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Venezuela

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Trump: the Reagan Gambit?

Last Sunday I wrote a piece on the political crisis in Venezuela. Then on Wednesday I wrote an article on Donald Trump’s hyperbolic language about North Korea. But it never occurred to me that the next article would be about Trump, North Korea AND Venezuela. I forgot about the Reagan Gambit.

In October, 1983, US President Ronald Reagan had a little problem. A massive truck-bomb had killed 241 American Marines in their barracks at Beirut airport. That was more than a quarter of the total American force deployed as “peacekeepers” to Lebanon – a deployment that had already become controversial in the United States. So Reagan had some explaining to do.

In another part of the world entirely, the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada, pop. 90,000, had another military coup – a coup within the coup. A radical pro-Cuban politician called Maurice Bishop,who had overthrown the elected government, was executed by his fellow revolutionaries over some minor differences of opinion. A pity, perhaps, but of no more importance to the rest of the world than Grenada itself.

The Cold War was running quite hot in this period, so although the island had no strategic value the American right was getting upset about Russians and Cubans building an airport on Grenada. In the normal course of events this would probably not have led to an American invasion, but Reagan badly needed a political distraction.

On 25 October, precisely two days after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the US military began a full-scale invasion of Grenada on Reagan’s orders. It was one of history’s most one-sided battles – only 19 Americans killed, although the US handed out 5,000 medals for merit and valour – but it did the trick.

A friend said to me at the time that Reagan had gone home and kicked the cat, which was true enough, but conquering Grenada didn’t just make him feel better. There’s only room for one lead story at a time, and Grenada pushed Beirut aside in the US media. When Reagan quietly pulled the remaining Marines out of Lebanon four months later, few people even remembered to ask what those other Marines had died for.

And now Donald Trump, stumbling deeper each day into an confrontation with North Korea over nuclear-armed ICBMs he swore that Pyongyang would never get, may be looking for a way out. So on Sunday, he said: “We have many options for Venezuela – and by the way, I am not going to rule out a military option.”

He said it although nobody had asked him if he was planning to invade Venezuela. (It hadn’t occurred to anybody that he might.) And he said it from his golf course in New Jersey. (Reagan made his Grenada decision on a golf course too). And it certainly did take North Korea out of the news for at least one or two cycles.

He then offered a classic Trumpian non-justification for threatening to use military force in Venezuela: “This is our neighbor. You know, we are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”

So be on your best behaviour, all you other governments in Latin America and Canada, or he might come for you too. But is he actually planning to invade Venezuela, a fairly well-armed country of 30 million people?

Trump has already given President Nicolas Maduro’s beleaguered regime a propaganda gift by strengthening its argument that its opponents are all traitors and American spies. Does he realise that an American invasion of Venezuela would trigger both a bloody civil war and a prolonged anti-American resistance movement?

Probably not. He knows that Venezuela is a superpower in the “Miss Universe” universe, but he will not have read the full briefing paper unless they remembered to put his name in every paragraph (and he may have caught onto that trick by now).

It would be nice if this threat about Venezuela were evidence that Trump knows he is in over his head with North Korea and is looking for a face-saving way out, but it’s not likely to be true. It’s much more likely to be just another example to his scattershot approach to dealing with a problem: create as many other problems as possible, and the pressure will come off.

Ronald Reagan knew he had walked into a hornet’s nest in Lebanon, and just needed
to create a diversion while he found a way of getting American troops out of the Middle East. It’s not clear that Trump even understands that he is in deep trouble, and that he is at risk of starting a nuclear war in order to prevent one.

Stream-of-consciousness decision-making is unfailingly interesting, if you are using “interesting” in the sense of the faux-Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” But in real life, that’s the last place you want to live.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“He then…people”)

Venezuela: Civil War?

