Venezuela, Chinese and Russian Imperialism, and the U.S. Coup
The conflict in Venezuela has dominated international headlines for months. The U.S. recently recognized Juan Guaidó as president, while China and Russia support the Maduro government. As Guaidó and his international supporters rachet up the pressure for a coup, both China and Russia have sent troops and military hardware to Venezuela. The crisis in the country has become a potential flashpoint for larger regional and even global war. In this situation, what should revolutionaries and anti-imperialists do? How can we best support the people of Venezuela?
On January 23, 2019 Juan Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly of Venezuela, declared himself president of Venezuela. This declaration came thirteen days after incumbent President Nicolás Maduro was inaugurated as President for another term, and was based on the claim that Maduro was not democratically elected. Guaidó’s announcement was possible because his sponsors in the White House support him politically, economically, and militarily. Since the declaration, the Trump administration has thrown their full weight behind Guaidó, and he has been supported by 53 other governments around the world, mostly close U.S. allies. Maduro’s government, in contrast is supported—politically, economically, and militarily—by China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, and others. Given this, the conflict in Venezuela must be understood in the context of the larger inter-imperialist competition taking place around the world.
While Maduro’s government does not serve the people’s interests, it is ridiculous to support Guaidó simply because he has declared himself president and because he has the backing of Washington and their allies. The U.S. has declared Maduro a dictator, and has been using the brutality and corruption of Maduro’s government to win popular support for a U.S. intervention. While there is a long history of corruption and oppression in Venezuela by Maduro and Chavez,1 the reality is that U.S. interventions have never made the situation better for the people. Even in cases like Iraq and Afghanistan where the governments the U.S. overthrew were brutally repressive, the U.S. invasions have only made things worse. Of course, there is an obvious absurdity to Juan Guaidó’s self-proclaimed presidency, especially given that he claims Maduro was not democratically elected.
Even before the recognition of Guaidó, the U.S. was already intervening in Venezuela by various means, including sanctions. Because of it controls a large part of the world economy and monetary system, the U.S. can impose sanctions on countries and businesses around the world. This prevents other members of the U.S. led financial system from doing business with these countries and companies, and severely hampers their ability to access international markets. While the U.S. media often frames sanctions as a “humane” intervention, in reality they are a particularly brutal form of intervention aimed at crippling a country’s economy and starving out the people there. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was recently quite open about this in the case of U.S. sanctions on Iran. When asked about the impact of U.S. sanctions on the people of Iran, he stated that “The [Iranian] leadership has to make a decision that they want their people to eat,” meaning that Iran would have to choose between subordinating itself to U.S. foreign policy or letting its people starve.
The U.S. is well aware of the impact sanctions have on other countries. For example, under Bill Clinton’s Presidency the U.S. placed sanctions on Iraq which killed between 1-1.5 million Iraqis.2 In a 1996 60 Minutes interview, then Ambassador to the UN Madeline Albright was questioned about the 500,000 Iraqi children who had died as a result of U.S. sanctions. She responded by defending the sanctions and stated that “we think the price is worth it.”3 Her statement clarifies that for U.S. imperialists, the death of half a million or more children are a small price to pay for the foreign policy goals of the empire.
However, it is also important to note that countries like Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, and others can be threatened with and hurt by U.S. sanctions because their economy’s are caught up in and dependent on the capitalist-imperialist system. They require constant access to foreign capital and financing just to run their countries, and as a result they are always under the thumbs of the imperialists. Only after a real revolution which expropriates the capitalists and establishes a socialist society and an economy built on self-sufficiency can the people avoid the threat of crippling genocidal sanctions by imperialist powers. The experiences of the Russian and Chinese revolutions in the 20th Century show that even near-total blockades by the imperialist powers were not effective at crippling and destroying these socialist societies. While these revolutions were eventually defeated from within, the imperialists were unable to topple them by means of sanctions, embargoes, or even invasions.
That being said, there is a big difference between the U.S. interventions in Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Venezuela. Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion, was a U.S.-backed ruler who started to act too independently for his imperialist masters. They were particularly annoyed that he demanded a larger share of the profits from his country’s oil exports. The U.S. then used the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to stage a massive invasion, and they eventually hanged Saddam.
In Venezuela, by contrast, the U.S. is not just trying to overthrow a government unwilling to “play ball” and serve their interests. Instead, the conflict in Venezuela is a struggle for influence between rival imperialist powers. Unlike Saddam, Maduro is backed by China and Russia, rival imperialist powers whose growing influence in South and Central America is a threat to U.S. interests in the region. The inter-imperialist conflict underlying the situation is Venezuela is clear from the fact that on the same day that the U.S. recognized Guaidó they also sailed two military ships through the Strait of Taiwan in a warning to China. In this sense, U.S. intervention in Venezuela is particularly dangerous because it could spark a larger inter-imperialist war.
