In Venezuela, It’s “Democracy” if US-Backed Candidates Are Empowered, “Tyranny” if They Are Not

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro offers a press conference after the signing of the electoral guarantee agreement between the government and opposition presidential candidates, at the National Electoral Council (CNE) headquarters in Caracas on March 2, 2018. (Photo: Federico Parra / AFP / Getty Images)Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro offers a press conference after the signing of the electoral guarantee agreement between the government and opposition presidential candidates, at the National Electoral Council headquarters in Caracas on March 2, 2018. (Photo: Federico Parra / AFP / Getty Images)

The Venezuelan government recently announced its decision to hold presidential elections, which are currently scheduled for May. The Trump administration denounced the move, saying they “would not be free and fair.”

Last year, the administration announced an unprecedented escalation of sanctions against the country. This, too, was justified under humanitarian pretexts. The US says its actions are a response to the government’s “serious abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

US Sen. Marco Rubio has even advocated that “the military of Venezuela must remove [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro” under the justification that “Maduro and his inner circle have destroyed democracy and replaced it with dictatorship.”

Within this context, the former CIA director, Mike Pompeo — who has recently moved into the position of Secretary of State — admitted in his capacity as head of the CIA that the agency would like to see Maduro overthrown, and suggested last summer that it is working with others in the region to do so. “We are very hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela and we, the CIA, is doing its best to understand the dynamic there,” Pompeo said, adding, “I was just down in Mexico City and in Bogota [Colombia] a week before last talking about this very issue, trying to help them understand the things they might do, so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world.”

Such actions and statements would not be possible without the humanitarian pretext. But the labelling of the Maduro government’s actions as “dictatorial” also serves another purpose.

Within Venezuela, the US has systematically branded any political action it deems unfavorable as an illegitimate and dictatorial move of the government, while labelling actions which help to empower the parties the US looks favorably on as synonymous with the will of the “Venezuelan people.” In this way, the US can use its influence over public opinion to pressure Venezuela into taking actions that help to put the US-backed opposition in power.

The Wrong Kind of Democracy

Earlier in 2017, when the Maduro government called for the convening of a National Constituent Assembly, US officials responded by calling it a “sham” and “another step toward dictatorship.” The State Department vowed “strong and swift actions against the architects of authoritarianism” and “those who participate in the Assembly.” The consensus in the Western mainstream media followed along similar lines.

Yet, these accounts hardly ever mention what the Assembly actually is.

A body of 545 representatives, elected regionally, as well as by societal groups — a number of positions are reserved to represent the interests of working people, another for the business community, for the Indigenous population, and so on — the body is endowed with the power to amend the country’s Constitution without interference from the normal legislative branch. Anyone is free to run or put forward candidates, and all members are elected by popular vote.

While there was some question about the number of people who voted in the election (which should be investigated), it must also be noted that the legitimacy of the voting system in Venezuela has consistently been reaffirmed throughout the years. After monitoring numerous elections, former president Jimmy Carter concluded in 2012 that “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” Throughout the last few decades, various international authorities have confirmed this statement, including Organization of American States (OAS) and European Union (EU) observers.

The reason such a process was described as a “step toward dictatorship” was really not because of any inherent authoritarianism, but because it helped to sideline the influence of the US-supported opposition parties that form a majority in the normal congressional body, the National Assembly. These parties would have to sit idly by as the newly elected Constituent Assembly made changes to the Constitution, and possibly even assumed legislative powers that they would be powerless to stop. In light of this, the opposition boycotted the elections and rejected them as fraudulent — even though their own legislative majority was a product of the same voting system that the elections were employing. The boycott helped to strengthen the opposition’s charge that the Assembly was an “authoritarian” power grab, as it resulted in the body being largely “packed with Maduro-supporters” — something the media routinely points toward as evidence for the Assembly’s illegitimacy.

Whatever one’s opinion is, the constitutionality and legitimacy of the Assembly are matters for Venezuelans to decide.

Additionally, while Washington focuses its vitriol almost exclusively on Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, it has supported other actions in the region that are objectively much worse.

Downplayed or Even Ignored

In 2009, the US supported a military coup in Honduras that deposed the country’s elected president. The interests underlying this decision were to maintain access to the military base the US operates in the country and to preserve a hospitable environment for Western business interests. The decisions coming from Washington reflected a cynical and instrumentalizing orientation toward democracy, rather than a genuine valuation of it.

