A New Toolbox
Golinger, a U.S.-born lawyer who has recently taken up full-time residence in Venezuela (and Venezuelan citizenship), first shot to prominence with her 2005 book The Chávez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela. There, Golinger drew on a multitude of documents requested via the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) to thoroughly and convincingly document the role of the U.S. government in funding and sponsoring those Venezuelan opposition groups that participated in the undemocratic and illegal overthrow of Chávez in April 2002, most of which also signed the interim government’s Carmona Decree which dissolved all constitutionally-sanctioned branches of Venezuelan power. All this against Condoleezza Rice’s recent claim, patently preposterous, that “we’ve always had a good relationship with Venezuela.”
In Bush Versus Chávez, Golinger continues this diabolical narrative, this time relying less on FOIA requests than on a series of other key documents and bits of testimony gleaned from anonymous sources. After the failed 2002 coup, Golinger documents how the United States changed its tack slightly, drawing upon the variety of experiences gained in the military overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and the electoral overthrow of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. While it would be easy to say that this represented a “Nicaraguanization” of U.S. policy in the aftermath of the botched coup, in reality this new policy draws equally heavily on the many other elements that constituted the multifaceted war against Allende, and hence the thesis of the “Chileanization” of Venezuela remains all-too-relevant.
The key institutional devices deployed by the U.S. in its covert support for the coup remained the same in its aftermath: the neoconservative National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), both convenient mechanisms for bypassing Congressional oversight. What was new on this front, as Golinger demonstrates, was the establishment by USAID in the months following the coup of a sinister-sounding Office of Transition Affairs (OTI). Both the NED and USAID (via the OTI) immediately began to shift strategies, providing covert support for the opposition-led bosses lockout of the oil industry which crippled the Venezuelan economy for two months in late 2002 and early 2003, and when this failed, by providing direct support for efforts to unseat Chávez electorally (a là Nicaragua) in a 2004 recall referendum spearheaded by opposition “civil society” organization Súmate. Needless to say, doing so entailed continuing to support those very same organizations who had proven their anti-democratic credentials in 2002, but such things are hardly scandalous these days.
Through the popular and military support enjoyed by the Chávez government, all these efforts failed, which is unprecedented in and of itself. In response to the emptying of its traditional toolbox, the U.S. government has been forced to diversify its tactics even more drastically than ever before, and this is where Bush Versus Chávez comes in.
In her analysis of contemporary U.S. strategies to unseat Chávez, Golinger speaks of three broad fronts: the financial, the diplomatic, and the military (43-48). But we should be extremely wary of distinguishing too cleanly between such tightly-interwoven categories: the “financial front” remains largely in the hands of the NED and USAID, agencies directly controlled by the U.S. government and the embassy in Caracas, funding the domestic side of the equation through support for destabilizing opposition organizations and even psychological operations (psyops) targeting the Venezuelan press and military.
Since 2004, the NED and USAID have seen massive budgets earmarked for activities in Venezuela: currently, some $3 million for the former and $7.2 million for the latter’s OTI operation (77). Of the NED funds, most went to the very same groups that participated in the 2002 coup, the 2003-4 oil lockout, and the 2004 recall referendum. Súmate, which headed up the recall effort, and whose spokesperson and Bush confidant Maria Corina Machado had signed the Carmona Decree, was granted more than $107,000 in 2005 alone. Súmate, to which Golinger devotes a chapter, had also received $84,000 in 2003 from USAID and $53,000 in 2003 and $107,000 in 2004 from the NED, as well as an inexplicable $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (90). All of which demonstrates, for Golinger, that “Súmate is and continues to be Washington’s main player in Venezuela” (91).
While USAID’s funding structure has become more secretive, a turn that Golinger deems illegal, one project in particular has been publicly discussed: the establishment of “American Corners” throughout Venezuela, institutions which even the U.S. Embassy deem “satellite consulates” (145). Aside from the patent illegality of such underground U.S. institutions, Golinger points out that their primary function is the distribution of pro-U.S. propaganda to the Venezuelan population.
Perhaps most frightening on the domestic front is the strategic transformation that such U.S. funding has undergone. Specifically, such funding has increasingly begun to target what had previously been considered core Chavista constituencies, such as the nation’s Afro and Indigenous populations (77-78). What Golinger doesn’t emphasize is the fact that this has occurred alongside a concerted effort by opposition political parties, notably the NED-funded Primero Justicia, to penetrate the poorest and most dangerous Venezuelan barrios, like Petare in eastern Caracas.