Russian and Chinese Imperialist Influence in Venezuela
Since 2005, China has extended some $67.2 billion in loans to Venezuela and has invested heavily in the oil industry there.4 Since 2006, Russia has loaned at least $17 billion to Venezuela.5 Around ninety percent of the Venezuelan economy is based off of oil, and the country functions as a petro-state. Because of this it has faced serious funding and revenue shortfalls when oils prices declined. During these periods Chavez and later Maduro turned to China and Russia for loans.
The Russian and Chinese monopoly capitalist classes do not offer the Venezuelan government these loans out of the kindness of their hearts. They do so to preserve and expand their influence and profits. This may seem strange because much of the way investment is discussed in our society makes it seem like a good thing. However, what investment does is secure control and ownership of the profits produced in a given company, industry, or country. Investments are a means by which capitalist accumulate more capital through the labor of the working class.
The U.S. has a long-standing practice of extending predatory loans to other countries through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which often come with various preconditions and stipulations that the countries in question open the door for U.S. corporate plunder. The loans and investments that China and Russia have extended to Venezuela function in a similar way. They facilitate Chinese and Russian domination of the country and ensure that the profits made by the hard labor of the Venezuelan people will flow into the pockets of the billionaires in Russia and China.
In the case of the Chinese loans in particular, many must be repaid to China in oil. This helps to secure an oil supply for China which imported around 8.5 million barrels of oil a day in 2017, and only produces around 3.8 millions of barrels a day. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, and the Chinese ruling elite aim to secure their long-term access to this oil as an essential aspect of their overall imperialist strategy.
They need this oil to run their economy and fuel their growing military machine. These loans also help the Chinese imperialists to direct Venezuela’s economic and foreign policy in line with their interests. For example, in 2016 and 2017 Venezuela exported around 400,000 barrels of oil a day to China. However, in September 2018 Venezuela faced a funding short-fall and was at risk of defaulting on its debts, in part due to U.S. sanctions. China agreed to provide another $5 billion in loans to the country, but on the condition that the Chinese monopoly capitalists were given a greater say in the control of Venezuela. One aspect of this was that Venezuela agreed to increase its oil exports to China to 1 million barrels a day. More recently, Venezuela decided to cut off all oil exports to India, a U.S. ally and a major rival to China.6
How Things Got This Way in Venezuela
All of this raises a question of how Venezuela came to be subordinate to Chinese and Russian imperialism. After all the ruling party in Venezuela calls itself socialist and speaks of continuing the Bolivarian Revolution. However, the reality is that this revolution was never really a revolution in the sense of one class overthrowing another. Instead, Chavez, a high ranking military officer, was elected president of the country in 1998. An election, within an existing parliamentary political framework (which is a system of capitalist rule) is not the same a revolution. This was clear in the fact that Chavez and his allies did not overthrow the ruling class (many of his allies were from the elite), nor did they smash the existing state machinery. Instead, they took control of it and passed some minor reforms.
After being elected Chavez created some social programs and appointed many of his loyal military allies to important positions in the government. While some of these reforms did benefit the poor, and provide various forms of social welfare, they were dependent on revenue from oil sales and capitalists practices were never abolished in the country. The big factories were never expropriated from the capitalist elite and the workers and peasants were never given control of how the country was run.
Protesters in Venezuela have repeatedly confronted Maduro’s police and military forces who have shot tear gas into crowds and fired rubber bullets at people. The government has often used Russian and Chinese weapons and vehicles for crowd control.
James Petras describes in great detail how the so-called Bolivarian Revolution did not kick out the foreign capitalists or the local elite:
“Venezuela, Bolivia and the entire spectrum of social movements, trade union confederations, parties and fractions of parties do not call for the abolition of capitalism, the repudiation of the debt, the complete expropriation of U.S. or EEC banks or multinational corporations, or any rupture in relations with the U.S. For example, in Venezuela, private national and foreign banks earned over 30% rate of return in 2005-2006, foreign-owned oil companies reaped record profits between 2004-2006 and less than 1% of the biggest landed estates were fully expropriated and titles turned over to landless peasants.
