Venezuela spins at the rim of a black hole

Demonstrators clash with police during a rally against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela May 1, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
May 5, 2017

Venezuela is being sucked into a political and social vacuum because neither its local leaders nor regional players have the slightest idea where the country of 30 million people should be heading or how to get there.

The awful probability is that the vacuum will be filled by violence. That’s usually what happens when human societies lose their way.

For over a month Venezuela’s cities have been in turmoil as supporters of the opposition Democratic Unity Movement (MUD) alliance demand that President Nicolas Maduro be removed and that new presidential elections be held. He is accused at home and abroad of creating an authoritarian regime, filling the jails with political prisoners, gross incompetence and corruption in managing the economy of one of the world’s major petro states, and of standing idly by as the country’s people suffer from shortages of food, medicines and all the basic necessities of life.

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Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) shout back that they are the victims of a plotted regime change orchestrated by Washington in partnership with Venezuela’s business classes.

Over 30 people have been killed and hundreds injured in these demonstrations, with both the protesters and the authorities ratchetting up the level of force and violence day by day.

Venezuela has been heading for a cataclysmic denouement since the death of its strutting rooster leader Hugo Chavez in 2013. Indeed, many people, both among Venezuela’s opposition parties and its despairing neighbouring countries, would argue that the country’s collapse began when Chavez came to power in 1998.

Maduro was Chavez’ Vice-President and took over when Chavez died of cancer on March 5, 2013. The collapse of oil prices and loopy economic policies based on Chavez’ ignorant but melodramatic devotion to the 19th Century South American “Liberator” Simon Bolivar have accelerated the collapse. The PSUV lost control of the National Assembly in December elections last year and fears, with good reason, that in anything like a free and fair election voters would take the presidency from them too.

So Maduro is writhing like a trapped python. In March, the Supreme Court, which is controlled by Maduro and his supporters, moved to dissolve the National Assembly and assume the legislative powers itself. Maduro was forced to backtrack after an international outcry, though the National Assembly remains largely powerless.

One of the main critics of the Maduro regime has been the Organization of American States (OAS). Last year the OAS brandished its Democratic Charter and rebuked Maduro for smothering opposition, locking up political opponents and ruling by decree.

Late last month the Maduro regime announced it will pull out of the OAS, an exit that will take two years to complete.

On Monday, in his efforts to complete the neutering of the National Assembly, and to ensure he is not subject to recall and a new presidential election, Maduro announced he would invoke Article 347 of Chavez’s 1999 constitution. Maduro said he will convene a “citizens’ constitutional assembly to advance state reforms and a national peace agenda.”

Calling the assembly, Maduro said, was necessary to “defeat fascist attempts at a coup” through invoking the sovereignty of the people to “impose peace, harmony, and true national dialogue.”

What exactly that means and what sort of institutions or processes the assembly will produce is anyone’s guess. What seems certain is that Maduro aims to conclusively sideline the National Assembly and create in the citizens’ assembly an alternative legislative body.

The assembly will have 500 members who will be selected from among peasant and grass roots organizations, which, for some unfathomable reason, mostly remain loyal to the fantasy of the “Bolivarian Revolution” spun by Chavez in his hypnotic four, five and six-hour speeches.

All this could be dismissed as farce and comedy if the opposition was at all co-ordinated, and had a coherent vision of where it wants Venezuela to go and how to get there. But it does not.

The unfortunately named MUD is a “roundtable” coalition of 15 political parties. These range from insignificant, but charming parties like the Fearless People’s Alliance, to heavy-hitters like Voluntad Popular, Primero Justicia, Vente Venezuela, and Democratic Action.

However, MUD members have been unable to develop a clear strategy for what they want and how to get there. For example, recent demands from various MUD members include the resignation of Maduro, immediate national elections, immediate elections for state governors, the release of political prisoners, the jailing of Maduro and his senior officials, and even that the United States be invited to remove Maduro.

