A year ago mainstream news reports out of Venezuela suggested that the post-Hugo Chàvez era was going badly for his successor, Nicolás Maduro. The US media painted a picture of a country that was headed toward a Latin version of the Arab Spring, with popular protests mounting against the government. But the reality was quite different. The chief purpose of the protests, led by people who were involved in efforts twice previously to unseat Chàvez, was to destabilize a democratically elected government. Though the protests were sizable at times and did reflect genuine frustrations among the middle class and the wealthy, the government continued to win elections and command majority support, especially from the poor who have been most helped by the radical social changes first introduced by Chàvez.
Now, in the wake of US-Cuba engagement, an opportunity exists for normalizing US relations with Venezuela on the same basis President Obama proposed to Raúl Castro: We acknowledge our differences and agree to disagree. But sanctions and confrontation will not resolve the differences. So let’s talk and resume relations.
I’ll get back to that opportunity in a moment, but first a bit of recent background.
The Maduro government was elected in a country that has a solid history of independently monitored free elections. Speaking in 2012, for instance, Jimmy Carter said: “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world” (www.globalresearch.ca/former-us-president-carter-venezuelan-electoral-system-best-in-the-world/5305779). Venezuela also has a vibrant civil society (which includes tens of thousands of worker-owned cooperatives and community councils), and a strong opposition press. Maduro points to Venezuela’s achievement in reducing poverty and income inequality, which accounts for the fact that the poor go about their lives normally while the rich take to the streets. In short, Maduro is neither Bashir al-Assad nor Moammar Kaddafi.
Venezuela certainly has its share of problems: scarcity of foodstuffs and other basic commodities, dependence for exports on oil, very high inflation, and an exceptionally high rate of violent crime. There is plenty of room for progressive change, and according to scholars who have been on the scene, the government last year was addressing these problems while also reaching out to critics. In doing so, writes Steve Ellner—who teaches in Venezuela—Maduro has come under criticism from the left for not being tough enough on business and opposition political leaders. (See his article at https://nacla.org/article/venezuela-chavistas-debate-pace-change.) Now, with an economy in freefall, he has toughened up, perhaps too much so.
Maduro last year charged that the US government and press are “on the side of the 1 percent who wish to drag our country back to when the 99 percent were shut out of political life and only the few—including American companies—benefited from Venezuela’s oil” (www.nytimes.com/2014/04/02/opinion/venezuela-a-call-for-peace.html). Indeed, the US is Venezuela’s number-one customer for oil and, according to a report in the New York Times, the Maduro government has quietly renegotiated contracts with Chevron and other oil companies to help finance the state oil monopoly, Petróleos de Venezuela, or Pdvsa. In return, companies will regain significant control over how they run their drilling operations. (See “Venezuela, in Quiet Shift, Gives Foreign Partners More Control in Oil Ventures,” October 9, 2014.)
Nevertheless, official US sympathies lay with the antigovernment forces. Evidence exists (see http://truth-out.org/news/item/22121-venezuelas-deep-political-education-means-venezuelans-will-withstand-right-wing-protests) of US efforts to destabilize the Venezuelan government in much the same way that it did in overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile: funding the political opposition, trying to isolate Venezuela internationally, and carrying out disinformation campaigns with the US as well as Venezuelan press to undermine the Maduro government. One document from November 2013 is particularly damning. It shows:
“that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) collaborated with the Colombian government and Venezuelan opposition leaders to destabilize Venezuela and stoke massive protests. The document, obtained by journalist and attorney Eva Golinger, was the product of a June 2013 meeting between US-based FTI Consulting, the Colombian Fundación Centro de Pensamiento Primero Colombia (Centre for Thought Foundation of Colombia First), and Fundación Internacionalismo Democratico (Democratic Internationalism Foundation). The third tactic outlined in the 15-point strategy document openly called for sabotage . . . ” (http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/22199-focus-how-washington-is-playing-venezuela-like-a-fiddle)
This report is entirely believable inasmuch as the US was directly implicated in a coup attempt against Chàvez in 2002. That effort, which succeeded in removing him from power for about 48 hours, was the product of collusion between his opponents and Reagan-era officials in the Bush administration who had been involved in the Iran-Contra scandal (www.theguardian.com/world/2002/apr/21/usa.venezuela). It took two years before declassified information made plain that the CIA knew in advance of the coup, and while CIA and other US officials supposedly passed on warnings of a coup to Chàvez, questions remain about how much information was actually provided and what connections to the coup group US officials may have had (www.nytimes.com/2004/12/03/international/americas/03venezuela.html?_r=0). The coup effort collapsed when most Latin governments refused to recognize the new government, which had US support.
Thus, until very recently “another Chile” in Venezuela did not seem far-fetched. The Obama administration stoked the fires in March when it issued an executive order on sanctions against several members of the Maduro government. The order made the extraordinary declaration that Venezuela is a threat to US national security and constitutes a national emergency (www.nytimes.com/2015/04/08/world/americas/white-house-seeks-to-soothe-relations-with-venezuela.html). Those words drew immediate criticism, not only in Venezuela but throughout Latin America—enough to draw a quick retraction from Washington, where it was understood that the incendiary language confirmed Maduro in his warnings about US interference.
Now, in the wake of the Obama-Castro meeting, positive diplomacy seems to be in train: A senior US aide was reported to have traveled to Venezuela to meet with government officials, presumably to clear the air and perhaps even attempt to lower the volume of hostile rhetoric. Obama reportedly met privately with Maduro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City on April 11, a meeting characterized by a Maduro aide this way: “there was a lot of truth, respect, and cordiality” (www.washingtonpost.com/business/latest-on-americas-summit-pot-bangers-protest-over-maduro/2015/04/10/621062ac-dfe5-11e4-b6d7-b9bc8acf16f7_story.html).
At the recent summit, which Cuba attended for the first time, Obama and Castro shook hands. After reviewing a history of grievances against the US, Castro offered a surprising apology: “I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution. . . . I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.” And he added: “In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man” (www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/in-historic-face-to-face-obama-castro-vow-to-turn-the-page/2015/04/11/0342929c-e0ab-11e4-b6d7-b9bc8acf16f7_story.html; www.nytimes.com/reuters/2015/04/11/world/americas/11reuters-cuba-usa.html). Obama responded in kind, noting that differences between the two countries should not get in the way of dialogue and the resumption of normal economic and other relations, and that the process of normalization required patience. It is only a matter of time before the trade embargo and Cuba’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism are removed.
The Cuba-US normalization could not come at a better time for both Venezuela and the US, and indeed for all of Latin America. As Obama said at the Summit of the Americas: “The Cold War is over. . . . Cuba is not a threat to the United States.” The same should be said about Venezuela which, unlike Cuba, has a proven record of democratic governance. The Venezuelan opposition’s destabilizing efforts violate that tradition, as does the government’s reported violations of people’s civil liberties and the right of opposition leaders to protest. A national dialogue in Venezuela is urgent, but the bottom line is that Venezuelans must be allowed to work out their own destiny, free from fear that the US will promote regime change.