The failure of the 23 February “humanitarian aid” provocation on the Venezuelan border was a serious blow for Trump’s ongoing coup attempt. There were mutual recriminations between self-appointed Guaidó, Colombian president Duque and US Vice-President Pence. The US could not get a consensus from its own Lima Cartel allies in favour of military intervention.
The coup was losing momentum. Then, on 7 March, just days after Guaidó’s anti-climactic return to Caracas, the country was plunged into a nationwide blackout from which it has not yet fully recovered. What caused it? How is it related to the “regime change” attempt? And, most importantly, what are imperialism’s plans and how can they be fought?
23 February was supposed to be the coup’s D-Day. The idea was never to actually deliver “humanitarian aid” into the country, but rather to create a “people’s power” moment, where large crowds of opposition supporters on both sides of the border defied the Venezuelan armed forces, which, when faced with a large crowd of peaceful demonstrators, would then switch sides and join Trump’s puppet Juan Guaidó. On the day, however, things did not go according to Washington’s plan. The crowds of opposition supporters did not materialise in the expected numbers. “Aid” trucks did not cross the border and by the end of the day, Rubio, Abrams and Guaidó were left with egg all over their faces.
They made a big story about “Maduro burning the aid trucks” at the Santander bridge on the Colombian border. US officials even insisted this justified military intervention under the Geneva Convention. Never mind the fact that the Convention only applies in cases of war, the fact is that the aid truck that was burned was set on fire by a “peaceful” opposition supporter throwing a molotov cocktail at the Venezuelan border guards. Several media outlets (TeleSur, RT) explained that this was the case right from the beginning and even produced video footage to prove it. That did not stop US officials like Marco Rubio and John Bolton from blaming Maduro and the chorus of the world’s bourgeois mass media from parroting the lie:
Each of the trucks burned by Maduro carried 20 tons of food & medicine. This is a crime & if international law means anything he must pay a high price for this. #23FAyudaHumanitaria https://t.co/IrGzrOUX09— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 23, 2019
Masked thugs, civilians killed by live rounds, and the burning of trucks carrying badly-needed food and medicine. This has been Maduro’s response to peaceful efforts to help Venezuelans. Countries that still recognize Maduro should take note of what they are endorsing. pic.twitter.com/KlSebd2M5a— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) February 23, 2019
Now, two weeks too late, even the New York Times has been forced to admit that “one [Venezuelan government] claim that appears to be backed up by video footage is that the protesters started the fire”. The same NY Times investigation also concludes that the Venezuelan government was right in saying the US and the opposition were lying about the trucks containing medicine: “the claim about a shipment of medicine, too, appears to be unsubstantiated, according to videos and interviews.”
The admission by the NY Times, though it is unlikely to be covered as widely as the initial, false, reports, is very significant. We knew the US was lying, right from the beginning, as there was proof. Now it has been forced to admit it. This should provide a salutary lesson for the next time the US or its Venezuelan opposition make any outrageous claims about the “Maduro regime”. The lesson is: “question everything Washington and the mass media tell you about a government they want to overthrow.”
That evening, as if on cue, the Venezuelan opposition social media operation started to explode with the hashtag #IntervencionMilitarYA (#MilitaryInterventionNOW), aimed at putting pressure on the US and its allies to launch a military intervention in the country. The campaign is very revealing as to the character of the opposition (pro-imperialist and traitors to their own country), but also as to the morale of their ranks (they do not think they are the agents of “change” but rather invest all their hopes in Trump).
Having been defeated on 23 February, the meeting of the Lima Group of countries in Bogotá the following morning was a further setback. Let us remember that the Lima Group (more accurately known as the “Lima Cartel”) is an ad-hoc group of countries created with the explicit aim of overthrowing the Venezuelan government when the US could not get enough votes at the Organisation of American States for its bellicose resolutions. Before the meeting even started, there were public statements by Chile, Brazil and Paraguay explicitly ruling out military intervention.
The case of Brazil is noteworthy because there is a major split within Bolsonaro’s cabinet, and between him and the Armed Forces. Under pressure from the generals and his own vice-president, General Hamilton Mourão, the far-right president has been forced to retreat from several of his public statements; specifically, support for the transfer of the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem, and granting the US army access to a military base in Brazil. When the Lima Group decided in January to cut off all contact with the Venezuelan armed forces, the Brazilians kept communication lines open. The Brazilian army went as far as vetoing the presence of US soldiers in the border with Venezuela as part of the so-called “humanitarian aid” operation on 23 February.
