Venezuela: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

What is U.S. policy regarding Venezuela seeking to achieve? One can easily think of three broad trajectories. Accept, overthrow (the rock), or undermine (the hard place).

What is U.S. policy regarding Venezuela seeking to achieve? One can easily think of three broad trajectories. 

One: accept the existence and future elaboration – in its own chosen manner – of the Bolivarian Revolution and try to make the best of relations, ties, etc. Okay, that’s obviously not on the U.S. agenda. Venezuela is a problem of potentially immense scale for the U.S. If Venezuela can manage to establish itself as a truly innovative post capitalist society – a twenty first century socialist society with popular self managing power for decentralized assemblies organized into communes, workers control of production, feminist national relations and local households, and intercommunalist culture – all of which is foreshadowed in Venezuela’s current policies and constitution – it would become a “good example” on steroids, with oil to top it off, meaning, a living breathing model of how to live better, of why history is not over, of there being a real alternative to capitalism, etc. This is serious stuff, and yes, U.S. policy will attempt to actively prevent its coming to pass.

The U.S. wants the Bolivarian experiment to end. The U.S. wants Chavez gone. The U.S. wants the Bolivarian Revolution terminated and Venezuelan society returned to the dominant elites who have always owned and administered it – at least until the current trends. Okay, but how? We are left with two remaining possible broad logics of U.S. policy. 

Most brutally, we could go in and make it so. The U.S. could militarily coerce desired outcomes. The U.S. could entrench forceful, coercive, U.S. force in Venezuela and impose social relations to our liking. Or, less brutally, the U.S. could enact policies social and militant as well, aimed to weaken Chavez and the Revolution and to strengthen its opponents, eventually leading to the opponents displacing the Bolivarians by election or by a coup, whichever seems more reliable and permanent. 

Evidence – largely but not entirely anecdotal – suggests Venezuelan officials are worrying about the first option – the military option. The worry that U.S. troops, plus Colombian surrogates, will invade and occupy the oil fields, propping up puppets with no serious base of their own, etc. The irony is that Venezuelan worries about this military option, let’s call military intervention “the rock,” understandably spurred by hostile rhetoric and behavior emanating from Washington as well as by no less real troop and materials movements, wild rumors, actual/real limited incursions, etc., fuels the second option, let’s call it the “hard place.” 

We know how the rock works. The U.S. massively violates, eradicates, and enforces. But, truth be told, from where I sit, though this is what the Venezuelans seem to fear, I think the chances of this are incredibly slight – more or less on the order of lightening striking you tomorrow as you leave your house. The U.S. can’t even pacify Afghanistan. Imagine the U.S. invading Venezuela and trying to hold the Venezuelan oil fields while imposing its will over Venezuelan social arrangements, government, workplaces, etc. There could be war all over the continent – there would certainly be, in Venezuela, a populace vastly better equipped for fighting, not only for its homeland, but literally for the government we are trying to unseat, than the oppositions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. can obliterate opponents – technically – but it can no longer wage that kind of war, in that kind of setting, to win those kinds of outcomes. Yes, I guess one possible response to the threat of a really good, and thus really dangerous, example, would be to try to literally, directly, forcefully, kill it in its early days – as we did in Grenada, say. But it is horrendously implausible that the U.S. is that stupid in a case so much larger, and so much more suited to resistance, than Grenada. So if the plausible path for the U.S. – wanting to cut short and if possible eliminate the Venezuelan threat of a good example – is not all out war, then how does the “hard place” work? 

The idea is not to directly, forcefully, overthrow an opponent country – but instead, to distort, pervert, and undo it as a good example by creating actual reasons that induce its population to resist and finally enact an electoral change or to at least stand by idly and allow a coup, or, if even that can’t be achieved, to at least undercut any claims of the dissenting society to be something really worthy of emulating elsewhere. Our elites thought this plan was ready for full fruition via a coup nearly ten years ago, wrongly. The population rose up and overthrew the coup attempt, not the Chavez government. So – our elites went back to the drawing board. 

They peck at Venezuela. They threaten it. They send in funds to finance its enemies and destabilize it and, critically, to aid  Venezuela’s dissident elites in obstructing innovative gains that would enlarge Venezuela’s public support inside and outside Venezuela. U.S. policies also provoke and compel the Bolivarians to become war ready, even to become militarily fixated and inclined to set aside domestic agendas as secondary to survival. The hard place fosters a military mindset contrary to the thinking needed for real innovation. It leads to elevating the military (a U.S. aim) rather than elevating the populace (a U..S. fear). Ideal it fosters tightened and centralized powers – with all these responses enacted courageously by the Bolivarians, in the name of resistance, but ultimately reacting, not creating – and most importantly, with all the steps obstructing and even undermining popular support, the one thing that can in fact ward off disaster. 

