Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Indigenous sovereignty and socialism in Canada: a Marxist perspective

New book explores the mass Indigenous movement that is in the vanguard of the fight for climate justice in Canada

Valerie Lannon and Jesse McLaren, Indigenous Sovereignty & Socialism. Toronto: International Socialists [2018].


Ian Angus, editor of the excellent web site Climate & Capitalism, invited me to review this book. Here is my review, published January 30 on his site. —Richard Fidler

This small book (123 pages) is an ambitious effort, with three objectives: “to outline the history of European colonization and the Canadian state… to outline the long and ongoing history of Indigenous resistance to colonialism… [and] to explore the dialogue between Indigenous sovereignty and socialism over the past 150 years.”

Describing themselves as “settlers and socialists involved in the climate justice movement,” the authors say they want to “contribute to this ongoing conversation — learning from Indigenous resistance and contributing to settler solidarity.”

On the whole, they do this well. The result is a valuable contribution, one of the few written from a Marxist perspective, to the growing literature on the mass Indigenous movement that is now in the vanguard of the fight in Canada against climate catastrophe.

The book addresses, in chronological sequence, seven aspects of Canada’s Indigenous history. This review will highlight some salient features. The full text incorporates a wealth of documentation, much of it based on Indigenous peoples’ narratives and research.

I. First Peoples. This chapter describes the communal societies of the Indigenous peoples encountered by the first European settlers, drawing on studies by Marx, Engels and North American Marxist and Indigenous scholars. “European socialists saw the democracy and equality of Turtle Island [North America] as something to be celebrated and spread, but European rulers saw it as a barrier to capital accumulation that had to be crushed.”

II. Capitalism and Colonialism. Europeans saw the land as theirs for the taking, invoking a “doctrine of discovery” that treated it as terra nullius, a land without people. Where necessary, they cajoled the Indigenous into signing unequal treaties, interpreting them as a surrender of Native sovereignty, while their own undertakings were subsequently ignored. Colonialism, with or without treaties, entailed the dispossession of the Indigenous populations, and in some cases their proletarianization. The authors quote Howard Adams, a Saskatchewan Métis who pioneered in the Marxist analysis of Canada’s oppression of the Indigenous peoples:

“The structure of racism and the form of racial violence in Canada was dictated by two facts: the conquest of Indian territory and the exploitation of Aboriginal labour in the pursuit of wealth from fur pelts…. Indian communal society was transformed into an economic class of labourers by European fur trading companies, particularly the Hudson’s Bay Company.”

They add:

“The competition for market dominance — between competing companies like the HBC and the Northwest Company, and competing colonial states like England and France — transformed hunting, trapping and fishing from activities that maintained societies in equilibrium with nature to unsustainable profit-driven markets. Indigenous societies had maintained their metabolism with nature for thousands of years, but the introduction of the capitalist market led to a metabolic rift: over-hunting of beaver in the forests, fish in the streams, buffalo on the plains and whales in the Arctic. This undermined food security, furthering colonial control.”

III. Canada: A Prison-House of Nations. The British Act creating the Dominion of Canada bolstered colonial domination over Indigenous peoples and the national oppression of Québécois and Acadians. The subsequent consolidation and expansion westward of the new Canadian state entailed the violent suppression of Indigenous and Métis resistance and the theft of their lands, whether by treaty or not (as in British Columbia).

The Indian Act replaced traditional tribal governance with band councils dominated by a federal government bureaucracy. The subdivision of Indigenous lands into reserves was designed, as an Indian Affairs commissioner wrote, to destroy “the tribal or communist system.” Indigenous culture was targeted through residential schools, forcibly removing within a century 150,000 children from their communities, traditions and teachings in order to “kill the Indian in the child.”

Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, the authors note, led the genocidal project of building a colonial and capitalist state by trying to destroy Indigenous nations. He is hailed in Canadian mythology as a “nation builder,” but “the Canadian state he helped build was a prison-house of nations; it was built on colonizing First Nations and Inuit people, deporting Acadians, conquering Quebec, oppressing the Métis, and exploiting Indigenous and immigrant workers.”

While Indigenous labour was employed extensively in Canada’s resource-based economy in the early 20th century, Indigenous workers were considered unreliable assets by employers because of their surviving links with their lands, communities, and customs, which served to offset the super-exploitation of their labour. “Canadian capitalism used racism to justify colonizing Indigenous territory, to extract more surplus value from Indigenous workers, and also to weaken solidarity.” However, the authors cite numerous examples of Indigenous resistance to these attacks.

IV. White Paper, Red Power. The biggest attack on Indigenous peoples in the post-WWII period came with the appropriately named “White Paper” on Indian policy, produced in 1969 by the minister of “Indian Affairs,” Jean Chrétien. It aimed to abolish Indigenous status, do away with the treaties, and leave Canada’s quarter-million treaty Indians then covered by federal services at the mercy of the provinces. The White Paper “would have been the death knell of distinct First Nations cultures and rights, as paltry as these rights were under the Indian Act, including funding for housing, health and education.” It “is inconceivable,” Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau proclaimed, “that one section of a society should have a treaty with another section of society…. They should become Canadians as all other Canadians.”

The White Paper sparked a new rise of Indigenous resistance — the Red Power movement — expressed in such organizations as the Native Alliance for Red Power (modelled on the Black Panthers),[1] Equal Rights for Native Women, to fight the sexist provisions in the Indian Act, and the Saskatchewan Native Action Committee (SNAC), founded by Howard Adams to “provide a radical alternative to a leadership he saw as co-opted.”

Although Trudeau was forced to withdraw the White Paper, its thinking has informed government policy and practice to this day. In the 1970s, Ottawa launched a “comprehensive claims process” ostensibly to settle unresolved land title issues among Indigenous nations that had not signed treaties. But as in the “model” James Bay and Northern Quebec “modern” treaty in the mid-1970s between the Cree Nation and the Quebec and federal governments, which allowed Quebec to develop hydro-electric generation throughout much of the province’s territory, governments always condition any such agreement (and there are very few) on a prior surrender of indigenous title.