Former U.S. President George W Bush did conspire with Venezuela’s business leaders and elements of the military in 2002 to remove Chavez. But after only 47 hours out of office Chavez was returned to power by a combination of loyal military officers and mass peasant demonstrations.

Bush was never that enamoured of the Venezuelan adventure and Donald Trump might be even more unwilling to assist in the removal of Maduro.

One of the more entertaining stories to emerge from the Venezuelan cataclysm is that Maduro’s government stumped up $US500,000 to help finance Trump’s inauguration. The story is all the more delightful because it also involves the Russian oil giant Rosneft, and seems to have been a spin-off from the belief in the Kremlin that Trump was a friend who would soon lift sanctions against Russia.

Venezuela’s state oil company PdVSA is, like the rest of the economy, in need of life support. For PdVSA this comes in loans from Rosneft. But in January PdVSA had to offer Rosneft a 50 per cent stake in its U.S. subsidiary, Citgo Petrol, as collateral for a $US1.5 billion loan. However, Rosneft could not take control of Citgo, which owns oil terminals, pipelines and three refineries in the U.S., because of Washington’s sanctions against the company and its chief executive, Igor Sechin, stemming from Moscow’s support of Ukrainian separatists and its annexation of Crimea.

Soon after, Citgo made the $US500,000 donation for Trump’s inauguration celebrations, according to a report by the U.S. Federal Election Commission. Citgo was apparently the vehicle for the donation because as a U.S. affiliate, it avoided the ban on foreign donations for these kinds of jollifications. And because of sanctions, the Russians couldn’t directly stuff money into Trump’s accounts. But it remains a question whether this money was a gift from Maduro or from Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

Trump and his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, are intent on castrating the State Department. Senior desk officers responsible for Western Hemisphere affairs are yet to be appointed in the department. The result is that there is no coherent view on Venezuela on which members of Congress can base opinions. Even the Pentagon – apparently Trump’s preferred agent of foreign policy – has put forward various options such as direct intervention, sanctions and diplomatic leverage through the OAS.

With Maduro’s withdrawal from the OAS the chances of that being a useful channel for a negotiated settlement appear to have shrunk to nil. Another regional organization, the South American Union, has made some approaches to Caracas, but with little result. Mercosur, the free trade organization for South American countries, has suspended Venezuela’s membership, so its ability to influence Maduro is very limited.

Venezuela called a meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States on May 2 to try to get a vote of support for Maduro’s constituent assembly ploy, but too few delegates turned up for Caracas to succeed.

There are some efforts to promote a negotiated settlement by neighbouring countries that continue to support Maduro – Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador – but there are no results at the moment and little cause for optimism.

Individuals spoken of as potential mediators have been no more willing to get involved in the Venezuelan vortex than have countries or regional organizations. One unwilling candidate, Uruguay’s former President, Jose Mujica, brushed the suggestion aside saying: “I am not a magician.”

Neither, it seems is Pope Francis. The Pope was elected to office at about the same time that Maduro took over from the bitterly anti-Catholic Chavez. Maduro, however, used Pope Francis’ reputation as a leftist populist, and a South American one to boot, to try to portray the Pontiff as an ally of Bolivarian socialism.

For a brief period last year the Vatican did sponsor talks between Maduro’s regime and the opposition. Those talks fell apart, however, when Maduro failed to meet conditions for them to continue, especially the release of political prisoners.

From the few brief remarks that Pope Francis has made about Venezuela recently, it appears that release of political prisoners is the Vatican’s minimal requirement before getting involved again.

But the relationship between Maduro’s regime and the Catholic Church has now deteriorated to violence. During Holy Week services marking Easter last month, government “Chavistas” invaded parish churches to disrupt the services. Maduro’s civilian paramilitaries even interrupted a mass being held by Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino of Caracas on April 12, shouted threats and attempted to attack him. The Cardinal was shielded from the attack by his attendants, but the Chavistas injured several members of the congregation and looted the church.

The way things stand, it is hard not to think that life in Venezuela is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing:

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”


Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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