Full court press to overthrow Venezuelan government?

For the umpteenth time, the Washington Post called on Tuesday for the U.S. to intensify efforts to bring about regime change in Venezuela.  The Washington D.C. daily is just one of a large number of U.S. media outlets for whom Venezuela-bashing has become an obsession.

This time, the spate of anti-Venezuela articles in the U.S. press is using the pretext of the announced suspension of a presidential recall vote by Venezuelan election authorities.

The referendum was initiated by the right wing majority in the Venezuelan National Assembly, with the purpose of removing President Nicolas Maduro, of the Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV), from power, and triggering a new presidential election which the Right thinks it would win. On October 20, Venezuelan electoral officials announced the suspension of work on the referendum.

Why the Right wants a quick referendum

Earlier this year, the Right met with frustration when electoral officials announced that there is no way a recall election could be scheduled before January 10, 2017.  If the referendum was voted on before that date, and Maduro lost, it would trigger a new election.  However, if the referendum is done after that date and Maduro loses, he would merely be replaced by his vice president, Aristóbulo Istúriz,   who is also a member of the ruling coalition.  (If Istúriz ends up as president, he would be the first Afro-Venezuelan to hold that post.)

When the impossibility of holding the election before January 10 was announced, the right-wing opposition raised a ruckus. But the election commission pointed out that the protest demonstrations, and the submission of many invalid signatures by the opposition itself, had slowed down the process.

This time, separate state criminal courts in the states of Monagas, Aragua, Apure  and Carabobo ruled that work on the referendum has to be suspended because of the excessive numbers of invalid, and seemingly fraudulent, signatures on the referendum petitions – throwing into question more than 600,000 of the nearly 2 million signatures submitted.  The signatures, according to electoral officials, included those of minor children, of dead people, of jailed criminals and, in some cases, of persons whose names were signed for them without their permission.

The right-wing opposition is not taking this lying down and is planning massive street demonstrations like the “guarimba” protests in 2014 that resulted in 43 deaths, mostly of government supporters, security personnel and bystanders.  Nor are Maduro’s supporters going to keep silent: on October 23, a protest demonstration took place within the chambers of the National Assembly, resulting in some fisticuffs (though nobody was seriously injured) and more pro-Maduro protests are planned.

Now, as of this writing, the Venezuelan National Assembly has moved to start an impeachment process against Maduro in the hopes that they can achieve results similar to the removal of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil earlier this year.

The right-wing opposition denounces Maduro’s government for bypassing it in decision making. In return, the government’s supporters point out that the current National Assembly illegally seated three members whose elections were marred by significant irregularities, in direct defiance of a Supreme Court order.

There are calls from government supporters for the prosecution of people who submitted false signatures, on the grounds that this not only violated election laws but the rights of real people whose names were forged on the petitions.

The Venezuelan opposition is calling for support from the United States and the Organization of American States, whose Secretary General, Luis Almagro, who is Uruguayan, has been a strident critic of the Venezuelan government.  A collection of right wing and social democratic politicians, many from Europe, has pursued a nonstop campaign of ousting the Venezuelan government.  The right-wing governments of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay are also involved in these activities.

(It should be noted that none of the countries that have been criticizing Venezuela on this matter, including the United States, themselves have such an institution as the removal of the federal president from office via a recall referendum.  In the United States, such a possibility exists for some state governors, but it has never been possible to remove the president via a recall referendum, and as far as anyone knows, such a thing is not contemplated at present.)

The right-wing opposition suspects President Maduro of playing for time: improving economic conditions under Maduro may undercut the public support that gave the opposition a majority in the National Assembly in the December 2015 elections.

Voters want Maduro to stay

A recent poll by the Hinterlaces firm, considered reputable, suggests that this approach may be working.   The poll,  published on October 16, showed that 51 percent of people responding would rather see Venezuela’s problems tackled under Maduro’s leadership, while only 24 percent felt the opposition would do a better job.  According to commentator Rachel Boothroyd-Rojas, this uptick in support for Maduro may be related to new government efforts to tackle the problem of scarcities via a new set of distribution centers, called CLAPS (Comités Locales de Abastacimiento y Producción, or Local Committees for Supply and Production). Other reasons that Hinterlaces gives as possibly helping Maduro include:  The reappearance of some food and personal hygiene items in shops, better control over distribution by government security agencies, a decrease in black market activities, better personal security conditions, and increases in wages and bonuses (to partially catch up with skyrocketing inflation).

Meanwhile, in neighboring Brazil and in Argentina further to the South, new right-wing governments have been imposing harsh austerity measures which, in turn, have triggered massive protest demonstrations by labor unions and allied organizations.  Clearly, the right-wing MUD (Democratic Unity Table) coalition, which controls the Venezuelan National Assembly, intends to carry out similar policies if it captures the Miraflores Palace (the residence of the Venezuelan president).  This may be giving pause to some Venezuelans who voted for the Right, or at least did not turn out to vote for the government parties, in the December elections.

The Venezuelan government accuses the Right of planning a coup, but at the same time, holds out an offer of dialogue facilitated by ex-president Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic, ex-president Martín Torrijos of Panama, and former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, with support of the Vatican and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).  It would appear that the Right is divided on whether to participate in that dialogue or not.

Hands off Venezuela

Meanwhile, we in the United States should recognize that our own government has neither the legal nor moral authority to interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs, let alone try to destabilize that country’s government. Yet that is precisely what the U.S. is doing.  Once again this year, President Obama issued a statement that Venezuela represents a threat to U.S. interests and security.  This is nonsense, but its purpose is to provide the legal basis for sanctions against the Venezuelan government and officials.  These and other arrogant anti-Venezuela policies do not help the people of Venezuela one whit.

Calls to the White House, State Department and both houses of Congress should demand “hands off Venezuela.”


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.