When Pierre Trudeau “patriated” the Canadian constitution from Britain, a massive Indigenous mobilization managed to gain the last-minute adoption of a section (35) of the new Constitution recognizing “[t]he existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada.” However, it was left to the courts to clarify what those rights were in substance. The result, as indigenous scholar Pam Palmater argues, has been an “extensive, costly litigation of our rights on a right by right, species by species and First Nation by First Nation basis.” And any recognition of such rights is always made subordinate to (“reconciled with”) Canadian sovereignty and Canadian law.

V. Recognition and Reconciliation. A Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was appointed in 1991 following the standoff between the Canadian army and the Mohawks of Kanehsatake defending against a private golf course on their lands. In 1996 the RCAP issued a five-volume 4,000 page report with 440 recommendations “covering all the key aspects of the lives of Aboriginal peoples, albeit within the confines of the Canadian state and economic system.” Among these were:

  • Establishment of a new Nation-to-Nation relationship
  • Creation of an aboriginal parliament
  • Termination of the Indian Act and the department enforcing it
  • A public inquiry into residential school abuse
  • Fulfillment of existing treaties and a new framework for negotiating new treaties
  • Recognition of the Aboriginal right to self-determination
  • Provision of land sufficient to foster Aboriginal economic self-reliance and cultural and political autonomy
  • Financing of Aboriginal economic development
  • A series of measures to establish Aboriginal control over social services, education.

“Critically, it called for doing away with racist legal covers for colonization: ‘concepts such as terra nullius and the doctrine of discovery are factually, legally and morally wrong.’”

Most of these recommendations (many of them echoed 20 years later by the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) have been ignored by governments, which instead employ a “recognition and reconciliation” approach that (in the words of Indigenous scholar Glen Coulthard) entices Indigenous peoples “to identify, either implicitly or explicitly, with the profoundly asymmetrical and nonreciprocal forms of recognition either imposed on or granted to them by the settler state and society.”

Most recently, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, initially opposed by the Harper government, has given the First Nations a new weapon in their struggle. Indigenous leaders point out that the UNDRIP urges states to give legal recognition and protection to the lands, territories and resources of the Indigenous peoples, and to condition the adoption of measures that may affect them on “their free, prior and informed consent.”[2]

VI. Indigenous Resistance Today. This section documents numerous struggles led by a militant new leadership — examples are the activists in Idle No More and Defenders of the Land — prepared to engage in direct action initiatives, to stand up to corporate and government intrusions on Indigenous lands, and to work with non-Indigenous activists in defense of First Nations rights and the environment.

“Indigenous resistance and solidarity has helped transform the small environmental movement of the 1990s into the broad climate justice movement of today. While loggers angrily denounced environmentalists protesting at Clayoquot sound in 1993, in 2013 Unifor (representing some tar sands workers) signed the Solidarity Accord with the Save the Fraser Declaration, stating: ‘We, the undersigned, say to our First Nations brothers and sisters, and to the world, that we are prepared to stand with you to protect the land, the water and our communities from the Enbridge pipelines and tankers project and similar projects to transport tar sands oil.” … With this spirit the climate justice movement — unifying labour, environmental and Indigenous movements — flows from the heart of the tar sands across Turtle Island.”

A major battle today is the fight to stop a planned expansion of the TransMountain pipeline, now owned by the federal government, that would triple its flow of tar-sands bitumen from Alberta to the Pacific Coast. Another battle is in northern British Columbia, on Wet’suwet’en lands, where the B.C. government is building a gas pipeline to serve a huge LNG complex on the coast that is the biggest private-sector undertaking in Canada. In both these battles, the companies and governments involved have gone to great lengths, with some success, to enlist support from Indian Act band councils hoping to alleviate their peoples’ poverty through construction jobs and other promised benefits.

“Whereas colonial violence in the 19th century paved the way for the railroad,” the authors comment, “colonial violence today facilitates the latest ‘nation-building project’: tar sands and pipelines.”

VII. Indigenous Sovereignty & Socialism. The authors list key immediate demands raised in the struggles outlined in previous pages. “These reforms, and the fight necessary to win them, are essential to push back against the injustice of the Canadian state.” And they single out the First Nations’ role in fighting climate change, although surprisingly they do not mention the Leap Manifesto’s recognition that

“This leap must begin by respecting the inherent rights and title of the original caretakers of this land. Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of protecting rivers, coasts, forests and lands from out-of-control industrial activity.”[3]

They note, however, the obstacles and limits to achieving these goals posed by the institutions of the Canadian state: courts, governments, legislatures, etc. They call for “revolutionizing settler society, by building unity and solidarity within the working class, which includes Indigenous workers.”

“Only the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with socialism — a truly democratic, environmentally sustainable, economically and socially just society — can stop capitalism’s endless drive to accumulate, achieve Indigenous sovereignty, and heal the metabolic rift that separates us and which alienates us, mind and body, from nature.”

Socialism, they say, “can only be won by the leadership of Indigenous peoples themselves, in alliance with settlers [their compendious name for all non-Indigenous]…. This means breaking free of Canada’s prison-house of nations and removing the three mountains of sexism, racism and national oppression..., intertwining Indigenous national liberation with working class revolution.”

What would this entail in practical terms, as a strategic objective for socialists? A constituent assembly, a plurinational state in place of the colonialist capitalist state? The authors don’t say. Here we encounter a certain tension that runs throughout this book.

