WOLA: Media’s ‘Left’ Source for Pro-Coup Propaganda in Venezuela

VA editor Lucas Koerner examines WOLA's role in legitimizing Washington's aggression against Venezuela.


The mass media, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman documented decades ago, are structurally dependent on pre-ordained “experts,” who play a decisive role in filtering the information reaching the public.

When it comes to Venezuela, one DC-based think tank has become the Western media’s go-to source for confirming the US elite’s regime change groupthink (FAIR.org4/30/19): the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Styling itself the “leading source for independent analysis and commentary on Latin America,” WOLA is regularly cited in corporate media reporting on Venezuela across the media spectrum. Founded in 1974 and originally part of the progressive Central American solidarity movement, WOLA moved to the right in the 1990s, until by 2002 it was calling (12/02) for a “negotiated and peaceful settlement” to the “political impasse” in Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez had been reelected with 60% of the vote two years earlier. But WOLA’s  “progressive” reputation—based on its decades-old critiques of Reagan administration Central America policy—still allows it to position itself as the gatekeeper of legitimate “opposition” to US Latin America policy.

WOLA’s in-house Venezuela “experts”—Tulane University sociologist David Smilde and former Open Society Latin Americanist Geoff Ramsey—excel at disseminating polite, proceduralist criticisms of US policy while validating the imperial assumptions that justify Washington’s aggression. They demarcate the leftmost extreme of acceptable opinion on Venezuela, effectively boxing out any genuinely dissenting views.

Constructively Criticizing the Godfather

The Trump administration on March 31 unveiled a “democratic transition” plan to replace Venezuela’s Maduro government with a five-person junta composed of opposition and ruling party loyalists, in defiance of the country’s constitution.

The corporate media dutifully touted the reasonableness of the Mafia-like “offer,” unanimously ignoring Washington’s threat to ramp up deadly economic sanctions until Maduro cried uncle (FAIR.org4/15/20).

Apparently concerned that its blackmail was too subtle, the Trump administration announced the next day, April 1, an “anti-drug” operation in the Caribbean targeting Venezuela, which was widely reported as one of the largest military deployments in the region since the US’s 1989 invasion of Panama.

The “transition” plan and military escalation came just days after the US Department of Justice on March 26 unsealed “narco-terrorism” indictments against Maduro and other top Caracas officials, including a $15 million bounty on the Venezuelan leader’s head.

Like clockwork, WOLA stepped in to rationalize US policy, even while quibbling with some of its “contradictory” elements.

Smilde and Abraham Lowenthal of the Woodrow Wilson Center, writing in the Washington Post (4/14/20), applauded the Trump administration’s gunpoint “proposal” as a “step in the right direction.”

The authors notably refused to call for rescinding the indictments—which they acknowledged were part of a politicized pressure campaign—or easing illegal US sanctions in a bid to secure Chavista buy-in for the plan. Instead, they urged Washington, represented by war criminal Elliott Abrams (CounterSpin3/1/19), to offer “guarantees for indicted officials” against extradition, as if Maduro would resign his elected post with a $15 million price on his head and a US fleet on his doorstep.

Ramsey had likewise taken to the Post editorial page (3/27/20) a few weeks earlier to gently criticize the “narco-terrorism” charges as feckless and politically motivated, but he conceded their core premise that Venezuela is essentially a narco-state:

There’s no question that organized criminal elements, including drug-trafficking organizations and Colombian guerrilla groups, have penetrated state institutions in Venezuela. The allegations are not surprising given the clear corruption and authoritarianism of the Maduro regime, and they are serious.

Ramsey presented no evidence to support these significant claims, merely linking to another Post op-ed (7/5/19) by Venezuelan emigre blogger Francisco Toro, whose main source regarding Colombian guerrilla activity in Venezuela is none other than the Colombian government, which was caught lying on that very subject last year.

Ramsey levels such accusations against Venezuela without saying a word about his own government’s well-documented role in abetting drug money laundering, and waging imperial dirty wars in league with narcotics traffickers, among any number of other examples of systemic US lawlessness.

Compared to gangster states like the US, the Maduro “regime”—which was reelected in 2018 by a greater percentage of the electorate than Trump in 2016 or Obama in 2012—is infinitely less “corrupt” and “authoritarian.” Western liberals and leftists’ refusal to acknowledge this reflects imperial indoctrination and arrogance (FAIR.org2/12/20).

Indeed, for Ramsey, Washington’s sin is not its sixth coup attempt in 20 years against an elected government, but its “baseless optimism”: its belief “that if they just saber-rattle hard enough, the Maduro regime will collapse under its own weight.”

Revealingly, his op-ed contained no mention of US sanctions, estimated to have killed tens of thousands—sanctions that WOLA initially embraced, then very inadequately critiqued, and often, as here, helped the media ignore entirely.


