The White House is openly plotting to bring down the government of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. It is being openly promoted as a campaign to steal Venezuelan oil for the benefit of U.S. corporations, and some powerful Democrats are cheering Trump on and joining the conspiracy. Elliott Abrams, one of the premiere butchers of the U.S. dirty wars in Central America in the 1980s, has been named the point man in the effort to bring regime change to Venezuela. This week on Intercepted: Investigative journalist Allan Nairn talks about the history of U.S. crimes in Central America, the time he told Abrams, on national television, he should stand trial for war crimes, and the threat of U.S. military action in Venezuela. Corporate media coverage of Venezuela has been atrocious and largely uniform with the role of successive U.S. administrations in destabilizing the country almost never highlighted. Former Hugo Chávez adviser Eva Golinger and journalist and educator Roberto Lovato discuss how Venezuela was thrust into economic crisis, who is responsible, and what Washington really wants.
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Donald J. Trump: I know more about technology than anybody.
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DJT: The wall is based on, I mean, it’s all based — any technology works only with the wall.
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DJT: Local people know who they are when they go for groceries and everything else. And I think what Wilbur was probably trying to say is that they will work along. I know banks are working along.
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DJT: Total respect for Donald Trump and for Donald Trump’s very, very large brain.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 80 of Intercepted.
Mike Pence: President Trump has taken decisive action over the last two years to bring sanctions on officials in the Maduro regime. We’ve isolated the regime economically and diplomatically and today freedom broke out in Venezuela.
JS: Right now, the Trump administration is openly engaging in a blatant effort to overthrow the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. It is a campaign aimed at regime change and it’s being promoted openly as an opportunity to steal Venezuelan oil for the benefit of U.S. corporations. They’re not even pretending. Here is National Security Adviser John Bolton on Fox News.
John Bolton: I think we’re trying to get to the same end result here. You know Venezuela is one of the three countries I call the troika of tyranny. It’ll make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.
JS: But this is not some insane Twitter thought spewed by Trump after guzzling down gallons of Fox and Friends. It’s an open imperialism that is being embraced not just by Republicans and Trump supporters, but powerful Democrats as well.
JS: Amid protests against Maduro last week, the head of the opposition in Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, declared himself the legitimate president of Venezuela during a protest last Wednesday. That move was immediately supported by the United States and the Trump administration recognized Guaidó as the president.
Maduro rejected Guaidó’s claim and accused the U.S. of attempting a coup d’etat. Immediately, he ordered U.S. diplomats to leave the country but Maduro has since walked that back while maintaining the position that the U.S. should stay out of Venezuela’s affairs.
Nicolás Maduro: Donald Trump, hands off Venezuela.
JS: This push for regime change in Venezuela did not appear in a vacuum. The CIA has been plotting with so-called rebels in Venezuela from the early days of the Trump administration.
Alex Witt: Trump administration discussed a coup with rebel Venezuelan officers. American officials are telling the Times that the administration indeed held secret meetings with rebellious military officers to discuss plans to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro.
JS: And now, with the media focus on the shutdown and Trump’s atrocious wall plan, it appears to have been put on the fast track.
Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for a second six-year term earlier this month. The right-wing opposition took the opportunity to renew protests after the last major anti-government protests were suppressed by security forces back in 2017. So on the eve of a major demonstration against Maduro’s new term this year, according to the Wall Street Journal, Vice President Mike Pence called Guaidó to tell him that should he challenge Maduro for the presidency that the U.S. would support him. And that’s exactly what happened.
Juan Guaidó [in Spanish]: I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as president in charge of Venezuela.
JS: All across the so-called liberal media, the reporting and analysis on Venezuela the past weeks has been atrocious. And actually, it has been this way for a long time. We should remember that The New York Times actually openly supported the 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez. But in the wake of the recent Venezuelan elections, there has been a total uniformity to the characterization of Venezuela’s suffering and chaos as the sole fault of Nicolás Maduro.
