Above the roar of the street, modern history can be heard whispering four warnings to Venezuela.
The first is that America does not permit democratic nationalist governments, like the government of Chavez and his heirs, in Latin America. America sees Central and South America as its backyard, and it is a rule that you get to play with the things that are in your backyard: like natural resources. But truly democratic governments are responsive to the will of their citizens. The will of the citizens will always be to keep the wealth of their nation’s resources in the hands of the people of their nation. And nationalists are willing to do that by nationalizing those resources. So, if you’re a democratic nationalist in America’s backyard, you must go.
The first Latin American democratic nationalist to be kicked out of America’s backyard was Nicaragua’s Santos Zelaya in 1909. Taft ordered his removal when he insisted that American companies in his country honour their agreements.
In 1951, Jacobo Arbenz redistributed the 20% of Guatemalan land that was in the hands of United Fruit and regulated United Fruit and other major American companies in his country. In 1954, Eisenhower ordered his removal.
The Kennedy administration planned the coup that removed Brazil’s Goulart government in 1964 and brought to power a military junta that crushed the seeds of nationalism planted in Brazil. The Kennedy administration would also attempt to take Castro out of power in Cuba. It is not often pointed out that, as John Prados reminds us, before 1959, Castro had not yet become a communist. The Americans began to fear Castro, not because he was a communist, but because he began a program of nationalization, including nationalizing American businesses. Noam Chomsky says the U.S. feared Castro’s independent nationalism.
The next to go was Chile’s Salvador Allende. Allende nationalized the copper mining corporation and the Chilean Telephone Company. This time it was Nixon who ordered his removal in 1970.
Ecuador’s Jamie Roldós introduced a policy that ensured that Ecuador’s oil wealth would benefit the people of Ecuador. In 1981, Roldós died in a plane crash. Two months later, Panama’s Omar Torrijo would also die in a plane crash. Torrijo had tried to nationalize the Panama Canal. That plane crash turned out to be a CIA assassination.
Most recently, Honduras’ Manuel Zelaya was removed from power in a coup. Zelaya had refused to privatize his country’s telecommunications industry. And, of course, Venezuela’ Hugo Chavez was briefly forced from power in a 2002 coup.
Democratic nationalists have been swept aside by the U.S. beyond its backyard too. Mohammad Mosaddeq was removed in a coup because he nationalized Iran’s oil industry. And Patrice Lumamba would be “eliminated” for letting the wealth of the Congo benefit the people of the Congo.
History whispers this warning in Nicolás Maduro’s ear.
The second warning is the recent realization that democracy has a curious feature. It is the nature of democracy that the majority of people, not the unanimity of people, select the government. In most cases, that leaves a large minority of disaffected people whose numbers are too small to change the government in the polls, but whose numbers can be made to look massive in the street. When focused on and amplified by the Western media, the very same group that was too small to change the government democratically in the polls can appear to be a massive social movement that can change the government in the streets. A mob minority protesting in the streets produces a cry heard more loudly around the world than a silent majority in a secret and sound proof polling booth. But the crowd in the street is the same group who lost the election in the polls. Democracy is replaced by street protest.
The first experiment in this kind of regime change took place in the streets of Iran in 2009 when the West picked up and amplified the claims of the defeated Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his Green Movement. The West echoed and amplified his claim that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had fraudulently stolen the election. The claims of fraud were used to delegitimize the government and legitimize a social movement in the streets whose real aim was to reverse the democratic decision and win in the streets what it couldn’t win in the polls.
Mousavi never delivered the expected case for electoral fraud. And, as Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett have shown, fourteen methodologically sound polls, including polls run by Canadian and American polling organizations, show the predictability and legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s convincing 62.5% share of the vote. But a 37.5% disaffected minority leaves fifteen million Iranians to take to the streets. The Green Movement never came anywhere close to those numbers. But when picked up and amplified by the Western media, those numbers in the street appear to make a strong democratic case to back regime change. And, rather than recognize the legitimacy of the government elected by the majority of the people, the U.S. supported the claims of the Green Movement and provided an umbrella under which they could take to the streets and attempt a regime change.
A similar paradigm may have been instantiated in the streets of Egypt where a massive social movement took out the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi.
And the paradigm appeared again in Venezuela. With the death of Chavez, opponents of the Bolivarian Revolution hoped to win in the polls in a way they had repeatedly failed to do while Chavez was alive. But Chavez’ successor, Nicolás Maduro, handed them yet another defeat, and the revolution continued. His opponent, and America’s choice, Henrique Capriles, demanded an audit, not only of the automatically audited 54% of voting machines (an audit that found no problems), but of all of them. Even though Maduro said that he was open to the 100% audit, Capriles called on his supporters to take to the streets. The Western media focused its lenses, not on the reelection of Chavez’ party or on every country in the world recognizing the election’s result except the United States, but, as with Iran’s Green Movement, on the opposition’s claims of fraud and on the social movement in the streets.