Sycophants for Sanctions

WOLA has long been given a prominent media platform to make the liberal case for US sanctions as a legitimate means of forcing the Maduro government to “negotiate.”

Both Smilde and Ramsey were cheerleaders for the Trump administration’s August 26, 2017, financial sanctions, which effectively cut Venezuela off from global credit markets, denying the country desperately needed loans to finance its economic recovery. Crucially, the move blocked Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA’s US-based subsidiary, Citgo, from repatriating profits, which were averaging $1 billion per year. For reference, Venezuela’s medical imports totaled $2 billion in 2013.

Smilde told the Associated Press (8/25/17) that he backed the sweeping unilateral measures, which the outlet disingenuously mischaracterized as “limited sanctions targeting future indebtedness.”

The Tulane University professor’s most vocal concern was that even more severe economic sanctions “would bolster his [Maduro’s] discourse that Venezuela is the target of an economic war.”

At the time, Smilde and Ramsey released a statement on behalf of WOLA praising the “virtues” of the financial embargo, which they claimed

complicate[s] the Maduro government’s finances in such a way that…will not have an immediate impact on the population (although in the longer term, they likely would).

In fact, even anti-Maduro economist Francisco Rodríguez, considered one of the world’s foremost experts on Venezuela’s economy, immediately raised fears that the coercive measures “risk worsening the country’s already deep economic crisis” (Financial Times9/12/17).

Several months later, Smilde (New York Times1/14/18) doubled down, urging Washington and its allies to “continue to pressure Mr. Maduro by deepening the current sanctions regime.”

Despite warning against “widening economic sanctions to an oil embargo,” he praised the existing financial sanctions, which he credited with “bringing the Maduro government to the negotiation table.”

The WOLA fellow’s defense of sanctions came just 48 hours after Rodríguez published another article (Foreign Policy1/12/18) revealing that Venezuelan imports had declined by a further 24 percent in the two months following the August measures, “deepening the scarcity of basic goods.”

Smilde’s indifference to Venezuelans’ suffering under the sanctions he championed was only matched by his contempt for their political will, refusing to acknowledge that over 55 percent of the population unsurprisingly opposed the noose around their economy’s neck, even according to pro-opposition pollster Datanálisis.

Even more cynically, Smilde sought to frame his endorsement of the financial blockade as dovish opposition to US military intervention: “A military strike against Venezuela would be folly,” he warned, taking the standard liberal stance that casts Western aggression as a “blunder” at worst—never a brutal crime.


Art of the Cover-Up

But as the deadly toll of US sanctions became increasingly difficult to justify, WOLA eagerly assisted the corporate media in concealing their existence.

Writing on the one-year anniversary of the sanctions, Ramsey and WOLA Andes director Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli penned an op-ed (New York Times8/29/18) accusing Maduro of having “brought his country to its knees.”

Under the ironic headline “Venezuelan Refugees Are Miserable. Let’s Help Them Out,” the authors related harrowing stories of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, with one key omission: They failed to dedicate even one line to the US financial embargo that exacerbated Venezuela’s economic crisis and fueled the “exodus” they decried.

This elision was especially glaring, given that not just Rodríguez (Foreign Policy1/12/18) but a growing number of internationally renowned intellectuals and human rights activists, including then–UN independent expert Alfred-Maurice de Zayas (Real News3/14/18), were sounding the alarm bells about the sanctions’ lethal impact.

Ramsey and Sánchez-Garzoli proceeded to blame the collapse of Colombia’s peace process on Caracas (which incidentally helped negotiate the accords), absolving Bogotá and Washington of their almost exclusive responsibility for the failure:

As the exodus grows, it also threatens to undermine Colombia’s peace process.

Colombia has promised to improve badly needed services to marginalized communities as part of an accord with FARC rebels, and the arrival of Venezuelan refugees has complicated the situation.

The authors made no mention of the Colombian state’s systematic violation of the peace accords, including the assassination of at least 75 social leaders from January through August 2018. Sánchez-Garzoli was doubtless aware of this fact, having published a WOLA statement on the very topic eight days prior.

Instead of denouncing the Colombian narco-state’s reign of terror, WOLA sympathetically urged Colombian President Iván Duque (FAIR.org7/2/19)—the protegé of ultra-right paramilitary-linked former President Álvaro Uribe—to “lead a regional protection and assistance effort for fleeing Venezuelans.” An informed reader would have to conclude that Ramsey and Sánchez-Garzoli’s purpose was to whitewash the US and its ally (Extra!4/01; FAIR.org2/1/09; Colombia Reports12/29/19) as they menaced Venezuela.

Days before Maduro’s inauguration for his second term, Smilde and Lowenthal (The Hill1/6/19) called for “the internal mobilization of a unified opposition, in tandem with international pressure” to force the Venezuelan president to enter “negotiations.” Here “international pressure” was a not-so-subtle euphemism for sanctions, which they steered clear of mentioning, let alone denouncing.