Is Indigenous oppression to be analyzed as essentially national oppression, or is it mainly a distinct form of class oppression, albeit deepened by national oppression? The book is unclear on this. For example, the authors say the Canadian state aimed at both genocide of the Indigenous population and their proletarianization as cheap labour. But this confuses the objective with its effect. Against all odds, the Indigenous peoples survived, and today seek to develop their remaining lands in their interests as First Nations. Their urbanization and proletarianization — as the authors note, “most Indigenous people are part of the paid workforce” — is the result of the theft of much of their land by the colonizing regime, and the poverty of most of the reserves.

Most urban Indigenous people retain some links and identification with their land-based communities, however. And although it may be difficult for many socialists to grasp this, most Indigenous militants see their future in the defense of their lands, and in the belief that their self-determination as peoples or First Nations lies in achieving unfettered ownership and control over the collective development of their lands, thereby avoiding or escaping the proletarian status of their landless settler co-workers. These aspirations are progressive, and suggest ways to overcome the colonialist structure of the Canadian state.

The Indigenous nations are many, and widely dispersed throughout the territorial expanse of Canada today. But their struggles for self-determination have the potential to win important allies from other national struggles within the state. As Glen Coulthard notes,

“the significant political leverage required to simultaneously block the economic exploitation of our people and homelands while constructing alternatives to capitalism will not be generated through our direct actions and resurgent economies alone. Settler colonization has rendered our populations too small to affect this magnitude of change. This reality demands that we continue to remain open to, if not actively seek out and establish, relations of solidarity and networks of trade and mutual aid with national and transnational communities and organizations that are also struggling against the imposed effects of globalized capital, including other Indigenous nations and national confederacies; urban Indigenous people and organizations; the labor, women’s GBLTQ2S (gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans, queer, and two-spirit), and environmental movements; and, of course, those racial and ethnic communities that find themselves subject to their own distinct forms of economic, social, and cultural marginalization.”[4]

Obvious candidates for solidarity include the Québécois, whose national self-determination is constrained by the Canadian state structures and institutions. It is no accident that the progressive wing of Quebec’s pro-sovereignty movement, Québec solidaire, fully recognizes the right to self-determination of the Indigenous peoples, and welcomes the opportunity to establish equal and harmonious relations between an independent Quebec and sovereign First Nations cohabiting within it.

QS promises to establish a democratically elected Constituent Assembly that will adopt the constitution of an independent Quebec. The Assembly, it says, “will also reaffirm the sovereignty of the Aboriginal nations” and these nations will be invited to “join in this democratic exercise through whatever ways they decide, including, if they wish, by accepting an important place within the framework of the Constituent Assembly itself.” I append my translation of the part of the QS program that is addressed to relations with the Aboriginal Peoples.

The book under review acknowledges that Québec solidaire “sees Quebec sovereignty not as an end in itself but as a means to win democratic demands including Indigenous sovereignty.” But it is vague about whether or how this might play some role in what it terms “the ultimate strategy to win Indigenous sovereignty and socialism,” which it says is “to break free of the prison-house of nations which is the Canadian state, reclaiming land and labour.” Yet there is no question that a Quebec decision to break from the existing Canadian state, by hugely disrupting the territorial and political unity of Canada, would do more than any First Nations actions, by themselves, to put the recomposition of Canada, with or without Quebec, in a radically different — and plurinational? — form on the agenda.

The book does not address many aspects of today’s Indigenous reality in Canada. Among these are the conflicts between and within many First Nations over economic development, as illustrated by the success oil and gas interests have achieved, with government support, in aligning band councils behind pipeline expansion projects. Another is the difficulty in forging credible militant leaderships at the pan-Canadian level, where there is a long record of opportunistic collaboration with governments and corporate interests on the part of the Assembly of First Nations chiefs.[5]

The book would have benefited as well from drawing attention to outstanding examples in the literature of Indigenous community attempts to manage their natural resources in harmony with Mother Earth. Important accounts include Glen Coulthard’s chapter on his Dene Nation’s struggle for self-determination in northern Canada, registered in the Denendeh proposal and its articulation in the Dene Declaration of 1975. Another is Shiri Pasternak’s stirring account of the Barriere Lake Algonquins experience in achieving a trilateral agreement with the Quebec and Canadian governments giving them jurisdiction over their land, and in particular sustainable management of its rich timber resources — an accord subsequently sabotaged by government officials.[6]

A great strength of the book, however, is its citation and quotation of accounts by Indigenous activists and scholars in order to develop its argument. Although it includes a bibliography of their sources, I found myself wishing in many places that the authors had provided footnoted page references to passages cited in the text. And a serious omission — especially in a text that covers so many struggles and other resistance experiences — is the lack of an index that would help the reader find or relocate particular references in the text.

It seems the book is only available at present within Canada, at CDN $15 ($10 + $5 shipping) payable to Socialist Worker, P.O. Box 339, Station E, Toronto M6H 4E3. The authors should consider producing a pdf or e-book version.

Richard Fidler


Québec Solidaire on the Sovereignty of the Aboriginal Peoples

(a) Québec solidaire recognizes that the aboriginal peoples have never renounced their sovereignty, either by treaty or otherwise. They remain sovereign peoples, therefore. Some of them occupy vast territories on which there are very few non-aboriginal residents.

(b) Québec solidaire recognizes that for all aboriginal peoples their sovereignty means they are free to determine their future and that this is an inherent right. This reality must be recognized if we are to avoid having a policy of “two weights, two measures.” The Quebec nation cannot deny to other peoples what it claims for itself. If its very existence as a people gives it the full right to self-determination, this should apply as well to the aboriginal peoples. It is a fundamental right, not a question of numbers.

(c) Québec solidaire recognizes that to achieve equal relations with the aboriginal peoples, Quebec’s territorial integrity as a precondition must be replaced by a completely different notion, that of the necessary cohabitation on the same territory of sovereign peoples, each free to determine its own future.

