The US Strategy for Regime Change in Venezuela

The CEPR’s Alex Main and TRNN’s Greg Wilpert discuss the trajectory of US regime change policy in Venezuela through to the present coup in progress backed by the Trump administration.

From economic sanctions to international pressure, how has the US strategy for regime change in Venezuela worked until now? An analysis with CEPR’s Alex Main and TRNN’s Greg Wilpert.

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

On Wednesday, President Trump announced that the United States will recognize the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela. President Maduro, in response, announced that he is cutting off diplomatic ties and the embassy’s diplomatic staff has 72 hours to leave the country. All this was triggered shortly after Juan Guaido, who is the president of the National Assembly in Venezuela, swore himself in as the president.

Now, Juan Guaido swore himself in on the claim that Nicolas Maduro, the current president of Venezuela, is illegitimate, and that given that the president and the vice president is illegitimate, that he is the next in line for the presidency. Yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence set the stage for all of this by making an announcement directed at Venezuelans, urging them to rise up against President Maduro.

MIKE PENCE: On behalf of President Donald Trump and all the American people, let me express the unwavering support of the United States, as you, the people of Venezuela, raise your voices in a call for freedom. Nicolas Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power. The United States joins with all freedom loving nations in recognizing the National Assembly as the last vestige of democracy in your country, for it’s the only body elected by you, the people. As such, the United States supports the courageous decision by Juan Guaido, the president of your National Assembly, to assert that body’s constitutional powers, declare Maduro a usurper and call for the establishment of a transitional government.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, leading up to all of this, tens of thousands of Venezuelans had taken to the streets of Caracas on the 61st anniversary of the overthrow of Venezuela’s last dictator, Marcos Perez Jimenez. Now, supporters of President Maduro also took to the streets, because this is an annual event that both sides, or just Venezuelans in general, come to celebrate. But these demonstrations, and particularly the opposition demonstration, was manipulated to make it look like that these were large protests demonstrating the overthrow, or desire to overthrow, Nicolas Maduro.

Now, what is happening in Venezuela is of course the topic of this discussion. And joining us from New York today is Alex Main. He’s the director of the International Policy Department at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC. And also joining me here in our studio is Gregory Wilpert. He is our Managing Editor here at The Real News and he’s also the author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. Gentlemen, I thank you both for joining me.

GREG WILPERT: My pleasure.

ALEX MAIN: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Alex let me start with you. You work for a CEPR directing policy, so you have a lot of hands on experience in Washington in terms of trying to make sense of the foreign policy of the U.S. towards Venezuela. And there has been some strategic efforts here on the part of the U.S. to cripple Venezuela’s economy, to of course, organize the region against Venezuela. Give us a sense of the strategies that the U.S. government and the Trump administration in particular has been up to in recent months.

ALEX MAIN: Well, this administration has been deploying a number of strategies over the last few years. Really, they sort of support an ongoing strategy of regime change in Venezuela that we’ve seen for a very long time, starting with the George W. Bush administration. And really it continued, to a great extent, under the Obama administration, though perhaps not quite as overtly as it’s become, again, very overt under President Trump. And particularly since August of 2017, when he put into place economic sanctions that have literally starved the economy of much needed international funding at a time when the economy, of course, has been in a serious crisis.

So it’s reminiscent of the sort of U.S. policy that we saw towards Chile in the early 1970s, when I think it’s Kissinger or Nixon who famously said, “We’re going to make the economy scream.” And certainly, the economy of Venezuela has been screaming. It has to do a lot with some of the flawed economic policies of the Maduro government itself, but it’s really grown much worse since these sanctions were put into place. And then there’s been a lot of talk of military intervention and of coups from people both within the administration, such as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and people very close to the administration who have had a great deal of influence on Venezuela policy, such as Marco Rubio, who has entertained the idea of a coup to solve Venezuela’s problems, so to speak.

And now we’re seeing a strategy of complete nonrecognition. Really to be fair, this administration never really recognized the Maduro government. After the elections that took place that first elected Maduro, the Obama administration, of course, hadn’t really recognized the results and had sort of followed the hard line opposition in not recognizing the results of those elections. Then they sort of learned to live with the government, but now they are coming out saying that they no longer recognize the government as being legitimate. And I think what’s very clear is that with all these threats, with the sanctions and so on, they’re really trying to find breaches within Venezuela’s armed forces. Really, they are seen sort of as the arbiter, unfortunately, they’re seen sort of as the arbiter of political outcomes in Venezuela today. And I think there’s a very concerted effort to try to provoke the armed forces into supporting this newly heralded opposition leader who was unknown until really just weeks ago.