Contrary to the attitude of the Colombian state, which turned a blind eye and even helped the opposition rioters on the border with Venezuela, the Brazilians contained them and prevented clashes. The reason is not that the Brazilian generals are in any way progressive, nor that they stand by the principle of sovereignty, but rather they understand that any major conflict in Venezuela, including the possibility of a civil war, could have a major impact on Brazil, with which it shares a large and inhospitable border. The last thing the Brazilian generals want is accidentally getting sucked into a major armed conflict in Venezuela, which they know would not be a simple affair.
Faced with such reluctance, the Bogotá meeting on 25 February ended with a statement that used strong words of condemnation and issued unspecified threats, but did not contain any serious commitment to the next steps in the “regime change” operation. The US announced the inclusion of a few more Venezuelan officials on their sanctions list, including three regional governors. Hardly the “military intervention now” that the opposition demanded.
Media reports have talked of recriminations from Mike Pence (who had cut off his trip to South Korea to attend the meeting) to Guaidó. According to one report, Pence told Guaidó that “everything was failing in the offensive against the chavista regime, the biggest complaint was because of the continued loyalty of the armed forces to Maduro”. Apparently, Guaidó had promised the US that if they were to get “the main world leaders to recognise him… at least half of the high ranking officers would defect. It didn’t happen”. The other main criticism was regarding the Venezuelan opposition’s appraisal that Maduro’s “social base had disintegrated. The crisis revealed that support for the government has in fact diminished, but is not inexistent”.
Of course, one should take such reports with a pinch of salt as sources are not quoted. However, the general frustration of the US with the Venezuelan coup is very real and makes this particular report plausible. Another report in the Wall Street Journal talked of Chilean president Piñera and Colombian president Duque also being angry at Guaidó at the meeting:
“The opposition had publicly sold the plan by promising that an outpouring of Venezuelans on both sides of the border would link up, Mr. Maduro’s security forces would back down and truckloads of aid would enter for hungry Venezuelans. ‘I think they built up expectations that weren’t carried out,’ said an opposition operative who was familiar with the discussions. ‘They built up that there was going to be more aid, that it would get in. And that the military would rise up. And it didn’t happen that way.’”
The WSJ article is quite detailed:
“‘As time passed, [Piñera] kept asking Guaidó where are the people who are coming from the other side?’ said the person. The responses weren’t satisfactory, he added. ‘Everything failed: coordination, information, organization,’ said a senior Latin American official.”
The picture painted here is of an angry exchange in which all blamed Guaidó, when in reality Washington is responsible for the whole design of the coup. The US officials in charge of the coup were so frustrated that they started a completely ridiculous polemic against the media (CNN included), which had started to described Guaidó as “self-proclaimed” or “leader of the opposition” as opposed to giving him the title of “the interim president”, a title that Washington had worked so hard to create:
Must watch exchange betwee @StateDeputySPOX Palladino who complains media calls Guaidó "self-appointed" or "opposition leader" instead of "interim president", and @APDiploWriter who points out only 50 countries out of the UN's 190 have recognised him pic.twitter.com/g0iIJzPnGR— Jorge Martin (@marxistJorge) March 6, 2019
The hawks in Trump’s administration - Bolton, Pompeo and Abrams - made a series of fatal miscalculations. First, they assumed Maduro had no support whatsoever, underestimating the strength of anti-imperialist feeling in the face of a brazen US coup attempt, and the fact that, while support for chavismo has diminished, it still managed to get over 30 percent of the census to vote for Maduro a year ago. Moreover, in the last few weeks, there has been a series of impressive, anti-imperialist mass rallies led by Diosdado Cabello in all states in the country.
Second, they thought that the opposition was able to mobilise large numbers of people who are prepared to go all the way in an open clash with the government. In fact, the opposition ranks, having been betrayed by their own leaders in 2017 and defeated in their previous attempts in 2013 and 2014, are distrustful of the opposition leaders and sceptical about their own ability to remove the government they hate. They have put all their illusions and hopes in a US-led military intervention and that is a state of mind which can produce a large rally (for instance on 23 January) but not a sustained mobilisation to overthrow Maduro.
The failure of 23 February furthermore left Guaidó abroad, in Colombia. He thought he would come back victorious, at the head of a US convoy of “humanitarian aid”, but found himself having violated a court order not to leave the country and stranded in Bogotá. He started a short tour of Latin America, on board a Colombian plane, but soon the US called him to order. He discarded a plan to continue his tour in Europe and was told in no uncertain terms that he had to return to Venezuela as “he was losing momentum”.
