The Battle for Global Civil Society

William I. Robinson has been studying, investigating and theorizing a new kind of U.S. imperialism since its birth in the early 1980s, known as “democracy promotion.” This relatively recent strategy may have “democracy” as its banner and “civil society” as its sword, but the last thing on its mind is genuine democracy, warns Robinson.

Over the past two decades US foreign policy has radically changed.  While the interests and objectives have remained more or less the same despite the fall of Communism, the mechanisms for obtaining them have continued to evolve.  Beginning in the early 1980s, US policymakers began experimenting with a strategy of “promoting democracy.”  That is merely a euphemism, however, equivalent to “national security” or the “war on terror.”  “What the U.S. is promoting is not Democracy,” says William I. Robinson, Professor of Sociology at UC-Santa Barbara.  Robinson has been studying US “democracy promotion” since its inception as a major US foreign policy in Sandinista Nicaragua during the 1980s.

As a journalist, and later an editor, with the Agencia Nueva Nicaragua 1980-87 and then as an advisor on U.S. foreign policy to the Nicaraguan foreign ministry from 1987-90, Robinson witnessed US electoral intervention in the Nicaraguan elections in 1990 first-hand.  Robinson documented all of this in his 1992 book, A Faustian Bargain:  U.S. Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era, and then set about from 1992-1996 to theorize this whole shift in U.S. foreign policy, and to look at it around the world.  Those efforts culminated in his 1996 book, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S. Intervention, and Hegemony.

In a recent interview with Venezuelanalysis.com, ex-CIA agent Phil Agee drew a parallel between US intervention in the 1990 elections in Nicaragua and the current application of the same model of intervention in Venezuela.  The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its sub-foundations the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the AFL-CIO’s “Solidarity Center” (ACILS) are all involved in Venezuela—NDI and IRI have offices here.  Along with the US Agency for International Development (AID), and a private company on contract from AID called Development Alternatives International, these groups are funding Venezuela’s opposition.  Perhaps the most well known example is the alleged “civil society” group Súmate.  Súmate director Maria Corina Machado was invited to meet personally with US President Bush at the White House on May 31st—an honor Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has yet to receive.  But Súmate is only the tip of the iceberg.  A slew of political parties, and partisan NGOs receive grants from these and other channels as part of a multi-faceted US attempt to unseat Venezuela’s left-wing President Hugo Chávez.

“Unlike earlier US interventionism,” notes Robinson in Promoting Polyarchy, “the new intervention focuses much more intensely on civil society itself, in contrast to formal government structures, in intervened countries.”  This new political intervention “emphasizes building up the forces in civil society of intervened countries which are allied with dominant groups in the United States and the core regions of the world system.”  Thus, civil society plays a key role in “democracy promotion” strategies as “an arena for exercising domination,” Robinson suggests.

With Presidential elections scheduled for late 2006, and Chávez’s approval-rating recently pegged at 70.5 per cent, the US regime-change machine will be hard at work using whatever avenues present themselves.  “This is a full-blown operation…to overthrow the government of Hugo Chávez,” says Robinson.  “The U.S. state is going to assess all the different instruments,” it has available to it in pursuing that end.

Jonah Gindin: Is the promotion of democracy inherently imperialist?

William I. Robinson: The promotion of democracy is inherently not imperialist.   On the contrary, it is inherently revolutionary and progressive.  But I think you’re phrasing the question in the wrong way because what the U.S. is promoting is not Democracy.  What they are doing is inherently imperialist, promoting democracy is not inherently imperialist, promoting democracy is wonderful, it’s great!  Social movements are promoting democracy, social movements in both the North and the South, solidarity movements in the North, mass movements in the South are promoting democracy.  U.S. foreign policy has absolutely nothing to do with promoting democracy. 

How can one tell NGOs and human rights groups genuinely dedicated to promoting social, economic, and human rights apart from the NED-fed variety?

Let me clarify that my argument in no way suggests that democratization movements around the world are creatures of foreign policy, on the contrary, the argument is that changes in U.S. foreign policy and new modalities in U.S. intervention are meant specifically to challenge, and undermine, limit, and control the extent of social and political change in countries where masses of people—including the elite—are struggling for democracy and democratization.

