On February 15, 2003, in the face of the looming US-led war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the Spanish state saw the biggest demonstrations in its history. Part of a worldwide anti-war outpouring, about four million people turned out on the day, with 1.3 million in Barcelona, a million in Madrid and half-a-million in Valencia.
Leaders of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) were among those at the head of these oceanic demonstrations, which directly targeted the conservative Spanish People’s Party (PP) government of prime minister José María Aznar.
Aznar, who had previously backed the failed December 2002 right-wing coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, was an enthusiastic partner in the “coalition of the willing” with US president George Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair, and sent troops to Iraq. However, partly as a result of the immense February 2003 mobilisations, PSOE opposition leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero won the 2004 Spanish general election, replaced Aznar as prime minister and brought Spain’s soldiers back home.
On December 2, 2004, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, foreign minister of the new PSOE government, provided the foreign affairs commission of the Spanish congress with damning evidence of the Aznar government’s support for the coup against Chávez. The PP administration’s public pronouncements had not only reproduced the message of the coup-plotters, led by businessman Pedro Carmona, it had also described Carmona’s cabinet as a “transitional government”, when it was already indisputable that a coup was under way.
Carmona had spoken to Aznar personally during the coup attempt and in his dispatches to Madrid the Spanish ambassador to Venezuela, Manuel Viturro, had repeated the coup-plotter’s lie that Chávez had signed a resignation letter as president. The Spanish government, which had the European Union presidency at the time and knew that the coup had no constitutional basis, had produced a declaration calling on the “transitional government” of Venezuela to respect democratic values. It had also issued a joint statement with the United States “urging the Organisation of American States to help consolidate the institutions of democracy”. France, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina refused to co-sign this statement.
At no time did the Aznar’s government condemn the coup or call for the release of Chávez, who was being held in a military base in Caracas. It was the last player in the whole drama — after the United States and the OAS — to condemn the coup once popular mobilisation and army officers loyal to the Venezuelan president had defeated it.
It’s coup time again
Now fast forward to January 23, 2019 in Venezuela’s capital Caracas. It is the sixty-fifth anniversary of the 1954 overthrow of Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, traditionally celebrated with mass marches by the country’s different political formations. The Trump administration has decided the day has come to launch Washington’s next coup attempt against Venezuela’s Bolivarian government. It is guided by National Security Adviser John Bolton, who had helped build the myth of Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” as an under-secretary for George W. Bush.
Among the pressures urging this course of action on the Trump presidency is the chance to “make America great again” by reimposing imperialist domination in its “own backyard,” in a context of unfavourable developments in the Middle East (forced military withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan) and favourable developments in the “backyard” itself (election of the ultra-right Bolsonaro government in Brazil, adding to right-wing governments in Colombia, Chile and Argentina and the turncoat Ecuadorian administration of Lenin Moreno).
Thus, National Assembly speaker Juan Guaidó is picked by Washington as its president to replace elected president Nicolás Maduro and is urged by US vice-president Mike Pence to proclaim himself interim head of state before the crowd of opposition supporters. This is done on the spurious pretext that Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution allows the National Assembly speaker to replace a president who has become “incapacitated for office”. Within 15 minutes, usurper Guaidó is recognised as “interim president” by the US, to be followed by right-wing governments in Latin America and obedient US allies like Canada and Australia.
This new coup attempt became thinkable for Washington because of the dwindling mass support for the Maduro government. Venezuela has been in deep economic crisis, mainly because of the collapse of world oil prices since the heyday of Chavez’s rule, and partly because of economic policy mistakes generating hyper-inflation and a growing US-led economic blockade. People have also become increasingly angry with the corruption, real and alleged, associated with state officials and senior figures in the armed forces, and there’s a general atmosphere of repression created by the government’s handling of often violent anti-government protests.
This disillusionment was reflected in the decline in the vote for Bolivarian candidates. In the 2012 presidential election, with 80.49% participation, 8.19 million Venezuelans (55.07%) supported Chávez’s candidacy against 6.59 million (44.31%) for Henrique Capriles, the main opposition candidate. In the 2013 presidential election, with 79.68% participation, Nicolás Maduro, the chavista candidate after Chavez’s death, scraped home against Capriles by 7.59 million votes (50.61%) to 7.36 million (49.12%).
