked to its only loyal collaborator, the death squad narco-President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia. Washington secured seven military bases, airfields, Special Forces missions and a platform for cross border intrusions. The strategy was to launch a joint intervention based on the pretext of Venezuelan links to the FARC guerillas.
However, full scale imperial warfare in Iraq, a prolonged war in Afghanistan, threatened conflicts with Iran, low intensity warfare in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, weakened Washington’s capacity to engage in a new prolonged war in Venezuela. US intervention would be opposed by every country in the region. Colombia was not willing to go it alone especially with a full-scale guerrilla war internally.
Because of Venezuela’s trade surplus and high export revenues traditional Washington financial levers like the IMF and World Bank were inoperative. Likewise Venezuela signed multi-billion dollar military trade agreements with Russia, undermining a US arms sales boycott. Trade agreements with Brazil and Argentina lessened Venezuela’s dependence on US food imports.
All non-US MNC in the petroleum sector continued operations, ignoring the conflicts with US companies. The government’s selective nationalization program and moderate increases in taxes and royalty payments weakened EU support for the US, given the high price of oil(exceeding $100 dollars a barrel). Chavez’s left-turn was well funded. The massive allocation of oil revenues for a wide-range of social programs, ranging from subsidized food, housing and welfare,and free health and educational programs, led to the massive reduction of poverty and unemployment and secured an electoral majority. Washington’s “pivot to the Middle East” led to the US becoming bogged down in a series of prolonged wars,eroding Washington’s quest for regional power.
More significantly , State Department and Pentagon’s Latin Americanists remained tied to the 1990’s paradigm of free markets and vassal states at a time when the most important countries in the region were moving toward greater independence in trade, greater intra-regional integration and social inclusion. Unable to adapt to the new regional realities, Washington witnessed the region’s rejection of US centered free trade accords. China displaced, the US as the regions’ main trading partner. The loss of collaborator military elites as coup-makers for empire, further eroded imperial reach. Coup efforts in Bolivia and Ecuador failed and radicalized political relations toward the US.
However, Washington was not without partners: bilateral trade agreements were signed with Chile, Panama, Colombia and Mexico. The Pentagon engineered a coup in Honduras. The National Security Agency engaged in major cyber spying operations in Brazil, Mexico and the rest of the continent. The White House poured over six billions into Colombia’s armed forces as a proxy for the US military. These “gains” had little impact. US support for the Honduran military coup displaced a Venezuelan ally in ALBA but led to Washington’s diplomatic isolation and discredit throughout Latin America.Even Colombia, its closest client opposed the coup. US military support for Colombia temporarily contributed to border tensions with Venezuela but with the election of a new President (Santos), Colombia moved toward reconciliation and peaceful coexistence with Venezuela.Under President Uribe trade fell to less than $2 billion; with Santos’ conciliatory policy it rose to nearly $10 billion.
Washington’s external strategy was in shambles. Cyber spying by NSA was exposed by Edward Snowden and resulted in greater animosity toward Washington, especially from Brazil, which cancelled a White House visit and allocated $10 billion to fund a nationally controlled IT system. Imperial policy makers relied exclusively on interventionist strategies which depended on military-intelligence operations,an approach which was out of touch with the new configuration of power in Latin America. In contrast, Venezuela deepened its economic ties with the new regional and global economic power centers, as the foundations for its independent policies.
Chavez and President Maduro’s regional strategy was seen in Washington as a security threat rather than an economic challenge to US hegemony. Venezuela’s success in promoting bilateral ties, even with US clients like Colombia and Mexico, and several English-speaking Caribbean islands, undermined efforts to ‘encircle and isolate’ Venezuela. Caracas success in financing and backing multi-lateral regional economic and political organizations – that exclude the US– in South America and the Caribbean reflects the power of oil diplomacy over saber rattling. Venezuela’s promotion of PetroCaribe, aligned a number of neo-liberal and center-left regimes in the Carribbean, previously under US hegemony, with Venezuela. In exchange for subsidized oil prices, medical aid and interest free loans, they rejected US intrusions. ALBA brought together several center-left governments, including Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua into a common political bloc opposing US interventionism.