Entirely to the contrary, U.S. political intervention under the banner of “democracy promotion” is aimed at undermining authentic democracy, at undermining and gaining control over popular movements for democratization, at keeping a lid on popular democracy movements, at limiting any change that may be brought about by mass democratization movements so that the outcome to democracy struggles will not threaten the elite order and integration into global capitalism.  If by democracy we mean the power of the people, we mean mass participation in the vital decisions of society, a democratic distribution of material and cultural resources, then democracy is a profound threat to global capitalist interests and must be mercilessly opposed and suppressed by U.S. and transnational elites.  What is new about the strategy of “democracy promotion” is that this opposition, this suppression, is now conducted ironically under the very rhetorical banner of promoting democracy and through sophisticated new instruments and modalities of political intervention.

Having said that, the question is very legitimate.  I think what’s going on is that as every country and every community in the world becomes turned upside down by the penetration of capitalist globalization and the massive changes that we’ve seen in the last ten to twenty years, older forms of political authority—authoritarianism, dictatorship, etc.—are delegitimated and challenged from below.  It’s at that point that the U.S. attempts with these democratization movements to control the type of political change that’s going to take place, attempts to control the outcome of these democratization movements, and attempts to get certain groups in power and marginalize other groups.  In this context, if the U.S. moves into a country such as Kyrgyzstan—which I haven’t studied in as much detail as the Ukraine, for example—all different groups that are going to be involved in the democratization struggle are going to, in some way or another, come under U.S. purview.  Some will be brought into U.S. programs through funding and technical liaisons and advisors, and so forth, while others will be marginalized.

You asked if all these different groups are stooges of U.S. foreign policy.  Not at all; those that are struggling for a completely different vision, one contrary to U.S. interests and global capital’s interests are going to be marginalized if they can’t be bought.  There are going to be alternative or parallel organizations set up by U.S. operatives (and their local allies and agents) and funding that are more powerful, more moderate, more centrist, more elite-oriented.  These organizations and NGOs are going to receive international media attention, they’re going to receive funding, they’re going to liaise with other forces abroad.  So we could summarize by saying that there are three different categories of groups.  There are those that are clearly instruments of U.S. foreign policy objectives, and these are not groups that are promoting democratization but are trying to limit democratization and control change.  There are those that are marginalized and pushed aside, and then there are those that the U.S. cannot or it is not in the interest of U.S. foreign policy to marginalize or challenge, and then they attempt to co-opt these organizations and to moderate them.  Very often you get well intentioned people and you get people who have a legitimate political agenda: democratization, regime change from an authoritarian regime, and so forth, that because structural or on-the-ground circumstances don’t allow anything else, become sucked up in U.S. and transnational elite foreign policy operations or interventions.

Where does the US seek to “promote democracy”?

There are two different categories of “democracy promotion” programs:  The first are programs in those countries that are already ruled by elites and in the camp of global capitalism.  In these countries, political intervention programs seek to bolster neo-liberal elites, to achieve this elite’s control over the state and to cultivate its hegemony in civil society.  Cultivating this neo-liberal elite and its domination and hegemony is the political dimension that complements the economic dimension, which is neo-liberal structural adjustment and integration into the emerging global capitalist economy.  The flip side of this effort is to isolate, marginalize, and discredit popular, nationalist, revolutionary and other progressive forces that may pose a challenge to the stable domination of local pro-US elites or neo-liberal regimes.  These types of programs have been conducted in dozens of countries around the world.  To mention just one example, in el salvador, “democracy promotion” programs that had been conducted throughout the 1990s and early 21st century were expanded in 2003 as presidential elections approached.  These programs provided diverse forms of support for civic and political groups aligned with the ruling ARENA party and marginalized the FMLN.

The other is to use “democracy promotion” to overthrow regimes that the U.S. is not favorable towards or to bring about a “transition to democracy” in cases where so-called “regime change” is seen by Washington as necessary for the country’s stability and continued integration into global capitalism.  Countries that Washington wishes to destabilize in recent years through “democracy promotion” (along with other forms of intervention) include Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua in the 1980s, and so on.  The groups and individuals that participated in the destabilization of the government of Jean Bertrand Aristide and that are now in power in Haiti were precisely those groomed and cultivated by U.S. “democracy promotion” programs dating back to the late 1980s and undertaken continuously right up to the march 2004 U.S. coup d’état.  In Venezuela, the opposition to the government of Hugo Chávez has been working since the late 1990s closely with the U.S. “democracy promotion” network.