This position should allow more harmonious relations since they will be based on mutual respect and trust. This recognition will of course have to have very concrete territorial and other repercussions, and help to remedy the injustices still suffered by the aboriginal peoples by ensuring their full social, cultural, economic and political development. The negotiations to this effect should be conducted in respect of each and every one, including the non-aboriginal populations living in the territories in question. In this sense, the struggle against the racism suffered by aboriginal peoples remains one of the key concerns in a genuine recognition of their rights.

(d) Any future negotiation should be informed by Québec solidaire’s ecological vision. The discussions will have a quite different character when territorial occupation is considered a responsibility we must share, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, and not as a way to exploit and market resources until they are exhausted, as allowed by many states and practiced by many companies.

From Programme politique de Québec solidaire, pp. 85-86.

[1] The NARP program is reproduced in a pamphlet I authored in 1970, Red Power in Canada, available on-line in the Socialist History Project.

[2] No Canadian court has yet interpreted these clauses in a definitive way. While Indigenous lawyers argue that such consent is mandatory, I am leery of some ambiguous wording in the Declaration. For example, the key Articles 19 and 32 both provide that “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent….” That is not the same thing as saying that states “shall obtain” this FPIC. Thus courts may well choose to override Indigenous objections to a program or project on the grounds that the government authority manifested sufficient good faith in its (unsuccessful) effort to obtain consent, especially when conflicting Indigenous and private or government property claims are at issue, the latter being held to prevail in the general public interest.

[3] A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another, https://leapmanifesto.org/en/the-leap-manifesto/.

[4] Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Foreword by Taiaiake Alfred). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014, p. 173.

[5] Excellent sources on these issues (and many others) are Arthur Manuel’s books: The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land, Rebuilding the Economy (Toronto: Lorimer, 2017); and its predecessor Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015).

[6] Shiri Pasternak, Grounded Authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake Against the State. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Venezuela: Coup d’Etat or Constitutional Transition?

By Lucas Koerner – VA Editorial Board

Writing for the Venezuelanalysis team, Lucas Koerner examines the (un)constitutionality of Juan Guaido’s claim to power. He critically dissects the claims echoed by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and others disputing the legality and legitimacy of the Maduro government. This article was first published in the excellent Caracas-based web site Venezuelanalysis.com.

There’s been a lot misinformation in the international media about whether what is happening in Venezuela is a brazen US-led power grab or a constitutional transfer of power aided by the international community.

On January 23, National Assembly President Juan Guaido, who was virtually unknown in Venezuela before being selected for the legislative post on January 5, swore himself in as “interim president” of the South American country and was immediately recognized by Washington and its allies.

Guaido claims that his new self-ascribed job title is fully in keeping with Article 233 of Venezuela’s 1999 constitution. But is this the case?

An open and shut case

Article 233 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela specifies that an “absolute vacuum of power” occurs in the following circumstances: the president’s death, resignation, impeachment by the Supreme Court, “permanent physical or mental incapacity” certified by a medical expert designated by the Supreme Court and approved by the National Assembly, “abandonment of post” declared by the National Assembly, or recall by popular referendum.

Guaido’s claim to the presidency rests on the second to last of these conditions, namely the argument that Nicolas Maduro has failed to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities, thereby abandoning his post. Article 236 outlines in detail the duties of the president, which include everything from conducting international relations and leading the armed forces to granting pardons and convoking referenda.

The opposition may not like Maduro for a variety of reasons, but a cursory glance at the head of state’s Twitter feed will reveal that he has hardly abandoned his presidential functions. That is, he has not holed himself up in Miraflores presidential palace playing Call of Duty in lieu of showing up for work.

Now even if Maduro were to develop a debilitating video game addiction, this would not necessarily mean that his powers would pass to the president of the National Assembly.

Article 233 clearly specifies that in the event of an “absolute power vacuum” of any of the types mentioned above occuring within the first four years of his or her six-year mandate, the president shall be succeeded by the vice president. This is what happened after President Hugo Chavez’s death on March 5, 2013, when Nicolas Maduro took over as acting president and new elections were called within 30 days. If the above scenario occurs in the last two years of the elected term, the vice president is sworn in and finishes the mandate. Only in the case of a power vacuum occurring between presidential elections and the president-elect’s inauguration will the president of the National Assembly temporarily take office.

Therefore, even if we accept the opposition’s rather dubious claim that recently sworn-in Maduro has abandoned his post, it would be Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, not Guaido, who would take office.

In the interest of fairness, let’s concede for a moment that Juan Guaido is the legitimate “interim president” of Venezuela. Why then has he yet to call new presidential elections within 30 days as explicitly specified by Article 233?

Not only has Guaido failed to call new elections, but his National Assembly approved a law on February 5, titled “Democratic Transition Statute,” which allows the un-elected politician to remain in power for a “maximum period of twelve (12) months” in the case of the “technical impossibility” of holding them sooner.

Article 233 makes absolutely no mention of “technical conditions,” as an excuse for delaying elections, and the Venezuelan opposition certainly had no “technical” issues impeding them from holding their illegal July 14, 2017 plebiscite amid a violent anti-government insurrection.

The only conclusion is that Guaido is playing it fast and loose with the Bolivarian Constitution to justify a dictatorship.

Was Maduro legitimately elected?

Constitutional exegesis aside, the crux of the opposition’s argument is that Nicolas Maduro’s May 20, 2018 reelection was mired in “fraud” and hence his swearing-in “illegitimate,” creating a power vacuum.

This contention has been taken up by the mainstream media as an article of faith and repeated ad nauseam.

For corporate journalists, it doesn’t appear to matter that Maduro was re-elected with 6.2 million votes, amounting to around 31 percent of eligible voters, which, as Joe Emersberger notes, is average among US presidents. For instance, Barack Obama received 31 percent in 2008 and 28 percent in 2012, while Trump was elected with just 26 percent in 2016, failing to win the popular vote.

