US attempts to destablise Venezuela failing
By James Petras, Binghamton, New York State
The following is an abridged version of an article first published on August 8 (on James Petras’ website). Since then, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and newly-inaugurated right-wing Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos have restored diplomatic relations between their two countries. Diplomatic and trade ties were broken off on July 22 after Alvaro Uribe, Santos’ immediate predecessor, accused Venezuela of tolerating the presence of armed Colombia “terrorist” insurgents, which the Chavez government had interpreted as a threat of military aggression from Colombia.
Chavez and Santos agreed on August 11 to set up five separate bi-national commissions dealing with debt and trade relations, economic cooperation, social investment in their border region, joint infrastructure works and security. On August 17, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that an October 2009 agreement between Washington and Alvaro Uribe that gave the Pentagon access to seven military bases in Colombia unconstitutional because it had never been submitted to the country’s legislature for ratification. Agence France Presse reported on August 18 that “the [US] State Department said it would be consulting with Santos on what he planned to do about the ruling, urging him to take ‘appropriate steps’ to preserve” US-Colombia military cooperation.
When interviewed by Venezuelan journalists on August 8, former Cuban president Fidel Castro observed that “There is not the remotest possibility Colombia would attack Venezuela, because it is not interested, it can’t, it doesn’t want to, and it knows that the consequences would be disastrous”.
US policy toward Venezuela has taken many tactical turns, but the objective has been the same: to oust President Chavez, reverse the nationalisation of big businesses, abolish the mass community and worker-based councils and revert the country into a client-state. Washington funded and politically backed a military coup in 2002, a bosses’ lockout in 2002-03, a referendum and numerous media, political and NGO efforts to undermine the regime. Up to now all of the White House efforts have been a failure — Chavez has repeatedly won free elections, retained the loyalty of the military and the backing of the vast majority of the urban and rural poor, the bulk of the working class and the public sector middle class.
Washington has not given up nor reconciled itself to coming to terms with the elected government of President Chavez. Instead with each defeat of its internal collaborators, the White House has increasingly turned toward an “outsider” strategy, building up a powerful “cordon militaire”, surrounding Venezuela with a large-scale military presence spanning Central America, northern South America and the Caribbean. The Obama White House backed a military coup in Honduras, ousting the democratically elected government of President Zelaya (in June 2009), a Chavez ally, and replacing it with a puppet regime supportive of Washington’s anti-Chavez military policies.
The Pentagon secured seven military bases in eastern Colombia (in 2009) facing the Venezuelan frontier, thanks to its client ruler, Alvaro Uribe, the notorious narco-paramilitary president.
In mid-2010, Washington secured an unprecedented agreement with the approval of right-wing President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, to station 7000 US combat troops, over 200 helicopters, and dozens of ships pointing toward Venezuela, under the pretext of pursuing narco-traffickers. Currently, the US is negotiating with the rightist regime of President Ricardo Martinelli of Panama, the possibility of re-establishing a military base in the former Canal Zone. Together with the Fourth Fleet patrolling off shore, 20,000 troops in Haiti, and an airbase in Aruba (a Dutch colony just off the coast), Washington has encircled Venezuela from the west and north, establishing jumping off positions for a direct intervention if the favourable internal circumstances arise.
The White House’s militarisation of its policy toward Latin America, and Venezuela in particular, is part of its global policy of armed confrontation and intervention. Most notably the Obama regime has widened the scope and extent of operations of clandestine death squads now operating in 70 countries on four continents, increased the US combat presence in Afghanistan by over 30,000 troops plus over 100,000 contract mercenaries operating cross border into Pakistan and Iran, and provided material and logistical assistance to Iranian armed terrorists. Obama has escalated provocative military exercises off the coast of North Korea and in the China Sea, evoking protests from Beijing. Equally revealing, the Obama regime has increased the military budget to over a trillion dollars, despite the economic crises, the monstrous deficit and the calls for austerity cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
In other words, Washington’s military posture toward Latin America and especially toward the Chavez government is part and parcel of a general military response to any country or movements which refuse to submit to US domination. The question arises - why does the White House rely on the military option? Why militarise foreign policy to gain favourable outcomes in the face of decided opposition? The answer, in part, is that the US has lost most of the economic leverage, which it previously exercised, to secure the ousting or submission of adversary governments. Most Asian and Latin American economies have secured a degree of autonomy. Others do not depend on US-influenced international financial organisations (the IMF, World Bank); they secure commercial loans. Most have diversified their trading and investment partners and deepened regional ties. In some countries, such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru, China has replaced the US as their principal trading partner. Most countries no longer look to US “aid” to stimulate growth, they seek joint ventures with multi-national corporations, frequently based outside of North America. To the extent that economic arm twisting is no longer an effective tool to secure compliance, Washington has resorted more and more to the military option.
