Failed Coup in Venezuela: Washington Underestimated The Grass Roots Opposition

Venezuelan opposition leader and declared acting president by the National Assembly Juan Guaidó meets foreign allies including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (R) in a meeting of Lima Group on February 25, 2019 in Bogota, Colombia.Photo by Luis Ramirez/Vizzor Image/Getty Images

"The Venezuelan opposition and its backers in Washington may have underestimated the Chavista grassroots."

InTheseTimes, March 6, 2019

If you repeat your own lies enough—so goes the apocryphal Goebbels quote—you start to believe them yourself. For two decades, the Venezuelan opposition and its supporters in Washington have smeared Hugo Chávez and now his successor, Nicolás Maduro, as despotic strongmen kept in power solely through military force and paltry payouts to the poor. So it’s no surprise that they are once again underestimating both Chavismo and the resilience of its supporters today.

Underestimating the People

We’ve seen this all before: On April 11 of 2002, the Venezuelan opposition—according to the most credible accounts—unleashed snipers on its own supporters and used the ensuing deaths to justify a coup against Hugo Chávez. But the opposition dramatically overplayed its hand and underestimated the Chavista grassroots, who it routinely smeared as the blind followers of a populist strongman. When coup leaders abolished all branches of government and scrapped the constitution, hundreds of thousands of poor Venezuelans poured into the streets demanding, and eventually forcing, Chávez’s return to power.

Much has changed since 2002. A perfect storm of Chávez’s death, collapsing global oil prices, a mismanaged system of currency controls, ferocious aggression from the opposition and—more recently—U.S. sanctions, has thrown the Venezuelan economy into a tailspin. Many of the impressive accomplishments of the Bolivarian Revolution—in health care, education and poverty reduction—have quickly evaporated, producing frustration, confusion and desperation among even Chavismo’s most hardline supporters.

So when opposition backbencher Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of Venezuela on January 23, he and his co-conspirators thought the military would quickly fragment before eventually falling in line behind the self-proclaimed president. Things didn’t work that way: Aside from a handful of soldiers and the U.S. military attaché, the Venezuelan armed forces remained solidly behind Nicolás Maduro. And despite large demonstrations both for and against the government, there have been no signs of sustained, mass resistance in the streets in favor of the coup either.

Why? In part because the frustration many poor Venezuelans feel today is just that: frustration. They are fed up with the economic crisis, and many place at least a share of the blame on Maduro. But as in the past, most don’t see frustration as justifying undemocratic regime change, much less foreign intervention—which the majority of Venezuelans oppose. What’s more, wanting the economy to improve has not led many to identify with opposition parties that still represent the most elite sectors of Venezuelan society and have offered no credible solutions to the economic crisis.

The Trojan Horse of Humanitarian Aid

But if much has changed, much has also stayed the same: Unable to believe that the poor might hold such a nuanced position, the opposition has again overplayed its hand and bet it all on yet another failed coup. February 23 marked one month since Guaidó’s self-coronation, and also the expiration of the 30-day period during which any interim president must hold new elections. According to even the opposition’s contrived reading of the Venezuelan Constitution, since Guaidó never called those elections, he has no remaining claim to the presidency. And so it was that on February 23, Guaidó resorted to increasingly desperate measures, attempting to provoke a crisis by forcing deliveries of US-provided “humanitarian aid” across the border.

It’s not difficult to debunk this false humanitarianism. The United Nations refused to participate in what it deemed “politicized” aid shipments, and the Red Cross denounced the border charade as “not humanitarian aid”—and rebuked the unauthorized use of Red Cross insignia by opposition forces. Given that Contra war criminal Elliott Abrams is now in charge of U.S. policy in Venezuela, it’s worth recalling that U.S.-backed Contras used the Red Cross insignia toward similar ends in Nicaragua.

And then there’s also basic math: While the opposition mounted a spectacle to deliver a few million dollars in aid, U.S. sanctions have already cost Venezuela billions, and will cost billions more. Economist Mark Weisbrot estimates the death toll of the sanctions to be “in the thousands or tens of thousands so far,” with more deaths from Trump’s draconian tightening of the sanctions almost guaranteed. ...
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