Venezuela, the US, and the Perception of Coups

By Hampton Toole

From the vantage point of February 2021, many of us would be surprised to be dealing with the aftermath of rioting at the United States Capitol, witnessing first-hand the fragility of American institutions spurred on by the President of the United States, who told the rioters to “Fight like hell.” Nevertheless, as shown by the debates over Trump’s second impeachment hearing and by his acquittal, many do not believe that the former president is responsible for the violence of January 6th or for the state which he left the United States in, torn asunder by hatred and partisan strife. Rather than rehashing debates that cover Trump’s role in the rioting and the inefficacy of his leadership, an important, broader question remains, allowing us to question our assumptions about America and its situation in the world order – why are we surprised? 

Coups have been an institution of political life for centuries – just take a look at the assassination of Julius Caesar, the dissolution of the Rump Parliament by Cromwell, Napoleon’s Coup du 18 Brumaire and the Beer Hall Putsch initiated by Adolf Hitler in 1923. At some point however, coups acquired a very different definition, situating them as characteristics of a failing government based on corruption and socialism, with their justification underpinned by reductionist attitudes towards non-European groups based on race and level of ‘development.’ In this vein, this article aims to present a brief decolonial perspective, intent on introducing critical thinking into our established perceptions of civic unrest. By understanding Venezuela’s political woes as a result of continued coloniality on the world stage, a new perception comes to light which reveals in full the myth of American infallibility – it is not better than any other country experiencing political upheaval, and it is a major perpetrator of many of Venezuela’s woes. 

The coup attempt exercised by Nicholas Maduro in 2017 was, of course, not exactly the same as Trump’s coup attempt in 2021. Maduro essentially took control of the government in March 2017, abrogating the separation of powers in Venezuela and seeking to rewrite the constitution and abolish the opposition-led Parliament in July. Venezuela erupted into violence as a result of the elections, which saw widespread international condemnation from actors including the United States, the United Kingdom, Colombia, Peru and Argentina. On 23 January 2019, long-time opposition leader Juan Guaido took the opportunity to swear himself in as president during protest marches in the capital of Caracas, immediately gaining US recognition. 

Out of these events, the most important conclusions that we can draw are the significance of resource-based intrusion of outside interests into Venezuelan politics as a result of a colonial world system, alongside the importance of the media in shaping perception. Narratives which assert American infallibility and exceptionalism have justified intrusion for decades, particularly during the Cold War which saw scores of regimes destabilised due to their threats to American interests. Even in more recent years, leaders such as President George H.W. Bush, who famously stated “the American way of life is not negotiable,” maintained what Pieterse calls “the empire of liberty.” This involvement in the domestic politics of the Global South is not merely an American innovation, as it is a worldwide practice emerging out of continued coloniality of interests in the 21st century – and it all comes down to global resource politics. Where in the past Venezuela’s oil reserves have attracted American attention, now the oil industry has been crippled by American sanctions due to Maduro’s unwillingness to fall in line with Trump. As a result of America’s ostracization of its policies over the years, support has been lent by Russia, Iran, Cuba, China and Turkey to the Maduro regime. All of these interests create a situation where Venezuela, under the Maduro regime, remains beholden to a multitude of foreign actors who keep it afloat in light of American condemnation. In this situation, Beijing and Moscow, among others, coordinate their actions in order to send a message to Washington, as shown in the case of China importing Venezuelan crude oil through the last summer of the Trump presidency with the logistical support of Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company. Some would call this situation the resource curse or the Dutch disease, but such a perspective ignores the blatant vestiges of colonial manoeuvring which impoverish the vast majority of Venezuelans for the benefit of the ‘developed’ Global North. Venezuela, robbed of its sovereignty based on its resources in this form of neo-colonialism, can still be seen as the initiator of its own political strife. 

In terms of political upheaval, the United States ought to take a long, hard look in the mirror. The images from the Capitol riots on January 6th are some of the most disturbing instances of civil strife that America has encountered in many years, and the symbolism of the Capitol invasion undertaken by radical Trump supporters should not be taken lightly. Moreover, the United States’ role in the Maduro-Guaido drama means that Western-centred readers should be more aware of how similar instances of political upheaval are portrayed in other countries and how countries like Venezuela are ostracised by the international community as a result, showing the privilege that the United States experiences as a result of its global supremacy and assertions of its own rationality. As espoused by a popular tweet from the events of January 6th, “If the United States saw what the United States is doing in the United States, the United States would invade the United States to liberate the United States from the tyranny of the United States.” We need to gain some perspective.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist

Image Source: Grant Durr on Unsplash

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