Coup attempt fizzles out
Eddie Ford reports on the failure of the opposition and its imperialist masters to split the armed forces
In what must be a blow for Donald Trump and his advisors, the Venezuelan ‘national uprising’ against the Chávista regime of Nicolás Maduro appears to have abysmally failed. Now opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, says he is considering asking for US military intervention. Guaidó is, of course, the darling of western imperialism and president of the national assembly, which in January declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election to be “invalid” and instead proclaimed Guaidó as acting president of the country.
Naturally, the United States, Canada, UK, France, Germany, the European parliament, etc rushed in to recognise their client, Guaidó, as the “legitimate” president of Venezuela - whilst, equally predictably, Russia, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and so on, continued to support the Maduro regime. Guaidó, it needs to be noted, is a leading member of the Popular Will party, which was admitted into the Socialist International in 2014 and founded by a former municipal mayor of Caracas, Leopoldo López - who is currently holed up in the Spanish diplomatic compound after the supreme court put out a warrant for his arrest. This tells you everything about the Socialist International. Today most of its affiliates are committed to neo-liberal capitalism. To all intents and purposes it is an instrument of US foreign policy (not that Trump gives a fig for it). It also tells you everything you need to know about the class nature of the Spanish government of Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Socialist Workers Party, which significantly strengthened its parliamentary fraction in last month’s election (despite its name, the PSOE is in fact a mainstream bourgeois party). Not that this has stopped a much-reduced Podemos from entering negotiations with Sánchez with a view to forming a parliamentary alliance.
Anyhow, on April 30 Guaidó livestreamed a pre-dawn video of himself near an airforce base alongside López - his political “mentor” sprung from house arrest - and a small group of rag-tag-looking members of the armed forces from the lower ranks. Grandly - and deludedly, as we now know - Guaidó announced the “final phase” of Operation Freedom to finish off Maduro’s government: “it is necessary that we go out together to the street” in order to “support the democratic forces and to recover our freedom”. Ending with a theatrical flourish, Guaidó declared he would now “mobilise the main military units”. In other words, he was openly calling for civil war - for soldiers to turn their guns on each other.
Rather pathetically, Guaidó, having issued his dramatic ‘order’, was banking on the army splitting. This only proves that he is unaware of the first law of coup-making: make sure you actually have the army on your side before making a bid for power. Happily for Maduro, who must have been momentarily alarmed, Guaidó had not done his homework - he half-conceded a few days later that he and the US-sponsored opposition had badly mistaken their level of support from the military, not least the officer caste.
So far the only senior figure to swap sides has been general Manuel Figuera, head of the secret police, who castigated in a public letter the “rascals and rogues” looting Venezuela, while its people starved. Admittedly, his defection is not nothing. But on its own it is obviously nowhere near enough to pull off a coup and anyway Figuera is now enjoying life in Puerto Rica - he sensibly got out quick when he saw that the game was up. Only a few privates, captains and national guardsmen joined the ‘revolution’.
Desperately, Guaidó stated that people will be out on the streets “every day” until Maduro steps down from power. According to the latest reports, five people have been killed and at least 200 injured in the protests and counter-protests - not a huge figure, it has to be said. There have also been 205 arrests, with the supreme court (Supreme Tribunal) asking the constituent assembly - the pro-government legislative super-body dominated by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela - to determine whether to open criminal proceedings against seven opposition politicians, including Henry Ramos Allup, a former national assembly president.
Sounding confident, Maduro has claimed victory over the “deranged” coup attempt - thanking the military for resisting a treacherous “imperial” plot to topple him and the entire Chávista revolution. He showed his appreciation by organising an early-morning parade to “reaffirm the absolute loyalty of the armed forces”, which was broadcast live on state television (most of the media is in private hands and hostile to the regime). Denouncing Guaidó and those around him as “useful idiots” of the US empire - a pretty accurate assessment - Maduro then asked what would have happened if not for the role of the military: “How much physical destruction would there be and how many years of war would we face?” On May 5, Russia urged the US to abandon its “irresponsible” plan to depose Nicolás Maduro during a visit to Moscow by Venezuela’s foreign minister - warning that any attempt to overthrow the Caracas regime would have “grave consequences”. A few days later, CNN reported that the Trump administration is seeking ways to give Guaidó control of more Venezuelan assets in the US to help fund his opposition movement.
