US tightens the noose on Venezuela: will the coup succeed?

Washington's efforts to remove the Venezuelan government, an imperialist coup attempt, proceed apace. On 26 January, the US announced sanctions on PDVSA and seized assets from the Venezuelan oil company. This is a very serious blow to the Venezuelan economy and government. It is clear that the Trump administration thinks it has a window of opportunity and it is going in for the kill.

However, so far, the coup attempt has not managed to get any support from the armed forces and the latest opposition street protest was a flop. What are the perspectives for this imperialist aggression and how can it be effectively combatted?

The announcement by the US Treasury of further sanctions on PDVSA and the seizing of its assets in the US was a major step in the campaign to remove the Venezuelan government. This is a measure that Washington had so far shied away from because of its negative impact on US refiners. The United States imports about 500,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela. The new sanctions prohibit US individuals and companies from transacting with PDVSA, or if they do so, payments will go to an escrow account, which is outside of its control. Considering the total oil production is 1.1 million b/d, the impact is very serious. It is possible that some Venezuelan crude oil will still flow into refiners in the US by means of third parties, but at least 200/300,000 b/d will have to find other buyers. The estimated cost of this is about US$11bn for the rest of the year. In addition, the US seized PDVSA assets in the US worth US$7bn. It also made clear that these assets would be put at the disposal of the “legitimate interim president” whom they recognise, Juan Guaidó.

Death by sanctions

The sanctions are designed to cause maximum damage, “to make the economy scream”, as Nixon said when he ordered the CIA to prepare the overthrow of Allende in Chile. A large proportion of PDVSA’s shipments of oil, to China and Russia above all, are not paid in cash but rather as repayments of loans from these countries. Therefore, between 80 and 90 percent of PDVSA’s cash income comes from sales to the US. Already, PDVSA has announced that any customers bound for the US waiting for their tankers to be loaded need to pay in full and in advance for cargo, or the orders will not be fulfilled. That’s a defensive measure, which will have to be followed by a transfer of oil sales to other customers in the next days and weeks. That is a process which will take its time. Venezuela mainly produces extra-heavy oil, which not all refineries can handle.

An even potentially more damaging impact of the sanctions is on Venezuelan imports of fuel and naphtha from the US, which it uses to refine the extra-heavy oil into a more saleable product. Venezuela currently relies on the US for 80 percent of these imports, which it would have to source from African countries, which are much further away, or it would be forced to sell unrefined extra-heavy crude oil at a lower price. This is aggravated by the fact that two of the country's main refineries, El Palito and Puerto la Cruz are almost paralysed and CRP is only working at minimum capacity.

To add to the impact of the sanctions, US National Security Advisor, John Bolton issued a provocative statement on January 30 implying that the approved US sanctions applied beyond the US borders, which technically is not the case:

Companies like the Spanish Repsol, which are not directly affected by these sanctions, are reportedly reconsidering their options. In the last three months of 2018, Repsol had been importing 53,000 b/d in an oil-for-debt agreement. The FT reported that “Some suspect the US Treasury has intentionally muddied the waters to scare off alternative buyers of Venezuelan oil as Washington ramps up pressure on Mr Maduro”.

Significantly, Bolton was at the press conference where the sanctions were announced, carrying a legal pad with “5,000 troops to Colombia” scribbled in it. Some have said this shows how stupid he is. While that is certainly an element in the equation, a more plausible explanation is that the pad was shown deliberately with the aim of sending a threatening message to Maduro: resign or else. The message was also aimed at the Venezuelan army, implying that, if they continue to support the president, they may face invasion by the US. At the same time as Bolton was waving his legal pad at the press conference, there was a report of a visit by Major General Mark Stammer, commander of the U.S. Army South, to Colombia, where he is supposed to be reviewing plans to face “mutual threats” on the border with Venezuela.

Military provocation and imperialist pressure

Reports in Venezuela cited a small number of paramilitary operatives having already crossed the border from Colombia. Though these reports cannot be confirmed, they are perfectly plausible. Everyone knows that any provocation or military aggression against Venezuela is likely to come from Colombia, which has a right-wing government completely aligned with Trump, where there are US military bases and which has for a long time shown an extremely belligerent attitude against the Bolivarian Revolution.

Military intervention is certainly not the first item on the agenda of this coup and it will not be without serious risks. Washington is proceeding according to a pre-established plan, which starts with diplomatic pressure and continues with economic sanctions designed to cripple the economy. To the US sanctions, we have to add the withholding (in fact a seizure) of US$1.2bn worth of gold by the Bank of England, a decision we now know was taken after lobbying by Mike Pompeo and John Bolton weeks ago, well before Guaidó declared himself president. Guaidó has now lobbied the UK government to put these assets at his disposal.

