Rather than carry out conventional war, over recent months US officials have sought to promote internal divisions, sabotage, and economic collapse within Venezuela. Here’s the full story of Washington’s hybrid war on the country.
At the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on 7 March, senator (R-FL) Marco Rubio pledged that Venezuelans “were about to experience the most dramatic shortages they have ever faced.” Five hours later, the first blackout hit. Mysterious breakdowns and explosions at electric plants became increasingly frequent, in turn knocking out water pumps. In early March, storage tanks holding diluent (needed in the country’s heavy oil refineries) mysteriously combusted, and in early April an oil pipeline suddenly exploded.
US (and US-allied) intelligence agencies and local operatives have numerous capabilities to cause chaos in countries around the world. For decades, US intelligence agencies have prepared for cybernetic warfare, with blueprints having leaked in the past. And reports indicate that the recent electricity blackouts in Venezuela may have been the result of both saboteurs and long-planned US cybernetic attacks, worsened by debilitating sanctions and a lack of replacement parts.
For nearly two decades, US officials have sought to oust the left-leaning government in Venezuela, a country with the largest proven oil reserves on the planet. But recent events need to be seen as the latest and most intensified round of this destabilization campaign.
Numerous US tactics
Different methods have been used. They’ve ranged from promoting the country’s diplomatic isolation and financial instability to the sponsoring of internal opposition and attempts to block off the country from its oil export markets.
Washington has also been involved with other recent defeats for progressive movements in the region, such as the 2004 coup in Haiti, the 2009 coup in Honduras, the 2016 ouster of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and the dramatic rightward shift of Ecuador’s government under Lenin Moreno.
In late 2017, seeking to undermine warming relations with Cuba (that had begun under Obama), Donald Trump’s government began to claim that Cuba had targeted US embassy staff in Havana with a “sonic weapons attack”. Recordings of the “sonic attack”, as CNN later reported, were thought to be the mating calls of a loud cricket species.
Today’s hybrid war, meant to psychologically wear down Venezuela’s population, needs to be seen in light of years of US aggression and soft power targeting the country.
To be clear…
Venezuela is certainly a polarized society. And there are plenty of valid criticisms of the country’s constitutional government.
Multiple factors, meanwhile, have led up to the present situation. Venezuela is now facing a severe economic depression intensified greatly by barbaric US sanctions and sabotage. To make matters worse, the country’s economy continues to suffer from a lack of diversification.
This occurs as the government has faced low global oil prices (over the last five years) and has struggled to clamp down on currency speculation driven by groups seeking to profit off the crisis situation in the nation. A partially self-imposed inflationary crisis, meanwhile, has turned into a hyper-inflationary crisis under the US economic war.
The political context
Facing a disunited opposition, however, Venezuela’s incumbent president Nicolás Maduro defeated former Lara State governor Henri Falcón in the country’s presidential elections in May of 2018.
Nearly 9.4 million people voted in the election, with Maduro receiving more than 6.2 million votes, putting voter turnout at 46% of the total voting age population.
Election observers sent by the African Union and CARICOM, as well as many notable figures such as former Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, witnessed and recognized the legitimacy of the election.
Seeking regime change and refusing dialogue, the US and its close allies had urged the opposition to boycott the election, a decision that cost Falcón many votes. Public attacks on Falcón by hardline sectors of the opposition, in particular, the right-wing opposition party Voluntad Popular, also damaged his campaign.
Contrary to the media attacks on Venezuela’s democracy, the country’s electoral system has a long positive track record. In 2012, speaking at an annual event of the Carter Center Foundation, former US president Jimmy Carter stated:
As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.
Media and other governments getting behind Trump’s assault on Venezuela
In amplifying its aggression against Venezuela in recent months, the Trump administration has been able to mobilize a bipartisan foreign policy consensus. This would not have been possible if it were not for how the corporate media for two decades has painted such a one-sided story of developments in the country, with a constant forecast of doom.
In early January, many neoliberal and conservative governments across the western hemisphere and western Europe joined the Trump government in recognizing the right-wing (and widely unknown) head of Venezuela’s national assembly, Juan Guaidó, as the self-proclaimed president of Venezuela. Yet the vast majority of the world’s governments have refused to recognize Guaidó.