There are two stories about the assault on Fuerte Paramacay military barracks in Carabobo state on Sunday. The Venezuelan government says that half the twenty attackers were killed or captured, and the rest are being hunted down. Sgt. Giomar Flores, who defected from the Venezuelan navy in June and now lives in Colombia, told The Guardian that the attack had been “a complete success.”

“We took four battalions and one put up resistance,” he said, claiming to be in direct contact with the leader of the attack, Capt. Juan Caguaripano. The rebels took “a large amount of weapons,” mostly assault rifles, and got away with no casualties.

Whichever story you believe, witnesses agree that large numbers of civilians living near the base in Valencia, the capital of Carabobo, spilled out onto the streets in support of the rebels. Civil war in Venezuela is not yet a reality, but there is ample dry tinder lying around just waiting for a match.

The attack came just one week after the election of a “constituent assembly” by the supporters of President Nicolas Maduro’s beleaguered government. It’s hardly surprising that the opposition boycotted the vote, because the purpose of the new assembly is to rewrite the constitution and save Maduro from defeat at the next election.

That’s not Maduro’s explanation for it, of course. He says it is the only way to bring “reconciliation and peace” to the country after months of political and economic crisis, but everybody outside his Socialist Party sees it as a constitutional coup.

The constituent assembly, which Maduro created by decree, consists exclusively of 545 Maduro supporters. There is no time limit on how long it will sit, nor any restrictions on what it can do. It can, for example, postpone the presidential elections that are due next year indefinitely. This matters a lot, since Maduro would certainly lose in a fair vote – recent estimates put his popular support at around 20 percent.

More immediately, it can dissolve the legitimate National Assembly, in which the opposition parties won a two-thirds majority in the December, 2015 election. And it has already fired Prosecutor-General Luisa Ortega, a member of the Socialist Party and former ally of Maduro’s who broke with him over his increasingly arbitrary behaviour.

The most threatening thing Ortega did was to open an investigation last week into the vote on 30 July that created the constituent assembly. Since only Maduro’s supporters voted, that would seem irrelevant – but in mid-July the opposition had held an informal referendum in which seven million people voted against the constituent assembly.

Maduro therefore felt the need to claim that more than eight million Venezuelans had voted for the new assembly. Even that would not really be a very impressive turnout in a country of 30 million people – but then the company that supplied the voting machines, SmartMatic, said that the result had been deliberately inflated. At least a million extra votes had been added.

Antonio Mugica, the chief executive of SmartMatic, said that all previous elections in Venezuela using their machines had been conducted fairly. “It is, therefore, with the deepest regret that we have to report that the turnout figures on 30 July for the Constituent Assembly in Venezuela were tampered with,” he said.

It may have been worse than that. Internal figures from the National Electoral Council (probably shown to Reuters by Luis Rondón, the only one of the five NEC directors who is not a government loyalist), show that only 3.7 million people had voted by 5.30 pm – and the polls closed at 7 pm. Ortega appointed two prosecutors to investigate the other four directors of the NEC, but she is gone now and the investigation will not continue.

“This is a dictatorship,” Luisa Ortega said on Sunday, and she is right. Maduro has concluded that he and his Socialist Party can only stay in power by suppressing all opposition, and he is probably right. The regime he inherited in 2013 on the death of its founder, Hugo Chavez, was once genuinely popular and won free elections, but four years of falling oil prices, economic mismanagement and growing corruption have put an end to that.

The street protests against Maduro have lasted four months now, and at least 120 people have been killed. Inflation is 1,600 percent, food and medicines are scarce, and the murder rate is among the highest in the world. The generals are richly rewarded for serving the regime, but rank-and-file soldiers earn a couple of dozen dollars a month.

Venezuela is a tinderbox. There are hundreds of thousands of devoted supporters of the “Chavista” regime, and the government has distributed weapons to them. If the report that most soldiers did not resist the attack on the Valencia barracks is true, the army may be about to split. The violence in the streets is mutating, with more police casualties as well as the daily toll of demonstrators.