Sanchez Image US Sec. of StateA scandalous ultimatum, issued by Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez, that unless Maduro calls presidential elections within eight days, Spain would recognise Guaidó, was soon followed by France, the UK and Germany / Image: US Sec. of State

Today, the European Parliament voted for a motion (jointly moved by the Conservatives, “Socialists” and Liberals) to recognise Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. It took barely a week for the EU foreign policy to align fully with the Trump-Bolsonaro coup. No surprises here. The EU has always backed every single US foreign imperialist adventure, from Iraq to Libya.

This was preceded by a scandalous ultimatum, issued by Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez, that unless Maduro calls presidential elections within eight days, Spain would recognise Guaidó as president, knowing full well this would not be the case. Sanchez’s position is particularly scandalous. He came to power promising to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia, only to renege on the promise once in office. No such demand of elections has been made of the murderous Saudi regime, of course.

Furthermore, while Sanchez demands head of state elections in Venezuela, in Spain, the head of state has never been elected. Felipe VI occupies the office by virtue of being the son of Juan Carlos I, who himself was appointed by General Franco, the dictator, before his death! None of this, of course, bothers Sanchez, who heads a party that is nominally “Socialist” and “Republican”. The interests of Spanish multinationals trump any other considerations, and so Sanchez has joined the chorus of the Spanish right-wing and far-right parties (PP, Cs and Vox).

Almost simultaneously, France, the UK and Germany joined Spain’s ultimatum, which was all subterfuge to justify a policy that had already been decided, probably on the basis of a series of phone calls from the White House. The EU’s recognition of Guaidó is likely to be followed by an intensification of economic sanctions, in line with the US Treasury's position.

Guaidó has also appointed his own representatives to the US, Argentina, Colombia and other countries that have recognised him as “president”. Apart from the US, all of these countries still have diplomatic relations with Venezuela and its elected president Maduro, and there are fully staffed embassies and consulates. We cannot rule out a situation where opposition protesters try to over-run them. The European Union countries could follow suit.

All of this pressure has a clear aim: to force Maduro to step down or else convince the armed forces that it is in their interest to remove him. So far, there has been no public sign that the strategy is working, but we can be sure that behind the scenes meetings are taking place and discussions being held.

The army holds, the opposition struggles

So far, the Venezuelan Bolivarian National Armed Forces have very publicly shown their loyalty to the elected president Maduro and have strongly rejected any foreign interference. The FANB over a period of many years has been purged of its most reactionary elements as a result of failed coups (2002) and attempted plots. The Bolivarian Revolution also had the effect of politicising the ranks of the army, as well as a layer of the officers. That, however, is not a guarantee of their loyalty. Let us not forget that Pinochet was appointed by president Allende as the head of the armed forces after the failed tanquetazo coup of June 1973 as a constitutionalist officer. Less than three months later, he led the coup that overthrew the government.

One of the main reasons for the loyalty of the heads of the Venezuelan army is down to concessions they have recieved in the last few years. Military officers manage the importation and supply of food, many of the state-owned companies and PDVSA itself. On top of this, the creation of CAMIMPEG gave them access to lucrative contracts in oil, gas and mining. From these positions, they derive power and wealth, by legal means and also through corrupt schemes and open theft. As long as the Maduro government guarantees them these positions they will be loyal. If they reach the conclusion that he is about to be removed they will queue up to jump ship. Guaidó has announced that he has “had clandestine meetings with members of the armed forces and the security forces.” Surely, there have been meetings, but not organised by the bellboy of US imperialism. These meetings have been organised directly by the CIA and the State Department, the driving forces of the coup.

The reactionary opposition failed in its previous attempt to seize power in 2017 because it could not penetrate the working-class and poor areas. They were able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of supporters, but they did not break out from the middle-and-upper-class neighbourhoods and into the barrios in any significant way.

Venezuela opposition march Image public domainThe opposition failed in 2017 because it could not penetrate the working-class and poor areas. Even now, opposition support in the barrios is limited, and Guaidó’s 30 Jan rally was a flop / Image: public domain

The economic situation today is much worse than in 2017. Living standards have continued to fall and the purchasing power of wages has been pulverised by hyperinflation and devaluation. Still, there have been no significant protests in the working-class and poor areas. After the self-proclamation of Guaidó on 23 January, there were clashes in many barrios in Caracas, but these were mainly very small groups of paid rioters, recruited from the malandro criminal elements and using guns, grenades and other weapons. They were quickly crushed by the FAES and CONAS elite forces.

Even the January 30 opposition protests, which Guaidó had built for, flopped. The small groups of protesters that came onto the streets disappointed the assembled forces of the world’s mass media, keen to show the pictures of Guaidó’s “mass mobilisation”. The media has of course not reported any of the Bolivarian demonstrations taking place over the last couple of weeks in different parts of the country, as it would not fit with the propaganda of a “government that has lost of popular support”.

The failure of the 30 January opposition protest reveals the layer of the masses that supports the opposition is not prepared to participate in shows of strength that do not directly lead to the overthrow of the “regime.” These people are extremely critical of all opposition leaders, who betrayed them in 2017 and have disappointed their hopes for “change”. This creates a mood in which they put all their hopes in foreign imperialist intervention, be it through diplomatic pressure and sanctions, or even military aggression. This is dangerous from the point of view of reaction as it leaves Guaidó suspended in mid-air and appearing ever more as what he really is: a pawn of Trump’s objectives.