ALBA firmly rejected coups in Latin America and Wshington’s overseas wars in Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Venezuela successfully joined the powerful economic bloc, MERCOSUR, enhancing its trade with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Venezuela’s strategic alliance with Cuba (oil for medical aid) enormously improved Caracas capacity to implement its free health program, an important welfare reform which solidified Chavez and Maduros’ electoral base among the poor and undermined Washington’s funding of NGO “grassroots” subversion in poor neighborhoods. Venezuela successfully undercut Bush and Obama’s efforts to use Colombia as a “military proxy” through a historic peace and reconciliation agreement with President Santos. Colombia agreed to end its cross-border paramilitary and military incursions and support for US destabilization operations in exchange for Venezuela closing guerrilla sanctuaries, reopening trade relations and encouraging the FARC to enter into peace negotiations with the Santos regime. Santos’ embrace of Venezuela’s trade and diplomatic ties, eroded Washington’s ‘outside military strategy’ and forced imperial policy-makers to emphasize relying on internal clients engaged in electoral politics and ‘direct action’ (sabotage of electoral power grids, hoarding of essential foodstuff).
While Washington’s imperial rhetoric emphasizes Venezuela as a “security threat” to the Hemisphere, no other country subscribes to that doctrine. Latin America sees Caracas as a partner in integration and a lucrative market. Moreover, US diplomacy does not follow trade: only Mexico is more dependent on US oil market than Venezuela. Venezuela’s dependence on the US market for oil is in the process of changing. In 2013 Venezuela signed off on a $20 billion dollar investment and trade deal with China to exploit “heavy oil” in the Orinoco Basin. Venezuela’s trade ties to the US contrast with the hostile diplomatic relations which have led to the mutual withdrawal of ambassadors and continuing US gross interference in Venezuela’s electoral process.For example in March 2013 ,two US military attaches were expelled for attempting to recruit Venezuelan military officials .later the same year in September ,three Embassy officials were expelled for plotting destabilization activity with members of the far right opposition.
Imperialism’s Multi-Track Opposition
US hostility toward Venezuela is based on three levels of conflict. At the country-level, Venezuela marks out a new development paradigm which features public ownership over the free market, social welfare over multi-national oil profits popular power over elite rule. At the regional level Venezuela promotes Latin American integration over US centered Latin American Free Trade Agreements; anti-imperialism over “pan-Americanism”; foreign aid based on reciprocal economic interests and non-intervention as opposed to US military pacts, narco-military intrusions and military bases.
At the global-level Venezuela has rejected the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, ignored US trade sanctions toward Iran, opposed Washington and NATO’s bombing of Libya and proxy invasion of Syria. Venezuela condemns Israeli colonization and annexation of Palestine. In other words Venezuela upholds national self-determination against US military driven imperialism.
Chavez and Maduro pose a successful alternative to neo-liberalism. Venezuela demonstrates that a highly globalized, trade dependent economy is compatible with an advanced welfare program. The US, on the other hand, as it “globalizes”, is eliminating welfare programs to finance imperial wars. Venezuela is telling the US public that a market economy and large social welfare budget are not incompatible. This paradigm conflicts with the message from the White House. Moreover, US Empire builders have no economic initiatives to counter Venezuela’s regional and global alliances. Unlike the 1960’s when President Kennedy proposed the “Alliance for Progress” involving trade, aid and reforms to counter the revolutionary appeal of the Cuban revolution. In contrast Bush and Obama “offer” costly military and police co-operation and warmed over neo-liberal clichés accompanied by market constraints.
Despite severe diplomatic setbacks, regional isolation, the loss of a military platform, and a commodity driven economic boom in Venezuela, Washington persisted in its efforts to destabilize Venezuela. Beginning in 2007, imperial strategy re-focused on electoral processes and destabilization. The first success was the defeat by less than 1% of Chavez constitutional amendments in December 2007 right after a substantial Presidential victory. Apparently the overtly socialist constitution was too radical for a sector of the Venezuelan electorate.