The elections are being denounced by anchors as though it’s just accepted fact that Maduro is only president because of corruption. Almost never mentioned prominently is the fact that Venezuela has been systematically targeted by the United States and its allies and its puppets in Latin America or the impact the economic sanctions have had on the country or the fact that there was an attempt to kill Nicolás Maduro with a drone packed with explosives. The story is just “Maduro is a corrupt Socialist dictator. He needs to be taken out so that Venezuela can be free.” The central role that the U.S. has played under Bush, under Obama, and now, under Trump in destabilizing Venezuela, it’s just an afterthought, if it is even mentioned at all.
One of MSNBC’s favorite conservatives, Hugh Hewitt, even suggested last weekend on Meet the Press that overthrowing Maduro could bring a kumbaya moment for liberals and Trump.
Hugh Hewitt: And it is far more important to shut down the Maduro government than our government. And I think Donald Trump is leading there and he is winning there because of Bolton and Pompeo going down to see Bolsonaro and Duque. That’s going to happen. That’s going to bring us together.
JS: Now, Hugh Hewitt, of course, is up to his neck in crazy. But, if he was just talking about the political elite uniting behind Trump to overthrow the government of Venezuela, then he probably has a point.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, a powerful Democrat from Illinois, released a statement praising Trump for “appropriately” recognizing Guaidó. House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff said Trump was right to recognize Guaidó as president. And then there was this insane propaganda video released by some Democrats on the foreign relations committee. They included Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Elliot Engel and the former Clinton Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. They declared “We refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency.”
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell: Maduro’s administration held fraudulent elections and he has lost his mandate.
Donna Shalala: We cannot allow Nicolas Maduro to destroy his country, to continue to steamroll democracy and act with impunity.
JS: If all of that is not cringe-worthy enough, let’s look at the man appointed to spearhead this bipartisan Venezuela policy.
Mike Pompeo: Today I am incredibly excited to announce that a seasoned, principled, and tough-minded foreign policy veteran is joining our State Department team. Elliott Abrams is coming aboard to lead our efforts on Venezuela.
JS: Elliott Abrams is a notorious neoconservative and was actually a so-called “Never Trumper” who penned op-eds opposing Donald Trump. Well, clearly a good old fashioned coup d’etat mission was too juicy for Abrams to pass up.
Elliott Abrams: Very briefly, I left this building 30 years ago this week, last time I worked here. So, it’s very nice to be back.
JS: Let’s be clear here, Elliott Abrams is an unrepentant war criminal. He played a central role in the mass-slaughter of tens of thousands of people across Central and Latin America in the dirty wars of the 1980s. He was a player in the Iran-Contra scandal. But we’re told Abrams is an adult. Abrams is an old Latin America hand. It’s sickening. This administration brought in Abrams because of his immorality and his willingness to support mass murder. It’s the only reason he is there and no one with even a flimsy grasp of morality should be welcoming his appointment as special envoy on Venezuela.
And let’s remember that in 2002, during the Bush-Cheney administration, Abrams was a major proponent of the coup against Hugo Chávez. But even some Democrats have praised the Abrams appointment. Among those was former Clinton ambassador to the UN and former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. He said the Trump administration was “Smart to bring in Abrams,” saying, and I’m quoting here: “This is good and they’re bringing sorta the moderate Republican Bush foreign policy advisers in.” Elliott Abrams a moderate? That’s just nuts. On Fox News, Bill Richardson also praised Trump for recognizing the Guaidó administration.
Bill Richardson: You know I’m not a big fan of the president’s foreign policy but on this issue, it was a bold move what they did recognizing the assembly leader.
JS: As Donald Trump has cozied up to strong men and dictators across the globe from Vladimir Putin, to Mohammed bin Salman, Rodrigo Duterte, Kim Jong-un, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi of Egypt, it seems he’s found the one so-called strongman that he just can’t tolerate. And that leader, the leader of Venezuela, happens to have the largest oil reserves in the world.
