NEW! Extraordinary Threat:
The U.S. Empire, the Media, and
Twenty Years of Coup Attempts in Venezuela
248 pages, $25, 978-1-58367-916-6
by Justin Podur and Joe Emersberger
From Chapter 1:
For over a century, the United States has used terror tactics—including everything from direct military invasion to economic strangulation—to assert its self-appointed right to rule over all countries in the Americas.
It has smashed small countries such as Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala that could only have posed the “threat of a good example” by developing in defiance of U.S. orders. But Venezuela, at the start of the twenty-first century, “threatened” to do much more than that. For many years, it provided a promising example of democratic and social reform under a government described by itself and its adversaries as socialist. Venezuela also began to finance the liberation of other countries in the Americas. It helped Argentina pay off debt owed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and launched an initiative called PetroCaribe that helped many countries in the region buy oil. Venezuela also spearhead regional integration initiatives that sidelined Washington—weakening the imperial grip of the United States.
For two decades, despite winning elections, Venezuela’s “Chavista” governments (under the presidencies of the late Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, and then his protégé and elected successor Nicolás Maduro) have been smeared as dictatorships.
No one in the Western media is ever held accountable for telling outright lies about the country. And these lies have deadly consequences: as a result, the Western public has accepted sanctions that have killed tens of thousands of Venezuelans since 2017. If a military attack on Venezuela occurs at some point by the United States or its allies, the way will have been prepared by the stories that have been told about Venezuela over the past twenty years.
The most audacious lie told about Venezuela’s government occurred when President Barack Obama imposed economic sanctions on Venezuela in March 2015. He issued an executive order that formally declared a “national emergency” based on the claim that Venezuela was “an extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States.”iii Every year since, the U.S. government has repeated this outlandish claim, to keep its increasingly murderous sanctions in place. The sanctions are designed to starve the Venezuelan government of the hard currency it needs to import food, medicine, and the parts required to maintain basic infrastructure such as its electrical grid.
A New York Times analysis in 2015, without being explicit, conceded that Obama’s “extraordinary threat” claim was absurd, but focused instead on concerns that it may have “backfired.” And the article also downplayed the importance of Obama’s lie by uncritically quoting U.S. officials saying it was “a formality required by law in order to carry out sanctions.”iv In fact, the article completely reverses the truth.
It’s the U.S. government that poses an extraordinary threat to Venezuela.
Why is it so easy to lie about Venezuela? Why is it so difficult to clarify the reality?
….U.S. planners face a durable problem: the default stance of the public is antiwar. The targeted country must be thoroughly demonized before overt military threats are feasible. Trump first made them against Venezuela’s government in 2017 after the country had already been relentlessly vilified in the Western media for sixteen years.xxx The threats also came after Venezuela had been mired in an economic depression since 2014 that allowed the threats to be spun from a “humanitarian” angle. Panama was invaded in 1990 by the United States under George H. W. Bush, but the country effectively came pre-invaded through a U.S. military base. In 2004, Haiti’s democratically elected president was kidnapped by U.S. troops and flown off to the Central African Republic; the neighboring Dominican Republic served conveniently as a forward base for the proxy forces that helped overthrow Haiti’s president. In 1980s Nicaragua, the U.S.-backed Contra terrorists, based in Honduras, were used to attack the Sandinista government. In 1990 this eventually produced an “electoral victory” for U.S. allies in Nicaragua that everyone in the world should have ridiculed. Nicaraguan voters were asked to choose between the Sandinistas and continued war and economic strangulation.
In Venezuela, it appears that the Trump government really believed the military would be quickly frightened into overthrowing Maduro after the United States recognized Juan Guaidó as interim president in January 2019. The public nature of the U.S. threats and their often juvenile nature points a lack of serious planning to actually follow through. John Bolton pretending to accidentally reveal plans to send troops to Colombia by holding up a notepad is an indication of how confident Trump’s team was that threats alone would work.