From 2008 onward Washington pumped large sums into a variety of political assets including NGOs and middle class university students’ organization engaged in agitation, street demonstrations. The goal was to exploit local grievances. US funding of proxies promoted extra-parliamentary, destabilization activity, disrupting the economy while blaming the government for public insecurity and covering up opposition violence.
Business owners were encouraged to engage in hoarding in order to provoke shortages and popular discontent; the media blamed state “inefficiency”. Opposition political parties received financial backing, on condition that they unified and ran on a single slate in contesting elections and questioned the legitimacy of elections (claiming ‘fraud’) after their defeat.
In summary US efforts to restore hegemony relied on surrogates, which ran the gamut from violent paramilitary groups, NGO’s, political parties, elected officials and manufacturing and commercial executives , linked to the production and distribution of essential consumer goods.
Washington’s shifts in policies, from internal violence (coup of 2002, oil lockout of 2002-03), and external military threats (2004-2006), to a return to internal ‘electoral politics and business destabilization campaigns reflects attempts to overcome failed policies without surrendering the strategic objective of restoring hegemony via overthrowing the elected government (“regime change” in the imperial lexicon).
Seven Keys to Imperial Politics: An Overview
Washington’s decade and a half efforts to restore hegemony and reimpose a client regime revolve around imperial capacities to secure seven strategic goals.
1.) Imperial capacity to successfully overthrow a nationalist government revolves around possessing a unified client military command. Chavez ensured that he retained loyal strategic military sectors able to counter the imperial proxies.
2.) Imperial capacity to militarily intervene depends on not being tied down in ongoing serial wars and on securing regional partners willing to jointly engage. Neither condition was present. US imperial policy concentrated its military forces in the Middle East and South Asia, in prolonged wars which created public antipathy to launching another war in Venezuela. The attempt to convert Colombia into an active ally in war failed because of the economic trade losses incurred by the Colombian business elite in the run-up to border skirmishes. Washington offered little or nothing in economic compensation or alternative markets for Colombian exporters since most of US “aid” (Plan Colombia) involved military transfers and sales.
3.) The imperial destabilization campaign ran through strategic assets because of premature, ill-calculated and high risk operations in which one failure led to even higher risk interventions in an effort to cover-up a bankrupt strategy. The US backed coup of 2002 was clearly based on poor intelligence and underestimation of President Chavez’s support. Washington failed to appreciate Chavez’s astute institutional changes, in particular the promotion of loyalist sectors of the armed forces. Blinded by ideological blinders, Washington counted on its business allies and trade union bureaucrats to “turn-out the crowds” to back the junta and provide a legal cover. In the face of serious losses resulting from the subsequent purging of client elites in the military and business associations, Washington unleashed its client oil executives and trade union officials to mount an oil lockout, which lacked backing among the loyalist military. Over time the shutdown of oil production and delivery, alienated wide swathes of the business community and consumers, suffering from the absence of transport and distribution of commodities. The defeat of the oil lockout resulted in the purge of over ten thousand US clients among senior and middle management and the reorientation of the PDVSA (the state oil company) into a formidable political instrument funding Venezuela comprehensive social welfare programs.
Increases in social spending in turn provided a powerful boost in Chavez’s electoral support and consolidated his mass base among the vast majority of the poor. Imperial strategists then converted their extra-parliamentary defeats into an electoral rout by launching a referendum in the face of the Chavez offensive and suffered a decisive and demoralizing defeat. To make a virtue of multiple disasters, Washington backed a boycott of Congressional elections which resulted in near unanimous Chavista control of Congress and a mandate to legally approved Chavez executive prerogatives. Chavez used executive decrees to promote an anti-imperialist foreign policy without even minimum opposition.
4.) Imperial ‘neo-liberal’ and ‘war on terror’ ideological warfare was launched in Latin America against Venezuela (2001 onward) at the precise moment of widespread revolts, uprisings and client regime changes throughout the region. The continental rebellion against US centered free-market regimes, resonated with Chavez’s nationalist-populism. As a result Washington’s ideological appeals fell on arid soil.. The dogmatic embrace of a failed development strategy and the continued embrace of hated clients ensured that Washington’s ideological war against Venezuela would boomerang: instead of isolating and encircling Venezuela, it led to greater Latin American regional solidarity and the isolation of the US. Instead of dumping discredited clients and attempting to adapt to the changing anti-neo-liberal climate, Washington, for internal reasons (the ascent of Wall Street), persisted in pursuing a self-defeating propaganda war.
