America’s Oil Coup in Venezuela
The recent utterance by so-called president Donald Trump of the United States about using a “military option” in dealing with the South American nation of Venezuela has shifted a slow-motion coup d’état into crisis mode, with the very real possibility now existing that the socialist government of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro could fall in the near future.
That coup has been years in the making, of course, and the U.S. role in it has not been a passive one — far from it. Just as it did with another South American country, Chile, in the early 1970s, the United States government has been hitting at Venezuela on multiple fronts, both seen and unseen, until the desired goal is achieved: the overturning of a democratic system of government and the wresting of an economy away from its people.
Venezuela is no mere banana republic for the USA. Situated in Washington’s “backyard” in northern South America, Venezuela happens to hold the highest levels of known reserves of oil on the planet. It is also the third-largest importer of oil to the USA at more than 700,000 barrels per day, a vital source of revenue for Venezuela and of much-needed oil shipments for the crude-hungry consumers of the United States.
In Chile in the 1970s, it was mostly about the U.S. retaking control of Chile’s vast copper wealth that led to a military coup and overturning of the Chilean government; in Venezuela, it is oil the USA has its sights on. That both Latin American countries chose to follow a socialist model of government hostile to Yankee capitalism can be no mere coincidence either, when considering U.S. actions against these countries.
Just what has been happening in Venezuela and which way are things likely to go? Here are some things to keep in mind as we watch America’s oil coup unfold in Venezuela in the coming weeks and months, news of which the U.S. corporate-dominated press is failing to report with any kind of consistency or context.
Oil Money, Oil Politics
Venezuela is among the countries of the world whose economy depends mostly on petroleum to keep the system functioning: Oil accounts for 96 percent of Venezuela’s exports and more than 40 percent of government revenues, leaving the country’s fortunes tied directly to the price of oil on the world market.
As with other Latin American nations that have long been in the good graces of Washington DC, Venezuela’s wealth had been mostly controlled by an influential, elite class of its society, resulting in a wide gap between the rich and poor. Things changed drastically on that score in 1999, when Hugo Chávez, a career military officer of working-class background, was elected president of Venezuela. He pushed through new socialist-based policies that put a priority on human rights, social welfare, social justice, education and reducing poverty. Chávez vowed to use Venezuela’s vast oil resources to benefit the majority of its working citizens, instead of enriching a small minority of its privileged class.
This did not endear Chávez to Venezuela’s ousted oligarchy or their American masters on Wall Street and in Washington. In 2002, Chávez was removed from office during a military coup — a coup that the U.S. government knew in advance was coming and to which the administration of then-U.S. president George W. Bush gave its blessing. Popular support of Chávez, however, helped break the coup and put Chávez back in office.
In 2007 the Chávez government nationalized several major oil projects worth an estimated $30 billion. Two American oil giants, Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips, refused to play by Venezuela’s rules and pulled out of the country instead, filing claims for the potential money lost. The head of Exxon Mobil at the time, Rex Tillerson, reportedly “took it very personal with Chávez”. Today, Exxon Mobil is represented in the American White House by none other than Tillerson himself, who currently serves as U.S. secretary of state in the Trump administration.
As part of Chávez’s attempts to break free from the politico-economic grip of the United States and other western powers, the Venezuelan president also took the unprecedented step in 2011 of moving billions of dollars of Venezuela’s gold stocks out of banks in the United States and Europe, and bringing the gold back to Venezuelan banks. He intended to transfer those gold stocks to other countries such as China, Russia and Brazil that were considered by Venezuela to have a more “solid” economic future.
Chávez was diagnosed with cancer that same year; he died in 2013, ending his controversial 14-year-old presidency. One of his loyal lieutenants, Nicolás Maduro, assumed leadership of the country, vowing to carry on Chávez’s socialist revolution.
The following year, 2014, saw the United States and Saudi Arabia set up what was viewed in some quarters as an act of “economic warfare” against the major oil-producing nations of the world, including Venezuela: a steep drop in the price of oil on the international market.