There is no worse disaster for a country than a civil war, but Venezuela is drifting towards one.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“That’s…coup”; and “It may…continue”)

Venezuela: Hand Grenades From A Helicopter

After almost three months of daily anti-government demonstrations, what Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro needed most was an excuse to impose martial law, or at least to use major violence and mass arrests to close the protests down.

On Tuesday, Maduro got his excuse. A stolen police helicopter flew over the Supreme Court building in Caracas – and dropped a couple of hand grenades near it.

As “terrorist” incidents go, it was so incompetent and downright silly that you begin to suspect that it wasn’t a “false flag” operation sponsored by the government after all. If Maduro’s people were aiming to give themselves an excuse for a crack-down, surely they would have come up with something more impressive than a guy in a helicopter dropping a couple of hand-grenades at random onto the Supreme Court lawn.

The man behind this attack was Oscar Perez, a police officer who announced in a video posted on Instagram that he was launching an armed struggle against tyranny.

“We are a coalition of military employees, policemen and civilians who are looking for balance and are against this criminal government,” Pérez said, and the four armed men standing behind him in the video tried to look fierce. The ski-masks helped a bit, but it was hard not to giggle. They really didn’t look very dangerous.

But you have to work with the material at hand, and President Maduro did his best to inflate the incident into a major terrorist attack. “I have activated the entire armed forces to defend the peace,” he said. “Sooner or later, we are going to capture that helicopter and those who carried out this terror attack.” (And while we’re at it, we’ll round up a lot of other people who support the opposition.)

Maduro can no longer stay in power by democratic means. There is no doubt that he won the presidency by a narrow but genuine majority (1.5 percent) in the 2013 election that followed the death of Hugo Chavez, the hero-founder of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. But there is also no doubt that the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, won a landslide victory in the parliamentary election of 2015.

What made the difference between those two elections was the price of oil. In 2013 it was around $100 per barrel. By 2015 it was in the low $40s, and it is still there today.

Venezuela is not a rich country, although most Venezuelans believe it is. It has a lot of oil, but it produces almost nothing else and imports practically everything it consumes. So it is rich when oil is at $100 – but it is very poor when it is below $50. The country is therefore now broke.

For reasons having nothing to do with alleged plots by the US or the wicked local elites, per capita income in Venezuela has fallen by more than half in the past two years. So people are angry, including many of the poor people who benefitted from Chavez’s generosity with the oil revenues back in the Good Old Days. There is a presidential election due next year, and as things stand now Maduro would probably lose by two-to-one.

The National Assembly has had a two-thirds majority of opposition members since the 2015 election, and it has been pressing hard to bring the presidential election forward to this year. Maduro had to stop that, and his first step was to have the Supreme Court, which is packed with Chavez and Maduro appointees, strip the National Assembly of all its powers and take them for itself.

This is what triggered the daily anti-government demonstrations that began in early April. The Supreme Court’s action was clearly unconstitutional, and after three days that also saw protests from members of his own party Maduro ordered the judges to backtrack on their decree. But the protesters, with the bit between their teeth, stayed out in the street. Despite 70 dead in the past three months, they are still there today.

So Maduro, desperate to sideline the National Assembly, then came up with the idea of rewriting the constitution. There was no referendum to test popular support for this idea, and the people in the “constituent assembly” are being chosen according to rules set by the Maduro government.

The new constitution will presumably prevent any further unfortunate accidents like the opposition parliamentary victory in 2015 – and by a happy coincidence (for Maduro), it also provides an excuse for not holding the scheduled presidential election in 2018. After all, new rules are coming. Why do it under the old rules?

Nobody is fooled by all this flim-flam, and it is no surprise that Oscar Perez, whether he is a deluded revolutionary or a secret government stooge flying false colours, chose to drop his little hand-grenades on the Supreme Court. It has become a symbol of the illicit manipulation by which Maduro clings to power, and therefore a natural target for those who oppose the government (or pretend to).