5.) Imperial efforts at the restoration of hegemony required an economic crises,including low world market prices and weak demand for commodities, declining incomes and employment, severe balance of payment problems and fiscal deficits to provide leverage to destabilize targeted regimes. None of these conditions were present in Venezuela. On the contrary commodity demand and prices boomed. Venezuela grew by double-digits. Unemployment and poverty sharply declined.Easy and available consumer credit and increased public spending greatly expanded the domestic market. Free health and education and public housing programs grew exponentially. In other words global macro-economic and local social conditions favored the anti-hegemonic perspectives of the government. US and clients’ efforts to demonize Chavez failed. Instead of embracing popular programs and focusing on problems of implementation and mismanagement, Washington embraced local political clients associated with the deep socio-economic crises of the ‘lost decade’ (1989-1999) prior to Chavez assent to power. Imperial critics in Latin America easily refuted Washington’s attacks on the Chavez development model by citing favorable employment, income, purchasing power and living standards compared to the previous neoliberal period
6.) Imperial policy makers emphasized global ideological-military confrontation at a moment when leaders and public opinion in Latin America were thinking and pursuing market opportunities. The “War on Terror”, Washington’s hobby horse for global supremacy, had minimum support; China’s demand for Latin America commodities led to the Asian country displacing the US as the major market for Latin exports. Global militarism was not conducive to restoring hegemony when the Latin consensus pivoted around markets, poverty reduction, democracy and citizen participation.During past decades US global militarism resonated in Latin America when it was ruled by military regimes. Washington’s attempt to resort to the earlier period of military rule by backing a military coup in Honduras, was soundly denounced throughout the continent, not only by center-left governments but even by conservative civilian regimes, fearful of a return to military rule at their expense.
7.) The change from a Republican to a Democratic regime in Washington, did not result in any substantive change in imperial policy toward Venezuela or Latin America. It only led to the entrée of the “double discourse”. Obama spoke of a “new beginning”, ‘new overtures’ and ‘shared values’. In practice Washington proceeded to military provocations from its bases in Colombia, backed the Honduras military coup, supported a violent destabilization campaign in April 2013 following the defeat of its Presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski by the Chavista, Nicholas Maduro. The Obama regime was the only one in the hemisphere (and the OECD) which failed to recognize the legitimacy of the Presidential election results.Political changes in imperial countries, from a liberal to a conservative president (or vice versa), does not in any way affect the deep imperial state, its military interests or strategies. President Obama’s resort to the ‘double discourse ,to talk diplomatically and act militarily, as a mode of hegemonic rule quickly lost its attraction and effectiveness even among centrist-post-neo-liberal leaders.
Imperialism is not simply a ‘policy’ it is a structure, with a powerful military aid financial component which depends on strategically placed collaborators and supporters in targeted countries, operating in favorable (crises ridden) environment. Imperialism flourishes when its military and diplomatic approach serves economic interest which benefit the ‘home market’ and rewards local collaborators. In the second decade of the 21st century, the predominance of ‘military driven imperialism’ bleeds the home economy, impoverishes the targeted society and depresses living standards.Destructive wars even weaken client elites.
Latin American and Venezuelan development oriented leaders look elsewhere, to newly emerging economic powers with growing markets. They pursue economic ties which are not accompanied by military and security threats of intervention. Chinese investments are not accompanied by military missions and massive spy networks like the CIA, DEA NSA posing armed threats to national sovereignty.
The Imperial Dynamic and the Radicalization of Venezuelan Politics
Imperial intervention can have multiple and contrasting effects. It can intimidate a nationalist government and force it to renege on its electoral promises and revert to a liberal agenda. It can lead to an accommodation to imperial foreign policies and force a progressive government to moderate domestic reforms. It can lead to concessions to imperial interests, including military bases, concessions to extractive capital including the dispossession of local producers to facilitate capital accumulation. Covert or overt intervention can also radicalize a moderate reformist government and force it to adopt anti-imperialist and socialist measures as defensive strategy. Over time incremental changes can become the bases for a pro-active radical leftist agenda.