Nor does the Western pundit class seem to care that Maduro won with exactly the same electoral system with which the opposition scored its landslide parliamentary victory in 2015, from which Juan Guaido purports to derive his legitimacy.

Indeed, the fact that Maduro was re-elected cleanly, as verified by reports from four different in independent international monitoring missions, is non-consequential, given that Washington preemptively refused to recognize the results of the election more than 90 days ahead of time in support of the main opposition parties’ boycott.

But the US did not stop there. The Trump administration went as far as to threaten to sanction opposition candidate Henri Falcon for daring to defy the boycott, while the major anti-government parties sabotaged his candidacy by actively urging abstention and falsely suggesting that the former governor was in league with Maduro. Somehow this egregious interference in another sovereign country’s electoral process was completely ignored by a Western media lobotomized by Russia-gate hysteria.

All this is quite ironic in light of the fact that the right-wing opposition took to the streets in deadly protests in 2017 demanding early presidential elections with full backing from Washington.

However, after elections were brought forward to April 2018 in the context of internationally-mediated negotiations in the Dominican Republic, the opposition turned around and reportedly rejected a preliminary agreementreached with the government, abandoning further talks. A subsequent deal to push elections back to May 20 brought a faction of the opposition led by Falcon on board, to the fury of hardline parties close to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who issued repeated calls for a military coup alongside other top US officials.

There is little doubt that had the opposition united behind Falcon, he would have stood a very good chance of beating Maduro, whose popularity has plummeted amid the severe economic crisis that has gripped the country for four years. Why then did the US and its local clients opt for a boycott?

Radical regime change

On April 11, 2002, the Venezuelan opposition with the support of sections of the military staged a coup ousting democratically elected President Hugo Chavez. Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce President Pedro Carmona swore himself in as “interim president” and proceeded to dissolve the National Assembly, the new constitution and the courts. Carmona was recognized by the Bush administration and Spain’s Aznar government, while the New York Times glowingly endorsed him as a “respected business leader.” In fact, it was unrepentant war criminal Elliott Abrams, recently resurrected as Trump’s “special envoy to Venezuela,” who gave the green light to the coup plotters. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund, from whom Guaido is considering soliciting financing, rushed to offer loans to the new coup regime.

Between 50 and 60 anti-coup protesters were gunned down in the streets by the infamous Metropolitan Police during the Venezuelan opposition’s short-lived coup regime. The Cuban embassy was besieged, while future opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles alongside Guaido’s political mentor, former Chacao Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, carried out what they euphemistically called a “citizen’s arrest,” in fact a kidnapping, of President Chavez’s interior minister, Ramón Rodriguez Chacin.

Contrary to mainstream media depictions, the Carmona regime is the only dictatorship Venezuela has had over the last two decades. Moreover, any parallels between 2002 and today are hardly coincidental. Like in 2002, the current US-backed coup seeks to completely dismantle Venezuela’s Bolivarian institutional framework of expanded political, social, and economic rights, but this time in the name of the constitution they previously dissolved. There is no clearer evidence than Guaido’s publicly disclosed plans to introduce major privatizations in Venezuela’s oil sector, whose nationalization formed the bedrock of the Bolivarian anti-imperialist project. Nevertheless, as we saw in 2002, the opposition will not stop there, for it is driven by the single-minded desire to eliminate Chavismo as a mass political force and thus restore the “exceptional” pre-Chavez liberal democracy that only ever existed in the imagination of the upper middle class white elite. The recent burning alive of a man perceived to be Chavista in Merida, like the lynchings we saw during the 2017 opposition protests, is just one manifestation of this virulent anti-poor hatred.

In short, the international left has a duty to halt the US-backed coup underway in Venezuela. Only through sustained, popular opposition to US imperialism can we avoid a return to the dark age of Washington-sponsored dictatorships and dirty wars which men like Elliott Abrams enthusiastically promoted across the hemisphere in the 1970s and ‘80s. The fate of democracy in Venezuela, and worldwide, hangs in the balance.

This article represents the position of the VA editorial board with regard to opposition leader Juan Guaido's self-proclamation as "interim president" of Venezuela on January 23.

Key issues in the Venezuela crisis

As explained in the previous entry on this blog, the Canadian government, to its eternal shame, has worked to foster and support an attempted coup in Venezuela.

In the article below, Argentine left economist Claudio Katz explains what is at stake for Latin America in the current crisis. The translation is by Nicolas Allen.

* * *

Venezuela Defines the Future of the Region

By Claudio Katz

Guaidó’s self-proclamation as Venezuelan president is the most ridiculous and dangerous coup attempt in recent years. With the shameless backing of Washington, the Venezuelan rightwing intends to place a complete stranger at the helm of the state.

This time around, the starting signal was neither a terrorist attack nor an assassination attempt directed against Maduro. Trump has chosen a group of conspiracy experts (Abrams, Pence, Bolton, Rubio) to pursue escalation and has opted to seize the Venezuelan oil enterprise operating in the United States (CITGO). He has brushed aside all principles of legal guarantee in his quest to appropriate the world’s largest concentration of crude oil reserves.

South America’s rightwing governments have their own motives for supporting the coup. Colombia’s Duque wants to do away with the Peace Accords signed with the guerillas, after having dismantled UNASUR. A contingent of the US Marines already stationed in Colombia is prepared for any sort of provocation.

Brazil’s Bolsonaro continues to identify Venezuela with the blight of “populism”. That rhetorical gesture is meant to paper over his largely improvised presidential debut and forestall the inevitable disappointment of his electors.

