When Pedro Rojas receives dialysis, his brother has to carry him and his wheelchair up the hospital stairs. Nine flights. The elevator broke, and frequent power outages afflict Maracaibo, the second largest city in Venezuela. Visitors and staff must lug everything from medicine to corpses up the concrete steps. “Going to a hospital is like going to hell,” locals say. One doctor recalls that his workplace was once well-equipped. “Today we lack everything,” he confides.
For residents, the irony is bitter. Built on a surging river of black gold, Maracaibo is the capital of the Venezuelan petroleum industry. But the country with the largest oil reserves in the world suffers daily electricity shortages.
In recent years, a raging humanitarian crisis has slowly but brutally undermined the Venezuelan Revolution, which had virtually eradicated malnutrition and slashed poverty in half. Inflation has devoured savings, while compelling families to make severe economies. Many must regularly decide whether to eat or buy medicine. Hunger has become a constant for the skeletal figures walking the streets of Maracaibo, forming food lines, and populating hospital beds.
Mismanagement of the economy and state corruption partly explain their misery. Yet it is also an official policy of the U.S. In the world of high politics, suffering is an instrument of statecraft, and officials are trying to strangle the Venezuelan Revolution with sanctions. Above all, they fear the radical ambitions of the popular classes, which once transformed Venezuela and may do so again. The current crisis is incomprehensible apart from this deeper history of collective struggle and imperial backlash.
That history begins in the Cold War. In 1958, a cross-class coalition toppled the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jímenez, wrenching the country toward democracy. Yet President Rómulo Betancourt and centrist leaders imposed the infamous Pact of Punto Fijo, establishing a collective monopoly over political power that excluded both the right and left. The new system nourished a self-selecting elite that thrived on the country’s apparently inexhaustible oil wealth and political patronage.
Yet the facade of stability eventually cracked. As a debt crisis throttled Latin America in the 1980s, Venezuela became the third most indebted state in the world. The financial crunch and neoliberal austerity ravaged the country, where 44 percent of families lived in poverty.
In 1988, voters elected Carlos Andrés Pérez, who promised to end austerity, calling the IMF a “bomb that only kills people.” Instead, he immediately accepted a structural adjustment package, plunging Venezuela into deeper poverty. A year later, popular outrage erupted in the Caracazo, the first major uprising against neoliberalism. Inverting the class hierarchy, the poor stormed the capital looting imported whiskey, entire sides of beef, and other luxury goods. Initially, Pérez claimed that “complete normality” prevailed before suppressing the revolt, spraying housing blocks with machine-gun fire.
As the social crisis festered, a young and charismatic officer named Hugo Chávez launched an abortive coup in February 1992. His defiant gesture and televised surrender captured the imaginations of many Venezuelans, who in an extraordinary twist of fortune voted him into office six years later. “He knows that the word is much more powerful than the gun,” his vice president José Vicente Rangel mused. “He spent ten years preparing a coup d’état that failed militarily; the single minute they allowed him to appear on television was enough to conquer the country.”
His victory initiated a creative dialectic between social movements and the institutions that his election secured. Ordinary citizens directly shaped the 1999 Constitution, which marked a clean break with neoliberalism. Its breathtakingly progressive provisions set the stage for radical land reform, the eradication of adult illiteracy, ambitious anti-poverty initiatives, and even the extension of social security to homemakers.
Chávez opened the political floodgates to mass participation. He spoke the language of the people, scandalizing an uncomprehending opposition and winning the intense devotion of poor Venezuelans. Avuncular and energetic, his television program, Aló Presidente, frequently ran over three hours. In a world of labels stripped of meaning, he was a sincere socialist – the rare politician with the audacity to dream and resolve to turn his dreams into prophecies. Yet as George Ciccariello-Maher argues, the revolution made Chávez: the grassroots organizing and popular effervescence radicalized his agenda and repeatedly moved his hand.
The Sound and the Fury
His revolutionary aspirations, opposition to neoliberalism, and criticism of the Global War on Terror earned the wrath of U.S. policymakers. After his election, the State Department illegally funded opposition parties such as Primero Justicia through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Eva Golinger concludes that it shaped “the party goals, strategies, and platform, essentially building the party from scratch.”