The range of systemic responses illustrates the analytical weakness of the so-called “center-periphery” framework, which lumps together a/disparate political, social and economic internal configurations, b/opposing strategies and responses to imperialism and c/complex international relations between imperial and nationalist regimes. The polar opposite responses and political-economic configurations of the US and China (so-called “centers”) to Venezuela further illustrates the lack of analytical utility of the so called “world system” approach in comparison with a class anchored framework.
The imperial dynamic, the drive by Washington to reassert hegemony in Venezuela by overthrowing the nationalist regime, had the unintended consequence of radicalizing its policies, consolidating its power and furthering the spread of anti—imperialist programs throughout the region. In the first years of the Chavez government, roughly between 1999-2001, Venezuela pursued largely orthodox policies, friendly relations with Washington, while espousing a Bolivarian vision. In practice Chavez did not put into practice his vision,nor provide any resources to fund a regional organization that excluded the US.
Washington, at this time, retained ties to its clients in the opposition. It sought to influence a motley collection of opportunist politicos who jumped on the Chavez bandwagon, to counter the left political sectors of the coalition government.
The first break in peaceful co-existence was precipitated by Washington’s big push for global power via the so-called “War on Terror” doctrine. Its ultamatum that Chavez support its military offensive targeting Afghanistan and Iraq or face retaliation provoked the break. Chavez resisted and adopted the position that the “War on Terror” violates international law. In other words, Venezuela upheld traditional international norms at a moment of Washington’s embrace of global military extremism. Washington perceived Chavez’s policy as setting an example or precedent for other “recalcitrant” states within Latin America and across the globe. As a result beginning with an overt State Department warning that “he (Chavez) would pay a price” for not submitting to the US global military offensive, Washington rapidly proceeded to put into operation plans to overthrow the ‘government via the coup of April 2002. If the trigger to US imperial intervention was Chavez lawful opposition to the global military strategy, the defeat of the coup and his restoration to power, led a redefinition of Venezuelan-US relations. Bilateral relations went from co-existence to confrontation. Venezuela began the search for regional allies, actively supporting left and nationalist movements and governments in Latin America. Simultaneously it pursued relations with imperial rivals and adversaries including Russia, China, Belarus and Iran. Washington launched a second effort to unseat Chavez by backing the oil executives lockout – severely damaging the lifeblood of the economy. The defeat and purge of the US backed PDVS oil executives, led to the radicalization of social policy – vast reallocation of oil revenues to working class based social programs. Chavez appointed nationalists to key economic ministries selectively nationalized some enterprises and decreed a radical agrarian reform involving the expropriation of fallow landholdings. In part the radical policies were ‘pragmatic’, defensive measures in pursuit of national security. They also were a positive response (payback for support) to the newly mobilized urban and rural poor. Radicalization was also a response from pressure from the nationalist and socialist sectors of the newly formed Socialist Party and trade union confederations. US imperial efforts to isolate Venezuela in the Hemisphere, in the same fashion that it accomplished this policy with regard to Cuba in the 1960’s failed. The region was moving in line with Venezuela: nationalist populist and leftist movements and electoral alliances were replacing US client regimes. Washington’s policy backfired by regionalizing the conflict under unfavorable conditions, Venezuela gained popularity and support while Washington exposed its isolation and witnessed the demise of its effort to secure a regional free trade agreement.
The threat from the US pushed Chavez to redefine the nature of the political process from ‘reform’ to ‘revolution’; from moderate nationalism to 21st century socialism; from a bilateral conflict to a regional confrontation. Venezuela sponsored and promoted several key alliances including ALBA and PetroCaribe; Chavez later broadened Venezuela’s regional ties to include UNASUR and MERCOSUR.