“Capital-labor relations still operate in a framework heavily weighted on behalf of business and labor contractors who rely on subcontractors who continue to dominate hiring and firing in more than one half of the large enterprises. The Venezuelan military and police continue to arrest suspected Colombian guerrillas and turn them over to the Colombian police. Venezuela and U.S.-client President Uribe of Colombia have signed several high-level security and economic co-operation agreements.”7
The continuation of capitalist relations in Venezuela is also evident in the strike-breaking undertaken by the government. For example, in 2009 workers at a Mitsubishi plant in Venezuela went on strike. 860 union workers decided to occupy the factory to protest Mitsubishi’s use of temporary workers as a union-busting tactic. Chavez’ Labor Ministry worked with the capitalists at Mitsubishi and the local police to break this sit-in strike. The police opened fire on the workers and killed two of them. After the strike was broken, the Labor Ministry criticized the workers for going on strike, telling them that they were setting a “bad example” and that their strike was creating unfavorable conditions for foreign investment.8
The continued existence of capitalist practices in Venezuela are related to the government’s willingness to do the bidding of foreign imperialist powers. What’s more, the dependence of Venezuela’s economy on oil exports increased under Chavez. Prior to his election, around 68% of the country’s export revenue came from the state-run Petróleos de Venezuela; by 2012 it had increased to 96%.9 Much like in other petro-states such as Saudi Arabia, these revenues are used to finance various social programs when oil prices are high. However, when they fall, Venezuela has faced serious economic problems, and as a result they have historically cut important social programs during these periods. Petro-states rely heavily on imports to meet the basic needs of the people, such as food, medicine, clothing, etc. So when oil prices fall, and when petro-states face sanctions, the prices of these goods often rise drastically.
During the past decade when oil prices dropped, the government in Venezuela has looked to Chinese and Russian imperialists for loans.
These loans have covered Venezuela’s immediate funding short-falls but at the expense of granting big concessions to Chinese and Russian multi-national corporations. Essentially, this has given many of these companies free reign to exploit the Venezuelan people. Additionally, these loans have also given the Chinese and Russian ruling elite a big say in how Venezuela is run. In short Venezuela, much like other neocolonies around the world, has had to subordinate its policies, people, and course of development to the interest of foreign powers.
It is important to see that the present conflict in Venezuela is about more than just these two competing stooges.
The Present Crisis and Our Internationalist Duty
As the capitalist crisis in Venezuela has intensified and inter-imperialist competition grown sharper, the Maduro government has been shaken by a number of protests against corruption, inflation, and shortages of basic goods. While some people support Guaidó and U.S. intervention in Venezuela to topple Maduro, the majority are protesting against the immense difficulties they live under, which are the result the corruption of the Maduro government, imperialist plunder of the country, and inter-imperialist competition over Venezuela. Maduro has responded to these protests with violent repression, which has led to the deaths of many protesters.
All of this helps to clarify the situation in Venezuela. The Maduro government is not a progressive force, but rather a local stooge for Chinese and Russian imperialist interests, and the U.S. hopes to topple his government and put their own stooge, Juan Guaidó, in power. In short, the crisis in Venezuela is itself a manifestation of inter-imperialist conflict. Some have claimed that the U.S. wants to overthrow the Maduro government because it is a “leftist” government. The reality is that Maduro has sold the country to the highest bidder, and has facilitated the domination of the Venezuelan people by Chinese and Russian imperialism. So, while a U.S. invasion or coup would be a disaster for the people, the present status-quo of living under the domination Maduro’s government and the Chinese and Russian monopoly capitalist classes who fund him is also a disaster.
Given this, anti-imperialist and anti-war activists in the U.S. face a question about what stand to take. It should be clear that we must actively oppose any U.S. intervention in Venezuela, including the ongoing brutal sanctions. However, is this alone sufficient?
One idea is that, for those of us living in the U.S., it is enough to oppose the machinations of the U.S. imperialists. The logic goes that this country is the most powerful empire in the world and that it is enough to stand against it, even if that means supporting a corrupt government or even rival imperialist powers like Russia and China. It’s true that revolutionaries and anti-imperialists here must stand against all of the schemes and crimes of the U.S. empire. However, this by itself is not sufficient. For example, during the Iraq War, millions of American took to the street to opposed the U.S. invasion, but they did not support Saddam Hussein. In fact, many correctly highlighted his brutality and corruption, but noted that U.S. invasions had only made the situation worse.
In revolutionary China, the Chinese communists understood the need to oppose imperialism in all of its forms. They stood against U.S. imperialism and the Soviet Union’s imperialism. The text reads: “Defeat American Imperialism, Defeat Soviet Revisionism”
We must oppose imperialism in all of its forms, and we must stand with the oppressed people of the world in their struggles against imperialist domination, regardless of which empire is oppressing them. The situation in Venezuela is instructive in this regard. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to oppose the corruption of the Maduro government and the oppression that they face daily.
It’s true that the Venezuelan people are facing dire conditions in part due to U.S. sanctions. However they are also facing deprivation because of the capitalist plunder of their country by Chinese and Russian imperialists as well as the corrupt and decadent Maduro government. These circumstances have led to mass rebellions which the U.S. has tried to co-opt by installing their puppet Juan Guaidó. If they succeed in doing this, they will not only establish a puppet regime favorable to their interests, they will also be able to hand their rivals a big defeat and financial loss. But, if the status-quo continues in Venezuela, it will be a continuation of oppression and suffering for the Venezuela people at the hands of Maduro and his Chinese and Russian puppet masters.