DJT: Well, we’re looking at Venezuela. It’s a very sad situation. That was the richest state in all of that area. It’s a big, beautiful area and by far the richest. And now it’s one of the poorest places in the world. That’s what socialism gets you.
JS: We’ve heard this justification for intervention, for coups, for war, for sanctions from the United States throughout history. The United States needs to go and “free the people” from their “un-democratic” leaders. It’s all a huge rescue mission for the poor people who are going to be so happy when the United States comes to liberate them. It’s all a big lie.
This week, the Trump administration announced that it had imposed new sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and the State Department said that it was taking action to make sure that all of the money and other assets owned by Venezuela in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world would be handed over to the control of the U.S.-backed puppet Guaidó. Buried within a New York Times report on the sanctions on Tuesday is this tidbit: “The sanctions included exceptions to allow the American oil company Chevron, along with [Dick Cheney’s former company] Halliburton to continue working in Venezuela.” That tells you everything you need to know about what’s happening right now.
Later in the program we are going to dig deep into how Venezuela got to this point, the role the United States has played in destabilizing that country and who exactly the U.S.-backed figure Juan Guaidó is. But first, to discuss the broader implications of this coup d’etat-in-motion, I’m joined by the renowned investigative journalist Allan Nairn. As a reporter, he has played a significant role in exposing United States involvement and sponsorship of brutal regimes and security forces around the globe. He survived the Dili massacre in East Timor in the early 1990s. He exposed the CIA’s financing of right-wing death squads in Haiti and other countries as well as the CIA’s support for brutal military dictators in places like Guatemala and El Salvador. Allan Nairn also debated Trump’s Venezuela point man Elliott Abrams on national television in the 1990s and in that debate he called for Abrams to stand trial for war crimes. Allan Nairn, welcome back to Intercepted.
Allan Nairn: Thanks good to be with you.
JS: Big picture here, Allan. It does seem as though within the Trump administration that they are organizing a kind of coup or throwback to the 50s, 60s team within the Trump administration aimed at Venezuela. In the bigger picture, how do you see these developments with Elliott Abrams coming on board, John Bolton there as National Security Adviser?
AN: Well, it is possible that the U.S. will choose to attack Venezuela militarily. That might be attractive to Trump first because, in 2016, he laid out the doctrine of to the winner go the spoils.
DJT: Take the oil! Take the oil! Keep the oil! You know, in the old days to the victor belong the spoils. To us, we go in and fight. We lose trillions of dollars. We lose thousands and thousands of unbelievable people. We have wounded warriors who I love all over the place. We get nothing. Look at Iraq. What did we get? Nothing. And Iran now takes over Iraq.
AN: Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves but even more importantly, Trump needs a new war. He needs his own war and he hasn’t started one yet. And that fits with his method of creating new spectacles. The institutions, the Pentagon, state and the CIA would probably have second thoughts because first, it wouldn’t be clear whether they could get it over with quickly and second, it’s not even clear that they would win. Because they would encounter some serious resistance within Venezuela. So, it seems what they’re trying to do now is to try to get the army to defect, get them to stage a coup and bring down Maduro. It’s kind of remarkable that some people maintain the pretense that the U.S. cares at all about elections anywhere. This is just another illustration of that.
JS: Allan, I wanted to get your response to the New York Times coverage on Tuesday and what they reported. And this was buried deep within the article on Venezuela but I’ll just read it to you: “Francisco Monaldi, a Venezuelan oil expert at Rice University in Texas compared the latest round of sanctions that the Trump administration announced against Venezuela to a ‘nuclear bomb.’ But he said that the moves appeared aimed not at crippling the Venezuelan oil company but blocking Maduro’s access to the revenue.” And it points out that the sanctions included exceptions to allow the American oil company Chevron as well as Halliburton, the oil services provider once run by Dick Cheney to continue working in Venezuela. You have that and then you also have Florida senator Marco Rubio openly tweeting that a coup in Venezuela, a regime change, would be beneficial to American workers and American oil companies. Again, this was buried at the bottom of this Times’ piece but Allan, your response to this news?