Venezuela’s radical rejection of US hegemony was, however, tempered by structural limitations which provided US empire builders and internal clients with access points to power. The ‘socialization’ program did not affect 80% of the economy.Banking, foreign trade, manufacturing and agriculture remained under private ownership. Over 80% of the mass media remained in the hands of US backed private owners. Transport, food distributors and supermarkets remained privately owned. Electoral processes remained vulnerable to foreign funding by the National Endowment for Democracy and other US conduits. While the mixed economy and open electoral system, secured approval from Latin America’s center-left regimes and neutralized hostile US propaganda, they also allowed the empire through its clients to engage in sabotage and hoarding of vital consumer goods, violent electoral confrontations and permitted the mass media to issue open calls for insurrectionary activity
The dialectic confrontation between US imperial aggression and Venezuelan nationalism deepened the revolution and spread its appeal overseas. Venezuela successful defiance of US imperialism became the defining reality in Latin America.
Imperialism based on militarism and regime destabilization led Venezuela to begin a process of transition to a post neo-liberal, post capitalist economy rooted in regional organizations. Yet this process continued to reflect economic realities from the capitalist past. The US remained Venezuela’s most important petroleum market. The US, caught up in Middle-East wars and sanctions against oil producers (Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria) was not willing to jeopardize its Venezuelan petrol suppliers via a boycott. Necessity imposed constraints on imperial aggression and Venezuela ‘anti-imperialism
US-Venezuela relations is a casebook study of the complex, structural and contingent dimensions of imperialism and anti-imperialism. Contemporary US empire building, with its global engagement in prolonged serial wars and deteriorating domestic economy, has witnessed a sharp decline in its capacity to intervene and restore hegemonic influence in Latin America. Latin America, in particular Venezuela’s success in resisting imperial threats, demonstrates how much imperial power is contingent on local client regimes and collaborator military elites to sustain imperial hegemony. The entire process of imperial capital accumulation through direct exploitation and ‘dispossession’ is based on securing control over the state which in turn is contingent on defeating anti-imperialist and nationalist governments and movements. Imperialist hegemony can be based on either electoral processes (“democracy”) or result from coups, lockouts and other anti-democratic, authoritarian mechanisms. While historically, economic interests are an important consideration of imperial policymakers, contemporary US imperialism has confronted emerging nationalist governments because of their rejection of “global war” ideology. In other words Venezuela’s rejection of the ideology and practice of offensive wars and violations of international law is the trigger that set in motion imperial intervention. Subsequent conflicts between Washington and Caracas over petrol expropriations and compensation were derived from the larger conflict resulting from the practice of imperial militarism. US oil companies became economic pawns not the subjects of imperialist policymakers.
US imperialist relations to Latin America have changed dramatically in line with the internal changes in class relations. US financial and militarist elites, not industrial-manufacturers dictate policy. The relocation of US manufacturers to Asia and elsewhere is accompanied by the ascendancy of a power configuration whose political pivot is in the Middle East and in particular, in their own words, “securing Israeli superiority in the region”. This has had two opposing effects: on the one hand it has led imperial policymakers to pursue non-economic military agendas in Latin ‘America and on the other to “neglect” or allocate few resources, investments and attention to cultivating ties in Latin America. Inadvertently, the “mid-East pivot” and the militarist definition of reality has allowed Latin America to secure a far greater degree of independence and greater scope for cultivating diverse economic partners in the 21st century than was the case for the greater part of the 20th century.
Have US-Latin American relations permanently changed? Has Venezuela consolidated its independence and achieved the definitive defeat of imperial intervention? It would be premature to draw firm conclusions despite the substantial victories which have been achieved during the first decade and a half of the 21st century.
Pro-US regimes and elites still wield influence throughout Latin America. As was evident in the Presidential elections in Venezuela in April 2013, the US funded opposition candidate Henrique Capriles came within 2% of winning the election. And Washington true to its destabilizing vocation, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the outcome.Since those elections, several members of the Embassy have been implicated in plots to overthrow the elected government. The ongoing, intrusive imperial cyber spying system run by the US National Security Agency is a new element in colonial intervention reaching into the highest spheres of the political and economic systems of the entire region including Venezuela and Brazil the largest country in Latin America. On exposure, Washington affirmed its right to colonize and dominate Brazilians and Venezuelan cyber-space and control all communications between strategic elites.