Mainstream media outlets in the US have since recycled an intensive propaganda campaign aimed at undermining Maduro’s legitimacy while boosting Guaidó’s.
It is estimated that over $30bn in Venezuelan assets (from US-based but Venezuelan-owned oil company CITGO to gold reserves and other holdings) have been frozen by Washington and its allies, and many third parties and companies are being pressured to stop doing business in the country.
A blatantly coercive and violent strategy pushed by Trump regime warhawks
Neo-conservatives under Trump appear to see this as an opportune time for a more blatantly coercive and violent strategy. This became especially clear with the appointment of Elliott Abrams on 25 January 2019 as Washington’s point man on Venezuela.
Abrams, a former official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, helped oversee the dirty wars in Central America that cost hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1980s. In one gruesome event, the Mozote massacre, that occurred under Abrams’ watch, US-trained and armed Salvadorian soldiers and paramilitary forces murdered 800 civilians. There were horrific reports of mutilation and rape.
Under Abrams’ watch, it was common for US intelligence operations to use front companies and cut deals with private firms to illegally ship weapons into Latin America to arm death squads.
Abrams’ new appointment under Trump clearly signals that the US is seeking to spark a new low-intensity conflict in Venezuela. And since Abrams’ appointment, events have moved quickly.
Secret CIA arms shipments?
On 3 February, Venezuelan authorities discovered a secret cache of weapons and equipment on board a Boeing 767. The shipment included 19 assault weapons (mostly AR-15s) and “90 military grade radio antennas”. The flight had flown from Miami to Valencia in the Venezuelan province of Carabobo. Venezuelan authorities accused US authorities and far-right groups in Miami of smuggling the weapons into the country to spark a civil war.
Days later, DC-based media outlet McClatchy reported that the plane had usually been flying between Philadelphia and Miami and across the continental US. However, McClatchy discovered that, in early January, the plane started making constant trips – 40 in total – to Colombia and Venezuela, sometimes multiple times a day. The flights began immediately following the swearing into office of Venezuela’s incumbent president Nicolás Maduro.
After the weapons were seized in Valencia in early February, more news emerged. As McClatchy’s DC Bureau reported, the plane was the property of 21 Air LLC, an air charter firm based out of Greensboro, North Carolina. According to an Amnesty International report, the chairman and majority owner of 21 Air, Adolfo Moreno, and the director of quality control, Michael Steinke, have had ties to Gemini Air Cargo – a company that was involved in more than 30 air charter services used for CIA rendition. This is when individuals suspected of terrorism by US authorities were tortured and interrogated at CIA ‘black sites’ around the world.
McClatchy journalist Tim Johnson has added that:
If you look on social media and dig into the backgrounds of employees at 21 Air and associated companies you’ll see that there are many accounts of employees who follow the Venezuelan opposition, and opposition accounts who follow them as well. There is certainly some sympathy from employees within the company for the opposition to Maduro in Venezuela.
21 Air has denied allegations of being a CIA front company or being involved in the illegal shipment of arms into Latin America.
A visit to 21 Air
In February, I located the office of 21 Air, just days after the McClatchy report appeared. As I discovered, the Greensboro, North Carolina-based company had moved to a new office on the other side of the business park in which it is located. Adjacent to its listed office was a small office of Lockheed Martin with a locked door.
Douglas Hoggatt, an ex-Navy signals intelligence officer, explained to me that US intelligence agencies have deep roots in North Carolina and that the Lockheed Martin office clearly serves as a SCIF support office (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility). Through SCIF offices, government intelligence and subcontracted-out operations can co-operate and maintain secure communications.
As this author discusses in the video below, the US national security state and its intelligence apparatuses have a long history of subcontracting and using front companies for undercover operations, including the illegal shipment of weapons to proxy forces.
21 Air officials not only refused to speak with me about their operations in Latin America but also suggested they would call the police if I did not leave the premises.
By the end of March, 21 Air had expanded its fleet to two functioning airplanes, purchasing an ex-Korean Air Boeing 747-400F.