Major diplomatic failures, resulting from its incapacity to adapt to basic shifts in global power, have also prompted Washington to shift from political negotiations and compromise toward military intervention and confrontation. Washington’s diplomatic proposals to isolate Cuba and Venezuela were rejected by all of the Latin American countries. The effort to revive free trade agreements, which privileged US exporters and protected uncompetitive producers, were rejected. Unwilling to recognise the limits of imperial diplomatic power and moderate its proposals, the Obama regime turned increasingly toward the military option.
Where Washington has regained political terrain with the election of rightist political regimes, it has been through its ability to exploit the “exhaustion” of centre-left politics (Chile), political fraud and militarisation (Honduras and Mexico), decline of the national popular left (Costa Rica, Panama and Peru) and the consolidation of a highly militarised police state (Colombia). These electoral victories, especially in Colombia, have convinced Washington that the military option, combined with deep intervention and exploitation of open electoral processes, is the way to reverse the left turn in Latin America, especially in Venezuela.
US policy: combining military and electoral tactics
US efforts to overthrow the Chavez government borrow many of the tactics applied against previous democratic adversaries. These include border incursions by Colombian paramilitary and military forces similar to cross-border attacks by the US-sponsored “contras” against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua during the 1980s. The attempt to encircle and isolate Venezuela is similar to Washington’s policy over the past half century against Cuba. The funnelling of funds to opposition groups, parties, media and NGOs via US agencies and “dummy” foundations is a repeat of the tactics applied to destabilise the democratic government of Salvador Allende of Chile in 1970-73, Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2006-2010 and numerous other governments in the region.
Washington’s multiple track policy, in its current phase, is directed at escalating a war of nerves, by constantly raising security threats. The military provocations, in part, are a “testing” of Venezuela’s security preparations, probing for weaknesses in its ground, air and maritime defences. These provocations also are part of a strategy of attrition, to force the Chavez government to put its defence forces on “alert” and mobilise the population and then to temporarily reduce the pressure until the next provocation. The purpose is to discredit the government’s constant reference to threats, in order to weaken vigilance and when circumstances allow making an opportune strike.
Washington’s external military build-up is designed to intimidate Caribbean and Central American countries which may be looking toward closer economic relations with Venezuela. The show of force is also designed to encourage the internal opposition toward more aggressive actions. At the same time the confrontational posture is directed at the “weak links” or “moderate” sectors of the Chavista government who are nervous and anxious for “reconciliation” even at the price of unprincipled concessions to the opposition and the new Colombia regime of President Santos. The increasing military presence is designed to slow the internal radicalisation process and to preclude Venezuela’s growing ties with Middle Eastern and other regimes, adverse to US hegemony. Washington is betting that a military build-up and psychological warfare linking Venezuela with revolutionary insurgents like the Colombian guerrillas will result in Chavez’s allies and friends in Latin America putting distance toward him.
Equally important, Washington’s unsubstantiated accusations that Venezuela is harbouring FARC guerrilla encampments is meant to pressure Chavez to lessen his support to all social movements in the region, including the landless Rural Workers of Brazil as well as non-violent human rights groups and trade unions in Colombia. Washington wants a military “polarisation”: US or Chavez. It rejects the political polarisation existing today which pits Washington against Mercosur, the organisation of economic integration involving Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay with Venezuela in line for membership or ALBA (economic integration involving Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and several Caribbean states).
The FARC factor
Obama and Uribe accused Venezuela of offering sanctuary for Colombian guerrillas (the FARC and ELN). In reality this is a ploy to pressure Chavez to denounce or at a minimum demand that the FARC give up their armed struggle on terms dictated by the US and Colombian regime. Contrary to Uribe and the State Department’s boasts that the FARC is a declining, isolated and defeated fragment of the past, as a result of their successful counter-insurgency campaigns, a recent detailed field study by a Colombian researcher (see La guerra contra las FARC y la guerra de las FARC) demonstrates that in the last two years the guerrillas have consolidated their influence over one-third of the country, and that the regime in Bogota controls only half the country.
