JORGE ARREAZA, Foreign Minister of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, is a serious man. He carries in his pocket the Venezuelan Constitution and the Charter of the United Nations and brandishes both with confidence. Neither Venezuelan law nor international law, he says, allow for the replacement of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro by Juan Guaido, the head of the National Assembly. When Guaido declared himself the President on January 23, he was participating, according to Arreaza, in a coup produced and directed by the United States and its allies. Now, a month after that declaration, Maduro remains in office. Threats by the U.S. to invade Venezuela continue, as the economic warfare is ratcheting up. But, Arreaza says, “the coup is over”. Washington has failed.
This is not the first time that Washington has tried to overthrow the socialist government in Venezuela. The administration of George W. Bush tried to get the military to conduct a coup against the government of Hugo Chavez in 2002. Chavez was removed from power for 47 hours, but returned as the gunfire stopped. That coup failed. Chavez was re-elected in 2007 to a third presidential term. Pressure on Venezuela from the West mounted, with an increasing wave of sanctions each year and with oil prices dropping sharply in 2008. Venezuela, which relies on oil revenues and which was vulnerable to U.S. sanctions, suffered. Economic and political stress certainly played a role in the decline of the fortunes of Chavez’s socialist bloc in subsequent elections.
The Organisation of American States and the Carter Centre certified the elections of 2007, when Chavez won 63 per cent of the vote. The dwindling electoral fortunes would continue, as Chavez was able to win his fourth term in office in 2013 only by a slim margin of 54 per cent to 45 per cent. After Chavez died that year, his successor, Maduro, went back to the people and won a much narrower victory with 50.61 per cent against 49.12 per cent. Nobody questioned these elections. The opposition to the socialists fractured, with all kinds of currents forming and being unable to unite. Washington encouraged the opposition to unite and the military to mutiny but failed in this pursuit. During the election of 2018, parts of the opposition, who feared defeat, boycotted it. Nonetheless, the two main opposition candidates won almost 32 per cent of the vote. Maduro won 67.8 per cent. The turnout, because of the boycott, was under 50 per cent, the lowest in Venezuela’s modern history.
The failure to oust Maduro and the socialists, says Arreaza, is the cause of frustration in Washington. It is what pivoted the move to back an unknown young man named Juan Guaido, and to hope that somehow he would be able to unite the opposition and help divide the armed forces. The day before Guaido announced that he was the President, representatives from the Venezuelan government had met him. During this meeting, Guaido had not said that he would be declaring himself President. He acknowledged the need for discussions, says Arreaza. Nonetheless, he made the provocative declaration that day, the spur for an attempted coup against the government.
The Lima Group
Orders for the coup seemed to have come from outside the country. Arreaza talks about the formation of the Lima Group in 2017, with Canada in the driver’s seat and the right-wing governments of Latin America right behind. They were set up with the main purpose of overthrowing the government of Venezuela. They claim that they are seeking a “peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela”, but they make noises of armed conflict and promote economic blockades and sanctions.
Behind the Lima Group is the U.S., notably the people around President Donald Trump such as the National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump’s delegate for this coup Elliot Abrams and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. “They are dangerous people,” says Arreaza. “They want an invasion.” Bolton had openly called for an invasion not only against Venezuela but also Cuba and Nicaragua. He has also said that U.S. oil companies would benefit from the overthrow of the Maduro government. Abrams, who was convicted of lying to the U.S. Congress, is an old hand in the U.S.-backed genocidal wars in Central America. His old friends Efrain Rios Montt, dictator of Guatemala, and the generals of the military junta in El Salvador had conducted some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century under the protection and encouragement of Abrams. Rubio, whose family comes from Cuba, has long encouraged the U.S. government to do what it can (including use of military force) to overthrow the governments of both Venezuela and Cuba. These are the dramatis personae of the coup attempt in Venezuela. Human rights and democracy are not their concern.
Aid as pretext for invasion
But, Arreaza says, the propaganda blast from Washington is overwhelming. Each day there is a new story of some kind of human rights catastrophe in Venezuela. The script, Arreaza says, was set in 1965. Then, the U.S. government had argued that there was a humanitarian crisis in the Dominican Republic, which was governed by the progressive Juan Bosch. The U.S. said that it needed to send humanitarian aid to the island, Arreaza said, but those boxes of aid came with 42,000 U.S. marines. “Aid became the pretext for an invasion,” Arreaza said, which is “what is being planned now”. “You cannot threaten people with an invasion,” Arreaza pointed out, “and then say that you are going to deliver humanitarian aid.”
The U.S. has offered $20 million in aid, including 60 tonnes of food. In 2018, the U.S. sanctions cost Venezuela’s economy at least $23 billion. If there had been no sanctions, Arreaza says, then the Venezuelans could have imported food, medicine and supplies necessary for agricultural production. But the sanctions have only increased, with the Trump administration ready to seize $20 billion in Venezuelan assets held in the U.S. The balance between the “aid” and the seizure of money is extreme. Arreaza says that the U.S. and the Bank of London are plundering Venezuela. There is no sign here of a humanitarian agenda. The agenda is the opposite of humanitarianism, he says.
The aid, meanwhile, is not an innocent issue. Abrams has a history of smuggling weapons into countries through aid shipments. This is what he did to arm the Contras in Nicaragua. The aid is also being sent into the country as a political tool. This is why the director of global operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dominik Stillhart, said on February 1, that whatever plans the U.S. had to deliver aid “to help the people of Venezuela,… has to be shielded from this political conversation”. Aid, Stillhart said, must be non-political. It cannot be a weapon in a coup.
In fact, Arreaza pointed out, the Western media has not been reporting that Venezuela is working closely with the Red Cross and various U.N. agencies (Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation) to bring support to people under deep distress. In 2018, the WHO and the Pan-American Health Organisation provided 50 tonnes of medical supplies to the country. It was not stopped on the border.
Arreaza says he does not know why the Canadians are so angry with the Venezuelan government. He is being polite. Canada is home to half of the world’s mining companies, many of whom would gain from Venezuela’s large gold reserves. Often, foreign policy is made for venal reasons. Canada is no different.
In early 2018, Arreaza says he met Federica Mogherini, Vice President of the European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It was a cordial meeting. Europe makes noises that it would not like war, but then its NATO branch seems eager to involve its troops. Portugal’s Defence Minister, Joao Gomes Cravinho, said in Romania that his country had not ruled out the use of its military in Venezuela. Such noises are dangerous, says Arreaza. They make it seem as if an invasion is a normal and good thing.
“We are a sovereign country,” Arreaza says. “The only recognition we need is from the Venezuelan people.” These powers, he says, are “creating the environment for a mistake”, an event that leads to war. The Venezuelan government, he says, wants negotiations and peace. As we speak, the Uruguayans and Mexicans are working hard to set a table for dialogue. Maduro has said he is open to any dialogue. So far, with the U.S. military force behind him, Guaido has not been as interested. He wants to come to power on the wings of a U.S. fighter plane. Maduro and Arreaza promise that such an eventuality will bring back memories of the U.S. war on Vietnam. But, Arreaza cautions, no sane Venezuelan wants war. They want this permanent coup to end.