In the 2015 elections for the National Assembly, with a participation rate of 74.17%, the vote for the chavista candidates collapsed compared to the 2013 presidential poll by nearly two million to 5.63 million (40.92%), while the opposition’s vote increased by 368,000 to 7.73 million (56.21%). This result set off a situation of conflict between the country’s legislative and executive branches.
In an attempt to reconnect the Bolivarian government with its social base, the Maduro government’s called elections in 2017 for a National Constituent Assembly. The results of the vote, in which only 8.09 million (41.5% of the electoral roll) took part and which was boycotted by the opposition, were not recognised by the US, the European Union and various conservative Latin American governments. Calls for a coup against Maduro now began to be heard, with Florida senator Marco Rubio leading the charge.
The main precondition for a coup attempt against the now “illegitimate” Maduro was fulfilled in early February 2018: after pressure from the then-US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, a draft agreement between the Venezuelan government and opposition covering conditions for holding the next presidential election was rejected at the last moment by the opposition. The agreement had been negotiated by Spain’s ex-prime minister Zapatero, who defended it as a providing “a real and bold hope for the future of Venezuela,” and called on the opposition to respect it.
However, the divided opposition’s backers, led by the US, were concerned that it would lose any new elections conducted on the terms of the agreement, creating the prospect of another six years of Maduro government. The campaign to delegitimise the forthcoming May 2018 presidential poll was then launched, with the EU and the US refusing to send observers. Largely due to the opposition’s campaign of boycott, that election was won by Maduro with 67.8% (6.25 million) but with a participation rate of only 46.07%. The recovery in support for the chavista camp was only partial—compared to the 2015 National Assembly poll, its vote increased by 624,000.
After Maduro was sworn in on January 10, it was therefore simply a matter of time before a president declared “illegitimate” by the US, the European Union and many Latin American governments would be subject to a coup attempt.
Which way would Sánchez jump?
How did the PSOE government of prime minister Pedro Sánchez react to the operation that had Guaidó declare himself president on the prompting of Mike Pence, a move so blatant that Venezuela’s foreign minister Jorge Arreaza told the January 26 UN Security Council meeting on the crisis that “Washington wasn’t behind the coup: it was in front of it.”
In the two days immediately after January 23, it might have seemed as if the Spanish government was looking to favour a negotiated solution to the crisis: while calling for new presidential elections it refused to recognise Guaidó. The question was whether Sánchez would now continue the role of Zapatero and even act along the lines of Mexico, Uruguay and the countries of the Caribbean Community (which offered to act as mediators in the conflict). Might the Spanish prime minister be getting the message of the failure of the OAS and the UN Security Council to find majorities to endorse Guaidó?
The trio of Spanish conservative and far right parties — the PP, Citizens and Vox — certainly thought so. Aznar said on January 25 that in not immediately recognising Guaidó, Sánchez was “committing to the consolidation of Maduro”. He added: “All processes [of negotiation], beginning with the one begun by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, were an attempt to consolidate the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Spain forges opinion in the European Union on Iberoamerican affairs. If Spain doesn’t move, there is no opinion.”
At a January 23 rally of Venezuela opposition supporters in Madrid, PP leader Pablo Casado said that Sánchez was delaying recognition of Guaidó because of his government’s dependence on the United Left and Podemos. He added: “In the city of Madrid we are governed by a party [the progressive Madrid Now coalition, including Podemos and the United Left] that has been a consultant to chavismo on repression and on the misery of what is happening in Venezuela.”
Within the PSOE, opponents of Sánchez, like former prime minister Felipe González, were also demanding immediate recognition of Guaidó, with former deputy prime minister Alfonso Guerra saying that Maduro, as dictators go, was worse than mass murderer Augusto Pinochet, because “in Chile at least the economy didn’t collapse”.
On Sánchez’s left flank, the United Left demanded recognition of Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president, while Podemos called on Sánchez to condemn the coup and support negotiations for new elections in Venezuela.
The reason for Sánchez’s caution became clear within three days — the PSOE leader was manoeuvring to get a common European Union position in support of recognising Guaidó. On January 26, he announced that he had spoken to Washington’s Venezuelan pretender and that four major European Union members — the old imperialist powers Spain, France, Germany and Britain — were giving the Maduro government eight days to call new elections or see them recognise the National Assembly speaker as Venezuelan president.