AN: It sounds like they’re putting a priority on helping the American oil companies. Even more significant was the statement by Bolton. Essentially, when the U.S. takes over Venezuela, they want to have the U.S. companies do the actual oil production in place of the state oil company. Now, that’s especially remarkable because it means rolling back an arrangement that predates Hugo Chavez, that predates the Bolivarian movement.
Announcer: In Venezuela’s lost world, the Caroní River has thundered down the rapids for no one knows how many thousands of years. But Venezuela, newly rich from her vast oil reserves is busy developing her other resources. While some oil countries spend their revenue on adding to the royal stock of concubines and Cadillacs, Venezuela believes in putting her prosperity on firm foundation.
AN: The oil production in Venezuela was nationalized before Chavez came to power so that old U.S.-backed state capitalism is now ruled inadmissible by John Bolton and the U.S. and they’re going to, proposing to go in and just as Trump put it, take the oil and give it to U.S. companies. But in today’s world, it’s no longer necessary for economic purposes, for overall economic purposes to actually control natural resources that are sold in an open market like oil. The only real gain is a political one where you have control over that oil and you can if you want withhold it from certain countries and you can manipulate it in various ways for political purposes.
JS: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on January 25th certified that the U.S. position is that Juan Guaidó is the legitimate president right now of Venezuela and they took moves to ensure that certain property that is held in accounts by the United States or it’s international allies but specifically the Federal Reserve bank of New York that all of the money that Venezuela has in the U.S. and other markets belongs to Juan Guaidó’s government. What about this posture that the U.S. government is taking that Juan Guaidó, who got a grand total of zero votes for president of Venezuela, is now essentially in charge of all of Venezuela’s international holdings?
AN: In addition to allowing the U.S. to rewrite the notion of political sovereignty assuming for itself the right to really name anyone president of any country. I mean, if they follow that principle, what’s to stop naming any individual in any country, anywhere in the world as the recognized president. They’re also messing with the very notion of property. This is the kind of thing that maybe should give other countries and even foreign capitalists and rich people some pause when placing their holdings within the borders or within the control of the U.S. government because the principle they seem to be establishing is if the U.S. turns against you politically, they could just take your property straight up. It should give pause to lots of people who are using U.S. banks now.
JS: The National Security Adviser, Allan, John Bolton walked into a press briefing on Monday holding a yellow notepad.
JB: Thank you very much, Sarah. As you know, on January the 23rd, President Trump officially recognized the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela.
JS: And on the pad was a handwritten note that said, “Afghanistan welcome the talks.” And then underneath it said “5,000 troops to Colombia.” Now, we don’t know exactly the genesis of that phrase being written on this notepad but certainly the United States has bankrolled so much of Colombia’s military and paramilitary operations. Now the U.S. is upping its military presence and work inside of Brazil that is now under the fascist government of Jair Bolsonaro. What do you see as the significance, if anything, of that phrase written on John Bolton’s pad “5,000 troops to Colombia?” I mean, I guess it’s also possible that it’s a psychological operation given that Bolton keeps saying all options are on the table. But what should people know about the potential for 5,000 troops to go to Colombia?
AN: If it were an actual plan, it would fit in with other things. When Pompeo was the CIA director, he openly mused about staging a covert operation to bring down Maduro. And he talked about doing it in concert with Colombia among others.
MP: I’m always careful when we talk about South and Central America and the CIA. There’s a lot of stories. So, I want to be careful with what I say but suffice it to say, we are very hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela and we, the CIA, is doing its best to understand the dynamic there so that we can communicate to our State Department and to others. The Colombians, I was just down in Mexico City and in Bogota a week before last talking about this very issue trying to help them understand the things they might do so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world.