Again, Abrams, Bolton and Rubio attempted to build up Guaidó’s return as another D-Day, baiting Maduro to arrest him on arrival in order to build a casus belli for foreign intervention. It resulted in another flop. Guaidó returned on 4 March, the assembled EU ambassadors received him at the airport and then he went to a rally in the east of Caracas… But to his disappointment and that of his minders in the US, he was not arrested (although he should have been arrested, there were plenty of reasons to do so).
Then came the blackout. Starting on Thursday, 7 March, just before 5pm, a major power failure affected 18 out of the country’s 24 states. In Caracas, the Metro stopped working and tens of thousands had to walk their way home, in the dark. After a few hours it became clear that this was a major incident and power would not be restored quickly. The government decreed Friday a national holiday.
The country’s main electricity generator, the Simon Bolivar Hydroelectric plant, known as El Guri Dam, had crashed. El Guri produces about 80 percent of the country’s electricity and restoring it is a delicate operation. It is now more than four days since the initial incident and power is only slowly being restored in many parts of the country. Over the weekend, on several occasions, electricity was returned to different parts of the country, only to be switched off again.
The situation is serious. The government has decreed another holiday for today, 11 March. Back-up electricity generators keep power supply to essential installations, like hospitals, but there are serious problems with public transport. Shops do not accept card payments and many have increased prices and resorted to only accepting payment in dollars. There are also problems with the water supply, telecommunications (phone and internet) are very intermittent, and food stored in fridges and freezers risks being lost, etc.
The government has blamed the blackout on sabotage at El Guri and of course Washington and the opposition have been quick to reject such idea, blaming the power cut on a wildfire affecting the 765Kv power line between El Guri and the Malena substation. This would have brought down the power line and then in turn triggered a security stoppage at the El Gury Hydro plant. However, the opposition have produced no actual evidence of such a fire and the New York Times correspondent Anatoly Kurmanaev has rejected this hypothesis:
There are also three parallel 765 KV lines running at a distance from each other. Unlikely the fire would’ve affected them all.— Anatoly Kurmanaev (@AKurmanaev) March 11, 2019
The government’s claim is that there was a cyberattack against the system that controls the El Guri turbines and regulates power generation and supply down the 765KV line to Malena. The government has also declared that, when power was restored on Saturday 9 March, there was another such attack, and that these attacks have been carried out by US imperialism.
For those tempted to dismiss these accusations as a “conspiracy theory”, let us look at the following facts. First, the US and the mass media blatantly lied about the burning of the “aid” truck just two weeks ago. Furthermore, what credibility has Marco Rubio got? Yesterday, he tweeted there had been an explosion at a “German Dam”, when in reality a Venezuelan opposition journalist by the name of Germán Dam had reported an explosion at a power substation.
In an even more callous twist, Rubio “reported” 80 babies having died at a hospital in Maracaibo due to the blackout, only to be corrected by the chief of the Wall Street Journal South America Bureau: the hospital had recorded no neonatal deaths. None. Zero. Ninguna. Why should we believe anything these people say?
and another one: @marcorubio denounces 80 babies have died in a hospital in Venezuela due to the blackout ... to be corrected by the head of the Wall Street Journal Latin America: no babies died, none #HandsOffVenezuela pic.twitter.com/oseVKcrLZB— Jorge Martin (@marxistJorge) March 11, 2019
Secondly, such an attack is possible and has been carried out before, even on Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems that are not online. For those interested, just look up the US-and-Israeli-made Stuxnet virus, which was used to attack Iran’s nuclear power programme in 2010. That virus specifically attacked Siemens control systems, like many of those that run the El Guri turbines. An article in Forbes by a specialist admits:
“In the case of Venezuela, the idea of a government like the United States remotely interfering with its power grid is actually quite realistic... Given the U.S. government's longstanding concern with Venezuela’s government, it is likely that the U.S. already maintains a deep presence within the country's national infrastructure grid, making it relatively straightforward to interfere with grid operations. The country’s outdated internet and power infrastructure present few formidable challenges to such operations and make it relatively easy to remove any traces of foreign intervention. Widespread power and connectivity outages like the one Venezuela experienced last week are also straight from the modern cyber playbook” [my emphasis].
While the article in the end says a different scenario is highly likely, it nevertheless highlights “the inability to definitively discount U.S. or other foreign intervention”.
Third, there is the matter of timing. The coup was stalling. Guaidó had returned to the country but was clearly losing momentum. What better time to implement a major attack on the electricity grid, to demonstrate that the government is not in control, turn the population against the government and further intensify the propaganda about “humanitarian crisis” and “chaos”? Minutes after the outage was reported, Rubio, Bolton and Guaidó were already furiously and callously tweeting blame for the government and almost gloating at peoples’ suffering. The blackout has also taken place just days before the arrival of the EU International Contact Group mission which is to investigate in situ whether there is a “humanitarian crisis” or not. How convenient!
