To Trump or Not to Trump

Those were better times. Nicolás Maduro, 2013.

Far from taking an independent line, European leaders are following Donald Trump’s lead on the crisis in Venezuela.

It wasn’t that long ago that France and Germany opposed the US over Iraq, and even forged a united front with Russia and China on the issue of regime change. The days of Chirac and Schröder are long gone.

Today Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are quite happy to put aside their reservations about Trump to try to contain and topple an independent government in another hemisphere. But the leading role was played by Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

The Sánchez government was the first to back the US, but it was quickly followed by France, the UK and Germany. Soon Donald Tusk was tweeting his support for Juan Guaidó and his attempt to claim the presidency from Nicolás Maduro.

Many people hoped that the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) would not follow in the footsteps of the conservative Aznar government on foreign policy. This is the same party that pulled out Spanish troops from Iraq.

On the other hand, Spain has a history of working in lockstep with Washington on South America. After all, the Spanish embassy in Venezuela played a supporting role to the US in backing the 2002 attempt to overthrow the Chávez government.

The coup d’état failed when the masses rushed out of the barrios in protest and the army swore allegiance to Chávez. It was all over in less than 48 hours. The officer class could not sway the groundswell of army support for the president. After all, Chávez was one of them once.

The short-lived Carmona regime suspended the Venezuelan constitution, dismissed governors, sacked judges, including the attorney general and dissolved the elected congress. This was just a taste of what would happen if Chávez had been successfully overthrown.

Yet the botched coup had a radicalising effect on the Chávez government. It was clear that the clash with the US was inevitable. Venezuela would chart its own course – taking its oil reserves into national ownership and redistributing the funds.

As the pink tide recedes, the US and European governments see an opportunity to re-establish old arrangements with Latin American powers happy to cooperate with international investors. It shouldn’t be that surprising. Empires old and new have plenty of unfinished business to settle.

That the EU can’t officially come out in support of the Trump Administration is irrelevant. As long as Germany and France side with Washington, Italy’s refusal to officially follow suit is of little consequence, as two-thirds of its governing coalition effectively back Trump anyway.

What went wrong in Venezuela?

The death of Hugo Chávez was a tragedy, but it was only the beginning. Vice President Nicolás Maduro was about to take the reins, the economy would face the shock therapy of declining oil prices and the opposition would take to the streets.

The so-called ‘Bolivarian revolution’ was really a movement towards social democracy: nationalisation of natural monopolies, constitutional reform and social projects. It was all based on the idea that you could redistribute wealth and power on an international scale by exploiting high commodity prices to fund social programmes.

Chávez had the luck to come to power just as global oil prices were rising. This allowed the government to take care of its base and challenge neoliberal doctrines on welfare, workers’ rights and state ownership. The problem was that there was no back-up plan and the economy was left vulnerable to outside shocks. So once oil prices collapsed, the Venezuelan economy fell into a deep recession.

No longer could the Venezuelan government guarantee food stocks in the barrios. Even as the working class remained largely pro-Maduro, the opposition was emboldened by the economic crisis and the support of Western media. A wave of violent protests soon followed in 2014.

The opposition was happy to resort to brutal tactics. A number of people driving motorcycles were decapitated by barbed wire rolled out across roads. Bombings and shootings were not uncommon. Unsurprisingly, President Maduro fell back on the security forces and the police to restore order.

The opposition won control of the National Assembly in 2015. After this defeat, Maduro set up the Constituent Assembly to replace congress and rewrite the Venezuelan constitution. This was a major step backwards given that Chávez drafted the constitution and put it to a vote. It’s still the most democratic constitution the country has ever seen.

Maduro moved to expand his powers to bypass congress. It’s plausible that the 2018 Constituent Assembly elections were rigged to produce a pro-government consensus, while the National Assembly has remained emphatic that it holds sway over legislation. This is the basis of the present constitutional crisis.

The 2018 presidential election was boycotted by the opposition and many voters didn’t bother to cast a ballot. President Maduro claimed a swift victory of 67%, but the steep fall in turnout is a bad sign for any political system. But even if the vote was partly bought, it’s unlikely the opposition won the election.

It’s not that the Venezuelan people are united behind Maduro or Guaidó. It’s that there is no immediate way of solving the crisis with a change of leadership. The concentration of the economy around the energy sector is the problem, and the situation may be too far gone to reverse this easily.

Finding itself besieged, the Maduro government has fallen back on the military and patronage networks to maintain its hold on power. This is a very old story in developing countries like Venezuela. But the tension between dual institutions could scupper the government’s long-term goals. It might even be its downfall.

Who wants regime change in Venezuela?

Unlike past US administrations, there is no clear centre of power in the Trump White House. Yet the key drivers of Trump’s policy on Venezuela are the usual suspects: Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Pompeo has even resurrected Elliott Abrams to serve as special envoy on Venezuela.

The media likes to describe Abrams as ‘controversial’ because of his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the US government traded in drugs and human lives to raise funds for far-right death squads in Nicaragua. The last time Abrams was involved in US foreign policy he reportedly gave the thumbs up on the 2002 plot to overthrow President Chávez.

Not only are all three fierce hawks. Pompeo, Bolton and Abrams have the might of the Pentagon behind them. Bolton has already raised the idea of sending 5,000 troops to Colombia’s border with Venezuela. This is most likely hot air, but it shows how much political capital is at stake in this.

The Trump Administration has an easy target in Venezuela. It’s a left-wing government facing economic collapse, an intransigent opposition and isolation on the world stage. The US media has worked hard to turn Chávez and Nicolás Maduro into demons in the public imagination. So Trump can easily mobilise his base against a foreign enemy.

After the fall of Kirchner in Argentina, the Workers’ Party in Brazil and the centrist Colombian government, Venezuela is one of the few holdouts in a region turning rapidly to the populist right. The face of this lurch is none other than Jair Bolsonaro.

US officials can rely on new allies to help isolate Maduro. The ultimate goal is to see conservatives come to power across Latin America and restore the pro-American consensus. This would go a long way towards reversing the progress the region has made over the last 20 years.

The most independent governments in Latin America are Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela. It’s not clear that the US will be able to find allies in each of these countries and turn back the clock. This isn’t just about oil and other natural resources. It’s about power and who holds it.

With a populist sweep of the EU elections repeated ad nauseum in elections forecasts, supporting a similar political makeover of Latin America is tantamount to preparing for the inevitable. The Commission may be largely playing Trump’s tune, but there is also a hint of resignation in its lockstep.

This article is a co-publication with The Battleground. Photograph courtesy of the Cancillería del Ecuador. Published under a Creative Commons license.