Analysis: Why U.S. regime-change efforts in Venezuela are an uphill struggle

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Domingo columnBy Domingo Amuchastegui

If you take a deep breath and look at the big picture in Venezuela, you’ll realize that the Trump administration is facing an uphill struggle with its regime-change efforts.

Here’s why.

First, the governmental dimension: The mystical attraction of Chavismo and its main manager, Comandante Hugo Chávez, and the hopes triggered by this broad movement that has been tagged as populist, social democratic, center-left, and Castrista, among others, got a big dent with the collapse of oil prices and production. Ninety-six percent of Venezuela’s exports depend on oil, but production had dropped to 1 million barrels per day by the end of 2018, from 3 million bpd in 2011. This collapse laid bare the crisis at state oil company PDVSA and the absence of an economic diversification program that could have eased Venezuela’s oil dependency and its addiction to imports. Coming on the heels of the sudden death of the charismatic Chávez, this created an extremely critical situation.

The absence of any effective economic response by the Chavista leadership and Nicolás Maduro, combined with rising corruption — a chronic symptom everywhere in our hemisphere — that is spreading with impunity in certain Chavista circles, have dented and eroded the influence, mobilization capacity and overwhelming popular support that had distinguished Chavismo in its first decade.

However, this should not suggest in any way a total and final liquidation of Chavismo as a legitimate and viable alternative for vast sectors of society facing the options offered by Venezuela’s traditional oligarchic block. During two decades, and particularly during the toughest moments, Chavismo could count on the active support of the armed forces, which are conscious of the complex consequences of an institutional breakdown for Venezuela and its entire society.

The opposition

Second: The opposition. The different components of the traditional oligarchic block — the good old aristocracy of Caracas — never adjusted to their loss of the levers of government and failed to act like a legitimate minority opposition. A few players did so, but most, from Day One, dedicated themselves to finding ways to overthrow Chavismo. This manifested itself by way of the intended coup d’état in 2002, with the sabotage by holdover PDVSA executives, and with the withdrawal of deputies from the national parliament to paralyze the normal functioning of the country’s institutions. They failed again and again. The opposition’s Mesa Coordinadora dissolved amid internal strife; the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) was founded with the intent to revive efforts of uniting the opposition, but again we witnessed an inability to articulate an effective challenge and its breakup due to personal ambitions and fiefdoms of its leaders.

With good reason, several prestigious academics of the independent Universidad Católica Andrés Bello have suggested that the main factor in the survival of Chavismo is the persistent lack of coherence and disintegration of the opposition.

In line with the traditions of Latin America’s oligarchy, they went crying to Washington. And they got something from President Barack Obama in return: Way before last year’s presidential elections in Venezuela, he granted them the classification of the Maduro administration as a “national security threat” — without any reasonable argument. This set the base for any type of hostile action by the United States against Maduro, while encouraging the most violent and coup-oriented sectors to seek extreme solutions.

In the middle of this situation — worsened by the ripple effect of the oil collapse — the 2015 parliamentary elections gave the opposition a simple majority. The usual direction would have been to seek French-style co-habitation, as is customary in all presidential or parliamentary systems. Not the Venezuelan opposition. Many groups now wanted the whole shebang: the resignation of the entire executive. The latter, never one to miss a trick, made use of the constitution to justify the cancellation of the National Assembly by summoning a Constituent National Assembly headed for a constitutional reform and a new electoral process.

Negotiating a balanced arrangement was never an option for the most rabid opposition groups, who rejected and boycotted mediation by the Vatican. Former Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who was in charge of the mediation process, blamed then-opposition chief Julio Borges for its failure, which by all means seemed to be a satisfactory arrangement for all sides of the conflict. Meanwhile, the opposition groups led by Borges and Leopoldo López triggered the most violent actions, mainly in the wealthy east of Caracas. The aim of the violence was to generate a domestic justification for some type of coup by the armed forces and, eventually, action by the United States, Grenada- or Panama-style.