The coming storm
The history of US military and covert interventions in the post-cold-war period makes clear that what we are seeing is the unfolding of a hybrid warfare campaign. According to a new book by Andrew McCabe, former acting FBI director, Trump apparently asked in 2017 why the US wasn’t at war with Venezuela, noting that:
they have all that oil and they’re right on our back door.
The US campaign now looks likely only to intensify, a twenty-first-century version of the US economic war against Chile under the elected government of Salvador Allende. Venezuelan government officials in March claimed to have uncovered a terror plot by leaders of the far-right opposition party Voluntad Popular (Guaidó’s party). An ultra-right-wing network is believed to have hired paramilitary gunmen (from Colombia) as well as form local cells within the country, to target key infrastructure and assassinate social movement leaders. Similar events have played out in the past.
The latest coup attempt
Yet with repeated attempts by Guaidó and his backers having failed to oust Maduro or spark civil war, their efforts have become more erratic. On 30 April, Guaidó – echoing US vice president Mike Pence’s Twitter support – called for the launching of “Operación Libertad”, what he described as the “final phase” of an uprising. Around Guaidó were thousands of supporters, far-right coup-plotting politician Leopoldo López, and tens of military and police defectors with two APCs.
Western media and social media backers immediately amplified the event meant for mass consumption, apparently seeking to further escalate the situation into a civil war. An attempt at seizing one of the country’s important military installations, the Carlota air base, quickly failed. Corporate media outlets, of course, failed to cover the large pro-government counter-demonstrations and the fact that most Venezuelans went on with their normal daily lives. Many favor neither the opposition nor the government, yet struggle under a mounting crisis.
The regime change plans have failed in the short term, with the country’s military (except for a small handful of defectors) refusing to commit treason against the constitutionally formed government. But US officials cannot back-pedal on a policy that has now received bi-partisan support from the halls of power in DC and mobilized allies abroad and in the media. The heavy wheels of regime change have begun to turn. Thinktank fellows are churning out policy briefs and doing the rounds on CNN and at the Atlantic Council, propping up Washington’s newest regime-change project.
Washington, its allies, and many of the most powerful transnational business factions active across the region want to see a revamping of Venezuela’s political scene, a complete erasure of the last two decades of progressive ‘Chavismo’ from the country, and an opening up to neoliberal restructuring and IMF loans.
The open-ended future
Venezuelan officials appear to be scrambling to find ways for their country to survive the siege while averting civil war. An intensified rerouting of supply chains, away from the US and its allies, and instead through state enterprises and state-oriented capitalist firms from other parts of the world, such as those based out of China and Russia, appear the only option left. Even so, as CEPR economist Mark Weisbrot and Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs explain: Venezuela’s economy will contract greatly over the coming year resulting in great pain and suffering, which will only intensify the ongoing emigration crisis. In a thorough study, the two economists have documented the socio-economic consequences of the US economic war hitting a country already facing a depression. The sanctions, they explain, have already cost the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Sanctions (imposed by the US and its allies) are blocking or slowing everything from international financial activities to the importation of malaria and insulin medicines and even access to antiretroviral treatment for those with HIV. US officials are also considering restricting Visa and Mastercard transactions in the country. These policies targeting Venezuela may eventually seek to mimic the brutal sanctions undertaken against Iraq during the 1990s. A form of collective punishment, a 1999 UNICEF study found that approximately 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of these sanctions, with then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright infamously saying “we think the price is worth it”.
Cracks in the US regime-change plan are appearing, though. Rather than rally to his putschist cause, during a recent visit to a lower income neighborhood in Caracas, self-appointed president Juan Guaidó was greeted with intense anger by residents. In European capitals, meanwhile, Guaidó appears to have shrinking recognition, and in the Caribbean anti-imperialist movements are boiling to the surface.
As opposition mounts to Trump’s hybrid war targeting Venezuela, more states and institutions may soon back Uruguay and Mexico’s plan for a negotiated settlement. Much will also depend on if Trump gets a second term, or who exactly the Democratic primary nominee is.
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