Despite an array of difficulties and disincentives, it’s obvious that a U.S. invasion is now a very real possibility. One disturbing consideration is always the United States’ concern about its credibility—not wanting to be seen as making empty threats. But even without entering that final state of aggression, the United States can, as in the case of Cuba, keep up its economic warfare, even when it stands nearly without allies in doing so….
From Chapter 3:
…When Trump recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, it signaled a new, deadlier phase of sanctions. Two days after Guaidó declared himself president, Trump appointed Elliott Abrams, experienced in running genocidal U.S. proxy wars in Central America in the 1980s, as special envoy to Venezuela. It was impossible to miss the significance, the flaunting of U.S. imperial impunity.
Trump’s recognition of Guaidó was a legal pretext to make U.S. sanctions more devastating. Venezuelan government assets in the United States were seized and officially transferred to Guaidó’s self-declared interim government. Oil shipments from Venezuela to the United States would also now be invoiced only by the government recognized by Washington. In other words, Maduro’s government would simply be throwing money away if it continued oil shipments to the United States because it would not be paid for them, amounting to an embargo on Venezuela’s oil. Torino Capital immediately revised its projections for Venezuela’s economy in the coming year. It had predicted an 11 percent contraction in real gross domestic product for 2019. Shortly after Guaidó’s recognition, it revised that to a 26 percent contraction—a projection that proved extremely accurate.
Recall that Barack Obama first imposed economic sanctions on Venezuela in March 2015 through an executive order that formally declared a national emergency (in the United States) based on the preposterous claim that “the situation in Venezuela” was “an extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States.” Both he, and later Trump, would renew the fraudulent national emergency every year. A bogus national emergency was also Reagan’s legal pretext to strangle Nicaragua’s economy during the 1980s and back Contra terrorists who opposed the government.
Not every national emergency is created equal. For instance, in February 2019, when Trump declared a national emergency to bypass Congress over building his infamous wall on the U.S.–Mexican border, legal challenges were quickly initiated. One of the arguments used to oppose Trump was, as one law professor said, that “the president can’t just say any old thing is a national emergency.” And yet, this has been precisely the case in Venezuela.
….Imagine Venezuelan president Maduro saying, as Trump did, that he refused to rule out a “military option” against the United States, or saying that the U.S. military could “topple” Trump’s government “very quickly.” Imagine if a high-ranking Maduro government official said, as secretary of state Rex Tillerson did, that the U.S. military might step in as an “agent of change” and send Trump off to a nice “hacienda” somewhere; or if another top Maduro official said, as Tillerson’s successor Mike Pompeo did, that Venezuela was “very hopeful that there can be a transition” in the United States and that Venezuela’s intelligence services were discussing with regional allies how to achieve that “better outcome.” All of these examples were threats made long before the United States recognized Guaidó.
Trump’s first statement about a possible “military option” for Venezuela was made in August 2017. The recognition of Guaidó made such threats more frequent and severe.
Consider, for example, the wild remarks made by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor. After January 23, 2019, the date of Guaidó’s self-declaration, Bolton used Twitter to constantly implore the Venezuelan military to turn on Maduro. On March 12, Bolton tweeted: “The U.S. fully supports Interim President Juan Guaidó and the National Assembly. We will continue to intensify our efforts to end Maduro’s usurpation of Venezuela’s Presidency and will hold the military and security forces responsible for protecting the Venezuelan people.”
Bolton, a key U.S. official responsible for the Iraq War that cost at least half a million Iraqi lives, was, like his superiors, never held accountable for his crimes. The spectacle of Bolton not only out of jail but issuing threats and presuming to hold anyone “responsible” was disgusting.
In a radio interview on February 1, Bolton joked about having Maduro sent to a U.S.-run torture camp in Cuba. Reuters seemed to chuckle along with Bolton’s thug humor: “Move over ayatollahs: Bolton turns tweets and talons on Maduro.” The Reuters article included a cartoon that showed Maduro behind bars wearing an orange jumpsuit while Bolton danced outside the cell. It even claimed that the cartoon, by Venezuelan cartoonist Fernando Pinilla, hung on Bolton’s office wall.