AN: And when Bolsonaro was elected in Brazil, in the Brazilian press, immediately after there was a senior person of Bolsonaro saying that they would be ready to join the U.S. and countries like Colombia to bring down Maduro. So, it wouldn’t be surprising if the U.S. were to do that either as part of an ultimate actual U.S. armed attack on Venezuela or as a means of pressure and threat.
JS: And I want to ask you the origin story of how you ended up on Charlie Rose on his program in 1995 where you debated Elliott Abrams, but first, just describe the role that Elliott Abrams has played in U.S. policy particularly in Central and Latin America from Reagan through Bush 1, Bush 2 and now in the Trump administration.
AN: Abrams was one of the real intellectual architects of the U.S. policy of abetting genocide in Guatemala and massacres throughout Central America. I put it that way because there was U.S.-backed systematic mass slaughter in both Guatemala and El Salvador. But it’s in Guatemala that the courts, the local courts have actually ruled that these actions constituted genocide. And secondly, they ruled that this was done in accord with the interests of the United States, a security doctrine imposed to protect the United States. And in these and in other cases, Abrams was right at the center of first, making the policy but maybe even more importantly, openly and full-throatedly defending it as being the right thing to do.
Charlie Rose: We begin this evening with the story of Guatemala and the CIA connection. In Washington, Elliott Abrams joins us. Also, Robert Torricelli is here. The Congressman joins us along with Allan Nairn of The Nation Magazine as we begin.
AN: He likewise, when asked about the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, which killed more than 500 people, he denied that it had happened. He denied the facts.
AN [in clip]: Charlie, you asked a hypothetical. How would Mr. Abrams react? In fact, we have the historical record. We can see how he and the other Reagan and Bush and Clinton officials have reacted. In ’85, when human rights leader Rosario Godoy was abducted by the army, raped and mutilated, her baby had his fingernails torn out, the Guatemalan military said “Oh, they died in a traffic accident.” Human rights groups contacted Mr. Abrams, asked him about it, he wrote back — This is his letter of reply. He said “Yes, there is no evidence other than that they died in a traffic accident.” This is a woman raped and mutilated, a baby with his fingernails with his fingernails torn out.
CR: I want to come to a comment from Torricelli —
AN: This is longstanding policy.
CR: — In a moment. But these are specific points raised by Allan having to do with your —
Elliott Abrams: I’ll tell you, whatever Allan Nairn wants to do, Charlie. I’m not here to re-fight the Cold War. I’m glad we won, maybe he’s not. What I’m here to say is we’re talking not about U.S. policy in the world —
EA: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. We’re not here to re-fight the Cold War. We’re here to talk about, I thought, a specific case in which an allegation is being made that the husband of an American and another case, an American citizen were killed and there was a CIA connection with allegedly, with the person allegedly involved in it. Now, I’m happy to talk about that kind of thing. If Mr. Nairn thinks we should have been on the other side in Guatemala, that is we should have been in favor of a guerrilla victory, I disagree with him.
CR: So then you’re admitting that you were on the side of the Guatemalan military?
EA: I am admitting that it was the policy of the United States under Democrats and Republicans approved by Congress repeatedly to oppose a communist guerrilla victory anywhere in Central America including in Guatemala.
AN: A communist guerrilla victory — 95 percent of these victims are civilians, peasant organizers, human rights leaders —
EA: I am happy to invite both of you —
AN: — Assassinated by the Guatemalan army.
EA: I’m happy to invite both of you back to review Reagan and Bush administration policy.
AN: So, when confronted with particular cases, Abrams would always lie. But when discussing the policy overall, the policy of the U.S. arming and training and financing and providing intelligence to these mass murdering forces, Abrams would justify it. He would say, yes, we’re doing the right thing. And in fact, he’s saying this is necessary to fight communism.