Macri leads the line in the crusade against Venezuela. The Argentine head of state is eager to show that his administration can be the most able servant of the empire, going so far as to designate one of his own party officials as Guaidó’s ambassador. The president has reserved special exemption for Venezuelan immigrants in the midst of a wave of xenophobia whose ultimate purpose is to distract from runaway inflation, unemployment and utility hikes. For the Macri administration, the Venezuelan crisis has the additional benefit of dividing the opposition, where leaders of federal Peronism join the President in vilifying Venezuela.

Without the backing of the United States, Duque, Bolsonaro and Macri are completely ineffective. The so-called “Lima Group” could not even boycott Maduro’s swearing-in. There were more foreign delegations present at the ceremony than the investiture of the raving Brazilian military captain.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s atomized opposition is clinging to a fictional president. It has never managed to win a presidential election and failed in every attempt to contest election results. It has unflinchingly accepted the United States’ veto of negotiations with Chavismo, and it periodically likes to plunge into brutal acts of violence. For the time being it is a simple marionette of the State Department, subject to the whimsies of Trump the puppeteer.

Double Standards

The Caribbean coup leaders have become media darlings. They draw on the complicity of journalists, attributing to Maduro a litany of sins that also happen to be extensive to other governments throughout the region. A cursory overview of these similarities would show the plot to be completely unjustified, or, alternatively, would force a call for a continent-wide regime change.

The Venezuelan government is repeatedly characterized as illegitimate, as if it were the product of electoral fraud. But the reality is that the Maduro government was confirmed with the participation of 67% of the population, a level well beyond recent poll numbers registered in Chile or Colombia. No journalist thought to call for the ousting of Chile’s Piñera or Colombia’s Duque on the basis of low voter turnout.

It is true that one sector of the opposition called for abstention, yet another did participate in elections and did not contest the outcome. Nor was there ever any evidence of fraud in an electoral system praised by international organisms (Carter) and political figures (Zapatero). The very same electoral mechanism awarded the opposition with leadership of the National Assembly in 2015. Operating within the same electoral framework, Maduro is protested and Guaidó is recognized.

24 elections have been held over the last two decades of the Chavista regime, each one allowing for a recall vote. The right to a recall does not exist in any other country throughout the region. Voting is not obligatory [as is the case in many Latin American countries], and yet Venezuelan elections routinely show levels of voter participation above the regional average. The opposition never acknowledges defeat and always appeals to accusations of voter fraud when the results do not go their way.

With their habitual duplicity, the same journalists and media who criticize Venezuelan elections do not find anything suspect about the commission of elections in Brazil while Lula sits in jail. They dispute the rulings of the Venezuelan judicial system while extoling on the virtues of the magistrate who brought down Lula (Moro). Nor do they object to his ministerial appointment by Bolsonaro.

Likewise, the media denounces the detention of opposition leaders (Carmona, Ledesma, López) but fails to mention the cause of their imprisonment. They are not in prison for their critical opinions; they are there for fomenting coup attempts or for their involvement in bloody guarimba street fighting. Chavismo is subject to a level of scrutiny that applies nowhere else in Latin America. Where Venezuela is concerned, it would seem that we should be more understanding of such attempts at regicide.

Nor does the media care to mention the brutal violation of human rights practiced by Venezuela’s opponents. Since the signing of the Peace Accords, Colombian paramilitaries acting under the watchful eye of the government have murdered hundreds of social leaders. Political prisoners in Argentina are mounting and there is a cloak of impunity protecting those responsible for the murder of Santiago Maldonado and Rafael Nahuel (one, a solidarity activist with indigenous causes, the other, a member of Argentina’s Mapuche community). Brazil has seen an escalation in attacks against the Landless Workers’ Movement [MTS], and recent findings have implicated the sons of Bolsonaro in the murder of PSOL politician Marielle Franco.

Chavismo is even accused of maintaining –imaginary– connections with drug traffickers. But the same groups leveling those accusations have overlooked the very real financial backing by organized crime for the Colombian rightwing. No international organism has called for punishing that country as it continues to harbor the production of illegal drugs. What has taken place in Mexico is even more serious. The entire Mexican territory has been torn apart by a massacre claiming some 200,000 lives, without so much as a suggestion of regional intervention from the Organization of American States.

Venezuela is of course experiencing a massive wave of emigration as a consequence of its economic troubles. But comparable forms of displacement have also been observed under similar circumstances in other countries. Poverty always leads those most affected to seek refuge in a neighboring country.

If these catastrophes amount to a “humanitarian crisis”, it would be fitting to say the same of equivalent migrations elsewhere. No one is speaking in those terms of the harrowing flight of Central American families to North America. Their torments are apparently not worthy of pious calls for aid. Instead, they are the excuse for the construction of a border wall. The internal war in Colombia saw similar levels of human displacement without any call for foreign intervention.

Media conglomerates always frame their coverage of Venezuela with allegations of the violation of the freedom of press. But the disruptions they portray are irrelevant next to the systematic murder of journalists in Mexico and other Central American countries. The manufacturers of lies tend to apply a double standard to their own practices.

Contradictions Below the Surface

It suffices to recall what took place in Iraq and Libya to have some sense of the stakes involved. Imperialism is capable of wreaking unimaginable havoc. If a large-scale intervention should take place, Latin America will lose one of its major safeguards against the kind of catastrophe visited on Africa and the Middle East.

The Venezuelan rightwing dismisses the dangers involved, expecting a rapid victory with little collateral damage. It is already announcing the imminent retreat of Chavismo, Maduro’s isolation and the desertion of the military’s top ranks. It likes to point to the unity among its own ranks and the international support behind it. But these are tall tales that unravel under the most superficial analysis.

The command center in Washington is compromised by a number of dissenting voices, while Trump is preoccupied by a complex political-legal context on the home front. Fiascos in the Middle East have put a damper on enthusiasm for foreign military incursions. The military is disoriented, recently having withdrawn troops from Syria and Afghanistan. The possibility of a repeat of the Granada or Panama occupations has been discarded, and the typical pre-invasion ultimatum, like that offered to Hussein or Gadhafi, is being postponed. The Pentagon is only entertaining limited engagements for the time being, starting with the shoddy pretext of humanitarian intervention.