The he more subtle social “hard place” is that the threat of the overt military “rock” – a threat, ironically, never to be actualized – realigns political elements in Venezuela, reorients Venezuelan priorities, causes reallocation of time, resources, and funds, creates fear and even paranoia, impedes domestic decentralizing agendas, ultimately perhaps even induces centralization – and in all these ways delays, obstructs, and perhaps even perverts the Bolivarian innovation and decentalized participation that is the real danger to the U.S. In a sense, the hard place, caused by fear of the threatened rock, causes the Venezuelans to do to themselves in the name of security and survival, what the rock would – if it could – do to them forcefully. Every target of this strategy thinks they can be military without becoming militarist – but few if any can. The hard place strategy is well conceived.

This picture is not fanciful, nor pure imagination. It is simply the logic of a basic imperial agenda in a difficult context for the empire.  

Take Cuba – for decades the U.S. waged a war of terror against that little Island. The island persisted – and survived – and Cubans and most international leftists take its survival as a great victory against the elephant of imperialism. And viewed one way, it certainly is.

But, viewed in light of a more ambitious set of Cuban aims to create a truly exemplary society or of U.S. aims to prevent such creation from succeeding, the danger of Cuba was that a Cuban approach to policy and actions as it was developing in the early years would spread by emulation to other Caribbean, South American, African, Asian, and European countries, and to the U.S. as well. In its early days Cuba was like a beacon of hope. It was an experiment with incredible promise and wide support. But the U.S. then engaged it in a violent and secretive ugly dance, plus, of course, imposed an embargo that went on and on, and the ugly dance and derivative dependence of Cuba on the Russians together limited the good example into something less attractive then it had threatened to become. Washington didn’t occupy Cuba with Marines and militarily impose its will on the innovations coming from Havana, but it did put a lid on how good the good example could be.

When the Cubans responded to American criminality by becoming more military in mindset – however seemingly warranted that choice was – it entailed seeing survival as victory and slowly but surely revamping their agendas from a socially promising wildly experimental and innovative approach that initially excited the world, to accommodate a military approach. One might say the hard place propelled reversion from revolutionary optimism to progressive centralism – sacrificing what would and should have been steadily escalating social growth and participation on a humane path to instead trying to cling to good features and mainly survive. And this was a victory for the U.S., not a defeat.

As another example, nearly everyone on the left thinks the U.S. lost the war in Indochina – but why? The purpose of the war was not to set up a mini White House in Vietnam, though doing so may well have been a welcome outcome. The bottom line purpose was again to prevent a good example from arising. It was to display the cost of deviating from our will, on the one hand, and, even more so, to ensure that the “deviant country” lost its way and went from charting a path not only of independence but also of hopeful social development, to more familiar modes of state survival, centralization, etc. This is why Chomsky says the U.S. in fact won in Indochina – which of course it did… because the purpose of war, much less the threat of war, is rarely only military.

So what to do? 

Suppose you are Venezuela. The U.S. sends covert and overt messages and policies, viciously hostile to your chosen agenda. Do you succumb to threats and become largely compliant to ward off intervention – one might say, more or less like Brazil – which, however, also means the good example is not developed? 

Or do you fight the evidenced U.S. threat on its own terms, and become a bit more militarist, centralized, and allied with a few odd and certainly not progressive isolated countries, etc. with each new month and year of resistance – and thus, again, no longer nearly so good an example and perhaps, in time, not much of an example at all? 

Or – do you somehow push through a steadily escalating set of revolutionary innovations that cause the population to become ever more engaged, ever more conscious and militant in defense not just of hopes, but of real substance – while increasingly humanizing outcomes and thus continuing to create a truly good example – and, as well, at the same time supporting and enlarging the one force at your disposal that can, perhaps, restrain and even overcome the American external threat, that is, not your own fledgling military power, but popular support from local, regional, international, and even U.S. constituencies?

Getting ready for war, even to ward off war, looks like it is standing up to the monster. It looks like it is being revolutionary – being strong, being militant. Anyone who says, do less of that, can be called cowardly or naive, to dismiss them. And the military grows. But the thesis here is that getting ready for war, even to ward off war, is sadly, all too often, actually doing the monster’s bidding. To successfully navigate the threat of the rock and the potential reality of the hard place mainly entails ridiculing the monster’s madness while advancing as the highest priority one’s own domestic agendas. Appearances aside, that is standing up to the monster. That is doing what the monster is seeking to obstruct. 

Venezuela has some real and serious problems. The U.S. is one, yes, of course. But the more daunting problems obstructing Venezuela attaining a worthy and hopefully even optimal revolutionary result are its own capitalists blocking social construction and development, its own entrenched old bureaucrats blocking local popular participation, teaching subservience, and often robbing the public, Venezuela’s local police forces creating fear and absconding with wealth, Venezuela’s own mass media blaming all the ills caused by old style elites and American obstruction on Chavez, and even Venezuela’s own population which is still insufficiently involved in the revolution, still insufficiently aroused by it, and mainly still insufficiently directing it. These are the problems that need to be addressed, powerfully, effectively – and getting into a defensive mentality of military preparedness is highly likely to psychologically and materially obstruct this all important agenda. Or that’s how it seems from here – and I suspect that’s how it seems from Washington, too.