Now, as always in a situation like this, there is a fog of misinformation - nobody really knows what is going on, including those doing the disseminating. For instance, there is a widely spread rumour that Maduro had a plane waiting on the tarmac to take him to Cuba, but Russia convinced him to stay - an allegation repeated by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
There have been a number of plausible-sounding stories about how the US was “caught off guard” by Guaidó’s decision to launch the “final phase” a day earlier than expected - he went over the top too soon, following reports that Maduro had got wind of the plan and was going to arrest him. Operation Freedom was supposed to reach a climax, with mass protests set for the next day (May 1), but its premature start meant the momentum quickly evaporated. After addressing crowds in the Plaza Altamira in the affluent municipality of Chacao in eastern Caracas (Leopoldo López’s political territory as mayor), Guaidó and his team just melted away - whilst the crowd, which had expected to march on the Miraflores presidential palace, were left milling aimlessly around in the square before eventually going home. Disastrously for the plotters, senior members of the regime one by one, tweeted out vows of allegiance to Maduro - no-one wants to be hung from the nearest lamppost.
Meanwhile, by all accounts, in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta, a group of junior army defectors at the Simón Bolívar International Bridge that separates the two countries had gathered in expectation of an ad hoc invasion to assist the uprising - they seemed ready to take San Antonio, the small town on the Venezuelan side of the bridge. But the order to cross never came and instead they received a message from Guaidó instructing them to return to their hotels.
Needless to say, the Trump administration watched in consternation, as the moment of liberation from the forces of ‘tyrannical socialism’ never happened - what had gone wrong? It is not entirely clear if Washington communicated directly with Maduro’s inner circle in the run-up to Operation Failure (sorry, Freedom). López, from the safety of the Spanish embassy - but watch this pace - told journalists that the key negotiations had taken place at his house over the past few weeks, the plan being that Maduro would be allowed to leave and replaced by Guaidó in a “peaceful transition”. But many have treated the claim as grandstanding by a vain and chronically ambitious aspiring president.
Stunned, almost as if they had been personally betrayed, the Whitehouse hawks took the unusual step of going public with their version of events - cue John Bolton, the national security advisor and harbinger of the apocalypse. He named three top Venezuelan officials he claimed had been negotiating Maduro’s departure: the defence minister and head of the armed forces, Vladimir Padrino López; the chief justice of the supreme court, Maikel Moreno; and Iván Hernández, the head of the presidential guard and military intelligence. In an odd ritual, Bolton called out the men three times outside the White House. He did the same in a slightly surreal video that presumably was meant to appeal to patriotic Venezuelans, but which was entirely in English apart from the single word, “libertad”.
Inevitably, Donald Trump took to Twitter to rail against Cuban support for Maduro, while the US envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams - a veteran of Reagan-era US covert operations in Latin America - appeared on a private Venezuelan television channel giving a detailed account of the 15-point document the defectors were supposed to have signed. Far from a spontaneous uprising of the oppressed Venezuelan masses, Operation Freedom was made in Washington.
In another twist though, there have been suggestions that some of the so-called defectors have been considering feeding the US false misinformation in a game of bluff and double bluff - leading to interesting speculation that the opposition may have been tricked by Padrino López into thinking they had a deal in order to expose their seditious intentions - and then take them out. If that was the plan, then it essentially succeeded, even if opposition leaders have not yet been shot or imprisoned. If anything, by any objective measure, the Maduro regime has been incredibly lenient - perhaps foolishly so - when it comes to the bourgeois opposition openly conspiring with the US to overthrow his government by one means one or another.
There is the scenario being touted by Guaidó of direct US military intervention - an invasion of some sort. Pompeo has repeatedly hinted at the possibility. He told ABC’s This week on May 7 that he did not rule out “ultimately” using military action on top of diplomatic, political and other pressure points, so that, when the situation arises, “we’re not flat-footed”. We also discover in the same interview that the US did not suffer an “intelligence failure” - no, “these things sometimes take time”.
Up to now, the hawks seem to have been restrained by more sensible voices within the Pentagon - the Washington Post reported a confrontation in the White House between Bolton’s aides and the vice-chairman of the chiefs of staff, Paul Selva. Whereas Selva is making the case against any risky US escalation, Bolton’s people are demanding the military option. As for Bolton himself, he seems determined to goad military leaders - and maybe the president too - into taking an aggressive stance. He quoted general Craig Stephen Faller, head of Southern Command, as saying, “We’re on the balls of our feet, ready to go” - to which Bolton added: “And that’s the kind of attitude we need”. He also remarked that he does not believe that Donald Trump is prepared to see “foreign governments” - a reference, of course, to Russia and Cuba - effectively “take over” Venezuela, which “possesses the largest reserves of petroleum in the world”. Yet it might be the case that the US generals will not indefinitely frustrate the calls for military action.
However, if there was a US invasion, it would not be plain sailing, as the population is heavily armed. It goes without saying that the American military could wipe out the Venezuelan airforce and tank force within hours and occupy any part of the country - but what about keeping control and holding it? Under such circumstances, we should expect a repetition of the kind of resistance we saw following the Iraq invasion - but on a far larger scale.
You would assume that this is what Trump’s military advisors have told him, but will he listen?