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Don’t act so surprised that Venezuela is collapsing: The US has opposed the Venezuelan government since Hugo Chavez was elected as a socialist twenty years ago. Now He who must not be named is thinking about a military invasion because of all that oil.

2019-02-20

Ever since Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999, the US government has opposed him and supported efforts to unseat him and his Socialist party from power.   After Chavez died in 2013, his successor Nicolas Maduro received the same treatment.

After Chavez was elected president in 1999 and a new constitution was adopted, in 2002, a day of huge and violent protests for and against him was followed by an attempted coup that lasted just two days.  According to Wikipedia, while it was not widely known at the time, “the US had prior knowledge of the coup attempt and that members of the US government had ties to prominent participants in the coup.”

Hugo Chavez had a long history of working for a Socialist government.   He started out as a military officer who was assigned to counterintelligence after he graduated from military academy in 1975.  It is reported in Wikipedia that he was persuaded to a Socialist viewpoint after reading a large stash of old Communist literature and banned books that he discovered in the course of his duties in counterintelligence.  Two years later, he founded a revolutionary movement within the armed forces.

From 1981 to 1984, he was an instructor at the military academy, where he persuaded a quarter of the first class of students to his point of view.  The army brass became suspicious of him and posted him to a remote barracks, thinking to prevent him from converting any more recruits.  He spent some of his time there making contact with local indigenous tribes.

Chavez was back on track by 1988, after a promotion to major, coming into favor from a high-ranking general who took him on as his assistant at his office in Caracas.  He broke with President Perez, who before his election in 1989 had promised to oppose the International Monetary Fund’s policies and the US government’s ‘Washington Consensus.’    President Perez enacted cuts in social spending despite his campaign promises, provoking widespread protests and looting.  The Venezuelan government responded with a crackdown and violent repression.  Chavez staged an unsuccessful coup attempt in February 1992.

President Perez was impeached for corruption and removed from power the following year, and Chavez was soon out of prison.  Despite Venezuela’s enormous oil reserves (said to be the biggest in the world) and neoliberal economic policies, there was erosion of the standard of living in the 1990’s.  The political climate favored a populist leader.  When Chavez ran for president in 1998, he won with 56% of the vote.

He soon set about developing a new constitution, which was ratified on December 15, 1999 by popular vote.  The new Constitution received 70% of the vote.  Under its provisions, he took over all of the previously independent organs of government.  Afterwards, his popularity dropped precipitously, partly because he endorsed and developed ties with autocratic world leaders like Moammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and “especially” Fidel Castro.

Chavez used a strategy of “polarization”, demonizing his enemies and lauding his friends.  Like a current president whose name will not be mentioned, Wikipedia says, “He would insult and use name calling against original supporters that would question him; the media, business leaders, the Catholic Church and the middle class.”

According to Wikipedia, his ” ‘words spawned hatred and polarization’ with Chávez, ‘a master of language and communication’, creating his own reality among Venezuelans.”  Many who had previously supported him felt that they had been used and tricked, switching from democratic to autocratic after his election; the media in particular felt deceived after they had supported him for election.

Polarization in Venezuela proceeded apace, with opposition even among the military, while supporters especially among the poor organized into groups that were said to idolize him.  Opponents particularly objected to his “Cubanization” of the country; even primary school textbooks were copied over from Cuban books with only the covers changed.  Land was expropriated from the owners of large estates, with a large proportion of the seized property being used to reward political supporters– that is, corruption, which was ironically one of the main reasons Chavez had originally turned against his government.

On December 10, 2001, a countrywide strike closed down 90% of the economy.  The next month, protests in the streets were widespread.  In the early months of 2002, Chavez took over the oil industry and forced foreign companies who had invested in the industry to double their royalty payments.  He had dissenting military officers arrested after they objected to being forced to work with guerilla groups like FARC in Colombia and opening their secret files to Cuban military personnel.

For nearly a year prior to the April 11, 2002 coup, those who had become opposed to Chavez’ government planned to force him out of office.  The government, aware of the opposition plans, organized their own pro-government groups.  The dissension came to a head with a strike that nearly paralyzed the entire country.  Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched on the presidential palace and were met by nearly equal numbers of Chavez supporters in a pitched battle that left 17 dead and 60 wounded, many shot in the back with military caliber rifles.

For two days, the opposition controlled the government, installed a little-known academic as president, and filled a cabinet with conservative and moneyed interests.  Then Chavez was returned to power in a counter-coup.  The United States knew about the coup, indeed it was an open secret for months,  warned the government (a little too gently), and telegraphed its lack of support.

However, through the organization “National Endowment for Democracy (NED)”, the US government had been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to “promote democracy” since the “nonprofit agency” had been established in 1983.  So the issue of US government influence on political affairs in Venezuela is real.  The influence may be so benign as to be unobjectionable; an example would be distribution of copies of the Constitution, but other activities like hosting cocktail parties for so-called “dissident” individuals are in a gray area.

In any case, Hugo Chavez returned to power in Venezuela until his death in 2013.  He transformed the country from a corrupt but functioning democracy to a failed nation.  The murder rate has increased every year since 1998.  Price controls caused scarcity of essential imported goods; nationalization of industries that supplied those essential goods domestically was botched, and production actually went down.  Many changes were made in society, most of them bad, in the name of socialism.

While Chavez was re-elected as president to successive terms from 1999 until his death, those internationally recognized elections were tainted by open bribery of his primarily poor supporters and the impression among many that the votes were not secret.  Continued, pervasive corruption and impunity corroded every institution.  Matters have only gone from bad to worse under Maduro, who was Chavez’s vice president when he died.  Shortages of food and medicine have continued and worsened.  Now Maduro is refusing international aid, claiming that the dignity and honor of the country is at stake.

While the United States has had a negative effect on politics in Venezuela, the root cause of the problems there lie with Hugo Chavez and his misplaced idealism.  He maintained popular support with generous social welfare programs but ruined his economy with excessive controls on transactions, corruption, and a generally hostile business climate.  Sitting on the huge oil reserves that Venezuela has, allegedly the largest in the world, he should have been able to grow his economy and allow his people to prosper, but that has not happened.

Studying the recent history of Venezuela, it appears that the combination of misplaced idealism, autocratism, and corruption has been disastrous over the last twenty years.  The only hope is a replacement of the entire current regime in the country with reliable, honest administrators who can govern a business-friendly, people’s welfare generous, oil-rich economy.

There is talk in Wikipedia of a condition known as “Dutch disease”, a phenomenon in which a sudden influx of money from outside (such as the sale of new gas deposits, which occurred in the Netherlands in 1959) can unbalance a country’s economy and have negative effects on other sectors.

All of this talk about the US government’s cautious position and Venezuela’s internal problems goes out the window, though, when we start talking about the current US president.  He (who must not be named) started pressing military advisors as early as the summer of 2017 to give him military options for the overthrow of the Venezuelan government.

Now that matters have come to a crisis internally, the US is showing public support for the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guiado, who has declared himself interim president.  Guiado alleges that the election last year in which Maduro was returned to the presidency was illegitimate.  There is a prospect, that is we can entertain the possibility, that He who cannot be named might invade Venezuela to install Guiado and take attention away from his domestic legal problems.

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