Tensions climaxed in April 2002 when President Pedro Carmona of Fedecámaras, the national business association, organized a general strike to topple Chávez. The plot enthused the Bush administration, which privately praised Carmona for his “critical role in advancing US commercial interests.” Officials closely monitored and supported opposition maneuvers. “Dissident military factions,” the CIA reported that month, “are stepping up efforts to organize a coup.”
At times, U.S. involvement was embarrassingly obvious. On the eve of the coup, military attaché James Rodgers prowled around Fort Tiuna cryptically asking officers, “What message do you have for my country?” Eventually, incriminating photographs of Rodgers surfaced in the press. U.S. naval officer David Cazares was even sloppier, mistaking General Roberto González Cárdenas for a conspirator. At a diplomatic soirée, he sidled up to the general before testily asking, “Why haven’t you contacted the ships that we have on the coast and the submarine submerged in La Guaira?”
The State Department later concluded that the NED, Defense Department, and it “provided training, institution building and other support programs totaling about $3.3 million to Venezuelan organizations and individuals, some of whom are understood to have been involved in the events of April 12-14.” In other words, the coup.
With the economy frozen, President Pedro Carmona of Fedecámaras urged every citizen to participate in an April 11 march in Caracas. Monopolized by anti-chavistas, the national media advertised the protest, while providing continuous coverage for the opposition. El Universal splashed “Not One Step Back” across its front page, and El Nacional announced, “The Decisive Battle Will Be At Miraflores.”
Before the showdown, Vice Admiral Héctor Ramírez Pérez asked CNN correspondent Otto Neustald to film an appeal for military intervention. He justified the coup by citing a brutal massacre – the day before it happened. A dazed Neustald recalled, “On the 10th at night, they called me on the telephone and said, Otto, tomorrow the 11th there will be a video of Chávez, the march will go toward the presidential palace, there will be deaths and then 20 military officials of high rank will appear and pronounce themselves against the government.”
The next morning, demonstrators congregated in Parque del Este before leaders illegally diverted the march toward Miraflores Palace. As the boisterous crowd swerved toward the seat of government, opposition leaders had snipers perched in the surrounding buildings shoot their own followers below. They blamed Chávez for the slaughter before kidnapping the president, forging his resignation, and declaring Carmona president. Jubilant, the business lobbyist dissolved the government and scrapped the constitution.
Opposition journalists welcomed regime change with the ecstasy of self-congratulation. One popular daily, Tal Cual, deemed the leaders of the media conglomerates “heroes,” who “understood their moment had also arrived.” In the delirium of victory, editors shed the pretense of objectivity, calling Chávez “an incompetent demagogue, totally lacking in national vision, who duped the poorest and humblest of our countrymen… His entire discourse was air, gas, pure repetitive bullshit.” By leading the propaganda offensive, the media played an indispensable role in his overthrow. Vice Admiral Ramírez Pérez publicly thanked journalists, gushing that “our arms were the means of communication.”
But the celebration was premature. In response, millions of citizens streamed into the city from the barrios (poor neighborhoods) of cinder block that stud the surrounding hills demanding Chávez’s release. As human waves immobilized the capital, the same stations that had provided 24/7 coverage of the coup recycled soap operas. Ultimately, loyal citizens and military units compelled the opposition to free Chávez, saving the revolution.
The 2002 coup is a parable of U.S.-Venezuelan relations. In recent years, the U.S. and Venezuelan opposition has criticized the government for authoritarianism and economic mismanagement. Yet at heart, both oppose the revolution for its virtues, not vices. Coup organizers feared the newfound power of the popular classes, participatory democracy, and an alternative to neoliberalism. Their sound and fury revealed the desperation of an elite jealously clinging to its privileges, as revolutionaries assaulted the ramparts of entrenched inequality.
Reining in Chávez
The April showdown dramatized the dialectic between the state and masses: The revolution that Chávez represented, but which gained vitality, direction, and meaning from the fearsome dignity of ordinary Venezuelans. A poor revolutionary explained his support for the president: “I don’t want Chávez to leave because I don’t want to become invisible again.”
