The Venezuelan Opposition’s “Birther” Problem

In its eagerness to compare Trump to Hugo Chávez, the media has willfully overlooked the rotten Trumpian soul of the very Venezuelan opposition, argues VA's Lucas Koerner. 


On October 23, Venezuela’s right-wing opposition-controlled parliament convened a special session in which they declared a “rupture in the constitutional order and the existence of a coup d’état”.  In a document titled “Agreement for the Restitution of the Constitutional Order in Venezuela”, the legislators from the MUD opposition coalition presented a hodgepodge of reasons why President Nicolas Maduro had suddenly turned Venezuela into a dictatorial “regime”.

Among their claims, the lawmakers justified their unilateral impeachment of Maduro pointing to the National Electoral Council’s (CNE) decision last week to postpone the next stage of preparations for a recall referendum pending investigation into 53,658 cases of fraud in opposition signature collection. They also cited the allegedly “fraudulent” stacking of the Supreme Court by the outgoing Chavista parliament in December as well as the “political partiality” of the CNE rectors.  

However one of their claims regarding Maduro’s “unconstitutional” behavior curiously stands out. “There is in process an investigation to determine the probable double nationality of the President, which will be concluded shortly,” the statement reads.

This is hardly the first time that the Venezuelan opposition has suggested President Nicolas Maduro is Colombian and ergo ineligible to be president. However, it is telling that these previously fringe conspiracy theories have now made it to the mainstream of the MUD and even the floor of the National Assembly in the midst of what can only be described as a Brazil-style parliamentary coup attempt against a legitimately elected head of state. 

“We need irrefutable proof that will reach us in the next few hours in order to present the truth of the double nationality of Maduro, that his mother is a Colombian citizen. It’s necessary that we show the Venezuelan people this truth that the president hides,” declared Democratic Action congresswoman Dennis Fernandez during Sunday’s session.

Does any of this sound familiar?

“He doesn’t have a birth certificate, or if he does, there’s something on that certificate that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me — and I have no idea if this is bad for him or not, but perhaps it would be — that where it says ‘religion,’ it might have ‘Muslim.’ And if you’re a Muslim, you don’t change your religion, by the way,” said Donald J. Trump, during an interview on “The Laura Inagraham Show” on March 30, 2011.

Like Trump, Venezuela’s right-wing has repeated for years conspiracy theories about the South American leader’s alleged foreign nationality. Yet these claims contain no more truth than those of the Republican presidential contender. 

In June, the Colombian Foreign Ministry replied to an inquiry into Maduro’s nationality sent by National Assembly President Henry Ramos Allup. The letter concludes that Colombian authorities had not found “any related information, nor any register of birth nor citizenship card that infer that President Nicolas Maduro is a Colombian national.” 

However, again similar to Trump, Venezuela’s right won’t let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of a perfectly viable campaign to discredit in glaringly racialized terms the constitutionally-elected president of a democracy. 

Of course, Donald Trump never gained much political traction with his “birther” theories. Following President Barack Obama’s public release of his birth certificate, Trump rapidly fell out of the 2012 GOP presidential primary only to be politically resurrected four years later by an increasingly radicalized Republican base as well as by a Democratic political establishment content to pit “Pied Piper candidates” against the long coronated Hillary Clinton.

Last month, the Republican presidential hopeful faced scathing ridicule by mainstream media outlets after he belatedly admitted that President Obama was in fact born in the United States.

“He nurtured the conspiracy like a poisonous flower, watering and feeding it with an ardor that still baffles and embarrasses many around him,” decries the New York Times’ Michael Barbaro.

“It was never true, any of it. Mr. Obama’s citizenship was never in question. No credible evidence ever suggested otherwise,” he added. 

While the mainstream corporate media has been quick to savage Trump for his “birther” comments and latest Alt-Right shift, its tone changes completely when it comes to Venezuela’s far right fringe-turned parliamentary majority.

“For Venezuela’s pro-democracy activists, fighting a regime that has instituted dictatorship by tiny increments has been an exhausting ordeal,” writes Francisco Toro in the pages of The Washington Post last week.

Witness, how in one stroke of a wand, a US-funded opposition that has repeatedly attempted to violently overthrow Chávez and now Maduro– whom it hysterically insists is a foreign citizen­– is magically transformed into a caravan of freedom fighters facing an uphill battle.

