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Chavistas Have Their Foreign-Intervention Cake and Eat It Too

By: Victoria L. Henderson - @vlhenderson - Apr 30, 2014, 9:11 am

EspañolHow much is foreign intervention worth in Venezuela?

The Venezuelan government and its supporters repeatedly claim that the United States has earmarked millions of dollars to topple Venezuela’s socialist government. But two key points are obscured by this strategically selective argument: first, it ignores the fact that US funding has likewise supported initiatives extending significant legitimacy to the Venezuelan regime; second, it sidelines any discussion of Cuba’s controversial, multi-billion-dollar stake in Venezuela’s political fortunes.

Fleshing out these historical and analytical points adds another dimension to the debate over foreign intervention in Venezuela. It also raises the stakes in what progressive intellectual and Latin America analyst Nikolas Kozloff – much to his credit – recognizes as “an uncomfortable discussion for the left.”

The (Mixed) Message on US Foreign Intervention

In a new article that largely recycles old rhetoric, Eva Golinger argues that regime change in Venezuela is worth millions to the government of the United States.

A US-born, Venezuela-based lawyer and author, Golinger says federal aid agencies in Washington, D.C., sent US$14 million to opposition groups in Venezuela in 2013 and 2014. This follows more than $100 million that Golinger says was channeled to opposition groups in Venezuela from 2000 to 2010 for the purpose of destabilizing the socialist government of Hugo Chávez, predecessor to current Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Drawing on documents accessed through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and Wikileaks, Golinger argues that funding from both the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to members of the Venezuelan opposition is proof positive of Washington’s commitment to regime change in Venezuela.

It is a view shared by some of the most outspoken US-based defenders of the Venezuelan regime, including Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., George Ciccariello-Maher of Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Miguel Tinker Salas of California’s Pomona College.

Despite the popularity of this narrative, however, it arguably hides as much as it exposes.

The Venezuelan government and its supporters have extracted more political capital from US funding in Venezuela than either Washington or Caracas should care to admit — both in terms of the defensive posturing this funding invites and, paradoxically, in terms of the legitimacy that select aspects of its application have conferred on the Bolivarian regime.

Consider that arguments defending the Venezuelan government against charges of authoritarianism (at best) and totalitarianism (at worst) tend to focus on two key claims: namely, that Venezuela has a robust democracy and an unfettered press. To substantiate these claims, defenders of the regime often cite studies of Venezuela’s electoral and media landscape carried out by the US-based Carter Center (see, for example, here, here, and here).

What is almost never mentioned, however, is that the Carter Center received at least five grants from USAID for organizational support and electoral observation in Venezuela during the Chávez administration.

This leaves defenders of the Venezuelan regime in the awkward position of appealing to the broad claim that US-government funding in Venezuela is tied to regime change, while simultaneously arguing that the legitimacy of the Venezuelan regime is evidenced by the positive evaluation of an organization supported by US-government funds.

When challenged on this point, Golinger — without disputing the Carter Center’s past assessments of the Venezuelan regime — suggests that US-government funding compromises objectivity.

“My own personal opinion,” she writes, “is that USAID funds, which are taxpayer dollars, should not be used for these types of interventions but rather strictly humanitarian aid purposes…”

This distinction explains why Golinger spearheaded constitutional reforms to prohibit foreign funding of groups with “political objectives” in Venezuela (an initiative popularly referred to as “Golinger’s Law”). But it leaves wide open the question of why Cuba’s multi-billion-dollar stake in Venezuela’s political fortunes should evade similar scrutiny.

Foreign Intervention by Any Other Name

According to Moisés Naím, a senior associate with the US Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former minister of trade and industry for Venezuela, Cuba’s disproportionate role in Venezuelan affairs is “one of the most underreported geopolitical developments of recent times.”

Agreements between the Venezuelan regime and the government of Cuba are worth billions of dollars annually: in addition to deploying key military and intelligence staff to Venezuela and managing Venezuela’s Identification, Migration, and Immigration System (SAIME), the Cuban government supplies Venezuela with tens of thousands of personnel to service the political mandate of the Bolivarian Revolution.

By all accounts, this is a losing economic proposition for Venezuela. But it is politically strategic.

In addition to having “perfected the art of successfully running a repressive police state,” explains Naím, Cuban intelligence “has a long history of intervening in Latin American countries, and in politically manipulating and physically or morally ‘neutralizing’ its opponents.”

Defenders of the Venezuelan regime generally depoliticize the Cuban government’s role in the Bolivarian Revolution by drawing on a “solidarity” discourse that frames Cuban personnel in select terms; that is, as doctors, social workers, teachers, sports trainers, etc.

This narrative broadly accords with Golinger’s insistence that cross-border government assistance is legitimate only when it serves humanitarian, not political, ends.

But it avoids any discussion of Cuba’s intelligence, military, and logistical support to the Venezuelan government, including the deployment of as many as 30,000 cederristas (members of Cuba’s infamous neighborhood surveillance groups, or Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), who are sworn to maintain political vigilance.