Chávez literally put the poor on the map. Previously, official maps showed the barrios precariously poised on the hills surrounding Caracas as green space. Their new visibility symbolized a broader process of popular empowerment. Through Misión Barrio Adentro, free health clinics proliferated. Misión Vivienda built over a million low-income housing units, sprouting fresh-faced apartment blocks. Misión Mercal attacked malnutrition, printing articles of the constitution on bags of subsidized food to raise citizens’ rights consciousness. And household poverty fell 63 percent.
Yet as Ciccariello-Maher and Cira Pascual Marquina emphasize, focusing on government programs alone obscures the dynamism of the grassroots. The revolution created institutional levers for the popular classes to seize the initiative, influencing the content and direction of chavismo. Peasants expropriated land and built cooperatives. Neighborhoods formed over 45,000 communal councils and 1,500 communes, democratizing the local economy and politics, while working through the state to supplant it. Volunteers even refurbished abandoned factories, placing industry under worker control and imbuing work with emancipatory purpose.
Many journalists attributed Chávez’s power to his charisma and, implicitly, the ignorance of the masses – ascribing almost hypnotic powers to the president. Betraying their class bias, they invisibilized the agency and motives of ordinary Venezuelans. Yet chavistas distinguished between their leader and program. “Chávez is the only leader who can guarantee the revolution, but he’s also human,” peasant activist Briggitte Marin explained. “We will have to make the revolution with Chávez, without Chávez, and even against Chávez.”
U.S. officials doubted they could do it without him. Following the coup, they redoubled their offensive. That same April, the State Department pumped $1 million in “Special Venezuela Funds” into the NED, which the endowment then funneled to coup organizers. Later, policymakers also established a USAID Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Venezuela. A 2006 embassy cable explained that OTI goals included “Penetrating Chavez’ Political Base,” “Dividing Chavismo,” “Protecting Vital US business,” and “Isolating Chavez internationally.” Administrators countered revolutionary ideology by promoting a “civic education program” that reached over 600,000 people. Eventually, OTI supplied technical assistance, international contacts, and training to over 300 Venezuelan organizations, while lavishing at least $15 million on local collaborators.
Behind the scenes, U.S. officials excoriated Chávez, lambasting his “rhetoric of hate and violence.” Yet the embassy’s hatred was visceral, rabid, and tinged with racism. At one point, diplomats even organized a puppet show that portrayed Chávez as a monkey. Ironically, Ambassador Charles Shapiro privately lashed the president for “falsely” accusing them of “conspiracy to overthrow his regime,” even as he poured millions of dollars into opposition coffers.
For years, the Bush and Obama administrations tried to weld the opposition into a coherent and appealing alternative. In particular, the NED financed Súmate, which organized a 2004 referendum to oust Chávez. The apparent outburst of popular discontent was U.S. subterfuge; as Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega confided, “We have invested a lot of money in this process.” But Chávez handily won the referendum, which became an unintentional demonstration of his legitimacy. After authorities charged Súmate leader María Corina Machado with soliciting “international intervention in politics,” conspirators attempted to kidnap a prosecutor and murdered another in a car bombing. During the controversy, Machado frequently visited Washington, DC, virtually corroborating the charge and raising the eyebrows of colleagues.
Building the opposition proved a Sisyphean task. If as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, policymakers struggled “to rein in Chavez,” they also struggled to unite his enemies. U.S. cables portray opposition leaders as arrogant, incompetent, and painfully disconnected from reality. Their elite pedigree and dogmatic commitment to neoliberalism has alienated most Venezuelans, and at times their discourse borders on the delusional. Recently, Machado claimed that Hezbollah and other foreign groups control over 60 percent of the country, while warning that Russia and Iran exploit Venezuela as an “operations center for expanding their [policy of] destabilization and the struggle against Western values.” Rather than address national problems, opposition leaders have manipulated Cold War obsessions and anxieties about terrorism to secure U.S. largesse.
Even Henry Ramos Allup, the head of Acción Democrática (AD) and arguably the most respected opposition statesman, has exasperated U.S. diplomats. Ambassador William Brownfield lamented his “pettiness,” “dictatorial” style, and lack of vision, claiming he was as “overconfident as he is unimaginative.” “Rather than court Venezuelan voters, Ramos Allup’s principal strategy has been to seek help from the international community,” he complained. “Indeed, AD officials have explicitly and repeatedly sought funds and favors from the Embassy. When refused by one Embassy official, they ask another.”