Then there are those countries targeted for a “transition to democracy,” that is, a U.S.-supported and often orchestrated changeover in government and state structures.  South Africa and Eastern European countries fell into this category in the 1990s, as does the current situation in Iraq.

What is the connection between the NED and the U.S. government?

The fact that the NED receives its funding from Congress is hardly its most direct link to the government.  NED operations are designed in the State Department and the White House, often in coordination with [CIA headquarters at] Langley, and everything is undertaken in liaison with the Embassy on the ground in a particular intervened country.  The officials put in charge of these operations are typically engaged in a revolving door relationship with the U.S. state.  They move in and out of other government positions at the White House, the State Department, and so on.  What we’re seeing is the battle over global civil society, and it’s heating up, because there’s no place left in the world that has not been integrating very rapidly into the global system.  Venezuela is one of those places at the front-line of this battle.

The overt funding channels established through NED operations, which even then are not entirely above ground, generate an infrastructure of contacts, networks, channels of influence, and so forth, that are then available for covert funding and operations.  That’s the pattern that we see everywhere.  In Nicaragua around the 1990 elections, for every dollar of NED or AID funding there were several dollars of CIA funding.  We know that much from the tip of the iceberg we were able to uncover.

The NED—though maybe it has gotten the most attention—is hardly the only organization involved in this kind of intervention conducted under the umbrella of the U.S. State Department and the Executive.  There are many other branches of the U.S. State dedicated to promoting “democracy,” and other countries are setting up similar branches as well.  I think the weakness in progressive forces internationally is to see the political dynamic in the world today as an effort at U.S. empire.  And so the story becomes the U.S. against the rest of the world, and that’s a grave mistake.  One of the things that has taken place—one of the key aspects of globalization—is the rise of a transnational elite that shares an interest in attempting to preserve the current global capitalist order, in defending it and extending it, and they also share the view that “democracy promotion” is one key instrument in advancing and stabilizing this global capitalist order.  There might be tactical differences and there might be strategic differences in how to do that—what happened in Iraq, for example.  In Venezuela we see the same thing: Western Europe, Canada, and most Latin American governments would like to see Chávez out of power and an elite order restored, but the question is how to go about it.  The U.S. strategy has largely backfired so far.  So there are tactical and strategic differences, but there is a commonality of interest among the leading capitalist states.

Do you think that the academics and policymakers behind the “democracy promotion” strategy believe that they are promoting genuine democracy? Or are they cynically aware of their imperialist role?

You ask me if academics from the “democracy promotion” industry actually believe they are promoting democracy.  Antonio Gramsci once pointed out that popular masses don’t have a false consciousness; they have a contradictory consciousness, due to their lived experience.  But intellectuals – who are never free-floating, always attached to the projects of dominant or of subordinate groups—they have a false consciousness.

Perhaps Gramsci was giving the benefit of the doubt to these intellectuals.  There are many respectable and well-intentioned academics from the “First World” who unfortunately trumpet the new modalities of U.S. intervention conducted as “democracy promotion,” and others who deceive themselves, intentionally or otherwise, into believing they can participate intellectually – or directly – in U.S. political intervention in order to somehow steer it into a wholesome or acceptable foreign policy.

We should recall that intellectual labor is never neutral or divorced from competing and antagonistic social interests.  To state this in overly harsh terms, some—perhaps many—academics who defend U.S. “democracy promotion” are organic intellectuals of the transnational elite.  Some are outright opportunists who know before whom they need to prostrate themselves in order to secure funding and status in the halls of global power.  They are intellectual mercenaries.  Others, as I’ve said, are well intentioned.  But there is almost always an arrogance of power and privilege that many first world intellectuals bring to their “study” of the global South; there is an academic colonial mentality at work.