It also avoids addressing the fact that the political loyalty of Cuban personnel in Venezuela is leveraged by highly controversial practices.

Complicating the “solidarity” narrative, WikiLeaks documents (see here, here, and here) reveal that Cuban personnel in Venezuela face constant surveillance and coercion, are ordered to engage in political activities (for example, participating in pro-government rallies and disseminating pro-government propaganda), and have been asked to falsify records to portray government programs in a favorable light. Some have had their passports confiscated; others report family members in Cuba have been held “hostage” to ensure they return from Venezuela.

While defenders of the Venezuelan regime describe Cuba’s internationalist missions in terms of reciprocal “non-market based trade,” Cuban health care workers who have defected say they were held in “debt servitude” in Venezuela. Cuban personnel receive only about 10 percent of what the Cuban government collects from Venezuela for their services, and only then when they return to Cuba.

So pronounced are concerns about the political manipulation of Cuban personnel in Venezuela that they have drawn the attention of intellectuals otherwise sympathetic with Latin America’s “new left” movements, including Nikolas Kozloff, who rightly observes: “The left has chosen to stick with and report on the WikiLeaks revelations which serve to embarrass the United States, while ignoring those cables which cast ostensibly progressive Latin American nations in an unflattering light.”

Cuba’s Disproportionate “Aid” to Venezuela

A Cuban doctor recently interviewed by Al Jazeera says there are 70,000 Cubans in active service in Venezuela out of 100,000 that he says have come and gone since 1999. This figure broadly corresponds with opposition estimates of the number of Cuban personnel deployed to support the Venezuelan regime.

According to official reports, however, there were only 44,804 Cuban “aid workers” in Venezuela in 2012. More recently, it has become the norm for the Venezuelan government to report “more than 30,000” Cuban personnel in Venezuela — a vague turn of phrase that makes it possible to spin the truth through a lie of omission.

Given that the Cuban firm Albet, S.A. manages Venezuela’s system of identification, migration, and immigration, there are reasonable concerns about both the veracity and puzzling imprecision surrounding the number of Cubans deployed to Venezuela.

What is clear, however, is that the Cuban government earmarks a disproportionate share of its international personnel to support the Bolivarian Revolution. At present, there are 50,000 Cuban health workers dispatched globally, which makes Venezuela’s “official” share at least 60 percent of the total — a striking deployment to a country that has for decades been classified as upper middle-income.

Then again, sending Cuban personnel to Haiti is not quite as lucrative.

To raise this point is not to dismiss that Cuban personnel in Venezuela carry out work that is valued by members of the Venezuelan population. Rather, it is to underscore that any robust analysis of foreign intervention in Venezuela cannot ignore Cuba’s political and economic stake in suppressing a reversal of political fortunes – even if this means violating international legal standards.

The Uncomfortable Discussion

Against charges of the “Cubanization” of Venezuela, defenders of the Venezuelan regime tend to adopt one of two tacks: either Cuba’s role in Venezuela is strategically depoliticized by mounting a “solidarity” narrative, or it is ignored completely in favor of refocusing attention on foreign intervention by the United States.

It may be argued, of course, that the Cuban government’s influence in Venezuela does not amount to foreign intervention as such because the Bolivarian regime is “democratically elected” (note the Carter Center citation) and thus has the expressed consent of its people to engage in discretionary deal-making.

For the most prominent defenders of the Venezuelan regime, however, this argument is problematic: Golinger, Weisbrot, Ciccariello-Maher, and Tinker Salas are all on record as questioning the legitimacy of other inter-governmental accords between democratically elected governments, including past military agreements between the United States and Colombia.

Calling Colombia a “proxy” of the United States, these critics have argued that such agreements are motivated by “espionage” and represent an act of “aggression” — criticisms that are not markedly different from the concerns currently raised about Cuba’s role in Venezuela.

In light of this, it seems reasonable to ask whether the defenders of the Venezuelan regime are interested in analyzing foreign intervention at all, or whether — as seems to be the case — the rhetoric of intervention is simply being made to service an anti-US agenda that has the added benefit of obscuring the Cuban government’s multi-billion-dollar stake in Venezuelan politics.

Contrary to what some might suggest, taking up this question is not a default exercise in purported right-wing extremism. Nikolas Kozloff’s recent op-ed for Al Jazeera demonstrates that one can be critical of US intervention in Latin America and still recognize the plausibility of concerns surrounding the deployment of Cuban personnel to Venezuela.

As Kozloff says, this may be uncomfortable discussion for the left.

But it is a discussion long overdue.

Victoria L. Henderson Victoria L. Henderson

A former print journalist and magazine editor, Henderson is a PhD Candidate (ABD) at Queen’s University and a director at the Institute for Social and Economic Analysis in Ontario, Canada. She holds degrees in Spanish & Latin American Studies and Geography. Follow @vlhenderson, and read more of her featured PanAm Post column, "The Northern Passage."