Weeks passed without the coup that Bolton clearly expected to occur immediately after Guaidó’s announcement. The United States issued grave warnings to Maduro not to arrest Guaidó, but for almost two decades Venezuela had, to an amazing degree, been tolerant of an openly insurrectionary U.S.-backed opposition. That crucial fact seemed to have escaped the empire’s notice. Guaidó led large rallies. The government also rallied its supporters to the streets. Another U.S. provocation would have to be arranged….
Problems Emerge as Coup Attempt Drags On
By the end of 2019, four U.S.-backed governments in the Western Hemisphere—Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, and Colombia—were shaken by massive protests against neoliberal economic policies. The unrest was met with deadly responses by security forces. The regional “good guys” in the U.S. government’s story were exposing themselves as “bad guys” in a conspicuous way. The U.S. government, the Organization of American States secretary general Luis Almagro, Guaidó, and other Venezuelan opposition leaders all responded by accusing Cuba and Venezuela of stirring up the unrest. It was alleged that Maduro, cash strapped and supposedly on the brink of collapse, was successfully destabilizing several U.S.-backed governments. Maduro mocked the allegations. The protests undermined the idea that surrendering to Washington paved the way to peace and prosperity: Chavistas could now point to massive unrest under several U.S.-backed governments in the region.
Corporate media diverted public attention toward pro-U.S. protesters in Hong Kong. Alan MacLeod, writing for FAIR, showed that the Hong Kong protests received about ten times more coverage from the New York Times and CNN than the protests in Ecuador, Chile, and Haiti combined. This was especially striking considering that seventy-six protesters had been killed in Ecuador, Chile, and Haiti, while only two protest-related deaths had occurred in Hong Kong.
The U.S.-backed military coup in Bolivia in November 2019 also exposed the hypocrisy of the Venezuelan opposition and its cheerleaders. By the end of 2019, Guaidó, who applauded the coup, was strutting around Caracas pretending to defy a “dictatorship” while Evo Morales, who won Bolivia’s presidential election in October, was threatened by a real dictatorship if he dared return from exile. But, despite his remarkable freedom to operate in Venezuela, the Guaidó insurrection became increasingly undermined by corruption scandals, internal disputes, and embarrassing failures.
On April 30, 2019, Guaidó announced a military uprising while standing outside an air force base in wealthy eastern Caracas.
The uprising was exposed as farcical within hours. Trump was reduced to publicly whining that Cuba had foiled it. Five weeks later, on June 6, the Washington Post said it acquired a recording in which Pompeo, perhaps trying to shift blame for the U.S. failure to oust Maduro, aired frustrations over how difficult it was to keep the opposition united.
Then, on June 14, a hardline opposition outlet, PanAm Post, reported that Guaidó’s representatives had stolen funds that were supposed to help recent defectors from the Venezuelan military living in Colombia. The tone of the article was unabashedly angry and sarcastic. It mocked Guaidó’s promises to treat military defectors like heroes, saying, “surprise, heroes don’t starve.” But it also said many defectors spent money on alcohol and sex workers, and “didn’t leave a good impression” in Colombia. Reuters conveyed the basics of the story the next day in far less detail and using an objective tone.
In September, photographs (and later, video) emerged of Guaidó smiling with armed members of the Colombian drug-trafficking paramilitaries known as Los Rastrojos during the time of the aid stunt. Reuters reported that Guaidó denied knowing who the men were, but did not mention that one Rastrojos member who posed with Guaidó was wearing a gun. Would not Guaidó’s security team have to know and trust an armed man to let him get that close? Was the man actually part of Guaidó’s security team during the aid stunt?
In early December, another pro-opposition outlet, Armando, published new allegations that were damaging to Guaidó. Nine opposition legislators were accused of receiving kickbacks in exchange for helping a Colombian businessman evade U.S. sanctions. Guaidó said he would not tolerate corruption. But one of the accused lawmakers, José Brito, fired back, saying Guaidó was corrupt and that people close to Guaidó bought a nightclub in Madrid with illegally acquired funds.