Let’s face it:  so-called “democracy promotion” has become a veritable academic industry that has numerous organic, ideological, and funding links with the U.S. intervention apparatus.  Let us recall that projects of domination always have their organic intellectuals.  The prevailing global order has attracted many intellectual defenders, academics, pundits, and ideologues, who in the end serve to mystify the real inner workings of the emerging order and the social and political interests embedded therein.  These intellectuals have become central cogs in the system of global capitalist domination.  Maybe they want a global capitalism with a more “human face,” but in the end they not only help to legitimize this system but also provide technical solutions in response to the problems and contradictions of the system.

How can any academic actually follow what the U.S. does around the world in the name of “democracy promotion” and not acknowledge the blatant farce?  These are harsh words, but we must ask, what is the role and responsibility of intellectuals in the face of the global crisis, the crisis of civilizational proportions we face in 2005.

Based on your experiences in Nicaragua, how serious is the U.S. “democracy promotion” strategy in Venezuela?

This is a full-blown operation, a massive foreign-policy operation to undermine the Venezuelan revolution, to overthrow the government of Hugo Chávez, and to reinstall the elite back in power in Venezuela.  Within the elite, this operation seeks to cultivate a particular trans-national group or faction so that once Venezuela’s internal political system is once again an elite political system, the transnationally-oriented elites will proceed to more deeply and systematically integrate Venezuela into global capitalism.  This is a massive operation underway.   And it is important to emphasize that anywhere where U.S. foreign policy is operating—and that is a large part of the world—“democracy promotion” operations are going to be part of a larger foreign policy strategy.  So it’s not a question of whether—and this was a whole new thing for Nicaragua and the Ukraine and so forth—it’s not a question of whether “democracy promotion” is not being undertaken because there are paramilitary operations.  Rather, they’re all part of a larger foreign policy strategy, which is employing all instruments available to achieve U.S. ends.

“Democracy promotion” will continue unhindered and if the chance and the opportunity arises for paramilitary actions against Venezuela, the opportunity will be taken.  And if the opportunity arises and the circumstances permit for Venezuela to be isolated by international organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations, and so forth, then the U.S. will go ahead and promote that type of diplomatic aggression.  And if the opportunity arises to cut Venezuela off from international financing and the international financial institutions that will be undertaken.  The U.S. state is going to assess all the different instruments it has and look at what are the international circumstances that allow them to be deployed or not deployed in any given moment.  And they’re all going to be undertaken in synchronization and conjunction with one another: the internal “democracy promotion” operations, the funding of internal opposition groups, the electoral intervention and trying to build up counter-hegemonic anti-Chávez forces in civil society.  All of that is going to be done in conjunction with whatever can be done with paramilitary groups from Colombia, and in conjunction with denunciations made to the international press and U.S. press conferences by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others.  That will all be done in careful synchronization with things going on on the ground in Venezuela, in synchronization with what’s going at the UN, and so forth.  So just to summarize once again, there is no doubt whatsoever: all of the information indicates that there are massive covert and overt, systematic, military, economic, political, and ideological operations against Venezuela to completely defeat the revolution and put the elite back in power.  All of the telltale signs are there.

While I would never rule out an invasion by U.S. forces or attempted assassinations of Chávez, I think it is more important to see this strategy against Venezuela as a campaign of attrition against the popular classes in Venezuela, to create a situation where sooner or later the poor majority “gives up” and simply decides that there is no point in continuing to resist the U.S. campaign, to continue to reject the return of the elite, to continue to struggle.  Key to this strategy of attrition will be, first, to exacerbate economic hardships, difficulties, and deprivation for ordinary people, and second, to adroitly exploit mistakes made by the Bolivarian revolution, weaknesses internal to the revolutionary process.

What makes Venezuela so dangerous to the US?

There are a number of things.  First, it’s the only genuinely revolutionary process underway since Cuba in 1959 that is still alive today.  In the recent past there was the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979, which was completely reversed, and there was the Haitian revolution in 1990-91 and that, at this point, has also been reversed, although it’s still a problem for U.S. foreign policy.  But Venezuela represents a revolutionary process underway, and it comes at a strategic and critical moment for all of Latin America and the world, in which the “Washington Consensus,”—the whole neo-liberal program—is moribund, it’s in complete crisis.  What exactly is going to take the place of the neo-liberal model is not clear; that’s the current battle throughout Latin American and worldwide.  In Venezuela there is a revolutionary process promoting agrarian reform, redistribution of wealth, that is using the country’s resources to challenge international economic structures, and it is a tremendous example of this moment of transition from neo-liberalism to whatever’s going to come next.