The U.S. State Department continued not to recognize Maduro even though 150 electoral monitors from around the world monitored Venezuela’s election, including delegations from the Union of South American Nations and the Carter Centre.
As in Iran, America’s refusal to recognize the elected government and her legitimization of the protest in the streets provided cover to the opposition while it attempted to overturn the election results and overthrow the elected government. America’s cooperation with Capriles amounted to America’s cooperation with another Venezuelan coup attempt.
And so, history whispers a warning about the current protests in the streets. In the recent municipal elections, the Venezuelan opposition hoped the Chavez’ glow had worn of off Maduro. It hadn’t. Maduro and his allies won 76% of the mayoral races in a municipal election that saw an impressive 58.92% turnout.
Frustrated, after a failed coup attempt in 2002 and repeated defeats in the polls both to Chaves and Maduro, the opposition once again took to the street. Right wing opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez – who was involved in the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez—called for his supporters to take to the streets. Leaving no doubt that the goal was, once again, coup, Lopez insisted that the violence would go on until they “got rid of Maduro.”
And, just like last time, the U.S. backed, not the numbers in the polls, but the smaller numbers in the street. While the Mercosur governments of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela released a statement describing the opposition violence in the streets as “attempts to destabilize the democratic order,” the U.S. is helping them to destabilize the democratic order.
The third warning is the reminder that America does not allow threats to its hegemony by permitting the existence of competing alternative forms of government. History only has to whisper the story of Venezuela’s ally, Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Noam Chomsky has written about Cuba’s threat to America being the threat of the “contagious example.” Plans for regime change emerged, not because of communism or because of a Russian connection: neither of these threats had emerged yet. Castro’s Cuba, like Chavez’ Venezuela, provided an alternative model. Castro represented a “successful defiance” of the United States that “challenged U.S. hegemony in Latin America.” The fear was that the Cuban model could be a contagion that would affect other Latin American countries.
This pattern is well established. Diana Johnstone says that, in order to protect its hegemony, America needs to sweep aside any “viable alternative.” She says that “the basic, intolerable alternative” is “a government of a sovereign state determined to control its own resources and markets”. That definition applies to Castro’s Cuba and to Venezuela’s experiment in participatory democracy. Johnstone says that this pattern also applied to Yugoslavia during the NATO bombings: “As a nominally socialist country with considerable third world relationships thanks to its leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia could be seen as a potential alternative model.” History whispers reminders about Cuba and Yugoslavia.
And the fourth warning is that regime change sometimes comes about by the creation of instability and danger in the street that justifies foreign intervention on humanitarian grounds. Johnstone explains: “. . . when real or potential rebel groups are made to understand that Great Powers can arbitrarily decide to intervene on the basis of a “humanitarian catastrophe”, the incentive becomes enormous to manufacture just such a catastrophe, or the appearance of such a catastrophe, in order to get decisive military support from outside.” In Fools’ Crusade, Johnstone argues that that occurred in Yugoslavia. Similar strategies may recently have been attempted in Libya and Syria.
When elections can’t remove the government, and your domestic military won’t remove the government because they support it, as in Venezuela, then there is an incentive to create an instability that is inviting to foreign military powers. The instability being created in Venezuela may not just be to turn the people against the government, then: it may have a more sinister intent.
A June 2013 document entitled “Strategic Venezuelan Plan” was authored by the former President of Columbia, Alvaro Uribe’s Democratic Internationalism Foundation, the First Columbian Think Tank, the U.S. consulting firm FTI Consulting, the Director of USAID for Latin America and leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, including Maria Corina Machado, a leading player in the current protests. The plan’s intent is to destabilize Venezuela in order to “facilitate an opposition victory.” In order to facilitate the change in government, the plan sets out the intention to “Create situations of crisis in the streets that will facilitate U.S. intervention, as well as NATO forces, with the support of the Columbian government.” The plan tacks on the line “Whenever possible, the violence should result in death or injuries.”
So, as the scenes of mass protest appear on T.V. screens and descriptions of mass protest fill the newspapers of North America, history reminds us to interpret those media reports not just through the media lens, but through the lens of history that reminds us that America does not allow democratic nationalist governments to survive in her backyard, that the large group of protestors in the streets is often the same minority group that lost in the polls, that alternative models of government like Venezuela’s participatory government are swept aside to preserve American hegemony and that chaos and violence in the streets is often a deliberate invitation for foreign intervention to accomplish a change in regime that couldn’t be accomplished domestically.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in U.S. foreign policy and history.