Too busy comparing Trump to Hugo Chávez, the media willfully overlooks the rotten Trumpian soul of the very Venezuelan opposition, for whom virulent racism and xenophobia are not new mutations, forming instead the fundamental building blocks of its DNA. 

From the get-go, the country’s right-wing never accepted the humbly born, mixed-race Hugo Chávez as their president, regularly referring to him as ese mono, or “that monkey”, and deriding his supporters as animalized “hordes” and “vermin”.

In fact, during the failed 2002 US-backed coup, upper class Venezuelans famously boiled cauldrons of oil in order to dump them on the heads of the Chavista “gangs” they imagined invading their plush residential complexes and stealing their TVs and appliances.

More recently during 2014’s violent opposition protests known as the “guarimbas”, the Venezuelan far right hysterically denounced the presence of Cuban medical personnel in the country as an “occupation”, circulating images of dark-skinned people accused of being “Cuban invaders” and lynching Cuban doctors in effigy.

Much like Trump supporters, the violent racism of the Venezuelan opposition is, moreover,  never solely symbolic.

Whereas Trump exhorts his supporters to “rough up” Black Lives Matter protesters, Venezuela’s right-wing incites its followers to set fire to government health clinics benefiting the racialized poor and string piano wire along thoroughfares to decapitate “the criminal hordes on motorbikes”. 

While plenty more evidence is readily available, the conclusion is clear: Venezuela’s opposition has much more in common with the nativist Trumpian right than pundits would care to admit.

Yet in the case of the MUD– led prominently by the Western-educated offspring of some of Venezuela’s oldest oligarchic families who trace their lineage directly to Europe– “birther” paranoia is not the battle cry of a disinherited White working class.

On the contrary, these conspiracy theories ironically function as a projection of Venezuelan elites’ alienated national consciousness. 

Take your pick of the Venezuelan opposition’s recent presidential candidates– Leopoldo Lopez, Maria Corina Machado, Henrique Capriles Radonski– all are organic representatives of the same European caste transplanted to the tropics in the course of colonization.

A direct descendent of 19th Century liberator Simon Bolivar and Venezuela’s first president, Harvard-educated Lopez belongs to the same clan as Lorenzo Mendoza, owner of the Polar Company, Venezuela’s largest food supplier, which has received trillions of dollars from the Venezuelan state for food imports despite ongoing shortages. Lopez’s mother, Antonieta Mendoza was a former director of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA who funneled US$160,000 worth of public funds into Lopez’s new-found political party First Justice. 

Machado likewise belongs to the powerful Zuloaga family of Basque origin, which got its economic start in the 18th Century slave trade only to later amass a fortune operating Caracas’ electricity grid. The Capriles of Aruba also got their start trading Africans before later moving on to become media moguls and owners of one of Venezuela’s two cinema oligopolies, Cinex.

Like elites across the global South, Venezuela’s oligarchy is comprised of tightly interwoven family alliances defined by common schooling, social clubs, private residential communities, marriage ties, etc.

However, under the Bolivarian Revolution, these traditional mechanisms of elite reproduction were dramatically disrupted, and this Westernized caste was replaced by what Fanon termed a new “species of men [and women]” who occupied the helm of the Venezuelan state for the first time in history.

This settler elite could never forgive Chávez– and the damned of the Earth who follow him– for taking their places.

For them, the presidency of Nicolas Maduro– a former bus driver– is an ongoing reminder of their intolerable humiliation at the hands of the “vermin”.

It is precisely at this level of form, not of content, that Venezuelan ‘birthers’ share with their Trumpian cousins a politics of resentment expressed in the desperate mantra, “We want our country back.”

But whereas Trump supporters misplace their real economic grievances as racial prejudice in a tragic act of self-sabotage, the Venezuelan right’s mendacious attacks on Maduro are intentionally aimed at upholding their racial and economic privilege. 

Between competing conceptions of right, Marx reminds us, only force decides.

Convinced of their colonial “right” to lay hands on the Venezuelan state as if it were their private piggybank, the MUD will go to no end to oust the Maduro government, whether it be by military conspiracy, parliamentary coup, guarimba violence, or all of the above. 

The ultimate guarantee of democracy in Venezuela is the organized Chavista masses who alone can beat back the right-wing onslaught and rescue the revolution by pressuring the government to radicalize the process from below.

In this dark moment, Chávez’s words ring truer than ever: “Only the people can save the people”.