The Bolivarian process is taking place at a time when the implementation of neo-liberalism in the 1980s and 90s is now discredited throughout the region.  Is Venezuela going to tip the balance and encourage social and political forces to move beyond the “Washington Consensus”, the global capital model for Latin America?  Neo-liberal elites face a major challenge from below, so this is a critical transition in Latin America, and Venezuela represents a revolutionary alternative to the moribund neo-liberal order.  So that’s why Venezuela’s so dangerous, not to mention of course that Venezuela is a major oil supplier.  Even if this had taken place in the 1980s in the heyday of neo-liberalism and neo-liberal hegemony, Venezuela also controls a key global resource at a time when the Middle East is in turmoil, at a time when Iraq is not going to be pumping millions of dollars of oil into the global economy for a while.  This is a rupture.  We need to see what’s taking place in Venezuela both historically and also with respect to a new twenty-first century situation of globalization, because historically this is nothing new: there are permanent outbursts from below throughout Latin America and now and then those outbursts actually manage to take state power and challenge the international system.  Each time the U.S. has organized a massive response, so we’re seeing them lay the groundwork.


How can a government like Venezuela counter an imperialism that is articulated as the promotion of “democracy”?

One of the reasons this shift in U.S. policy has been so powerful is because they’ve been able to set up this hegemonic discourse, a very powerful rhetoric of “promoting democracy.”  But another reason is the failure of the Left, a worldwide democratic failure.  If I were a government being targeted by U.S. political intervention—and I have to be very careful with how I word this because I don’t want to be misconstrued—I would probably wield a heavy hand against that intervention, but I would do so while at the same time exposing U.S. intervention for what it is.  For instance, I would point out that U.S. electoral laws don’t allow any foreign interference in U.S. elections.

If the Venezuelan government and Venezuelan organizations attempted to do in the United States what the U.S. is doing in Venezuela, anyone accepting money, anyone involved in this program in the United States (US citizens or foreigners) would be arrested and they would be tried and they would be jailed.  Funding for electoral organizations by the Venezuelan government inside the U.S. would be completely prohibited, completely illegal, it would be a massive scandal, and there would be an outcry.  If governments around the world that are targets of this kind of U.S. intervention simply applied the same criteria that the U.S. state applies inside the U.S. then these operations could be closed down.  In the U.S. no candidate, no party, can accept foreign funding and no foreign government can make any donations at all to groups that are involved in electoral processes.  And for that matter, any organization which is receiving funding from a foreign government needs to register with the State Department as an agent of a foreign government.  So if I set up a get-out-the-vote organization in California and started receiving funding from a Venezuelan equivalent of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), I would have to register with the State Department as an agent of a foreign government.  That means that the diverse organizations that are receiving funding in Venezuela—if there were an equivalent to U.S. law in Venezuela—would have to register with Venezuela as agents of the U.S. government.

It’s a catch-22 for any popular, Left, or revolutionary force, any progressive forces that want to challenge the global order.  There’s no way that the government of Venezuela, or that progressive forces in Venezuela are going to make a serious dent in global capital’s complete control over the international flow of information and the images that are going to flow out of Venezuela to South America and to the rest of the world, with regard to so-called “democracy promotion,” with regard to the role of the elite in Venezuela and so forth.  One of the key things about the global capitalist economy is that the flow of information is very tightly controlled and image-making is a very powerful instrument controlled by global media which is itself transnational capital, just a massive global business.  The most important thing is to maintain legitimacy and the mass base of support inside Venezuela, with the understanding that the strength of a revolution or a process of social change is ultimately going to be that internal legitimacy and that support.

Have you come across any examples of strategies that have successfully faced off against the rhetoric of “freedom,” “democracy,” “terrorism” etc… in your studies?  Do you see a strategy that Venezuela could pursue in this regard?