Anti-imperialist mood not utilised by Maduro

We should not underestimate the strong, anti-imperialist feeling which exists in Venezuela, which goes beyond the ranks of those who support the government more-or-less critically. Such a mood also exists within the armed forces.

Finally, there is the factor of foreign support for the Maduro government. So far, Russia and China, as well as Turkey and Iran, have been clear in their opposition to the coup, but they have couched it mainly in terms of opposition to foreign interference. This is an indication that they might be amenable to a “solution” from within Venezuela: some sort of negotiated “transition”, perhaps led by the army.

guaido Image fair useJuan Guaidó appointed himself as president, attempting to usurp power, but he has not yet been arrested / Image: fair use

Russia has two main interests in Venezuela. It defends the Maduro government, so far, because it guarantees its very lucrative contracts in oil, mining and weapon sales. Russia has also lent large amounts of money to Venezuela over the last few years, perhaps as much as US$17bn. All of that would be lost if Maduro was replaced by Guaidó. At the same time, it is convenient in geostrategic terms for Russia to have an ally in the US’s backyard.

However, Russia, like any other power, has no permanent friends but permanent interests. Let us not forget that Moscow hedged its bets at the beginning of the Syrian crisis and only came out decisively in support of Assad when it was clear he was not going to be immediately overthrown and that the US was not prepared to put boots on the ground.

China has also a lot of stakes in Venezuela, much more so than Russia. It has lent Caracas over US$50bn in the last few years and Chinese companies have invested over US$20bn in the Caribbean country. However, in practical terms, there is very little that the Chinese can do to defend Maduro other than veto resolutions at the UN Security Council.

In reality, the only way to effectively fight off this imperialist coup is by taking revolutionary measures and leaning on the revolutionary masses. So far Maduro has not done either. All of his public appearances have been to stress that he would be prepared to talk and engage in dialogue with the opposition: Trump and even the murderous Elliot Abrams, which the US has named in charge of the “transition to democracy”.

Of course, in war as in the class struggle, one would always couch one’s own moves in defensive terms. This is different. Maduro seems to be taking no serious action to respond to imperialist aggression.

Juan Guaidó appointed himself as president, attempting to usurp power; appointed ambassadors to foreign countries; cheered on foreign powers seizing Venezuelan property, which he attempts to manage, etc. Despite all of this he has not yet been arrested. Only two days ago did the state prosecutor take some (mild) measures against him (banning him from leaving the country).

The US has seized Venezuelan property and imposed sanctions. The proportionate response would have been to seize all property of US multinationals in Venezuela. Nothing has been done. The Bank of England has stolen 14 tons of gold from Venezuela. Venezuela would be justified in seizing assets for the same amount from UK companies in Venezuela. Nothing was done.

The revolutionary masses must resist the coup!

On 28 January, as the US announced economic sanctions and asset seizures, finally Maduro announced the setting up of 50,000 “popular defence units” to prepare the country for military invasion and promised to turn Venezuela into another Vietnam. That is a welcome step, but it needs to be turned from words into actions. Too many times in the past there has been talk of strengthening the militia, but the army officers have always been very reluctant to turn them into a genuine popular workers’ and peasants' militia.

To face off the imperialist coup, Venezuela needs to adopt the policies the Cubans followed in 1959-62 in the face of growing imperialist aggression: the expropriation of all multinational property, and raising a workers’ and peasants' army. That is how the Bay of Pigs invasion was defeated.

Instead, Maduro seems to be following in war (and this is what we are talking about) the same failed policy he followed in peace: appeals for negotiations, concessions to the capitalists and a slow and constant undermining of the conquests of the revolution. This is the road to disaster.

Venezuela Militia Image Cancillería del EcuadorVenezuela needs to adopt the policies the Cubans followed in 1959-62: the expropriation of all multinational property, and raising a workers’ and peasants' army / Image: Cancillería del Ecuador

The outcome of this struggle is not yet decided. It is a clash between living forces. Imperialism has a clear plan and it is proceeding slowly but surely, relentlessly advancing.

The only way to defeat it is by relying on the revolutionary people, striking blows against the ruling class and making a clear appeal to the workers and peasants across the continent and beyond to come to the aid of the Bolivarian revolution. In order to mobilise the revolutionary energy of workers and peasants, a policy is needed that puts their needs first: repudiate the foreign debt, expropriate the food distribution chain, give the land to the peasants and arm them to defend it; and plan the economy democratically under workers and peasants’ control to fulfill the needs of the people. This is the line that the comrades of the Marxist Current, Lucha de Clases, are agitating for in Venezuela.

The International Marxist Tendency is completely opposed to this imperialist coup and we are mobilising our modest forces internationally to build a powerful solidarity movement against it. 

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