Missing from the old empires issuing the ultimatum was Italy: the ruling Lega-Five Star coalition government was split on the issue with Five Star leader Luigi di Maio refusing to support the eight-day ultimatum. Five Star feeling was reflected in a Facebook post by former MP Alessandro Di Battista:
Signing an ultimatum to Venezuela is bullshit. It’s the same identical scheme that was put in practice years ago with Libya and Ghaddafi. We’re not talking about defending Maduro. We’re talking about avoiding an escalation of violence that could even be worse than the one Venezuela has been living for years.
Even the communique issued on January 26 by Francesca Mogherini, the EU’s de facto foreign minister, avoided specifying the eight-day deadline of the gang of four powers.
A February 1 article in El País by diplomatic correspondent Miguel González revealed how the Sánchez government adopted its final stance of enthusiastic backer of Trump’s coup, siding with the PSOE’s own hawks against doves like Zapatero and Moratinos while also overturning the previous joint position of Spain and Portugal. Both governments, led by social democratic parties, had been working to establish an EU working group to facilitate contacts between the Maduro government and the opposition, an initiative decided last October.
The article explains that the day before Guaidó’s self-elevation, the US assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Kimberly Breier and heads of the National Security Council had informed Spain’s secretary of state for cooperation and Iberoamerica, Juan Pablo de Laiglesia, that “important events” were about to take place in Venezuela, although they declined to provide any details.
On the day of Guaidó’s self-ascension, the US ambassador in Madrid, Duke Buchan III, told Spanish foreign affairs minister Josep Borell that the US was opposed to any further negotiations or contacts with Maduro, a position he later justified in the January 31 edition of the right-wing daily El Mundo:
The time for mediation has passed; it is now time for the international community to stand up for the Venezuelan people against the fraudulent Maduro regime and say “basta ya! It is time for a transition!” […]
[A]s history has shown, time works against democracy in Venezuela. The tyrant Maduro and his cronies do not respect timelines, mediation, or international law. We believe sustained international pressure is the only way to avoid further humanitarian disaster and quickly usher in a peaceful transition of power. The 200,000 Spaniards and one million European Union citizens living in Venezuela deserve nothing less.
Which way was the “pragmatic” Sánchez to move? From a short-term cost-benefit viewpoint it was a no-brainer. His right flank was being heavily pressured by the Trump administration, by his right-wing opponents who had won the Andalusian elections for the first time ever, and by the Emmanuel Macron government of France, which had moved immediately to recognise Guaidó. Sánchez was also being offered a chance to re-assert Spain’s hegemony in Europe on policy towards Iberoamerica: this was a role the leaders of Costa Rica, Ecuador and Colombia, who met with Sánchez at the annual Davos meeting of the world’s hyper-rich, urged him to seize.
And the potential cost for Sánchez of becoming the Aznar of the 2019 Venezuelan coup? Negligible, in the short run. While majority mass sentiment in the Spanish state remains strongly anti-war, it is not anti-imperialist, especially where Venezuela is concerned. People in Spain have been fed 20 years of patronising, racist media coverage of Venezuela, focussed on showing Chávez and Maduro as buffoons while saying zero about the gains of the Bolivarian process or bothering to explain why it still mobilises mass support in the streets and at the polls, despite all difficulties. At the same time, the Venezuelan community in the Spanish state overwhelmingly supports the opposition, as shown by their thousands-strong mobilisations in support of Guiadó over the past week.
By contrast, the pressure on the PSOE’s left flank has been weak and getting weaker, chiefly because Podemos has been experiencing permanent debilitating tensions over how to orient to the PSOE itself and also because it lacks the ability to organise the sentiment of outrage that must exist against Spain’s slavish acceptance of the Trump coup. While it is still early days, an all-Spanish anti-intervention movement does not yet exist. In these conditions of mass confusion and disorganisation, the space also existed for Sánchez to try to portray support for Guaidó as championing genuinely democratic socialist values against the Bolivarian caricature represented by the tyrant in Caracas and supported by Podemos and the United Left.
A coup no democrat can reject
Such was the path the PSOE government chose, brushing aside foreign affairs department doubts about the constitutionality and practicability of recognising a “president” who didn’t control a state and whose constitutional rationale was non-existent. To try to force a single EU position in support of Guaidó, Sánchez next moved to heighten his anti-Maduro rhetoric while portraying support for Guaidó as obligatory for any democrat.