There’s really only so much that a government in a particular country can do to win that battle, and I’ll give you two examples in just a moment: Cuba and Nicaragua.  But the other thing of course is for progressive forces worldwide, the global justice movement, to become aware of these changes in U.S. policy and to recognize what it actually means for the U.S. to be “promoting democracy.”  This should be part of our global agenda; the global justice movement, solidarity organizations, and social movements around the world.  I know that last year at the World Social Forum there was a workshop organized by the Focus on the Global South specifically on exposing “democracy promotion” as a new more sophisticated form of intervention.  So we have our work cut out for us, and complimentary to our work are those efforts by progressive forces, whether or not they take state power, to promote meaningful social change, like in Venezuela.

Look at what happened in Cuba in 2003.  There were seventy-five dissidents; among them were perfectly legitimate opposition forces, and among them there were simple instruments of U.S. foreign policy—a very diverse group of seventy-five.  But the thing is that all seventy-five were collaborating actively with these U.S. programs—which in just about any country in the world would be considered felonous activity—and all of them had met with James Casson (Chief of Missions, U.S. Special Interests Section in Havana).  Now if the head of the Cuban interests section in Washington D.C. came to California and worked with seventy-five of U.S. who are against the invasion of Iraq, who are part of the global justice movement and so forth, if we took funding and money from the Cuban Chargés d’Affaires and met at his residency in Washington D.C. to plan strategy against the U.S. government, we would all be in jail now.  So what did the Cuban government do?  They said “we’re not going to worry about international opinion.  This is something which is illegal in any country in the world, it’s a blatant violation of Cuban and international law,” and the seventy-five were imprisoned, they were jailed.  In fact they got off very easy: they would have received much more serious sentences if that had taken place in the US, or in any other country in the world.

But what did the Cuban government lose?  They lost a tremendous amount in public opinion internationally, they lost a lot of ground that had been gained in the previous years.  They were condemned by the European Union, and condemned by international organizations, and of course the U.S. propaganda machine had a hey-day.  That’s an example of a government doing what is necessary to respect its own political system, in exchange for international public opinion, because they couldn’t go both ways.

Nicaragua was a no-win situation.  The U.S. had the military and economic power to continue to strangle Nicaragua to the point where the population couldn’t possibly stand any more.  But the strategy that the Sandinistas had in the late 1980s was to go ahead with this electoral process and do anything and everything to appease international public opinion and to convince the world that they were a democratic force—which they were anyway.  But that meant sacrificing a tremendous amount of internal legitimacy.  It meant allowing things to happen on the ground in Nicaragua that didn’t take place in any other country in the world.  And so the Sandinistas came away looking like wonderful democrats, in the end they were really the good guys.  And then they lost power and the revolution unraveled and Nicaragua went back fifty years.

I think that exposing and denouncing and fighting against this new type of intervention should top the agenda of the global social justice movement and of international solidarity work.  That would be the international public opinion battle.

Why do you think the “democracy promotion” strategy was not applied to Venezuela in the late 1990s when Chávez’s movement was building momentum?

We need to avoid thinking of U.S. policymakers as omnipotent because they’re not in the least.  On the contrary, they tend to be permanently on the defensive, permanently reacting to social and political forces, often from below, that they can’t control, with very little foresight and very little understanding of the consequences of their foreign policy.  It would be a contradiction in terms for U.S. policymakers to identify and acknowledge the structural underpinnings of the challenges to an international order that they are attempting to promote and defend.  I mean, Condoleezza Rice is not going to come out and say, “the problem with all this instability and revolutions popping up everywhere and the fires we’re trying to put out is the unjust distribution of wealth and power in the world.”  That would be a contradiction in terms.  Because that can’t be recognized, even strategic thinkers in the CIA and intellectuals recruited to help design U.S. foreign policy are not going to reach that conclusion; it’s not going to enter onto their radar.  And so what that means is that the U.S. policymakers have very little foresight.