While this domestic element has remained shockingly continuous, with the U.S. continuing to directly fund the groups involved in Chávez’s 2002 overthrow, the military and diplomatic fronts are where Golinger reveals some veritably frightening new developments.
Perhaps the most intriguing and frightening revelation in Bush Versus Chávez surrounds a 2001 NATO exercise carried out in Spain under the title “Plan Balboa.” Here we should bear in mind the open support provided by then Popular Party Prime Minister José Maria Aznar for the brief coup against Chávez. And while we might be struck by the irony of naming a NATO operation after the Spanish conquistador who invaded Panama, the name is far more accurate than we might initially believe.
Plan Balboa was, in fact, a mock invasion plan for taking over the oil-rich Zulia State in western Venezuela. In thinly veiled code-names (whose coded nature is undermined by the satellite imagery showing the nations involved), it entailed a “Blue” country (the U.S.) launching an invasion of the “Black” zone (Zulia) of a “Brown” country (Venezuela), from a large base in a “Cyan” country (Howard Air Force Base, in Panama) with the support of an allied “White” country (Colombia) (95-98). The fact that a trial-run invasion was carried out less than 11 months before the 2002 coup against Chávez should further convince us that this was mere contingency planning.
But Plan Balboa would be only the beginning, and Golinger deftly documents a series of increasingly overt military maneuvers carried out in recent years by the U.S. government in an effort to intimidate the Chávez government while preparing for any necessary action. Here, Golinger rightly trains her sights on the small Dutch Antillean island of Curaçao, which she deems the U.S.’s “third frontier.” Curaçao hosts what is nominally a small U.S. Forward Operating Location (FOL) as well as, not coincidentally, a refinery owned by Venezuelan national oil company PDVSA. Furthermore, it sits fewer than 40 miles off Venezuela’s coast, and more specifically, off the coast of the oil-rich “Black Zone” of Plan Balboa that is Zulia State.
Until February 2005, Curaçao probably seemed to be of little concern to Venezuelan security, given that its FOL housed only 200 U.S. troops. But this all changed when the U.S.S. Saipan made its unannounced arrival. The United States’ premier landing craft for invasion forces, the Saipan arrived in Curaçao with more than 1,400 marines and 35 helicopters on board (104). When the Venezuelan government responded to the hostile gesture, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield claimed there had been a “lack of communication,” while simultaneously declaring that “it is our desire to have more visits by ships to Curaçao and Aruba [only 15 miles off the Venezuelan coast] in the coming weeks, months, and years” (105).
This veiled threat would come to fruition with Operation Partnership of the Americas in April 2006. In that instance, which dwarfed the Saipan‘s visit, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington arrived in Curaçao with three warships. The total strength of the force was of 85 fighter planes and more than 6,500 marines (106). Were this not worrying enough, then-intelligence chief and Latin American Cold Warrior par excellence John Negroponte admitted around the same time that the U.S. had deployed a nuclear sub to intercept communications off the Venezuelan coast (100). When we factor in the Curaçao-based Operation Joint Caribbean Lion, carried out in June 2006 with the goal of capturing the mock-terrorist rebel leader “Hugo Le Grand,” there can remain little doubt that at the very least, the United States is keen to prepare for the possibility of a direct invasion of Venezuelan territory.
Of Terror and Dictators
But, one might ask, what are the chances that the U.S. would actually invade Venezuela, given the predictably harsh international rebuke that such an invasion would earn? It is here that another aspect, what Golinger loosely characterizes the “diplomatic front,” comes into play, and it is here that U.S. policies and strategies have seen the most striking innovations.
Here Golinger cites a document by retired U.S. Army Colonel Max G. Manwaring published by the Army’s Institute for Strategic Studies in 2005 (112). This document represents above all an inversion of strategies applied to Venezuela, and one which drastically complicates the military picture: Manwaring advocates appropriating the concept of “asymmetrical warfare” that many guerrillas and rebel movements have historically used with success against the United States, and converting it into an explicit U.S. strategy. Somewhat bizarrely, Manwaring compares this employment of asymmetric warfare to the “Wizard’s Chess” of Harry Potter, deeming Chávez a “true and wise enemy” who must be dealt with by a panoply of maneuvers on all levels (112-113. Central to this strategy is the deployment of psychological operations (psyops), which had been previously focused on the Venezuelan press (toward the objective of justifying a coup or electoral removal of Chávez) to the international and diplomatic arena (toward what one could presume to be an objective of direct or indirect military action).
