The May 20 presidential election officially pits Hugo Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro against four other candidates, the chief among them opposition challenger Henri Falcon, a former governor of Lara State. Yet these elections are as much Trump vs. Maduro as Falcon vs. Maduro.
Despite the fact that the country has a long history of free, fair and internationally observed elections, something his own country certainly cannot claim to have, President Trump has pre-emptively decided that the US will not recognize the results, reflecting a longstanding American tradition of casting doubt upon elections whose result does not go its way. The Trump administration has called for a boycott of the elections and placed multiple rounds of punishing sanctions on Venezuela, crippling the economy. It has also directly threatened Venezuela’s bondholders not to negotiate with the country, thus stopping any sort of debt restructuring.
The election takes place in the shadow of a possible US-sponsored coup or even an invasion if the people vote for Maduro. Senator Marco Rubio announced that “the world would support the armed forces in Venezuela if they decide to protect the people and restore democracy by removing a dictator” while Trump noted that “we have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option”.
These are hardly idle threats; as I detail in my recently released book, Bad News From Venezuela: 20 Years of Fake News and Misreporting, the US openly supported a military coup that toppled Chavez in 2002, funneling millions of dollars to the coup leaders through organizations like USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. Yet the media treated the idea of US involvement as absurd, one newspaper stating “Anticipating correctly that the Chavez government would fall of its own accord, like a rotten fruit. The last thing the Americans need is a new set of myths about Yanqui coup mongering, after the fashion of their alleged role in the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende.”
That Maduro is despised and needs to be taken care of is treated as a given in the press, with the only second thought given to how it may backfire if not successful. Yet he maintains significant support, particularly among the working class. Indeed, his approval ratings are higher than many of his neighbors’, including Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Brazil’s Michel Temer. Yet there are no calls for coups against these pro-American right-wing regimes.
The US also supported a 2014 attempt at overthrowing the government led by Leopoldo Lopez. Lopez’s plan was to essentially force a resignation through a wave of violence. His followers burned down government buildings, destroyed roads, buses and subway stations, attacked doctors and teachers and even garroted passers by. The movement was highly unpopular inside Venezuela, polling up to an 87 percent disapproval rate, backfiring on the opposition and causing them to lose support. Yet it was extremely popular in the West, as the opposition and their friends in the international media were careful to present themselves as brave protestors standing up against a dictatorship. It was certainly successful in their attempt to garner international sympathy but actually reduced their influence in the country. Despite the violence, the US described Lopez’s group as “peaceful protestors” met with extraordinary violence from the security services and accused Maduro of concocting “totally false and outlandish conspiracy theories” about US involvement as an attempt to “distract” the country away from his misrule. However, it was the US was concocting outlandish narratives when Obama declared a “national emergency” with respect to the “extraordinary threat” to the US Venezuela was causing. That national emergency has been re-declared three times and is still active. Lopez’s placement under house arrest is one of the key White House arguments as to why the upcoming elections are not free and fair.
Lopez’s condition is a key White House argument as to why the elections are unfair and why many in the opposition are choosing to boycott them. However, former soldier and state governor Henri Falcon has stepped up to run as a serious challenge to Maduro. Falcon announced his reasons for running not in the Venezuelan media, but in The New York Times, perhaps signaling who he believes his real constituency to be. Closely advised by Wall Street economists, he promises that he will open the country up to international banking organizations like the IMF and replace the local currency with the US dollar. Both are sure to be a huge boon to US business interests but are unlikely to help the people, judging by the many examples of economic shock therapy in Latin American history.
That the US has bankrolled, trained and supported virtually every group opposed to the Chavistas for nearly twenty years is simply taken as a given in Venezuelan politics. Thus, the election is not so much about Maduro vs. Falcon but Maduro vs. Trump. The public is faced with a choice between the poorly performing Maduro administration or a Trump proxy government. If Maduro does win, the US is sure not to accept the results, resulting in more economic warfare. Yet if Falcon wins the country is faced with potential economic shock therapy. Either one may be a bitter pill to swallow.
Alan MacLeod (@AlanRMacleod) is a member of the Glasgow University Media Group. His book, Bad News From Venezuela: 20 years of Fake News and Misreporting, was recently published by Routledge.