This criticism extends to Leopoldo López, the dashing and photogenic founder of Voluntad Popular and leading opposition icon. In a 2009 cable, the embassy deemed López a “divisive figure,” who colleagues “often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry.” As mayor of Chacao, he participated in the 2002 coup, inciting the mob that brutally dragged Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín from his home before arresting him. After becoming the handsome face of the opposition, he promoted the 2014 guarimbas, or violent street protests, that left 43 dead. Protesters registered their rage in designer shoes, while shooting pedestrians and decapitating motorists with wires.
Although the uprising captured international attention, it signified the failure of 15 years of interventionism. Demonstrations barely budged beyond the wealthiest pockets of the country, reaching only 19 of 335 municipalities. López landed in prison. And the opposition remained fiercely divided. The torrent of U.S. aid could not alter a tenacious problem. As Ambassador Brownfield explained, “the opposition… does not reach out to poor neighborhoods.”
By then, Chávez had recently died from cancer, and the revolution was in a stormy period of transition. A drastic decline in oil prices, economic mismanagement, and foreign pressure on the Bolívar propelled inflation and a political crisis. In 2015, opposition parties won control of the National Assembly, and, one year later, Donald Trump secured office, marking a turning point in relations.
Trump quickly exploited an executive order declaring that Venezuela was an “unusual and extraordinary threat,” in order to impose a devastating string of sanctions. In three years, the U.S. adopted at least 150 coercive measures, blocking access to essential medications such as insulin, dialysis, and antiretroviral therapy. One academic study estimated that sanctions led to 40,000 deaths between 2017 and 2018. Foodstuffs disappeared on store shelves; measles and polio returned. Although the State Department claims that sanctions are not responsible for the humanitarian crisis, the effects are searing.
And the goal is clearly regime change. In his memoir, former National Security Advisor John Bolton writes that it was “time to resurrect” the Monroe Doctrine, openly justifying U.S. intervention. Trump repeatedly pressed Bolton to oust President Nicolás Maduro. “Get it done,” he reportedly ordered in the summer of 2018. “This is the fifth time I’ve asked for it.” The pugnacious president wanted to seize Venezuelan oil, arguing “it’s really part of the United States.”
On January 11, 2019, the administration backed another coup led by Deputy Juan Guaidó of the National Assembly. Guaidó is a protégé of Leopoldo López, who cut his teeth in politics promoting an RCTV concession after the television station facilitated the 2002 coup. Meanwhile, Trump reinforced sanctions, freezing Venezuelan assets in the U.S. and cutting off its largest oil market overnight. Officials clearly hoped that increased suffering would drive a wedge between Maduro and chavistas. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted, “we wish things could go faster.” But he was confident. “The circle is tightening, the humanitarian crisis is increasing by the hour.”
Officials embraced Guaidó as a pliant partner, reiterating their support during a January phone call. “Trump then assured Guaidó he’d pull off Maduro’s overthrow, and offered as an aside that he was sure Guaidó would remember in the future what had happened, which was Trump’s way of referring to his interest in Venezuela’s oil fields,” Bolton recounts.
But the coup again failed. Since then, the humanitarian crisis has deepened. The Biden administration has retained sanctions, while sustaining the Guaidó clique with frozen Venezuelan assets in the U.S. Yet the opposition remains bitterly divided, faring poorly in recent elections and battling the stigma of elitism, foreign dependence, and corruption. Recently, Guaido’s foreign minister scandalized supporters by implying that his shadow government embezzled state resources before resigning in disgust.
In large part, imperialism targets Venezuela because of the oil pulsing through its subterranean veins. Yet more important is its example. Chavismo galvanized a popular movement that revitalized socialism and placed it in the mouths of millions across the globe. Against a suffocating embargo and corrupt bureaucracy, the revolution will survive only if the grassroots reinvent it.
And internationalists defend Venezuela. As former minister of communes Reinaldo Iturriza argues, neutrality is impossible. “[Leftist critics] will understand when they do their own revolution,” he insists. “When imperialism tries to suffocate them, they will come to understand that the only option is to breathe.”