The coup provoked a large public outcry, and a political crisis ensued. Eager to get back to business-as-usual, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton devised a strategy to proactively prevent the return of the deposed former president José Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya had overseen mild economic and social reforms that conflicted with the interests of business owners, such as the introduction of a minimum wage and a push to settle land disputes between peasants and agribusiness. Therefore, the Clinton strategy centered around normalizing the coup by calling for new elections which Zelaya would not take part in. The elections would, in Clinton’s words, “render the question of Zelaya moot,” and put the awkward issue to rest. Democracy was not seen as a way to guarantee the population’s influence over policy — Zelaya having enjoyed substantial support — but as a means to legitimize the ouster of an elected leader. Nevertheless, the pro-business government that won the elections aggressively pursued the privatization of the country’s natural resources, and the US eventually recognized the election as “generally free and fair.”

After being elected in 2013, the incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernandez continued to allow transnational investors open access to the country’s economy, and further pursued the consolidation of his own political power. After building up his influence over the Supreme Court, Hernandez succeeded in getting the Court to lift the Constitutional ban on re-election, allowing him to run for a second term. Presidential re-election is widely opposed in Honduras. It is therefore not surprising that during the next round of elections in 2017, the electorate gave an early lead to a left-wing opposition candidate promising to reverse course.

Suddenly, the electoral commission mysteriously stopped publishing the remainder of the vote count. More than a day passed without explanation. When resumed, the opposition’s lead was soon reversed and the incumbent had won. An investigation by The Economist found “the chance of such a shift” occurring naturally was “close to zero.” It was a statistical near-impossibility.

Despite both the OAS and the European Union calling for new elections, the US recognized the results. Emboldened by this mandate from the global superpower, the Honduran authorities began large-scale operations of repression and violence to silence the protesting public, all of which elicited no outcry from the State Department, and continues today. Instead, the US certified that the government has been supporting human rights, opening the door for Honduras to receive millions of dollars of US aid.

What did elicit an outcry from the US were the regional elections in Venezuela held shortly after those of the Constituent Assembly.

With the coalition of opposition parties, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (abbreviated in Spanish as MUD) now competing, polls predicted them to win by a wide margin. Instead, the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela won 18 out of 23 races. Thus, the US “condemned the lack of free and fair elections,” vowing harsh reprisals “as long as the Maduro regime conducts itself as an authoritarian dictatorship.”

In reality, apart from one governor’s race (where the results were not credible) the legitimacy of the results are not in question, and have been accepted by most opposition parties. One opposition candidate candidly admitted, “We lost. We have to accept it.”

By Any Means Necessary

One ubiquitous charge levelled against the Constituent Assembly is that it has dissolved the opposition-controlled congressional branch, thus representing Maduro’s further consolidation of power.

The problem is that the branch has not been dissolved, but instead has been in a protracted standoff with the country’s judiciary. This resulted in the judiciary temporarily rendering the duties of the congressional branch null-and-void. The body still exists but cannot perform its function until it responds to the charges of wrongdoing the Supreme Court has accused it of. The Court claims the opposition parties disobeyed a direct order that barred them from swearing in representatives accused of electoral fraud. The opposition, not surprisingly, denies these charges and accuses the Court of simply trying to prevent them from gaining a supermajority with which they would be able to unseat Maduro. Amidst all this, the Constituent Assembly has assumed certain legislative powers while the deadlock continues, which the opposition has denounced as a power grab.

Whatever one’s position is, the Western mainstream media have only reported the opposition’s version of events, painting the picture as a simple case of one-sided authoritarianism. The black-and-white portrayal is strengthened further when media ignore the opposition’s record of attempting to seize power through anti-democratic means.

In 2002, the US aided a short-lived military coup against the Hugo Chavez government. The coup-regime decreed the dissolution of the parliament, the Supreme Court and the Constitution. Security forces hunted down Chavez supporters and anyone who disagreed with these actions. During the few days that it lasted, the US supported the coup. So did prominent opposition leaders. Many signed the now infamous decree that annulled the country’s democratic institutions.