Of course, to any explanation of the blackout, its severity and its prolonged nature, we must add several other factors.
One is the fact that the Venezuelan grid has been starved of investment and maintenance for several years, something the left wing of the Bolivarian movement has discussed openly. The US is quick to point out this as the main cause, forgetting that sanctions have prevented the country from re-negotiating its foreign debt, which has sucked in an increasing amount of the country’s foreign reserves. We must add that the Maduro government has chosen to pay the foreign debt and hand over preferential dollars to the capitalists rather than use these reserves differently. This means that sabotage is taking place in a system that has already been weakened and therefore can be more easily damaged.
Another is the fact that thousands of workers have left their jobs in the industry as a result of the economic crisis which has destroyed completely the purchasing power of wages. The first to leave were the more experienced and highly skilled, precisely those who will be needed most now when it comes to bringing back a very delicate and finely tuned system. This process of abandonment was aggravated after the last currency conversion in August 2018, when the government destroyed collective bargaining and wage differentials in the public sector.
A third is that some of these problems would have been alleviated, or perhaps prevented, had the workers in the industry maintained the levels of workers’ control introduced during the Chavez government. Let us not forget that electricity workers at one point were at the forefront of the struggle for workers’ control, which was undone by the bureaucracy.
Finally, the more recent US sanctions on PDVSA have prevented Venezuela from importing and producing the fuel needed for the thermoelectric plants that should have provided a back up when El Gury Hydro went down.
What next for imperialism?
The situation in Venezuela depends greatly on factors that are developing behind the scenes. It is impossible to say what is actually happening in the military barracks and in the officers’ quarters. The whole policy of US imperialism is designed to put pressure on them, by making the situation in the country unbearable, so that the generals perhaps draw the conclusion that their interests might be best served by removing Maduro from power. This is achieved by sanctions designed to hurt the economy. The latest development on this front are the threats issued by Bolton and Abrams to punish, not only US companies trading with PDVSA or the Venezuelan government, but also financial institutions in third countries. The aim is clear: to completely strangle the Venezuelan economy until it chokes the government into giving up. This is a criminal policy that is hurting the poor and workers of Venezuela first and foremost, completely discrediting the idea that Washington is at all concerned about an alleged “humanitarian crisis”.
As for the possibility of military intervention, it is clear that the US would like Latin American countries to front it, but there is no appetite in the Lima Group for military adventures, which can prove costly and damaging. That leaves the US with very few options, the main one being to increase the pressure, through sanctions, sabotage, provocations, etc. This much was admitted by Elliot Abrams in a conversation with two Russian pranksters when he thought he was talking to the Swiss president. He said: "We think it is a mistake tactically to give them endless reassurances that there will never be American military action. But I can tell you this is not what we are doing. What we are doing is exactly what you see, financial pressure, economic pressure, diplomatic pressure."
To this we have to add the ideas likely harboured by some in the US administration about the creation of a “Free Venezuelan Army” and their “president” getting control of some territory (preferably close to the border, perhaps in Tachira), in a repeat of operations used in Syria and Libya. An article in Bloomberg has revealed that renegade Venezuelan former general Cliver Alcalá had a group of 200 armed men in Colombia ready to cross the border on 23 February, but he was stopped by the Colombians. Rubio has also played up the issue of military defectors and Guaidó met with a group of them in Cúcuta, praising them for “defecting” and warning that “we will have to cross back”.
There is also a sense of urgency for the likes of Bolton, Pompeo, Abrams and Rubio. They hoped for a quick resolution in this push for “regime change” back in January, but they failed. They probably calculate that they need a resolution well before the 2020 election in the US. Frustration and impatience only make them more dangerous and ready to deploy tricks they have not yet used.
As we have argued before, this ongoing imperialist coup attempt can only be fought back with revolutionary measures, striking blows against the coup plotters at home and their puppet masters abroad. That means arresting them and putting them on trial. Expropriating the coup-plotting oligarchy as well as the multinationals. Above all, the revolutionary organisation of the people from below needs to be strengthened by arming and developing the militias in every working-class neighbourhood, introducing workers control in all factories and workplaces and generally unleashing the revolutionary initiative of the masses.
Internationally, we need to continue and strengthen the campaign against our own imperialist governments in the US, the EU and the Lima Group countries, all of whom are, to one degree or another involved in this reactionary plot.