There are no U.S. troops in Venezuela, but, make no mistake, the war is on. There is more than one way to change a regime. Recent history has shown the United States that the most obvious one, the one employed or permitted in Honduras, will not work in Venezuela. That has already been tried. When the U.S. backed coup took Chavez out in 2002, the people simply put the popular leader back in.
So the U.S. seems to be turning to a subtler method that has worked for them before. The campaign has three prongs: media, government and diplomacy, and indirect military pressure. The target of the campaign is the September 26th National Assembly elections that will pit Chavez’ supporters against the U.S. backed right wing opposition. If the plan works, the opposition will take over the national assembly and perhaps even move to impeach Chavez.
The first prong of the attack is being carried out by the media. There is a large media campaign which is spreading lies and creating the impression that Chavez’ popularity is failing and that there is dissention in his government and in the army. It is spreading a picture of a nation in crisis under Chavez’ leadership. Despite the media misrepresentation, reliable polls still peg Chavez’ support as hovering around the usual 60%. Seemingly recognizing the strategy, Chavez has tried to call the opposition media’s bluff by challenging them, if they really believe his popularity is failing, to prove it by invoking a recall referendum. Recall referendums in Venezuela allow the people to recall elected officials if 20% of the electorate signs it (funny constitutional clause for a supposedly undemocratic dictatorship). Along with disseminating a picture of a government out of control, the international media also kicks in by increasing the volume on the discrediting calls that Venezuela is undemocratic and that Chavez is a dictator.
Meanwhile, alongside assassinations of union and more than 250 peasant leaders by right wing paramilitaries, violent antigovernment demonstrations are breaking out in the streets. The media is giving wide coverage to these small demonstrations, again creating the impression of wide spread dissent and failing support for Chavez. But while these demonstrations make the news, the international media is ignoring the massive, and much larger, pro Chavez demonstrations, creating a very misleading picture of popular opinion in Venezuela.
The media effort is supported by a political and diplomatic front. According to Frederico Fuentes, the right wing opposition in Venezuela is backed by the U.S. Mark Weisbrot says that while U.S. money pours into Venezuela, the government refuses to disclose whose getting it. And U.S., and even Canadian, diplomats and officials throw their contribution into the campaign. Hilary Clinton started it off on her recent trip to Brazil, firing insults at Venezuela, while the Brazilians diplomatically and wittily defended Venezuela from the American salvoes.
The third prong is the application of military pressure on those who might slow down Chavez’ Bolivarian revolution out of fear of U.S. reprisal. And the pressure is substantial. Obama has reactivated the navy’s Fourth Fleet, disbanded over half a century ago. It is now patrolling off the shores of South America. And on land, the U.S. presence has swelled with seven new bases in bordering Columbia and four in her neighbour, Panama. Thousands of troops now in nearby Haiti add to the presence staring Venezuela down.
Can this subtler approach to regime change work? A similar misinformation campaign did work in 2007—just barely–when Chavez suffered his first defeat of any kind in a referendum on constitutional reform. But the attempt to bring down a government in this way is really an old plan, going back to the play book of the Eisenhower CIA. The pattern is eerily familiar and, therefore, ominous.
The first CIA coups were Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. In Iran, as in Venezuela, the media played an important role. The New York Times regularly branded popularly elected nationalist and democrat Mohammad Mosaddeq a dictator: just like Chavez. Other media outlets did the same and worse. The CIA created a false flood of anti Mosaddeq protests and ignited riots, allowing the local press, embellishing their stories with lies and accusations, to create the impression that the country was sliding into chaos. Again, all just like Venezuela. The coup in Guatemala a year later also involved a fake CIA radio station broadcasting fake reports to create the impression of popular unrest and military rebellion against the government. Here too the U.S. press and elected officials dishonestly vilified the popularly democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz. And here, too, as in Venezuela, there was the ever present military threat.
So a pattern emerges in Venezuela that history warns could be threatening. It all suggests the attempt to interfere in Venezuelan politics in a forceless, but no less subtly forceful way.