Neither one nor the other happened, and the violent action exhausted itself without pain or glory. One more time, the armed forces proved their loyalty to the elected government. Under these conditions the government called for general elections; a majority of the opposition shied away, declaring the process illegal, while a segment decided to participate. The outcome was telling: With the lowest turnout ever in the Chavista era — 46% — Maduro obtained 67.84%. Beyond the criticism and mostly minor irregularities, both Henri Falcón and Javier Bertucci — the leading opposition figures participating in these elections — recognized Maduro’s win, as Henrique Capriles did in 2016. “It’s a fact that Maduro won the May 20 election,” declared Claudio Fermín, Falcón’s campaign chief. Foreign observers such as Rodríguez Zapatero validated the results.

This is what the Trump administration and its followers in Brussels and Latin America want to present as an “usurpation” that has created a supposed power vacuum. They are putting forward a constitutional clause to that effect as a justification for this intent by the most violent sectors to assume the presidency and trigger a coup instigated and backed by the countries mentioned above. They are using a completely unknown figure such as Juan Guaidó — a crony of Leopoldo López, the wild-eyed presidential contender and designer of coups d’etat. Guaidó proclaimed himself interim president at a public event in a park of posh Chacao — he could not have chosen a better neighborhood! — and in the absence of most of the opposition, who in a variety of tones and ways have questioned his move.

In response, the chiefs of staff of Venezuela’s armed forces have rejected this intent of “duality of power”, condemning the flagrant foreign meddling and disowning all that Juan Guaidó has wanted to do. In short, the military leadership has refuted his repeated calls to back him.

A propos Chacao and its social and political connotations: the conservative daily El Nacional had to recognize that Guaidó’s “grand event” on Jan. 30, staged to demonstrate “the citizens’ outcry”, was again limited to the wealthy east of Caracas, as if the rest of Caracas and of the country did not exist. Again, hopes for a forceful mass movement were dashed.

Meanwhile, in the remaining 24 states of Venezuela — with the exceptions of Anzoátegui and Falcón — life goes on normally. Primero Justicia leader Henrique Capriles is among those surprised by the Guaidó-López maneuver; the former presidential candidate has abstained from supporting it until now. The entire rest of the country has not expressed any support for Guaidó. There are no mass demonstrations in his favor, nor have there been any military uprisings for Guaidó and his international backers.

Meanwhile, the big issue of 2018 — the “humanitarian crisis” — stopped being news some three months ago. A mediatic farce turned the tens of thousands who emigrated to Colombia amid the crisis into 4 million or even 8 million, trying to fabricate an image of hunger and despair. But the breathless coverage failed to create the desired impact either in Colombia or Venezuela. What’s more, if this supposed exodus by millions and the “humanitarian crisis” were true, wouldn’t there be a monumental social explosion in all of Venezuela and particularly Caracas?

Any half-way informed observer knows that if these mediatic fabrications were true, a social explosion would be unavoidable. Did everyone forget the infamous Caracazo of 1989, under the very legal and constitutional government of Andrés Pérez, with its thousands of casualties (which did not trigger any criticism by Washington, Brussels or the OAS)?

The international angle

An equally complex issue is the conflict’s international dimension. Key premise: International interests are not just working towards the liquidation of Chavismo. The Trump administration’s current foreign policy designs in Venezuela are part of a new “Holy Alliance” that seeks the final liquidation of center-left and leftist options in the hemisphere.

At the core of Bolton’s designs is a wipeout of the multifaceted leftist currents that emerged in the early years of the 21st century, and finally snuffing out the Cuban precedent, while imperially rejecting each and all of the norms of the current system, from the United Nations to the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.

Repeatedly, Marco Rubio, Bob Menendez, John Bolton and Elliott Abrams have brought up the ultimate target of the Trump administration’s assault: With the disappearance of Chavismo, Cuba will finally be defeated. Cuba, this logic goes, survives only thanks to the oil, cooperation and trade with Chavista Venezuela; once the latter disappears, Cuba collapses — never mind the experiences of the 1990s, which demonstrated the sustainability potentials that still animate the Cuban project.

To get there, the U.S. government is now using the “Iranian playbook”. Iran-style sanctions — the decades-long blocking and confiscation of goods and funds — are now being applied to the property of the Venezuelan state, with the twist of redirecting funds to the pockets of the pseudo-government Juan Guaidó, his boss Leopoldo López, and others are trying to consolidate.