The U.S. was already deeply involved in Venezuela in 1989 and beyond in the early 1990s with NED programs, but they were programs for a different scenario; a scenario in which a pro-global capital neo-liberal elite is in power and U.S. polyarchy-promotion[1] programs were meant to assure that the elite would continue to be groomed on an ongoing basis, to slowly assure that organizations in civil society continue to be favorable -towards the U.S. transnational project.  I don’t think that U.S. policymakers saw the massive discontent in Venezuela and saw that there were different groups that moving towards a project that would challenge the U.S. and the international order.

In the late 1990s, the U.S. was trying to promote controlled political change in Venezuela, but they were doing so at a much slower pace, because it wasn’t yet a crisis situation for them.  It didn’t look like a situation where there was going to be a revolutionary upheaval against the regime as you had in Marcos’ Philippines, as you had in Somocista Nicaragua, or as you had in Chile.  In the early to mid-1980s with Pinochet, for example, that’s exactly what happened: you had U.S. policymakers witnessing an anti-dictatorial groundswell that was out of the elite’s control.  U.S. operatives and policymakers concluded, “we could potentially have a revolutionary situation on our hands here, we could have coalescing opposition forces against the dictatorship led by the left, in which the outcome is not going to be a reversion to elite rule, but something much more serious.”  But it didn’t have that foresight in Venezuela, for reasons that I think are much more complicated: there was no clear left force which was hegemonizing a mass democratization movement, there was no clear dictatorship or single figure among the elite that could be the target of a popular upsurge.  One more thing: I don’t think it was clear to U.S. policymakers that Chávez was going to end up being a revolutionary figure (I don’t even think it was clear to Chávez).  If I were a U.S. policymaker in 1997-98 leading up to the Presidential elections, I would have said “Chávez is a maverick, but he’s certainly not a Fidel Castro, or a Marxist-revolutionary, and if he looks like he’s going to come into power we could certainly try and control him in other ways.  He could turn out to be a Velasco [Peru 1968], or this could be like Bolivia in the early 50s, but this is not a revolutionary situation.”  There were none of the red-blinkers going off that there were in Nicaragua in 1978-79.

Venezuela is scheduled to hold Presidential elections in 2006.  Do you perceive the Venezuelan anti-Chávez opposition to be more or less divided than the Nicaraguan anti-Sandinista opposition in 1989 prior to the US’ success in unifying them?  To what extent does the crisis of the “Washington Consensus” that you spoke of hamper the US’ ability to “promote democracy” successfully?

I would say that the elite in Venezuela after the referendum is probably weaker and more fractured relative to the elite in Nicaragua for a number of reasons.  By the time you have the late 1980s and the elections in Nicaragua coming in 1990, you essentially had 10 years in which the U.S. has been able to work on reconstituting the elite, which was totally shattered after Somoza’s overthrow.  And the U.S. also has the military aggression and many other things it could use in Nicaragua that it hasn’t been able to do in Venezuela, particularly the military aggression.  This military aggression opened up internal space within in the Nicaraguan elite in ways that we’re not seeing in Venezuela.  The other thing about the elite is that there is some portion of the business community in Venezuela and the elite which, after the referendum, decided that they should seek some kind of modus vivendi with Chávez, and that’s something that the U.S. wants to avoid.  So U.S. “democracy promotion” operations in Venezuela are going to be aimed not only at unifying the elite, but also making sure no one collaborates with Chávez.

The international situation is very different than it was in the late 80s with Nicaragua.  In the late 80s the world economic crisis had given way to the “Washington consensus” and neo-liberalism, presenting the Sandinista government with an increasingly difficult international situation.  When we look at Latin America in 2005, there’s an opening in the GLOBAL system for an alternative, which gives breathing room to Venezuela.

US policy is going to continue.  The coup in April, 2002 failed, so the U.S. picks up the pieces and says “now what do we have on the agenda, what’s the next event, what’s the next possibility, what’s the next angle we could work?”  The next one was the oil industry shutdown from December 2002 to February 2003.  That petered out, so next up was the referendum, eventually held in August 2004, which Chávez won with 59% of the vote.  Each time the elite comes away more internally divided.  But if Chávez is in power, or if the Bolivarian revolution continues, for forty years, for no matter how long, the U.S. will still be plugging away here.  It’s never going to end.

[1] In Promoting Polyarchy, Robinson defines polyarchy as “a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites.”