"Venezuela is Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil and has the world's largest petroleum reserves." - Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela death toll rises to 13 as protests flare Reuters 02/24/2014
This is a basic fact that should be kept front and center when considering political developments in Venezuela, good or bad. Venezuela is a petrostate and so far has not been able to diversify its economy nearly enough to make it far less vulnerable to swings in the world price of oil.
But what has been making headlines in the US and Europe is the political turmoil, typically described in set-piece terms that became the standard during the coverage of the Arab Spring and especially the "color revolutions" in eastern Europe, in which I would include the Ukrainian crisis of 2014. The favorite photo for this kind of coverage is something along the line of a guy standing in front of a burning car holding a Kalashnikov rifle. And let's not forget the toppled statues! (Hugo Chávez statue torn down as death toll rises in Venezuela protests Reuters/Guardian 05/05/2017) It was a pretty small statue, but enough for headline.
The rightwing opposition has been putting major pressure on Venezuela's government since 2014, as well. Despite the image of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as a smarmy dictator, he won a competitive election by a narrow margin against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, an election which was apparently was a fair one. And there is obviously a very active and visible opposition and critical press coverage in Venezuela. The opposition won a majority of seats in the National Assembly in the elections of December 2015. (Venezuela election: Maduro's Socialists trounced BBC News 12/07/2015)
It's possible for a country to have functioning elections and a lot of dissent but still be subject to authoritarian measures by the government, even a duly-elected one. Something we in the United States have had special cause to remember recently.
Harsh criticism of the policies of Maduro's government's economic policies and political practices are not hard to find. Maduro's party, advocated and practiced a socialist program considerably more egalitarian than the programs of most social-democratic parties these days, especially those in Europe. As one example, this post scolds Maduro for policies like capital controls and price controls, both heresy against the neoliberal Washington Consensus: How Chávez and Maduro have impoverished Venezuela The Economist Free Exchange Blog 04/06/2017.
Eric Farnsworth, a vice president of the Council of the Americas, a business-backed group dedicated to neoliberal economics and the profits of American corporations, makes a case against Venezuela's government, Eric Farnsworth, Venezuela’s Downward Spiral 04/28/2017. The Obama Administration imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan government and practically though not explicitly, the US is committed to regime change there. Because our regime change operations always work so well. (Yes, that's meant to be sarcastic.)
In Washington, the OAS Secretary General, Luis Almagro, has publicly laid out a devastating written critique of the anti-democratic practices of the Venezuelan government. The bottom line demand of the Almagro effort, in addition to calling for numerous other actions, is that Venezuela must hold early elections to restore democratic practice or face suspension from the hemispheric body. Fourteen of the hemisphere’s heavyweight countries have already gone on record in support. Some 22 former regional presidents have called on the OAS to the Inter-American Democratic Charter, to which Venezuela has subscribed and of which Caracas is clearly in violation. But the government is not budging—it is hunkering down—while the international community has so far proven unwilling to force the issue outside the OAS context and use of that organization’s limited diplomatic tools. Venezuela has now declared its intention to leave the OAS.On the other hand, the Trump Administration's criticism of Maduro's government seems to be fairly muted, so far. Citgo, the American subsidiary of the state-owned Venezuelan oil company PdVSA, contributed a few books to President Trump's Inaguration. (Julian Borger, Socialist Venezuela chipped in $500,000 to Trump's inauguration Guardian 04/19/2017)
The United States has taken some limited steps to identify and sanction individuals for alleged drug trafficking and human rights abuses, and is presumably working quietly with other governments worldwide, including Europe and China, to deny Venezuela’s leadership the use of global financial conduits to hide billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains while working to identify and potentially seize such assets where possible. More such actions are overdue and may be forthcoming, given heightened bi-partisan Congressional desire to apply all leverage points.
But the current National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, currently a darling of cable news in the US, issued an ominous statement this past weekend "after McMaster met with Venezuelan opposition leader and current National Assembly President Julio Borges at the White House." (Rachael Boothroyd-Rojas, US National Security Advisor: Quick, Peaceful Solution Needed in Venezuela Venezuela Analysis 05/08/2017). Yet another reminder that when THEY do it, the Russians for example, it's an occasion for Americans to rend our clothes in shock, but when WE do it, we're just exercising our rightful aspiration to call the shots everywhere in the world. Boothroyd-Rojas continues:
[The press release] reads: “They [Borges and McMaster] discussed the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and the need for the government to adhere to the Venezuelan Constitution, release political prisoners, respect the National Assembly, and hold free and democratic elections."For a very favorable portrait of Maduro, affectionate even, see Maduro - Indestructible Loyalty 05/04/2017 (English). Trigger warning! TeleSUR is a left-leaning news organization funded by a consortium of governments. If you think watching this might pollute your mind, or turn you into a Russian hacker or something, I recommended that you don't watch it.
The statement has sparked alarm in Venezuela and amongst international movements in solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution. They have likened Saturday’s meeting to a series of similar encounters that took place between US officials and opposition figures just before a short-lived coup against former President Hugo Chavez Frias in 2002.
The meeting comes as Washington hardens its stance vis-a-vis the Maduro government. Last week, a bipartisan group of US senators presented a bill to Congress asking for sanctions on more Venezuelan officials in a bid to further isolate Caracas in the region.
Violent protests have rocked the South American country since the beginning of April when a stand-off between the leftist national government and the opposition-controlled National Assembly came to a head. So far, 42 people have lost their lives in the unrest, which has seen armed opposition protesters block roads, gun down government supporters, set fire to public institutions, and clash with security forces. At least 15 people have been killed by protesters, while a further five have died at the hands of authorities. [my emphasis; internal links omitted]
Three columnists in Encrucijada venezolana Página/12 08.05.2017 make a more critical evaluation of the situation.
In his section called "La prueba histórica de Maduro," Modesto Emilio Guerrero reminds us that the current outbreak of violent anti-government protest is the third one during Maduro's elected Presidential term. He says, "It is neither a coup or a civil war, only because [the opposition] doesn't have a military capacity; otherwise, Venezuela would be Syria, without a doubt." (all translations mine) He notes the irony that in 2013, the opposition had called for a Constituent Assembly to write a new national Constitution. Maduro has now recently proposed just that - and the opposition rejects it.
Maristella Svampa y Roberto Gargarella ("El desafío de la izquierda, no callar") identify three key problems that Maduro currently faces: a Presidential system in which the majority seem to have lost confidence in the President; Maduro's disdain for the legislative power, including what they call an autogolpe del ejecutivo (an Executive coup) against the National Assembly; and, the current economic crisis with serious shortages of basic goods. They call Maduro's government "an increasingly delegitimized and authoritarian regime."
Atilio Boron ("Cerca del desenlace de la crisis") emphasis the international interest in Venezuela's oil, i.e., America's aspiration to control it. He warns that what Venezuela now faces from the opposition "counterevoluion" is what he calls a Libyan situation: "promotion chaos, the land devastated, external invasion disguised as 'humanitarian assistance,' the fall of the government, the lynching of Maduro and the Chavista leadership at the hands of a mob organized by the CIA (just like what happened with Gadaffi)."
I don't know that the CIA specifically organized the mob that murdered Muammar Gaddafi. But it's certainly belilevable that Boron's worst-case scenario is a live possibility.