In either case, Maduro has his pretext, and will now clamp down harder and try to terrify the opposition into submission. It is probably going to get much nastier yet in Venezuela.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 14. (“As…lawn”; and “The new…rules”)

Venezuela: Drifting Towards Civil War

“I am no Mussolini,” insisted Venezuela’s beleagured President Nicolas Maduro on television early this month, but if things go on this way he could end up like Mussolini. That would be very unfortunate for him, and also for Venezuela.

The daily street protests against Maduro’s rule are now in their second month, and around forty people have already been killed, most of them by the police. “Molotov cocktails” (fire-bombs) are old hat; the new fashion is for “poopootovs” – containers of human or animal excrement that are thrown at the security forces. Nobody knows when it will all end, but most people fear that it will end badly.

It didn’t begin all that badly. Hugo Chavez, a radical former army officer who had led a failed coup attempt in 1992, was elected to the presidency quite legitimately in 1998. Venezuela was the richest country in South America because of its oil wealth, but most of the 31 million Venezuelans were very poor, and Chavez proposed to change that.

He had strong popular support – majorities of around 60 percent in the 2002 and 2006 elections, and still 55 percent even in 2012 – and he had lots of money to give to the poor. But he died of cancer in 2013, and his successor, a former bus driver called Nicolas Maduro, got barely 50 percent of the vote in a special election later that year. He has not had a quiet moment since.

The problem is money. Chavez ran up massive deficits to finance his spending on health, education and housing, which really did transform the lives of many of Venezuela’s poor, but the bills only came in after he died. The world price of oil collapsed, Venezuela’s income did too, and everything went sour.

Now Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world (700 percent this year), and the economy has shrunk by almost one-fifth. There are chronic shortages of food and medicines: three-quarters of Venezuelans say they are eating less than two meals a day, and the child death rate is up by 30 percent. And a lot of people, including former Maduro supporters, are very angry.

Maduro’s response has been to blame all the problems on the local business elite, who he claims are hoarding goods to cause shortages, and on the United States, which he says is plotting with the local opposition parties to overthrow the elected government. But plots are hardly necessary: he barely scraped into office in the 2012 election, and he would lose massively in an election held today.

To stay in power, Maduro must avoid an election, and the next presidential election is due next year. The opposition had already won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in 2015, so Maduro’s first move, in late March, was to have the Supreme Court (packed with his supporters) simply declare that the National Assembly was “in contempt” of the country’s laws and shut it down.

That was what brought the protesters out on the streets in such numbers that three days later Maduro lost his nerve and the Supreme Court revoked its decree. But the protests, fueled by the growing shortages of practically everything, just kept going, and now the demonstrators were demanding that the next presidential election be brought forward from 2018 to this year.

Maduro is cornered. He could not win a presidential election this year, or in 2018 either. It’s not even certain that the rank-and-file of the security forces can be relied on to defend him forever. So he has played his last card: a new constitution.

The last constitution was written by Chavez himself and adopted in 1999. At the time, he said it was the best in the world and promised it would last for centuries, but on May 1st Maduro said the country needs a new one. He is going to call a “constituent assembly” to write it, although he was vague on how its members would be chosen. Some might be elected, and others would be chosen from “social organisations” (i.e. his cronies).

The Chavez constitution does not give Maduro the authority to do this, but the man is desperate. He needs an excuse to postpone elections he knows he would lose, and this is the best he can come up with. It won’t work, because the opposition understands his game and will not accept it. The country is drifting towards civil war.

“I don’t want a civil war,” Maduro said while announcing his constituent assembly, but he is laying the foundations for one. He might even win it, in the short term, if the army and police stay loyal to him. But in the longer run he really does risk ending up like Mussolini: executed without trial and hanging upside-down in a public square.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7. (“Maduro’s…today”)