Juan Guaidó, leader of the National Assembly, declared himself acting president of Venezuela on 23 January. He was quickly recognized by major Western imperialist powers such as the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany and France and by the Lima Group of nations in the Americas set up to oppose the Maduro government. He has also garnered the support of a layer of parasitic celebrities led by Virgin Group billionaire Richard Branson, who organized a “Venezuela Aid Live” stunt to give the appropriate “humanitarian aid” PR spin to what is effectively an attempt at regime change in the Latin American country.
Guaidó has openly called on the Venezuelan military to oust Maduro, and he has appealed to the “international community” (i.e., Western imperialists) to consider “all options” to resolve the crisis. Guaidó’s neoliberal political program (“Plan País”) would mean layoffs of public sector workers, cutting social benefits, mass privatization of nationalized companies and the opening up of the oil industry to foreign multinationals on favorable terms. It is therefore no surprise that the U.S. Democratic Party has eagerly joined with Donald Trump to support Guaidó.
The Trump administration has seized the U.S. assets of Citgo (majority-owned by the Venezuelan state-owned petroleum corporation PDVSA) and banned imports of oil from PDVSA. Speaking in Miami in February, Trump directly appealed to the Venezuela military: “We seek a peaceful transition of power, but all options are open.… You [Maduro supporters] will find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out. You will lose everything.” Trump then went on an anti-socialist tirade and threatened regime change throughout the region: “The twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere – (applause) – and, frankly, in many, many places around the world. The days of socialism and communism are numbered not only in Venezuela, but in Nicaragua and in Cuba as well” (whitehouse.gov, 18 February 2019).
If the dispute between Guaidó and Maduro remained within the framework of a constitutional crisis revolving around who is the “legitimate” president of Venezuela, we would be neutral. But Guaidó’s challenge is clearly part of a campaign for imperialist-sponsored regime change. Marxists would never give political support to Maduro’s muddled left-wing populism, but we would certainly bloc with him militarily against any coup attempts (at this point clearly carried out with the connivance of U.S. and other imperialists). As we noted during the right-wing motivated referendum to recall Hugo Chávez’s presidency in 2004:
“In the case of extra-legal attempts by reactionaries to seize power (e.g., Kornilov in 1917, Franco in 1936 or the 2002 coup against Chávez), Marxists militarily defend the ‘legal’ bourgeois government (in effect acting to maintain them in power, at least temporarily). But this is a very different situation than when rightists use constitutional, parliamentary channels – in such cases, electoral ‘blocs’ amount to political support.”
—“On the 2004 Venezuelan Referendum,” 1917, No. 28
Important segments of the international capitalist class are hostile to Maduro because they see his government as a danger to the domination of the tiny layer of capitalists and landlords that ensures Venezuela’s continued subordination to imperialism. Their reluctance to seek an accommodation with Maduro, and Chávez before him, is motivated by their desire to secure access to Venezuela’s vast oil and mineral wealth and reassert control in what has traditionally been considered the United States’ “backyard.”
This is not the first time the imperialists have attempted to overthrow the Bolivarian regime. In April 2002, then president Chávez was arrested by elements within the Venezuelan military, and the head of Venezuela’s main business union, Pedro Carmona, proclaimed himself head of state. The new “government” was immediately recognized by Washington, and U.S. involvement in the coup is well-documented:
“[V]isits by Venezuelans plotting a coup, including Carmona himself, began, say sources, ‘several months ago’, and continued until weeks before the putsch last weekend. The visitors were received at the White House by the man President George Bush tasked to be his key policy- maker for Latin America, Otto Reich.”
—Observer (London), 21 April 2002
Despite the smokescreen of “humanitarian aid” and calls of “libertad,” the imperialists have demonstrated time and again that their commitment to democracy in Latin America is non-existent. In Guatemala in 1954, the CIA overthrew democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz after his government took steps towards agrarian reform that threatened the interests of the American United Fruit Company, now known as the Chiquita Brands. After the coup, the U.S. installed military strongman Carlos Castillo Armas, whose authoritarian government rolled back land reform and cracked down on the peasant and workers’ movement.
The experience of Chile in 1973 is perhaps the best known. In 1970, the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende (a cross-class coalition that included the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the bourgeois Radical Party) was elected on a reformist platform that included nationalization of some Chilean industries and enacting agrarian reform. Despite the fact that Allende headed a popular front committed to capitalism and was unwilling to carry out a socialist transformation of society, the Chilean military under Augusto Pinochet, backed by the U.S., overthrew the government and crushed the workers’ movement.