After suffering major defeats in 2008, the FARC and ELN have steadily advanced throughout 2009-10, inflicting over 1300 military casualties last year and probably near double this year. (see La Jornada. June 8, 2010). The resurgence and advance of the FARC has crucial importance as far as Washington’s military campaign against Venezuela. It also affects the position of its “strategic ally” — the Santos regime. Firstly, it demonstrates that despite US$6 billion plus in US military aid to Colombia, its counter-insurgency campaign to “exterminate” the FARC has failed. Secondly, the FARC’s offensive opens a “second front” in Colombia, weakening any effort to launch an invasion of Venezuela using Colombia as a “springboard”. Thirdly, faced with a growing internal class war, Santos is more likely to seek to lessen tensions with Venezuela, hoping to relocate troops from the frontier of its neighbour toward the growing guerilla insurgency.
In a sense, despite Chavez’s misgivings about the guerrillas and outspoken calls for ending the guerrilla struggle, the resurgence of the armed movements are likely a prime factor in lessening the prospects of a US-directed intervention.
Washington’s multi-track policy directed at destabilising the Venezuelan government has by and large been counter-productive, suffering major failures and few successes. The hardline toward Venezuela has failed to “line up” any support in the major countries of Latin America, with the exception of Colombia. It has isolated Washington not Caracas. The military threats may have radicalised the socio-economic measures adopted by Chavez not moderated them. The threats and accusations emanating from Colombia have strengthened internal cohesion in Venezuela, except among the hard-core opposition groups. They have also led to Venezuela’s upgrading its intelligence, police and military operations. The Colombian provocations have led to a break in relations and an 80% decline in the multi-billion dollar cross-border trade, bankrupting numerous Colombian firms, as Venezuela substitutes Brazilian and Argentine industrial and agrarian imports.
The effects of the policies of tension and the “war of attrition” are hard to measure, especially in terms of their impact on the Venezuelan legislative elections due on September 26. No doubt, Venezuela’s failure to regulate and control the multi-million dollar flow of US funds to its Venezuelan collaborators has made a significant impact on their organisational capability. No doubt the economic downturn has had some effect in limiting public spending on new social programs. Likewise, the incompetence and corruption of several top Chavista officials, especially in public food distribution, housing and public safety will have an electoral impact.
It is likely that these “internal” factors are much more influential in shaping the alignment of Venezuela’s electoral outcome than the aggressive confrontational politics adopted by Washington. Nevertheless, if the pro-US opposition substantially increases its legislative presence in the September 26 elections - beyond one-third of the Congress people — they will attempt to block social changes and economic stimulus policies. The US will intensify its efforts to pressure Venezuela to divert resources to security issues in order to undermine social-economic expenditures which sustain the support of the lower 60% of the Venezuelan population.
Up to now, White House policy based on greater militarisation and virtually no new economic initiatives has been a failure. It has encouraged the larger Latin American countries to increase regional integration, as witnessed by new custom and tariff agreements taken at the Mercosur meeting in early August. It has not led to any diminution of hostilities between the US and the ALBA countries. It has not increased US influence. Instead Latin America has moved toward a new regional political organisation, UNASUR (which excludes the US), downgrading the Organisation of American States which the US uses to push its agenda. Ironically, the only bright lights, favouring US influence, comes from internal, electoral processes. Rightist candidate Jose Serra is running a strong race in the upcoming Brazilian presidential elections. In Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia the pro-US right is regrouping and hoping to return to power.
What Washington fails to understand is that across the political spectrum from the left to the centre-right, political leaders are appalled and opposed to the US push and promotion of the military option as the centrepiece of policy. Practically all political leaders have unpleasant memories of exile and persecution from the previous cycle of US-backed military regimes. The self-proclaimed extra-territorial reach of the US military, operating out of its seven bases in Colombia, has widened the breach between the centrist and centre-left democratic regimes and the Obama White House. In other words, Latin America perceives US military aggression toward Venezuela as a “first step” southward toward their countries. That, and the drive for greater political independence and more diversified markets, have weakened Washington’s diplomatic and political attempts to isolate Venezuela.