AN [in clip]: If we look at a case like this, I think we have to start talking about putting Guatemalan and U.S. officials on trial. I think someone like Mr. Abrams would be a fit, a subject for such a Nuremberg style inquiry, but I agree with Mr. Abrams that Democrats would have to be in the dock with him. The Congress has been in on this. The Congress approved the sale of 16,000 M-16s to Guatemala. In ’87 and ’88 —
CR: Hold on one second. Because —
AN: They voted for more military aid than the Republicans asked for.
CR: Again, I’ll invite you and Elliott Abrams back to discuss what he did but right now —
EA: Thanks, Charlie but I —
CR: Go ahead, you want to repeat the question of you want to be in the dock?
EA: It is ludicrous. It is ludicrous to respond to that kind of stupidity. This guy thinks we were on the wrong side in the Cold War. Maybe he personally was on the wrong side. I am one of the many millions of Americans —
AN: We’re on the wrong side in supporting the massacre of peasants and organizers —
AN: That’s a crime. That’s a crime, Mr. Abrams, for which people should be tried.
EA: Put all the American officials who won the Cold War in the dock.
JS: Was there any fallout after that from Elliott Abrams or Charlie Rose’s producers? I mean, it often is the case you say something on major mainstream television that they are not accustomed to hearing and later, you hear it from the producers or the hosts who sort of chide you for having violated the norms of civility that exist among the foreign policy elite crowd on corporate TV.
AN: Well, I wasn’t that lucky. I wasn’t lucky enough to get chided. I just never got invited back again.
JS: As we wrap up, with everything that you know about Elliott Abrams, what’s going on here with making him the point-man on Venezuela? What does that say to you with everything you know about his background?
AN: Well, it reaffirms what was already obvious and that is that they are ready to resort to violence, if necessary, you know. Not just political means to bring down the Venezuelan government. An interesting twist on it, you know, Abrams was a “Never Trumper” because Abrams comes out of the neoconservative movement. But it’s notable that a high-profile guy like Abrams who’s said things like that is being brought back. He definitely is the right man for the job. He comes from the heart of the American foreign policy establishment. But I think the deeper points about all this, you know, there’s been a lot of talk about the clash between Trump and the deep state, Trump versus the establishment but it’s more of a spat than an actual long-term clash.
I mean I said a while ago, all they need is a couple of good new wars together and they’ll start getting along just fine. It’s really a disagreement between two different camps of war criminals who do have a tactical difference. They both agree first that the U.S. has a right to essentially extend the Monroe Doctrine to the entire globe and say the entire globe is the U.S. backyard and that the U.S. has a right to invade anywhere, at any time, for any reason, on any pretext — the U.S. has that right. And secondly, that in doing so, the U.S. has a right to kill civilians in those countries with no repercussions, with no possibility or even no thought to the idea that American officials could be brought to justice for killing those civilians even though that violates the local murder laws in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iraq or any other country in question. And the fact that in many cases, it violates international law by constituting a crime against humanity or even in some cases, like they just ruled in Guatemala, a genocide.
So, the Trumpers and the establishment people completely agree on those two premises and once you have those two premises in place, you basically have a completely criminal, completely unacceptable foreign policy and you explain a lot of — most of the activity of U.S. foreign policy over the decades. The only difference they have is a tactical one. The Trump people say, go in, invade wherever you want, but do it absolutely without restraint, with no rules, no limits on how many civilians you can kill. One of the big criticisms from the Trump types was that during the Obama administration to stage an operation, you had to go through lawyers at the National Security Council who had to sign off. And that’s was actually true. There was a process of sorting and monitoring and certain operations, certain bombing runs or drone runs or special forces actions or whatever could be vetoed if they exceeded the permitted — there was a permitted number of civilian casualties, but if they went over that, lawyers could actually veto them. And that’s kind of been the establishment approach in recent years. The Bush Jr. White House also did that.