Smilde was certainly cognizant of the data pointing to a plausible causal link between the US financial blockade and Venezuela’s collapsing oil production, as WOLA published an article by Francisco Rodríguez (9/20/18) making such a case months before. Yet he and his colleague remained silent on that, preferring to encourage the right-wing opposition to unify and mobilize against the Venezuelan government—incidentally, just as the opposition had in the violent US-backed coup attempts of 20022002/0320132014 and 2017.

To this end, Smilde and Lowenthal compared the difficulty of transition from Chavista governance with the challenges faced by movements that resisted various dictatorships: Pinochet’s Chile, apartheid South Africa and Communist Poland. In reality, Chavismo’s opponents face less formidable challenges than third-party candidates in the US.


Faux Opposition to Mass Murder 

WOLA’s defense of sanctions continued after the previously unknown head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled parliament, Juan Guaidó, proclaimed himself “interim president” of the country on January 23, 2019, with Washington’s blessing.

Speaking to CNBC (1/24/19), Ramsey argued against a US oil embargo, on the grounds that the existing sanctions afforded necessary “pressure” on Maduro:

There already are a series of important sanctions against Venezuela. The US has leveled strong financial sanctions that restrict the government’s ability to get access to new debt…. I don’t think there’s any shortage of pressure. What we need is engagement.

In addition to continuing to back the sanctions, WOLA refused to call out Guaidó’s self-swearing in as a coup attempt, even though it triggered a de facto trade embargo, given that the US and its allies no longer recognized the Maduro government’s right to invoice Venezuelan oil exports.

Rather, Smilde told Democracy Now! (2/5/19) that “it’s a plausible interpretation that if there’s…not a legitimate president, it will be the National Assembly president that steps in as interim president.” He did raise concern about the US recognition of Guaidó creating “a real difficulty in Venezuela in terms of the lack of funds coming in,” but at no point did he condemn it as a coup.

WOLA released a statement criticizing the oil embargo that the Trump administration formalized on January 28, though it stopped short of calling for the illegal measure to be unconditionally rescinded.

Despite acknowledging that “sanctions have punished and weakened populations” in Zimbabwe, Syria and North Korea, the think tank merely suggested that the new measures should be lifted “if there is no way for the human cost of these oil sanctions to be avoided.” WOLA made no mention of the previous financial sanctions exacerbating “the severe hardships and suffering” that they decried.

However, as sanctions predictably caused drastic fuel shortages across Venezuela and Washington moved to tighten the deadly siege, WOLA still refused to demand that they be lifted. The fact that prominent economists Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Weisbrot published a study (CEPR, 4/19) finding the August 2017 financial sanctions responsible for an estimated 40,000 deaths over the following year was apparently of negligible concern to them.

Meanwhile, Smilde and Lowenthal were quite busy penning op-eds urging “strong international support” for Norway-mediated talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition (New York Times6/11/19The Hill7/3/19).

“Strong international support” evidently meant continuing devastating sanctions, because in neither piece did the authors call for sanctions relief.

The Times article—published five days after the Treasury Department banned the export of diluents to Venezuela, which are vital for gasoline and diesel production—did not even contain the word “sanctions.”

In the absence of any credible domestic opposition to its coup policy, the Trump administration doubled down in August, expanding the existing embargo to an Iran-style ban on dealings with the Venezuelan state, enforceable via secondary sanctions on third party actors.

WOLA teamed up with several Latin American partner organizations to issue yet another deferential statement (8/6/19) expressing “deep concern about the potential for these broad economic sanctions to aggravate Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency.”

As it had in January, WOLA politely recommended that perhaps the Trump administration should lift its illegal blockade “if there is no way to avoid the human cost of these measures and provide humanitarian assistance with the urgency and breadth that is required.”

In comments to corporate media, Ramsey criticized the escalation as an electoral ploy “built on Cold War rhetoric” (New York Times8/6/19), but he once again parroted US propaganda that sanctions were motivated by an interest in democracy (Bloomberg8/9/19):

If there are clear, verifiable signals that new presidential elections would be free and fair, the US government could be interested in ways to loosen the impact of economic sanctions without lifting them entirely.

The August 2017 financial sanctions, which Ramsey helped justify and then conceal, were levied 16 months before the deadline for Venezuelan presidential elections. Like the US embargo on Sandinista Nicaragua in the 1980s, the sanctions had absolutely nothing to do with whether Maduro won “free and fair” elections, which he had in 2013 and did again in 2018 (FAIR.org5/23/18).

Rather, the US blockade is a naked expression of imperial might, which WOLA and other Western propaganda amplifiers hide behind empty rhetoric about “democracy” and “human rights.”