On January 29, in the Dominican Republic capital Santo Domingo, the Spanish prime minister told the closing session of a Socialist International congress that had expelled Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN):
Whoever replies with bullets and prisons to the desires for freedom and democracy is not a socialist but a tyrant, and the Venezuelans should feel today the inspiration of the Socialist International.
Grasping the chance to use the Venezuela crisis against his allies/opponents Podemos and the United Left, Sánchez pontificated:
The far left insists on equality at all cost even though freedom has to be sacrificed, and the neoliberal right insists on freedom at all cost even though we see the unequal societies that we are now seeing. The result is that the former neither achieve equality nor the latter freedom, except for themselves. Freedom and equality together are socialism and that’s non-negotiable.
At the same time, foreign minister Borrell tried to calm fears of EU support for a US military intervention in Venezuela, a prospect that would alarm most PSOE members and voters.
The EU and Spain as part of it are radically opposed to any military intervention. Military intervention is an accursed phenomenon in Latin America that would take us back to times that no one wants to return to.
On January 30, the difference between the PSOE government’s approach and Mexico’s was on clear view at a joint Mexico City press conference of Sánchez and Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Obrador insisted that México would not recognise Guaidó but was available as a facilitator of negotiations. For his part Sánchez expressed appreciation for Mexico’s offer of diplomacy.
It was all a polite show. The PSOE government is determined to use the Venezuelan crisis to carve out a new role for the Spanish state in Latin American affairs. In the same days that the Mexican government left the anti-chavista Lima Group of eleven right-wing Latin American governments plus Canada, the Sánchez government decided to enter it as an observer. Even Mariano Rajoy, Sánchez’s PP predecessor, never went that far.
On January 31, the end point of the PSOE’s support for Trump’s coup became clear in the European Parliament, when a joint resolution of the European PP and socialist groups was carried demanding the immediate calling of presidential elections in Venezuela and the recognition by the EU of Guaidó. It fell to Francesca Mogherini to point out in the name of the European Commission that only EU member states, not the EU itself, recognises other states.
On the same day, a meeting of EU foreign ministers supported the creation of a contact group on Venezuela between eight EU member states (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom) and four countries from Latin America (Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Uruguay). The group, which met with other concerned countries in Montevideo on February 7, will dissolve if there are no results in 90 days. Mexico has so far declined Sánchez’s invitation to join the group, membership of which remains open.
On February 3, Trump told the CBS program Face The Nation that sending troops to Venezuela “was an option”, obviously put on hold while it can be seen if the Maduro government can be forced by diplomatic pressure to agree to new presidential elections (which it has so far refused to do). However, since it is unlikely that this group will be able to reach a consensus position, the prospect of ongoing conflict, even civil war and military intervention, remains high.
In this dire context, the PSOE government’s support for the US runs the very high risk of confronting it with impossible choices. Podemos foreign affairs spokesperson Pablo Bustinduy spelled these out to foreign minister Borrell in Spanish congress’s foreign affairs commission on January 30:
It is clear that the only way that Guaidó can get power is through a military uprising, an armed insurrection or a foreign intervention […] The question then is what is the government of Spain going to do the day after recognising Mr Guaidó. What is it going to do if, as Mr Guaidó requests, there is a military uprising and a coup? Will the Spanish government support or back this coup? Or is it going to condemn the coup of the very person whom the Spanish government has recognised as the legitimate president of Venezuela? What is the Spanish government going to do if there is a foreign military intervention, with or without the participation of the US? Is it going to condemn this military intervention done to make effective the government of the president that Spain recognises as legitimate?
Clearly, the job of all people opposed to the Trump administration coup is to mobilise to make this dilemma as excruciating as possible for the “socialists” backing the Washington warmongers. They will have been helped in this task by an hour-long February 3 interview with Maduro on Spanish television’s most watched current affairs program, Salvados, presented on La Sexta channel by interviewer Jordi Évole. In it, the Venezuelan president answered all the difficult questions thrown at him and demolished the transparent rationale for Washington’s coup and the PSOE government support for it.
Hopefully, that appearance will help make those progressives who have been flirting with supporting the Trump-PSOE imperialist crusade for Venezuela’s oil — such as Madrid mayoress Manuela Carmena — think twice about the criminal company they are getting into.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its website.