When Trump came in, he said screw that, throw all the rules out the window. When you go in, you the Pentagon and CIA people on the ground, you have the authority to kill as many people as you feel you need to, as many people as you want. Go ahead, but get it over with quickly. Get it over with quickly and then let’s try to get out. So it’s one, go in without restraint, kill as many as you want, but get it over with quickly. That’s the Trumper approach. The other establishment approach is do accept some restraints, do accept the restraints that have been imposed by the movements through Congress over the years, still be willing to kill tons of civilians. You know, Abrams backed a genocide in Guatemala for God’s sake. But the idea is yeah, the establishment types say: We will accept some constraints and also when we do our oversees actions we will seek allies. We won’t try to do it naked and alone. We’ll try to get the Europeans on board. We’ll try to get other countries in the region in question on board. In some cases, we’ll even try to get the UN on board. They put a big priority on that. You know, the W. Bush people made that a major priority for their massively murderous moves into Iraq for example.
So, they say yeah, we’ll accept all those things but also once we get in there, we’ll essentially stay forever. That’s the establishment approach. So Trump: go in quickly, kill massively, come home. The establishment: go in with some restraints along the edges, but do an occupation that lasts indefinitely. It’s just a tactical difference really. If though, Trump decides to take a gamble and go into Venezuela with an actual invasion in hopes of having a Panama-style or Granada-style action where the U.S. troops get in and out very quickly and they come home and there’s a big celebration and Trump has a political spectacle and he gets actually praised for it on CNN and MSNBC, if Trump takes that chance, he will get a lot of establishment support. They’ll all be riding in the same bus in the victory parade. So that’s an important fact to realize. Trump does not represent a fundamental departure when it comes to the foreign policy approach but he does represent a different tactical approach within the context of larger war crimes and one that has not prevailed in recent years. Because you know, both Obama and Bush Jr. certainly did things on the establishment tactical model.
JS: Alright, Allan, we’re going to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
JS: Allan Nairn is a longtime investigative reporter. You can find him on Twitter at @AllanNairn14.
JS: In addition to the incendiary situation right now on the ground in Venezuela, there has also been intense debate among progressive political forces and activists around the world on how to respond to this current situation and the looming threat of regime change. There are certainly strong forces backing Nicolás Maduro and they believe that he has carried on the Bolivarian revolution of the late Hugo Chávez. There are other progressives who are opposed to U.S. regime change, but believe that Maduro has mismanaged Venezuela and that — as a result of internal corruption and hostile U.S. intervention — the country has been run into the ground.
Maduro succeeded Hugo Chavez after his death in 2013, and was re-elected in a snap election in May of 2018. The United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States all challenged the legitimacy of the election. But what’s seldom mentioned is that Maduro did win a clean election back in April of 2013. In fact, shortly before that elections, the U.S.-funded Carter Center and former president Jimmy Carter said Venezuela’s electoral system was among the best in the world. In fact, the United States was the only country in the world that did not recognize those elections. Now, the 2018 election was certainly not up to those 2013 standards, but it’s not exactly clear that Maduro’s victory was possible only through fraud.
Regardless, the Venezuelan economy has plummeted in recent years while Maduro has been in power. He’s been accused of being a corrupt dictator, a tyrant, a strongman. Even staunch allies of former president Hugo Chavez have publicly criticized Maduro for his role in the economic devastation, rampant corruption, mismanagement of Venezuela’s oil wealth, and hyperinflation. The situation for many Venezuelans is a lack of access to basic food, products, medical services. Up to 3 million have fled the country. At the same time, it’s intellectually dishonest to place all of the blame on Maduro. The United States has enforced devastating economic sanctions on the country and has constantly intervened to support opposition forces, including violent ones. The former UN rapporteur Alfred de Zayas recently slammed the U.S. sanctions as “crimes against humanity” under international law.