Nor are the US’s European partners eager to participate in adventurism. Their role in the plot against Venezuela lacks a credible threat. Divergences among Western leaders has led to an impasse over the agreement on sanctions in the Organization of American States and the UN, while the Vatican seeks to remain neutral.

Coup conspirators have also taken note of the augmented role Russia plays in supplying the Venezuelan military. A Russian presence could complicate matters for Trump’s oil seizures, if it proves to be the case that Russia has shares in CITGO. Nor is it clear who would exactly be most affected by the seizure. Experts estimate that the United States has managed to separate its supply of Venezuelan oil. But those purchases make up 13% of imports and their cancelation could affect energy prices.

The media is at pains to conceal these dilemmas. Coverage is triumphalist, despite the failure on the part of the rightwing to register any type of achievement in the last two weeks. So long as bribes, threats and US enticements fail to erode the Armed Forces, Guiadó will continue to exercise command of a nonexistent post.

A Battle on Two Fronts

The rightwing has indeed recovered its capacity to mobilize, but Chavismo has responded in kind with equally massive demonstrations. The government maintains a remarkable ability to rally its supporters in the midst of the crisis. Both sides recognize that repeated marches will not be enough to force the government to relinquish power. The indeterminacy of the current situation could ultimately prove costly for the opposition.

Their leaders are left to choose between the path of violence (which led to their isolation in 2017) or accepting the status quo (which is sapping their energies). For the time being they have opted against the violent guarimbas in the wealthier neighborhoods, preferring to test their strength through provocations in popular neighborhoods.

The government too has learned from past confrontations and is exercising caution. It shows leniency towards Guaidó’s photo ops and is betting on his slow demoralization. But economic collapse raises questions about long-term popular support in the battle against the rightwing. All of Venezuelan society is being torn apart by the collapse of income.

Contraction in production over the last five years has destroyed 30% of GDP. Such a downturn is on level with the 1930’s Great Depression. No sector of Venezuelan society is immune to the debacle.

Crude oil extraction has been halved. Monetary financing of the fiscal deficit has triggered the largest hyperinflationary spiral of the twenty-first century. Price indexes leapt from 300% (2016) to 2,000% (2017). The current price average is unquantifiable.

The scale of the crisis is demolishing salaries, leading to barter exchange and a critical shortage of food and medicine. The daily suffering of the population is appalling, their survival often dependent on official government supply networks (CLAPS).

The media portrays this collapse as the inexorable consequence of “Chavista populism”, overlooking the role played by the architects of economic warfare. The foreign blockade and internal sabotage have led to a collapse in crude oil extraction, diminishing international reserves and skyrocketing costs of basic imports. Foreign and local capitalists have provoked this collapse as a means to expedite the arrival of a more business-friendly political regime.

Indescribable economic adversity has been aggravated by the government’s own improvisations, ineffectiveness and outright complicity. Maduro has passively tolerated the destruction of production. Sectors of Chavismo have lobbied to penalize corrupt bureaucrats and their millionaire partners, to no avail.

These are the initiatives needed to forestall economic collapse. Other measures proposed include effective control over the banking system to impede capital flight, radical shifts in the assignation of foreign reserves to the private sector, progressive taxation of private fortunes, incentive programs to encourage local production of food and measures to generate popular control of prices.

This program also calls for a new approach to debt that would anchor the local currency and contain hyperinflation. No “petro” or “sovereign bolivar” will function so long as the boliburguesía [portmanteau of Bolivarian and bourgeoisie, i.e. the new bourgeoisie that prospered under the Chavez administration] enjoys official government protection. This privileged layer has thrived by over-billing imports, transferring funds abroad, engaging in currency speculation and scarcity. The rightwing is not the only force looking to topple Chavismo: similar forces are alive inside a government that has failed to counteract economic collapse.

Commitment or Neutralism

As the conflict grows more serious, many voices are calling to impose a set of conditions under which the Venezuelans could democratically determine their future. The legitimacy of that principle is beyond debate. The question is how it can be implemented, because if the coup forces take the upper hand then that aspiration will be as good as dead. The continued sovereignty of the country and the defense of popular rights demand, above all, that the escualidosbe defeated [escualido, “the squalid,” is a common pejorative for the anti-Chavista opposition].

The conflict underway is no longer an “internal affair” of Venezuela. The confrontation exceeds its territorial origin and now involves the entire region. The two principal interests stoking the crisis have very precise goals. The United States looks to recover dominion over its “backyard”, while the Latin American elites want to bury the previous decade’s popular demands.

If the coup conspirators manage to defeat Chavismo, they will move next on Bolivia and Cuba, extending neoliberal authoritarianism across the continent. The dispute over Venezuela is about the preservation of one of the last breakwaters as the reactionary tidal wave continues to expand.

The parties, organizations and intellectuals who categorically reject the coup are capable of grasping the dimensions of the dilemma. The strength of anti-imperialist demonstrations underlines this. Gone is the hesitancy that watched on from the sidelines during the 2017 guarimbas. The designs of an ascendant rightwing are all too plain to see; the portents of a Venezuelan Bolsonaro would mean irreparable damage.

The current dilemma should in no way deter criticism of the decisions made by the Chavista government. But it is of vital importance to situate any critique within a shared battle against the putschists.

Moreover, the current struggle calls for something more than the ambiguous neutrality expressed in recent pronouncements. By distancing themselves from the conflict’s protagonists, those declarations situate either side on a common plane. With the same yardstick they question Maduro and Guaidó, suggesting that there is a shared level of illegitimacy. They simultaneously criticize the regime’s authoritarianism and the adventurism of the opposition. They object to the US military threat and the geopolitical presence of Russia.