This public dispute with Brito came at the same moment when Humberto Calderón Berti, who had been recently fired by Guaidó as his representative to Colombia, gave a lengthy interview to the PanAm Post in which he portrayed Guaidó as being surrounded by “toxic” people. Calderon singled out Leopoldo López as a bad influence.
Remarkably, strong attacks on Guaidó began to appear in some U.S. corporate media. Opposition figures in the United States, who had soured on Guaidó as the coup attempt dragged on, appeared to have mobilized to make him the scapegoat, and perhaps position themselves to replace him. For example, a Miami Herald article from December 4, 2019, ran with the headline: “Poll Shows Venezuela’s Guaidó Is Losing Popularity and Has Sunk to Maduro Level.” A day earlier, a Reuters headline stated: “‘Missed His Moment’: Opposition Corruption Scandal Undermines Venezuela’s Guaidó.”
As 2019 ended, it looked as if Guaidó may not be reelected as the National Assembly president for 2020. Indeed, on January 5, progovernment assembly members voted with opposition legislators to elect Luis Parra as the new president of the National Assembly. Guaidó’s allies disputed the vote and held their own in the headquarters of El Nacional, an anti-Maduro newspaper. Needless to say, they claimed Guaidó was reelected. Much more importantly, the United States continued to back Guaidó and escalate its sanctions even further.
2020: U.S. Crimes Against Humanity Get More Brazen
As the world reeled from the COVID-19 pandemic, Maduro solicited emergency loans that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was making available to member countries. The IMF quickly rejected Maduro’s request, claiming that it was unclear if his government was recognized by UN member states. This was an absurd excuse: in 2002, the IMF, which is traditionally dominated by the U.S. Treasury Department, had immediately offered loans to the Pedro Carmona dictatorship after it ousted Hugo Chávez in a coup. That dictatorship, in power for only two days, was recognized by almost no government but the United States. The IMF’s excuse to reject Maduro’s 2020 request was also ridiculous because, in October 2019, the majority of UN member states voted Venezuela onto the UN Human Rights Council—despite intense U.S. lobbying. And yet, the Washington Post editorial board lashed out at Maduro over his request, whining that Maduro “must have known” the loan “would be turned down.” That was indeed predictable, thanks to the same U.S. government that made a spectacle of demanding that Maduro accept “aid.”
…Iranian tankers began to arrive in Venezuela on May 23 with desperately needed gasoline. Iran has formally complained to the United Nations about U.S. threats against the tankers. Bernie Sanders, supposedly the leading progressive Democrat, tweeted nothing about it. Only a year earlier, he had tweeted a demand for Maduro to accept aid. Now he was silent as Trump openly sought to block fuel from reaching Venezuela. Democrats in Congress were useless as an opposition—a point that came through clearly in the Venezuela-related chapter of The Room Where It Happened, a memoir Bolton published in June. The person Bolton described as his most serious concern, in terms of stifling him on Venezuela, was Trump’s secretary of the treasury, Steven Mnuchin. Appropriately enough, Bolton barely mentioned the Democrats. In fact, Joe Biden, once he secured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, made it clear that his aggression toward Venezuela would match Trump’s.
As 2020 came to a close, the United States seemed unwilling to declare an end to the Guaidó era any time soon—the very long attempt to oust Maduro through threats, appeals to the Venezuelan military to perpetrate a coup, and, worst of all, constantly escalating economic warfare. The lack of opposition to this prolonged coup attempt where it would be most effective—in Western governments, media, and prominent nonprofits—has proven lethal. The empire centered in Washington is an extraordinary threat to the world.
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Joe Emersberger is an engineer, writer, and activist based in Canada. His writing, focused on the Western media’s coverage of the Americas, can be found on FAIR.org, CounterPunch.org, TheCanary.co, Telesur English, and ZComm.org. Justin Podur is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University. He is the author of Haiti’s New Dictatorship, Siegebreakers, and America’s Wars on Democracy in Rwanda and the DR Congo.