While domestic psyops have continued, notably in the 2005 deployment of “Gypsy” (JPOSE, Joint Psychological Operations Support Element) teams to Venezuela with the objective of spreading propaganda among the Venezuelan military and keeping tabs on radical Chavista organizations (117), much of their focus has been the spreading of news stories in the international arena. These stories, as Golinger astutely documents, tend to follow “three major lines of attack”:
1.) Chávez is an anti-democratic dictator
2.) Chávez is a destabilizing force in the region
3.) Chávez harbors and supports terrorism (125).
Even the briefest of glances at any mainstream newspaper in the United States, or many other countries for that matter, will show to what degree this mediatically-constructed image has been a success.
New Strategies Unfold
This international effort to discredit the Chávez regime, thereby clearing the way for future intervention, brings us to a series of recent events that have transpired since Golinger first published Bush Versus Chávez.
The first was the sudden rebirth of the Venezuelan “student movement” in early 2007, nominally in response to the non-renewal of the broadcasting license for opposition television station RCTV. I have documented elsewhere the fact that this “student movement” was by and large supported if not directed by the traditional opposition parties, but what is more relevant here is that the strategies and even imagery of the movement were adapted directly from those used in countries such as Serbia and the Ukraine. These strategies, consisting largely of “non-violent” direct action, have been formulated and disseminated through institutions such as the Albert Einstein Institution which, in an irony of ironies, Golinger shows to be directly supported by the State Department (135), and linked to prior attempts to train Colombian paramilitaries to assassinate President Chávez (136-137).
Here again we have an inversion, in which the U.S. government has adopted the very strategies that had previously been deployed against it, and in this case the audience was international: the foreign press was so eager to show a violent repression of the students that it exaggerated the response of the largely unarmed police and, in an infamous incident, transformed an armed attack by opposition students against Chavistas at the Central University into just the opposite. The objective? To discredit and isolate the Chávez regime internationally, clearing the way for more directly offensive action.
Secondly, we have seen a concrete example of such offensive action in Colombia’s recent illegal cross-border raid into Ecuador. The particular players involved should not distract our attention: this was a test-run, both militarily and diplomatically, for future U.S. interventions in the region. With Colombia standing in as proxy for the U.S. and the more recently-established Correa government standing in as proxy for the Chávez government, this was above all a test of the international response.
While that response was overwhelming in Latin America, with the OAS and even right-leaning governments condemning the Colombian raid as a violation of sovereignty, the U.S.’s international psyops campaign seems to have been overwhelmingly effective within its own borders. Rather than being presented as an instance of Colombian aggression, the initial raid was immediately erased from the picture in much of the international press, with the focus being diverted to what was perceived as Venezuela’s bellicose response. But such a response was a strategic necessity aimed at discouraging any possible future intervention.
Furthermore, the revelations gleaned from the FARC’s magic laptop, which allegedly implicate Chávez himself in funding the FARC (a charge which Colombia, not coincidentally, eventually decided not to pursue), are also drawn straight from the playbook of Plan Balboa, which was premised upon the threat posed by an alliance between the radical sectors of the “Brown” and “White” countries. The U.S. seems to be preparing to put that plan into motion with its recent legal gestures toward declaring Venezuela a supporter of terrorism, and given recent evidence of a massive influx of Colombian paramilitaries into the “Black Zone” of western Venezuela, the danger that Plan Balboa might become a reality should not be underestimated.
What would be the international response to such an incursion? Here there is little ground for optimism. After all, during the 2002 coup against Chávez, that bastion of the American left celebrated the maneuver, declaring that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.” And all this before the concerted psyops campaign deployed against the Venezuelan government in recent years. Now, one democratic candidate spurns facts to declare Chávez a “dictator” while the other, eager to demonstrate his leftist credentials, deems the massively-popular Venezuelan leader a “despotic oil tyrant,” and is promptly pilloried for his soft line.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D candidate in political theory at U.C. Berkeley, who is currently writing a people’s history of the Bolivarian Revolution. He can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu
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