Maurice Lemoine is a journalist and writer specialising in Latin America. On March 15, he published Venezuela, a chronicle of destabilization, a book in which he undermined the Manichean vision of the Venezuelan crisis. In an interview in Le Quotidien, he deciphers how the Trump administration has been working for two years to try to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro.
Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves and has been ruled for 20 years by socialist governments. For Washington, it therefore presents a double challenge, economic and political. Donald Trump has made the fall of President Nicolas Maduro a priority of his foreign policy. French journalist Maurice Lemoine, a specialist in Latin America and former editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, explains the United States’ responsibility and objectives in this crisis. He takes a critical look at the Europeans whose ambiguous speech conceals an alignment with Trump’s position.
The Daily: You publish Venezuela, a chronicle of destabilization, a book in which you affirm that the current events are the result of external action.
Maurice Lemoine: There is a destabilization of Venezuela that is fierce and multifactorial. The humanitarian crisis is actually an economic crisis caused by sabotage. This does not mean that the Venezuelan government does not make mistakes, but no other government making the same mistakes would find itself in such a catastrophic situation. There is economic destabilization both internally and externally with US sanctions that have become significant. The Venezuelan government refers to the figure of 30 billion dollars. I take it with caution, but it’s not completely absurd.
What do you mean?
In recent weeks, the United States has announced that it is taking over the assets of Citgo, the Venezuelan oil company’s US subsidiary, worth $7 billion. If they prevent Venezuelan oil from being imported into the United States, it will be a loss of $11 billion next year. In Europe, the organization that manages financial flows withholds $1.6 billion under U.S. sanctions. The Bank of England holds $1.2 billion of Venezuelan gold. On the one hand, there is an economic strangulation in the country and, on the other hand, a humanitarian operation is being announced to help it. That is absurd. If the sanctions are lifted, there is no longer a need for humanitarian aid.
You also mentioned an internal destabilization?
The Venezuelans are in an extremely difficult situation today, it is a reality. The reason for this is that distribution channels have been completely destabilized. The private sector imports some of the food and medicines, but does not put them into circulation in places normally used for their purchase, i.e. supermarkets, pharmacies, etc. The stalls are empty, but the same products are sold on the black market at a price 10 to 30 times higher. The population struggles to find the most basic products they need to live decently and it costs them much more. Some of these basic necessities are also smuggled into Colombia. It has always existed between the two countries, as on all borders. But it has taken on an industrial dimension, so as to bleed Venezuela. The objective is obvious: to make life impossible for the population to turn it against Maduro, including the Chavists.
Maduro does not have the same support from the population as Hugo Chavez in 2002, when Venezuelans took to the streets in massive numbers to restore their power after a coup d’état. Why? Why?
The 2002 coup d’état was more classic. To use a French term, a quarteron of felon generals had taken power, the president had disappeared. Now it’s more diffuse. The government is working, Maduro is still at the head of the country. In last Saturday’s pseudo-humanitarian operation, the government did not give in and the opposition withdrew its tail between its legs, even if it is not over. At the moment, there is no matter of having a population on the street. On the other hand, what has to be said is that if part of the population was not united around Maduro, it would have fallen long ago.
This week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres denounced the politicization of humanitarian aid….
This reminds me of the story of Niels Högel, the German nurse sentenced to life imprisonment in 2018 for the murder of about 100 patients. He administered them drugs causing cardiac arrest for the sole purpose of resuscitating them in order to make them look like heroes to his colleagues. Humanitarian aid in Venezuela is exactly that: the United States strangles Venezuela and then plays the savior role. Guterres is not alone in saying that this operation is political. The ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross, refused to participate for the same reason.
And, in your opinion, Maduro is less isolated than it seems?
This so-called isolation is not true. There is a group of countries that think they are masters of the world: the United States and the European Union. But for the United Nations General Assembly, Maduro remains the legitimate president of Venezuela. If we look at the international community as a whole, countries such as Russia, India, China, South Africa and the African Union have sent him a message of sympathy. Out of 194 countries that make up the UN General Assembly, only about 40 have recognized Guaido.
The EU’s position is unique. On the one hand, it aligns itself with Trump by recognizing Guaido and, on the other hand, it wants to participate in the “Montevideo mechanism” for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, the solution advocated by the UN. Is that a paradox?
There is no European consensus and the EU as such cannot therefore adopt a common position. On the other hand, there are six countries that are spearheading the offensive that has recognized Guaido. These are mainly the old colonial powers: France, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom, plus Germany. But for these countries it is also a matter of domestic policy. In France, for example, the subject of Venezuela is used to constantly attack insubordinate France, today the most important component of the French left. This is also true in Great Britain with Jeremy Corbyn or in Spain with Podemos.
In foreign policy, however, Venezuela is not the only subject on which Europeans give in to Trump?
There is objectively a Euro-American tropism, although we have problems with Trump, which imposes sanctions on everyone: Russia, Iran, Venezuela, the BNP Paribas bank, which is taxed at $9 billion because it has worked with countries under American embargo. It is in my view scandalous to see the EU align itself with Trump, while Latin American countries such as Uruguay and Mexico are trying to set up this “Montevideo mechanism” to relaunch a dialogue that will lead to a reasonable resolution of this case.
This contradicts the commitment to multilateralism affirmed by Europeans since Trump’s arrival in the White House.
