Analysis: The world must recognise the Venezuelan coup for what it truly is

Those seeking the downfall of the Maduro government are aligning themselves with Trump and Bolsonaro

WHAT constitutes a coup d'état? To find out, take a look at what’s happening in Venezuela.

The old joke about Venezuelan politics is that nobody is entirely against the idea of a coup, because at some point or another, everyone has tried to pull one off.

It was the failed attempt of Hugo Chavez to overthrow the bloodthirsty government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992 that catapulted the then-unknown military officer to national celebrity. Provoked by a series of neoliberal reforms which plunged Venezuela into a crisis which saw poverty climb to nearly 50 per cent and leaves the country’s present-day economic troubles in the shade, the efforts of the ‘Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200’ to seize power ended almost as quickly as they began, with Chavez ordering the end of hostilities on live television. The revolution, he announced, had failed – “for now.”

Chavez’s addendum was prophetic. His revolution continued, and triumphed, via electoral means, sweeping him into the presidency in 1998 by a stunning landslide, the beginning of a transformative moment in history that would extend far beyond Venezuela. As Chavismo began, so too did the efforts of its enemies to destroy it; just as Chavez moved towards democracy, his opponents moved in the opposite direction.

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This week, the little-known opposition politician Juan Guaidó appointed himself as president – a seemingly premature move, given that his control of the Venezuelan state apparatus does not extend beyond his position in the National Assembly, but one which was quickly recognised by the administration of Donald Trump, as well as a host of Venezuela’s regional opponents, led chiefly by the recently elected Brazilian government of Jair Bolsonaro – last spotted making friends with Tony Blair at Davos - who had utilised the spectre of Venezuelan socialism to great effect on the campaign trail.

For the many international critics of Venezuela’s socialist government, the nebulous “interim” government of Guaidó requires the acceptance of strange conclusions.

You defend democracy by not participating in it. You defeat a Caesaresque strongman by appointing yourself president. You install yourself in power through specious interpretations of a constitution you have previously condemned. You defy authoritarianism by appealing to the military for support. You promise a return to peace and normality - with the support of Brazilian fascism and the Trump administration. Wonderland worked on less risible logic.

The possibility of a coup has haunted Venezuelan politics since 2002, when an abortive attempt saw Chavez briefly removed from power, before returning under a wave of popular support. The Venezuelan opposition has generally regarded 2002 as a tragedy, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it was instead its greatest mistake, which gifted a narrative to both Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro that their governments were perennially under threat from both internal putsch-plotters and foreign intervention.

In the 17 years since, as Venezuela has faced hyperinflation and economic calamity, the Venezuelan opposition has largely failed to disassociate itself with the covert and overt US backing it regards as essential, along with ex-military crackpots and an increasingly hysterical far right who never abandoned the idea that a coup deserved another chance. It has had countless chances to commit itself to change only via peaceful, democratic means; to condemn the assassination of government supporters; to demonstrate its supposed popular support and moral superiority. And at every one of these opportunities, it has shrugged and carried on as usual.

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Those throughout the world who would like to see a change in Venezuela’s government should ask themselves what alliances they are prepared to make in order to achieve it, even if the Venezuelan opposition refuses to do the same. The sudden concern the Trump administration has developed for the wellbeing of Latin Americans – whom it had previously only focused upon while locking up their children and cutting off aid in attempts to discourage a desperate migrant caravan (populated, in large part, by Hondurans fleeing the consequences of another US-backed coup) – is less than credible, to say the least.

Meanwhile, valid criticisms of the state of democracy in Venezuela cannot be seen in isolation. If the controversies of last year’s presidential election – which saw boycotts, questions over vote-tampering and unexpected voter relocations – are grounds to bring down a government, what of Bolsonaro, whose participation in Brazil’s democratic process was predicated on his most popular opponent being imprisoned from the start? What of Trump, who lost the popular vote by roughly three million and presides over a republic that practices voter suppression as a matter of course?

While the self-appointed defenders of liberal democracy ponder the legitimacy of Venezuela’s self-appointed would-be president, the crisis also poses a more pressing question for the international Left. Venezuela’s economic decline – whether the result of government mismanagement from within, or economic war from without – has become a popular cudgel to beat those who suggest that the wealth of the world might be more fairly redistributed. As a result, many have turned in embarrassment from grappling with the questions it poses.

Yet socialism cannot exist, cannot function, cannot triumph without anti-imperialism. To abandon Venezuela as inconvenient, to remain silent in the days and weeks ahead, will expose more than the fragility of a noble, flawed and ongoing experiment that once provided hope to people the world over. Democracy is not delivered by coups, and its legitimacy does not rest with the endorsement of Mike Pence. It is necessary, perhaps now more than ever, to say so.

Picture courtesy of Global Panorama

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