Obama’s affirmation of the “right to spy” prompted new anti-imperialist measures, including proposals to end ties to US based and controlled information networks. In other words new imperial methods of colonization based on new technologies triggers new anti-imperial responses, at least for independent states.
The anti-neoliberal governments in Latin America heading up the struggle against US hegemony, face serious challenges resulting from the continuing presence of private banking and finance groups, US based multi-nationals and their local collaborators in electoral parties. Except for Venezuela and Bolivia, on-going US-Latin American joint military programs provide opportunities for imperial penetration and recruitment.
The high dependence of Venezuela and the other center-left countries (Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, etc.) on commodity exports (agriculture, minerals and energy) subjects their finances, and development and social welfare programs to fluctuations and and sharp downturns in revenues.
So far world demand for Latin commodities has fueled growth and independence and weakened domestic support for military coups. But can the mega-cycles continue for another decade? This is especially important for Venezuela which has not succeeded on diversifying its economy, oil accounting for over 80% of its export earnings. The China trade, which is growing geometrically, has been based on exports of raw materials and imports of finished goods. This reinforces neocolonial economic tendencies within Latin America.
Intra- Latin American trade (greater integration) is growing and internal markets are expanding. But without changes in class relations, domestic and regional consumer demand cannot become the motor force for a definitive break with imperialist dominated markets. In the face of a second world economic crises, the US may be forced to lessen its global military incursions but will it return to hemispheric dominance? If commodity demand lessens and the Chinese economy slows, do the post-neoliberal regimes have alternative economic strategies sustain their independence?
Imperial power in Latin America, and in Venezuela in particular, has suffered serious setbacks but the private property power structures are intact and imperial strategies remain. If the past half-century offers any lessons, it is that imperialism can adapt different political strategies but is never surrenders its drive for political ,military and economic domination.
Political Chronology of Venezuela
December 1998: Chavez elected
1999: Three referendums all successful: to establish constituent assembly to draft new constitution; to elect membership of constituent assembly; to approve new constitution.
July 2000: ‘Mega-election’: to elect President, national legislators and state and municipal officials. Chavez wins 6 year term with approx. 60% of the popular vote, his Patriotic Pole coalition wins 14 of 23 governorships and majority of seats in National Assembly
April 2002: Failed US backed military-civilian coup
December2, 2002 – Feb. 4, 2003: Failed oil executive and businessmen lockout to topple Chavez government.
August 2004: Recall referendum which Chavez wins by substantial margin
December 2005: Legislative elections: opposition boycotts, results in Chavez supporters dominanating the National Assembly.
December 2006: Chavez re-elected with approx. 63% of the popular vote
December 2007: Chavez constitutional amendment package (‘socialism in the 21st century’) narrowly defeated in national referendum
2008: Chavez moves to unite supporters into a single party – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)
November 2008: State and municipal elections: pro-Chavez candidates won 17 of 22 governors’ races and 80% of more than 300 mayoral races
January 2009: National Assembly votes to hold referendum on constitutional amendment to abolish terms limits for all elected government officials.
February 2009: Referendum approved 55% to 45%.\
September 2010: National Assembly elections, Chavez supporters won 98 seats (94 for PSUV candidates) versus 87 seats for opposition parties (65 won by 10 opposition parties known as Democratic United Platform/MUD). But the Government failed to win enough seats to enact various part of government agenda such as approving constitutional reforms.
October 2012 Presidential elections: Chavez wins with approx. 55% of popular vote.
December 2012: State and municipal elections, PSUV sweeps to victory.
April 2013: Chavez successor Nicholas Maduro wins election by 51% to 49%.
About the author: James Petras
James Petras is the author of more than 62 books published in 29 languages, and over 600 articles in professional journals, including the American Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology, Social Research, and Journal of Peasant Studies.
He has published over 2000 articles in nonprofessional journals such as the New York Times, the Guardian, the Nation, Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, New Left Review, Partisan Review, TempsModerne, Le Monde Diplomatique, and his commentary is widely carried on the internet.
For more of his writings, check out the The James Petras Website.