Everything is connected and this type of attitude also explains the mistrust, if not rejection, of the EU by citizens in some European countries. In this case, the problem is not to be pro or anti-Maduro, it’s that none of this makes any sense!
The day after his arrival at the White House, Trump asked if military intervention was possible in Venezuela. Why this obsession: oil or ideology?
There are several things. There is of course oil and John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said it would be much better if American companies could work in Venezuela. He puts his cards on the table. But before oil, there is the symbol. US Vice President Mike Pence said that Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, which he called the troika of tyranny, must be ended. It is totally ideological.
There is an air of déjà vu in these statements….
Yes, we go back to the Cold War era, to Ronald Reagan. Venezuela is the symbol of that part of the world that has escaped the control of the United States over the past two decades. For the Americans, we must destroy it as soon as possible. They could very well wait, because in the long run, the opposition, if it is a little reasonable and intelligent, can win the presidential election, given the situation. But they don’t see it that way. Maduro must pay violently by an alleged rejection of the Venezuelan people and foreign intervention against a dictatorship.
And the United States has threatened to intervene militarily on several occasions. Is that credible?
Trump is a completely unpredictable and dangerous individual. Voices are being raised in Congress to denounce the danger of such an intervention. Washington has two allies in the region: Brazil, led by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, and Colombia. But the Colombian military are not at all keen to embark on this adventure and their Brazilian colleagues even less so. The Brazilian military is a bit nationalistic and has always distanced itself from the American desire to control Latin America. An American intervention would trigger a regional crisis.
And how would the Venezuelans react? Would they oppose it?
Not necessarily in the right-wing opposition. In popular circles, it would be different. We must not forget that we are next to Colombia, where there was an armed conflict for 50 years. There is a tradition of popular resistance in the region through guerrilla warfare that would manifest itself even if entire sectors of the army were to turn back or totally abandon Maduro. And then there was something important that Chavez had learned from. When Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in 1954 in Guatemala and when there was a coup d’état in Chile in 1973, the Latin American and European left wondered why they had not armed the people. Chavez has strengthened the Bolivarian militia that has existed since Simon Bolivar in the 19th century. There are 1.6 million Venezuelans who train voluntarily and regularly with army weapons. That makes 1.6 million people ready to defend the country. An invasion of Venezuela would have nothing in common with that of Panama in 1989 or Grenada in 1983.
So armed intervention seems unrealistic?
My personal analysis is that if anything serious is to happen, it will not be the work of official armies but of Colombian paramilitaries. They can very well wear Venezuelan army uniforms and attack Colombian soldiers to start the conflict. This kind of thing is to be feared. What is also violent is a wave of violence launched by the Venezuelan opposition inside the country to justify this famous humanitarian intervention.
The Venezuelan opposition is embodied by Juan Guaido, a complete stranger until a few weeks ago. Where did he come from?
Guaido is the fraud of the year. He is a member of Parliament, elected with 97,000 votes. Maduro was elected president with 6.5 million votes. Within the National Assembly, there are mainly four opposition parties called the G4. They decided to share the presidency of the Assembly on a rotating basis. This year, it is Guaido’s turn to become a hero in spite of himself. He finds himself in a situation that is not easy. The opposition decided to launch an all-out war against Maduro on the day he was sworn in for his second term, on 10 January. And it is up to Guaido to lead this war. It falls on him a little bit, he goes to coal and his friends send him to the pipe-breaker, since they have already drafted a transition agreement stipulating that he will not be able to run for the next presidential election. Like Trump, they use him as a puppet.
However, Guaido didn’t come out of nowhere?
It has been in the loop since 2007. It started in Mexico with what is called the Fiesta mexicana, the Mexican festival, a meeting with young Venezuelans who were expected to be the future leaders of the country. They distinguished themselves by campaigning against the referendum that Chavez wanted to organize to run for president. He appeared at that moment. He is known to specialists, but not to Venezuelans.
Can we draw a parallel between what is happening today in Venezuela and the 1980s, when Americans supported bloody dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala while attacking Nicaragua?
If we take Brazil, we cannot talk about a dictatorial drift. But Bolsonaro was elected after a genuine coup d’état against Dilma Roussef, while Lula was sent to prison for 12 years after a clearly irregular trial. In Colombia, Ivan Duque is the elected successor to Alvaro Uribe. It’s the far right. The problem comes from the media, which only operate on three-month sequences, forgetting what happened.
And what do they forget?
In 2002, there was the attempted coup d’état against Chavez. In 2004, Aristide was overthrown in Haiti with the help of the United States and France. In 2008, there was the attempt to overthrow Evo Morales in Bolivia. In 2009, Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in Honduras. In 2010, there was an attempt against Rafael Correa in Ecuador and in 2012 Fernando Lugo was deposed in Paraguay. It is a global struggle by the United States to eliminate left-wing leaders.
For nearly a century, Venezuela has regularly enjoyed high oil prices without benefiting the country’s development, under both right-wing and left-wing governments. Why? Why?
If we take Chavez and Maduro, they have been in power since 1998. But in reality, they only started implementing their policies in 2004 and you don’t transform a country’s economy as quickly. Maduro has been undergoing a major offensive since 2016, which puts it on the defensive and prevents it from developing an economic model. Success also requires a private sector that is willing to collaborate. Oil accounts for 95% of the dollars entering the country. The private sector, 1%. There has never been a dynamic entrepreneurship in Venezuela. But it is a rich country with the world’s first oil reserves and the fourth largest gold reserves.