Anti-imperialists and revolutionaries have an obligation to oppose imperialism in all of its forms. This includes maneuvers by empires to seize new territories and markets, as well as already existing domination of people by imperialist powers. To do otherwise is to lapse into the nihilistic belief that the best we can do is oppose new imperialist annexations and invasions, it is to accept the lie that a better world is not possible, and to mistakenly believe that the only choice is between one imperialist master and another. However, another path does exist, that of a thorough-going political, economic, and social revolution which kicks out all imperialists and doesn’t let them back in again.
During the first world war the Tsarist government in Russia tried to drum up support for the brutal war by convincing the Russian people that they would reconquer Poland to “free it” from German oppression. Germany had previously seized Poland from Russia. Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party were vehemently opposed to this imperialist scheme by the Tsarist government. However, their anti-imperialism did not stop at the border of the Tsarist empire. They also advocated for and supported the revolutionary struggle of both the German and Polish people.
Lenin spoke very clearly on this: “But how can we help liberate Poland from Germany! Is it not our duty to help in this? Of course it is, but not by supporting the imperialist war of tsarist, or of bourgeois, or even of bourgeois republican Russia, but by supporting the revolutionary proletariat of Germany, by supporting those elements in the Social-Democratic Party of Germany who are fighting against the counter-revolutionary labour party [which at the time supported Germany’s participation in WWI].”
This is a key lesson for us here in the United States. There is no question that we must support the Venezuelan people in their struggle against the corrupt Maduro regime and its Chinese and Russian sponsors. However, we cannot do so by supporting the U.S. stooge Juan Guaidó or other opposition figures who clamor for U.S. backing and support an invasion of Venezuela.
It may seem unrealistic to make such an argument. Some doubtless believe that the rule of Maduro and his foreign sponsors is the only alternative to U.S. invasion. However, this belief is a reflection of the nihilistic logic of imperialism which perpetuates the lie that the only possible option is to choose between the “lesser of two evils.” The lessons of history and the great revolutions of the 20th Century have shown this logic to be a reactionary lie spread by the ruling elite of the world. During periods of capitalist crisis and acute conflict between rival empires, people have been able to overthrow corrupt governments and their imperialist sponsors while also charting a course for revolution. Advocating this as a path forward for the Venezuelan people is it not unrealistic; on the contrary, it is unrealistic and downright absurd to argue that the present status-quo and the logic of “lesser-evilism” is all they can hope for. It is realistic and necessary to advocate for a revolutionary way forward that is in the interests of the people, and does not subordinate their interests to those of corrupt officials and their foreign sponsors.
Any U.S. military intervention in the country would certainly lead to greater destruction and devastation for the Venezuelan people. Therefore it is our internationalist duty to support the workers and peasants of Venezuela in their struggle against both the Maduro government and Guaidó’s power-grab. This situation is made more complicated by the fact that there is no significant revolutionary organization in Venezuela. Nonetheless, the basic point still stands. We must support the people of Venezuela, even if there is not yet a political organization capable of leading their struggle for liberation. Here in the U.S. this means we must principally oppose all efforts by the ruling elite of this country to interfere in Venezuela, while also exposing the crimes of the Maduro government and its imperialist sponsors.
For all the workers of the world there is a common enemy. Beyond the reactionaries in power in each country, beyond the particular imperialist oppressors who back up corrupt lackeys like Maduro, the common enemy of the working people is the entire system of capitalist-imperialism. There can be no true liberation for all the people of the world as long as this reactionary system still exists, and the people of the world cannot find liberation by subordinating their interests to one reactionary power in their fight against another. This is the true proletarian internationalist spirit: To stand for the destruction of imperialism altogether, to support all genuine attempts by oppressed peoples to free themselves from imperialist domination, and to oppose the reactionary plots and maneuvers of all imperialist powers without exception. Only by following this path can the working people of the world unite in the struggle for revolution and destroy their common enemies.
While some claim that Maduro and Chavez are socialists, this could not be further from the truth. They are more accurately described as the leaders of a petro-state who provided the people with some meager social welfare programs when oil prices were high. What’s more, after Chavez was elected president in 1998, he and his allies never ended capitalist practices in the country. This is analyzed in greater detail below. ↩︎
“U.S.-Latin American Relations: Measuring the Rise or Fall of U.S. Power,” November 1, 2006 ↩︎
Venezuela Speaks: Voices from the Grassroots, by Martinez, Fox and Farrell (2010), p. 113-123. ↩︎
Economist, September 29, 2012. ↩︎