Furthermore, the opposition has taken millions of dollars in funding from the US government. Those funds are also not coming from some friendly government, but one that has openly threatened Venezuela with military invasion, and whose president said that its aggressive posture would only be softened “as soon as democracy is restored” — meaning after the government is overthrown.

Some in the opposition have been more overt, and have supported US sanctions. The sanctions are depicted as being targeted only against the “Maduro regime,” yet they are designed specifically to exacerbate the economic crisis by starving the government of access to international finance.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, explains that the sanctions “will deepen the severe depression that Venezuela’s economy has been in for more than three and a half years.” They will “exacerbate the country’s balance of payments crisis, and therefore feed the spiral of inflation (600 percent over the past year) and depreciation of the currency (on the black market) that has been accelerating since late 2012,” and will “further polarize an already divided country.”

As Weisbrot notes, the US is taking measures “to increase Venezuelan suffering in the hopes of provoking the overthrow of the government” — the strategy being “to prevent an economic recovery and to worsen the shortages (which include essential medicines and food) so that Venezuelans will get back in the streets and overthrow the government.” And “despite all [of the] blather about human rights and democracy,” this is “not a peaceful strategy they are promoting.”

Despite its support for such actions, the US still refers to the Venezuelan opposition as being synonymous with the highest of democratic ideals.

Valuable Leverage

Thomas Carothers, director of the Carnegie Endowment Democracy and Rule of Law program, is the foremost academic on Washington’s democracy promotion efforts. In his research he concludes: “Where democracy appears to fit in well with U.S. security and economic interest, the United States promotes democracy. Where democracy clashes with other significant interests, it is downplayed or even ignored.”

Prominent newspapers also concur: “Despite decades of lofty American talk of democracy and human rights…, policies have prioritized security and strategic considerations over principle.”

Describing it best, a State Department adviser recently penned a memo to Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, informing the former Exxon CEO in the ways of diplomacy.

It explained that there has long been a foreign policy consensus in Washington as to how “ideals and interests” should be employed “in relation to our competitors” to whom we are “to pressure, compete with, and outmaneuver.” For this reason, “We should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to US relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran” because “pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure, and regain the initiative from them strategically.”

Indeed, the Trump administration “has not hesitated to use human rights as a cudgel against unfriendly countries, like Iran, North Korea and Venezuela,” as The New York Times commented.

The effect of this “cudgel” is to impose conditions “over strongmen” and “unfriendly countries” which pressures them into following US diktats. The US can use its influence over global narratives to style leaders like Maduro — who “still care about their international image” — as dictatorial if they do not subsume their policies within the bounds of US interests. Others who do follow along are either given a free pass or are ignored.

The United States has, for instance, largely succeed in focusing international condemnation on crimes committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while those committed in Yemen with US backing are almost completely disregarded. Crucially, this is accomplished with the aid of the far-reaching Western propaganda systems.

To take just one example relevant to Latin America, when describing the elections in Honduras — and their statistical near-impossibility — Western media usually refrain from making declaratory statements about fraud and instead reference accusations. So, the vote was “tainted by allegations of fraud,” as one report put it, but was not itself fraudulent. In contrast, Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly elections were “a widely discredited vote for a bogus parliament … which is packed with government supporters.”

In terms of US interests in Latin America, policy makers refer to it as “our little region over here.” As such, it is expected to fall in line. This means supporting US wars and foreign policy objectives. Domestically, it means instituting neoliberal “reforms” that open a country’s markets and resources to penetration by Western investors.

A State Department cable from 1978 explained as much.

“Our fundamental interests in Venezuela,” the State Department explains, are “that Venezuela continue to supply a significant portion of our petroleum imports,” that it “continue to be an important market for US exports,” that “US business be treated equitably,” and for it to “maintain positions in multilateral fora that either support our positions or are non-confrontational and within limits the US can accept.”

Describing this in its simplest terms, presidential advisers explained that US actions abroad are necessary to “make the world safe for American businesses.” These businesses, after all, are the major interests driving US policy.

There are very legitimate reasons to criticize the Venezuelan government and its current actions, including things like its exclusion of popular opposition candidates from running in the upcoming elections. At the same time, these have nothing to do with US policy towards the country. Instead, they serve as beneficial pretexts to be exploited for other ends.