However, in this case more complicated circumstances could tangle up and hinder the application of sanctions. PDVSA’s U.S. assets and activities are big and complex. The three Citgo refineries in Texas, Louisiana and Illinois, nearly 6,000 gas stations, related infrastructure, and banking assets and transactions are enmeshed in a net of Venezuelan debt, commitments and transactions with Asian, European and Canadian companies. The sanctions will wreak havoc on an entire system that depends on the continued flow of Venezuelan crude oil. Venezuela, thanks to sitting on some of the world’s biggest oil reserves, is the globe’s 13th largest producer. Four of every 10 barrels the U.S. imports originate in Venezuela, making the country the fourth-largest U.S. crude supplier. Venezuela is also the main export market for U.S-made fuel.

This kind of interdependence did not exist with Iran. In fact, a close U.S. ally — Saudi Arabia — has warned the Trump administration that the Venezuelan crisis could seriously shake up the world oil market. Along the same lines, Global Data analyst Adrián Lara suggests that “full additional sanctions” would increase “the risk of generating more instability in the world supply markets.”

Will these warnings by allies and experts dissuade the Trump administration from taking more actions? Until now, it does not seem to be the case.

Most importantly: The armed forces

All possible scenarios of the Venezuelan crisis hinge on one key factor: A coherent coup d’etat by the armed forces involving the entire chain of command that would have Venezuela join the Latin American concert of Bolsonaro, Iván Duque, Mauricio Macri, Sebastián Piñera and other right-wing governments. This kind of coup could seek the cooperation of civil society sectors, such as during the failed coup of 2002, or it could be a military-only project along the lines of the Castelo Branco or Pinochet coups in Brazil and Chile. This is what, in a nutshell, the United States and its Holy Alliance would welcome, in order to avoid a U.S. military intervention with possible support from Colombia or Brazil.

If the unleashing of an overthrow were to violently fracture the armed forces — with involvement of civil sectors on both sides — the potential of civil war would rise. In this case, direct U.S. intervention would become less viable. Venezuelan military figures may lean towards a coup or maintain their loyalty to the Chavista government, depending on the political actors’ determination and disposition to take on risks while being intelligently disposed towards negotiations. If the high command senses fear, retreat or weakness among Chavista leaders, the results could be disastrous.

If the United States decided to trigger a unified coup by intervening massively or through “surgical” decapitation of the Chavista leadership, this could come at a very high political and diplomatic cost to the Trump administration. In the current context, Donald Trump may not want to risk deepening already deep rifts within the Venezuelan opposition.

U.S. military action would also put at risk the support of Canada and the majority of European Union members. Consider that Italy, Austria, Slovakia, Cyprus and others have failed to support U.S. action on Venezuela. The European parliament is far from unanimous; while there were 439 votes in favor, there were 104 “no” votes and 88 abstentions. What’s more, the Venezuelan government enjoys political and diplomatic support from Russia and China.

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell has said not only that his government is against any type of military intervention in Venezuela, but that the U.S. government was instrumental in the Jan. 23 self-proclamation by Guaidó and that the Trump administration had strongly pressured trans-Atlantic allies and particularly Spain. Borrell’s statement makes eminently clear that his country will stay away from any U.S.-sponsored military coup.

The remoteness of a unified coup or direct U.S. military intervention, and the continued alliance between the armed forces and Chavismo could eventually open up new space for negotiation and mediation, as during the failed Dominican Republic talks.

President Maduro, his second-in-command, Diosdado Cabello, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and other Chavista leaders have reiterated their interest in mediation efforts such as those proposed by Mexico and Uruguay or — despite its expressed pessimism — the “contact group” in Brussels led by EU High Commissioner Federica Mogherini. These Chavista leaders put on the table their disposition to continue a dialogue and concessions such as early parliamentary (but no presidential) elections.

The Chavista leaders who accepted the Rodríguez Zapatero platform during the Dominican Republic talks could follow a similar course and use the new context to seek isolating and neutralizing the actions of Leopoldo López, Juan Guaidó and Julio Borges, the most violent elements of a unilateral and maximalist opposition that is notably fractured.

The next few days will tell.

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