When the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua in the late-1970s, the Reagan administration sent thousands of troops to neighboring Honduras to train the right-wing paramilitary contras in guerilla warfare. This led to a decade-long attempt to oust the Sandinistas and curtail the influence of left-wing movements throughout Central America. (Elliot Abrams, whom Trump appointed as Special Representative for Venezuela in January, was convicted of lying to Congress about illegal funding of the contras in the infamous Iran-Contra Affair.)
More recently in Honduras in 2009, when left-leaning and democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya attempted to raise the minimum wage, introduce free education for children and subsidize small farmers, he was forced into exile by a military coup led by Honduran General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, a graduate of the U.S. Army training program known as the School of the Americas. Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, famously refused to join international calls for the “immediate and unconditional return” of Zelaya.
While opposition to imperialist intervention is a basic principle for Marxists, America’s best-known “socialists,” long-time liberal Bernie Sanders and rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, understand that support for the empire is essential to operating in the Democratic Party.
Much attention was given to the fact that Sanders refrained from calling Maduro a “dictator” and claimed to “not believe in U.S. military intervention” in Venezuela during a recent CNN-hosted townhall. Yet Sanders refuses to recognize Maduro’s 2018 electoral victory and is calling for “internationally supervised, free elections” and “an international humanitarian effort,” both of which are code for imperialist meddling. When Sanders, who will once again be seeking the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in the 2020 election, was asked why he wasn’t running as an independent, he replied:
“[Y]ou know, the truth is that more and more people are disenchanted with both the Republican and Democratic Party, and especially young people. They are registering as independents or not affiliated folks. And I think as somebody who was an independent, we can bring them into the Democratic Party…”
—CNN Transcripts, 25 February 2019
In a video on Venezuela posted on Twitter on 25 February, Democratic Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, who is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), made an absurd pitch for some kind of classless “true democracy”:
“[P]eople want to make this [Venezuela] about like an ideology.… What people don’t understand is that this is really kind of an issue of authoritarianism versus democracy.… Just like we don’t point to countries like Zimbabwe or other nations, other failed states that use capitalist frameworks, and say ‘oh look, because this nation has hyper-inflation and is a failed state this tells you the failure of capitalism.’ First of all, this is really an issue of a failure of democracy.”
Presumably the “authoritarian” in this confused nonsense is Maduro and the “democrat” Guaidó. At bottom, Ocasio-Cortez’s politics boils down to some version of Scandinavian social democracy, which she made clear on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in January. Asked “When people hear the word socialism, they think Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela. Is that what you have in mind?” Ocasio-Cortez replied: “Of course not. What we have in mind … my policies most closely resemble what we see in the UK, in Norway, in Finland, in Sweden.”
There is a long history of self-identifying “socialists” accommodating to the ruling class and channeling any social dissent into the Democratic Party, one of the twin parties of American imperialism. Sanders and Ocasio- Cortez are simply the latest examples of this opportunism, which has crippled the U.S. left for generations.
A revolutionary policy for Venezuela today must begin with recognizing the need to defeat the immediate threat of right-wing imperialist-backed regime change. The removal of Maduro’s bourgeois left-populist government is the job of the Venezuelan working class, not the imperialists or their domestic agents. Key to achieving a proletarian seizure of power is a Marxist understanding of the state and the need to oppose all wings of the bourgeoisie, including the supposedly “progressive” elements currently backing Maduro.
To fight for power, the working class needs its own political party. While taking an active role in combating the rightist opposition, a Leninist organization would seek to build a base in workplaces from which to intervene in mass struggles. To avoid the fate of the Chilean proletariat in 1973, the Venezuelan workers’ movement must create its own organs of self-defense. To prepare for its inevitable confrontation with the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, the working class must also actively promote differentiation within the military along class lines and seek to neutralize as many officers as possible.
After two decades of “Bolivarian Revolution,” the impasse at which Venezuela finds itself is a powerful confirmation of Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution – genuine democracy and independence from imperialism requires the working class to take state power. Only the creation of a Venezuelan workers’ state, committed to a broader project of world revolution, can help to fundamentally end the misery of workers, landless peasants, slum dwellers, indigenous peoples and other victims of capitalism.