And of course, there are reports that came out earlier last year that very senior-level Trump administration officials have been meeting with dissident Venezuelan army officers, ones that were very clearly seeking support for a military coup. So I think that’s what’s happening here, and we’ll have to see. I mean, to date the armed forces, or at least the bulk of the armed forces and certainly the high command of the armed forces of Venezuela, has now wanted to get involved in this way in politics, and hopefully, that will remain the case. But obviously, we’re under a tremendous amount of pressure this time.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Greg. Now, for those who are just joining us and wasn’t a part of the previous Livestream we had done on Venezuela as this news broke, give us a sense of what are some of the events that have taken place in the recent past that has led to this situation today.

GREG WILPERT: Well first of all, as Alex mentioned, efforts to overthrow both the Chavez government and then the Maduro government go way back, and of course, found its most important expression in the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. But more recently, these efforts, of course, have intensified, and I assume that the reasons they’ve intensified are several fold. First, there was the death of President Chavez, and that certainly looked like an opening for the opposition and for the U.S. government to overthrow the government, and that’s when they organized massive protests already, right after that election. Then the economic crisis, the decline in oil prices, misguided economic policies on the part of the Maduro government that led to hyperinflation, led I think to the sanctions, that further intensified the economic situation.

And then, of course, we also have, from a couple of months ago, the assassination attempt using bombs on drones that attacked Maduro during a military parade. And that was foiled, but that was the clearest indication yet of the efforts to overthrow Maduro. He himself, later on, went on to say that more attempts will be coming and he specifically identified Mike Pence and John Bolton and Marco Rubio as being behind these efforts. And this was then shortly later, I think, confirmed with both of their, that is, Pence’s and Bolton’s trip throughout Latin America, where they toured various governments and put pressure on them to turn against Venezuela, not that they needed much pushing, considering that they visited mostly conservative governments. Of course, Ecuador, I think, was an interesting exception that at least for a while wasn’t considered conservative, but now should be considered part of that conservative camp.

And then we also had some interesting events that showed fractures within the security apparatus of the Venezuelan government, first of the kind of arrest of the opposition leader, Juan Guaido, which turned out to be a fake arrest. Guaido himself said that they were actually sympathizers of his and they immediately let him free and were basically telling him to do something, basically. And then the incident of national guard soldiers basically trying to steal weapons, 27 of them ended up being arrested, this happened just yesterday. So we had a number of different incidents that really led up to this. And we knew that already, Juan Guaido, when he first took office of the National Assembly, he said that he was basically intending something like this, that he wasn’t recognizing President Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela, and already suggested that something like this would be coming sooner or later.

I think what took people by surprise more than anything, although we saw warning signs for this as well, was the recognition by the U.S. government by and by the OAS Secretary General, and now a whole bunch of other conservative governments in the region, that Maduro is not the legitimate president, according to them.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Alex. Give us a sense of the kind of support that the opposition in Venezuela, and I guess Juan Guido in particular, are getting from the international community, at least in the region now. U.S. has of course endorsed him swearing himself in as the president, as I said earlier, but at the same time we have countries that in the past may have remained neutral in the situation in Latin America coming forward and endorsing Juan Guaido. And this is very surprising, particularly coming from Canada, from Ecuador. We’re not surprised with both Bolsonaro in Brazil, given that he and the Trump administration has already declared an affinity with each other in terms of the region. But what do you make of the support that Juan Guaido is getting from the region?

ALEX MAIN: Well, on the one hand, as Greg was pointing out, there are a lot of conservative governments out there now in Latin America. There’s been a big swing to the right. And you have right wing and far right wing governments, such as in Brazil, that are completely aligned, really, with the U.S. strategy of regime change in Venezuela. And so, it’s a geopolitical context that is very difficult for Venezuela at the moment, it has very few allies. But what is surprising to me is to what extent they’re ready to accept such an intense level of intervention in internal politics. Because traditionally in Latin America, there’s been a very strong reticence to that sort of thing, coming obviously from the history of U.S. intervention in the region.

And so, there’s been actually–and I think the case of Cuba is sort of emblematic of that, of how Latin American governments both on the right and the left have been very much opposed to the U.S. strategy of regime change in Cuba for a very long time. So it’s surprising to see them go quite this far in the case of Venezuela, but I think it has something to do with the fact that Venezuela is not just an outlier in political terms in the region now, but is a country that. Represents a real threat to the right regionally, to the extent that if they recover economically, if oil prices go up again, it can become once again a regional powerhouse as it was under Chavez, it can have a great deal of influence politically around the region. And of course, Venezuela was a real leader in the sort of pink tide of left governments that emerged in the early 2000s, and they were quite strong until 2009, 2010.