It was really from that point onward, according to some analysts, that Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy started its downward slide. Mismanagement of the Venezuelan economy over the years can surely be placed to some degree on presidents Chávez and Maduro, but that alone does not tell the whole story. An undeniable factor in Venezuela’s devastated economy over the past few years has been oil — and the U.S. and Saudi management of that oil supply on the global market.
Today in 2017, the Venezuelan economy stands on the verge of collapse. President Maduro lays the blame for Venezuela’s highly unstable economic situation in part on Exxon Mobil and other petroleum powers of the west. There is some truth to support this accusation, but you won’t find it on the front pages of the U.S. establishment press.
For the moment, anyway, the oil industry in the United States (along with the White House) is divided on how to deal with Venezuela’s economic crisis. One powerful oil tycoon close to Trump, Harold Hamm, advocates a total ban on oil-related activity between the USA and Venezuela — which, if it came to be, would essentially destroy the Venezuelan economy as we know it, and open the door for Wall Street to move in and take over.
Never heard of Harold Hamm? You should: He was Trump’s energy advisor during the 2016 presidential campaign and still holds a lot of sway in the White House. (more on Hamm here)
The Road from Chile, 1973
In the South American nation of Chile in the early 1970s, the economic weapon of choice for the USA in toppling the government took a different, though no less deadly, tack. Back then, Washington’s obsession was with removing Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile, by any means necessary. Then-U.S. president Richard Nixon ordered the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to “make the economy scream” in Chile, and this plan was soon undertaken covertly through U.S. influence at the national and international levels.
In his definitive book on the subject, The Pinochet File (2004), author Peter Kornbluh, head of the National Security Archive in Washington DC, documents in fine detail how the U.S. government wielded an “invisible blockade”, behind the scenes and well out of the public eye, to weaken Chile’s economy and isolate the socialist country on the international stage to the point where a domestic coup could happen. It worked, and by 1973 the economic and political centers of Chile were indeed ripe for being overthrown. (more details here)
The CIA sponsored and supported the Chilean military in its toppling of Allende’s government on September 11, 1973 — the “first 9-11”, as many Chileans today know it — in which Allende died and the reins of government were taken over by a military general, Augusto Pinochet, who went on to rule for decades to devastating effect. Chile’s economy has been safely contained within the U.S. politico-economic sphere of influence ever since then. As a society, though, Chile up to today has never really recovered from the blunt-force trauma of that 1973 coup and the ensuing years of brutal military rule under Pinochet, a U.S.-supported dictator.
Meanwhile, in the past few years, the government of Venezuela under president Maduro has been fighting off its own domestic coup attempts — among them, a helicopter attack on the country’s supreme court building just a couple months ago — and has been lucky enough so far to put those attempted coups down. But with the Venezuelan economy now in critical condition, violent street protests on the rise and the country’s U.S.-supported political opposition calling for regime change, it would seem that time is running out. “You can hear the ice cracking” in Venezuela, as one Obama administration official put it. “You know there’s a crisis coming.”
And the United States, through both Republican and Democratic party administrations, has certainly had a hand in making that ice crack and creating such crises in Venezuela, just as it has done in Chile and other Latin American countries for decades now.
We would all do well to understand that the recent rant by so-called president Trump about the possible use of a “military option” by the USA against Venezuela is only the tip of a much bigger, deeper iceberg. That said, the stakes would seem to be far higher for Venezuela today than they were back then for Chile. The real prize — the subjection of Venezuela’s vast oil reserves on the international market — now seems within the USA’s reach, though obviously anything could happen.
Will the oil-dependent nation of Venezuela, in the end, succumb to yet another U.S.-sponsored military coup as part of a long history of such interventions in South America? Or will Venezuela eventually rebound and recover, living to fight on another day? The answer to that may well lie in the hands of the common Venezuelan people, and how united and strongly they can stand up to the very real dangers facing democracy in their country by the greedy, oil-grabbing empire to the north.