But does a mutual condemnation of Maduro and Guaidó then entail recognizing neither party? A call for abstention from the rallies marshaled by the government and the opposition? Does it mean an indiscriminate censure of the Marines and the Bolivarian Army?

Neutralists praise the attitude of the Mexican and Uruguayan governments, who are advocating for the immediate renewal of negotiations between both parties. That initiative has opened a channeled of dialogue which Maduro has already accepted, and Guaidó rejects.

It is clear that the concrete specifics of negotiation will be decided with the outcome of the struggle. The rightwing will not accept dialogue so long as there is a perceived possibility that it can seize power. Therefore, defeating the Right is the basic condition for resuming negotiations. The outcome of negotiations will be a reflection of the balance of forces. Defeating the rightwing is the categorical priority for the present moment. In that battle, the destiny of Latin America is being decided.

February 5, 2019

Katz is an economist and researcher with the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (Argentina). He is a member of Argentina’s Leftist Economists group (EDI). This piece originally appeared on Claudio Katz's website.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

What the mainstream media doesn’t tell you about Venezuela

A group of protesters took to the stage during the Lima Group press conference in Ottawa with a banner rejecting intervention in Venezuela (Lars Hagberg / AFP)

The Canadian government – supported by the Conservative and NDP “opposition” – has joined in a U.S.-led coup attempt against the constitutionally and democratically elected government of Venezuela headed by President Nicolás Maduro.

“We are indeed calling on the military of Venezuela, as we call on all Venezuelans, as we call on all governments of the world, to recognize Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said after hosting a meeting in Ottawa of the Lima Group, a collection of mainly right-wing Latin American governments plus Canada as the direct representative of North American imperialism.

Guaido recently proclaimed himself “president” gaining instant (and obviously scheduled) recognition of Trump and his allies including the Trudeau government.

I am currently in Mexico, where the newly-elected government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has refused to join the pro-coup calls of other Lima Group members, now supplemented by similar calls of many European governments. I may write more on this dangerous confrontation, but I think Yves Engler, in the article below, makes essential points about the issues and the role of the Trudeau government. Engler is the author of several recent books on Canada’s international role, including his latest, Left, Right — Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada.

Reposted, with thanks, from Yves Engler’s blog.

Richard Fidler

* * *

What the mainstream media doesn’t tell you about Venezuela

By Yves Engler

The corporate media is wholeheartedly behind the federal government’s push for regime change in Venezuela. The propaganda is thick and, as per usual, it is as much about what they don’t, as what they do, report. Here are some important developments that have largely been ignored by Canada’s dominant media:

  • At the Organization of American States meeting called by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on January 25 the Canadian-backed interventionist resolution was defeated 18-16.
  • The “Lima Group” of governments opposed to Venezuela’s elected president was established 18 months ago after Washington, Ottawa and others failed to garner the votes necessary to censure Venezuela at the OAS (despite the head of the OAS’s extreme hostility to Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro).
  • Most of the world’s countries, with most of the world’s population, have failed to support the US/Canada push to recognize National Assembly head Juan Guaidóas president of Venezuela.
  • The UN and OAS charters preclude unilateral sanctions and interfering in other countries’ affairs.
  • UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, recently condemned US/Canadian sanctions on Venezuela.

As well, here are some flagrant double standards in Canadian policy the media have largely ignored:

  • “Lima Group” member Jair Bolsonaro won the recent presidential election in Brazil largely because the most popular candidate, Lula Da Silva, was in jail. His questionable election took place two years after Lula’s ally, Dilma Rousseff, was ousted as president in a ‘parliamentary coup’.
  • Another “Lima Group” member, Honduras president Juan Orlando Hernandez, defied that country’s constitution a year ago in running for a second term and then ‘won’ a highly questionable election.
  • “At the same time”as Canada and the US recognized Juan Guaidó, notes Patrick Mbeko, “in Democratic Republic of Congo they refuse to recognize the massive recent victory of Martin Fayulu in the presidential election, endorsing the vast electoral fraud of the regime and its ally Félix Tshisekedi.”

Beyond what the media has ignored, they constantly cite biased sources without offering much or any background. Here are a couple of examples:

  • The Globe and Mail has quoted Irwin Cotler in two recent articles on Venezuela. But, the decades-long anti-Palestinian and anti-Hugo Chavez activist lacks any credibility on the issue. At a press conference in May to release an OAS report on alleged rights violations in Venezuela, Cotler said Venezuela’s “government itself was responsible for the worst ever humanitarian crisis in the region.” Worse than the extermination of the Taíno and Arawak by the Spanish? Or the enslavement of five million Africans in Brazil? Or the 200,000 Mayans killed in Guatemala? Or the thousands of state-murdered “subversives” in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil?
  • CBC and Canadian Press (to a slightly lesser extent) stories about former Venezuelan Colonel Oswaldo Garcia, whose family lives in Montréal, present him as a democracy activist. But, notes Poyan Nahrvar, Garcia participated in a coup attempt last year and then launched raids into Venezuela from Colombia until he was captured by the Venezuelan military.
  • The media blindly repeats Ottawa’s depiction of the “Lima Group”, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described as an organization established to “bring peace, democracy and stability in Venezuela.” One report called it “a regional block of countries committed to finding a peaceful solution” to the crisis while another said its members “want to see Venezuela return to democracy.” This portrayal of the coalition stands its objective on its head. The “Lima Group” is designed to ratchet up international pressure on Maduro in hopes of eliciting regime change, which may spark a civil war. That is its reason for existence.

As part of nationwide protests against the “Lima Group” meeting taking place in Ottawa on Monday, activists in Montréal will rally in front of Radio Canada/CBC’s offices. They will be decrying not only Canada’s interference in Venezuela but the dominant media’s effort to “manufacture consent” for Canadian imperialism.