And so, I think what’s going on in part is a real fear that Venezuela could make a comeback, so to speak. At the moment, they’re really crippled economically. I mean, they’re in a very, very difficult situation that the U.S. has made much more difficult. And no other countries have imposed these sorts of economic sanctions against Venezuela, but of course, since most of international financial institutions, private and public, works through the United States, United States sanctions have a tremendous amount of effect. So anyway, yeah, I’m on the one hand, not surprised, on the other hand, to a certain extent, surprised that they would accept this level of intervention. That’s a really bad precedent. And of course, it violates international law, it violates the OAS charter, interfering to this extent in the internal politics of another country.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Greg. Now, there’s been tremendous internal economic strife on the people of Venezuela for the last five, almost six years now, and this could lead the people, I mean the discontent is so great that the people would tend to support any change, even legitimate or not, but people are suffering. Now, what can the government do? I mean, we have to actually face the fact that a lot of this economic strife could’ve been evaded by the government if they had introduced certain economic policies sooner and addressed the problem more head on. So if you were advising the government, what would you be saying to them?

GREG WILPERT: Well, there’s kind of an issue that we discussed here on another report on The Real News with Mark Weisbrot, who points out that the current sanctions on Venezuela make it very difficult to do a course correction, not impossible, but extremely difficult. And the big problem is that Venezuela, that I think the Maduro government did not implement a sensible exchange rate policy, so it created a tremendous amount of opportunity for corruption. And when the political crisis hit, there was a tremendous amount of capital flight, which created a huge gap between the official exchange rate and the black market exchange rate, and this led to incredible opportunities for corruption in Venezuela. And that problem was never really fixed. The government has tried to various economic reforms, but none of them really went far enough to actually address this or resolve this fundamental problem. And so, that’s kind of the heart of the economic problem in my opinion and I think in the opinion of many other economists who have looked at this.

But right now, they’re facing, on top of this economic problem, this political problem, this geopolitical problem, really, which could lead to an actual civil war like situation. I think we have to be very clear on this, and that’s why I think, regardless of what you think of what the Maduro government has done economically or politically, it one should not allow things to come to the situation where a civil war actually begins. That is, as Alex mentioned, there is this hope on the part of the Trump administration and of the radical opposition–one should keep in mind that there’s also the moderate opposition that does not pursue this particular course of action and actually has not endorsed Guaido as the president. But this radical opposition and the Trump administration are pursuing a course where they’re hoping for a military uprising that will completely destroy the country would put everyone’s lives in danger. And the U.S. bears all the responsibility for this kind of situation, if it were to come to pass.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Alex. Now, the Trump administration seems to be very clear on where they are at. Where is Congress and Senate, are there members within these bodies that might take a different position than the Trump administration, and is there any hope that there is dissent in terms of endorsing Guaido in this way? And is there anything that Congress can do? Doesn’t some of this actual responsibility for this kind of foreign policy lie on the part of Congress?

ALEX MAIN: Well, to the extent that the Trump administration is engaging in sort of illegal, illegal under international law, illegal intervention, the Congress should try to serve as a check to that and hold the government accountable. Unfortunately, most of the leadership of Congress, I think, is really just about as bad on Venezuela, and this is for a variety of reasons. But I think one of the main ones is that there’s no pushback from any sectors. Certainly, a lot of the Venezuelans that are here in the U.S., the diaspora, are very often favorable to U.S. intervention. And it’s also the impact of Florida politics, where for a very long time, and unfortunately it continues to remain the case, essentially the very conservative Latino sectors that we find in South Florida and in other parts of the country, such as a more limited extent in New Jersey, for instance. They have an enormous influence on certain members of Congress.

And these members of Congress tend to congregate in the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where of course, they have a lot more leverage over U.S. policy in Latin America. And so, the priority for these sectors has been, traditionally, regime change in Cuba, but it’s shifted more and more towards Venezuela, in part because Venezuela is seen, I think mistakenly, as propping up the Cuban government somehow, but also because again, because of Venezuela’s enormous potential regional influence as an oil power. So they really have a bullseye on Venezuela and they have had for a very long time, and they’ve played a very big role in shaping policy.

Now, you do have certain progressive sectors that have opposed, really, both Obama and Trump, on certain policies towards Venezuela, and particularly sanctions, which they quite rightly identified as harmful to ordinary Venezuelans, but also having a polarizing effect in Venezuela and on Venezuelan politics, and sort of serving to bolster the more hard line forces on both sides of the political divide, thereby really undermining efforts to have dialogue. And there have been efforts that have been scuttled in the past by hard line sectors, with support from hardliners such as Senator Marco Rubio, and there are new efforts that are under way. And unfortunately, the position that the U.S. is taking, and that of course Brazil has followed and Canada has followed now, Ecuador as well, risks further polarizing things politically.

Certainly, there is a risk of civil war, particularly if there is a real breach within the armed forces. And that could occur, and things could get very violent, very ugly and they would have very detrimental effects, not just for the people of Venezuela, but really regionally Latin America. It would certainly have spillover effects.

SHARMINI PERIES: Greg, what is the responsibility of the military now? And a lot rests with the military and how they will act. In the past they have opted for keeping peace and the least amount of violence possible. Do you think that will be the case?

GREG WILPERT: Well, it’s very hard to say. I said in the previous segment that I think it varies, of course, according to rank, where I think the generals would probably hold with Maduro, but we don’t know. The big unknown is whether the midlevel and lower officers will perhaps organize something against Maduro. There are just too many of them, it’s too difficult to know what everybody’s thinking. And they are also suffering from the economic crisis, and so some of them might be motivated because of that. Plus, they’re not benefiting from–many of them actually are benefiting from corruption, but some of them don’t, because they don’t have access to those kinds of benefits. Or others might not care, and say that, “Well, we can make even more money under a corrupt opposition government, which is definitely a possibility.

So we just don’t know what’s going to happen to those. I think that’s really the big question. But the main thing, I think, really is that the opposition really needs to come to its senses in Venezuela and negotiate with the Maduro government. The Maduro government has offered to negotiate with the opposition. As a matter of fact, as I said, there’s moderate opposition figures who have offered to negotiate as well. And I think the government also needs to make real compromise, I mean in the sense that it needs to recognize how dangerous the situation is. I think Maduro should not just blithely believe that everything is going to be fine. This is a very, very serious situation at the moment, I think, and that means in order to prevent bloodshed, it means actually conceding something to the opposition. That’s my opinion. Because if they don’t, we could get into, like Alex and I have said, into a civil war situation.

SHARMINI PERIES: What does that look like, conceding to the opposition?

GREG WILPERT: It’s hard to say. I mean, it could even involve another presidential election, perhaps. I mean, something like that, something dramatic. I know that sounds crazy for some people on the Chavista side to contemplate, but it would have to be a managed transition, which it would be, I think, if there is an election. Even if the opposition were to win, it would not mean a total loss of power. They still have many other institutions. It would be a managed transition, whereas if the course that the radical opposition and the course that the Trump administration is seeking is a complete break. They want to get rid of, wipe Chavismo off the face of the earth, and that would probably only happen with bloodshed. And that’s why I’m saying in order to prevent that, it would mean a compromise that has to be made by the government.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Alex. Let me give you the last word. As far as Washington is concerned, and if there are people in Congress that want to evade bloodshed and this worsening of the situation in Venezuela, what should happen now?

ALEX MAIN: Well, more people need to be paying attention in Congress, because like I said, unfortunately, they’ve allowed sort of the radical right wingers with a radical interventionist agenda in Latin America to have the upper hand in the discussion on Latin America, to really shape the policy agenda. So there just needs to be more involvement of progressives. They should have been more involved earlier, and they have spoken out occasionally. But really, what we’re seeing now, there was so much support for the normalization effort of Obama that came from the bulk of Democrats and even a number of Republicans. And that was obviously rational, reasonable policy. And yet, we’re not seeing that in the case of Venezuela. People turned a blind eye, they just haven’t felt any need, any pressure to do so.

But we’re seeing a real conflagration, a situation that could become a huge problem, ultimately, for the United States. You destabilize Venezuela, you end up destabilizing, frankly, a big part of the region, certainly the Andean region. And that’s something that should be of concern, and members of Congress should want to preempt what we could really characterize as destabilization tactics that are being employed by the Trump administration.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. We here at The Real News will continue to have this discussion about what’s unfolding in Venezuela and what can be done about it. I have been speaking with Alex Main, he’s the Director of International Policy at the Center for Economic Policy and Research in Washington, DC. And I’ve been speaking with our Managing Editor here at The Real News Network. And his book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, is to be noted in this situation. I thank you so much for joining us, both Alex and Greg.


ALEX MAIN: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And we’ll continue this discussion tomorrow here on The Real News Network, so do join us and thank you for joining us.