To dig into the complexity of this situation in Venezuela, I’m joined now by two people. Roberto Lovato is a writer and journalist. He’s currently teaching at UCLA in California. And Eva Golinger is a former adviser to Hugo Chávez. She’s an attorney specializing in immigration and international law. Back in 2005, Eva wrote the book “The Chávez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela.” That book detailed CIA and other U.S. government efforts to overthrow Hugo Chávez. Her most recent book which was just published is called “Confidante of ‘Tyrants:’ The Inside Story of the American Woman Trusted by the U.S.’s Biggest Enemies.”
Eva, Roberto, welcome to Intercepted.
Roberto Lovato: Glad to be here, Jeremy.
JS: Eva Golinger, welcome back to Intercepted.
Eva Golinger: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.
JS: Eva, let’s begin with you. Who has the legitimate claim to the presidency right now in Venezuela, in your view?
EG: It’s a complicated question. It’s not a simple answer precisely because there are arguments on both sides that there have been electoral processes that weren’t completely legitimate. It could date back to the time of when Hugo Chávez died in early 2013. He had just won re-election in 2012 and immediately went into a surgery that ended up being terminal. He never recovered from it. And so, the opposition’s claim is that he was never present to actually be inaugurated into that term and what the government did was they inaugurated him in his absence using their majority in their legislative body — the National Assembly which had the authority to do what they did which was to essentially say an inauguration in absence was permitted in that circumstance. However, he never recovered. So that’s part of their sort of, fundamental baseline here of why ever since it’s been illegitimate. Nonetheless, there were elections called and Nicolás Maduro did win after Chávez’s death. He won by a marginal percentage under two points.
Newscaster: The protege of Hugo Chávez celebrates a narrow election victory. With 50.7 percent of the vote, Nicolás Maduro was declared the winner of Venezuela’s presidential election on Sunday. But as his supporters welcomed the news, the opposition refused to accept the results.
EG: The opposition contested it and declared fraud and ever since, you know, protested violently. In 2015, under the same electoral process, that’s when Juan Guaidó was elected as a legislator in the National Assembly. So, if we take those processes and say OK, despite this sort of unusual circumstance of Chávez’s death, Maduro was elected president, legitimately. Juan Guaidó was elected amongst other opposition politicians. The re-election came up last year.
Newscaster: Officials say Maduro won 68 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election.
Newscaster: The main opposition boycotted the vote calling it illegitimate. Voter turnout was only at 46 percent but President Maduro says it was a popular victory.
EG: I mean, in general, there is a basis of argument on the opposition side, but on the government side, Maduro won the election and took office according to how the government planned out and mapped out that inauguration that just took place January 10th.
JS: Roberto, let’s remind people that in 2013, when Maduro won his election, it was recognized by I believe every country in the world except the United States and Jimmy Carter’s organization which is funded by the U.S. actually said that the election system in Venezuela, at the time, in 2013, was among the best in the world. That same question to you, Roberto, who has a legitimate claim to the presidency right now?
RL: As far as I understand, under international law, there’s this thing called sovereignty. And this thing that prevents governments like that of the United States from entering into another government’s territory and selecting a president via tweet. I look at what’s happening and I think about 2002. Let’s forget 2013 for a moment. Let’s go back to 2002 and something called the Carmona coup and the Carmona Decree which essentially led to the one-day selection of Pedro Carmona Estanga to become the president of Venezuela. He governed for less than 24 hours and in the process managed to do something like what they’re doing now which is dissolve the state, right? The Carmona Decree dissolved pretty much every major body of the government and reconstituted it, you know, abolished the constitution.
JS: You’re referring to that period when there was the coup against Hugo Chávez.
RL: Correct, the coup against Chávez in 2002 which we know from declassified government documents, the United States officials were very aware of and meeting with. Just like we just heard this weekend that there were meetings between Guaidó and U.S. officials weeks prior to what’s happening now.
JS: Eva, you actually were responsible for getting a lot of these documents on U.S. covert and overt campaigns against Hugo Chavez during this time —
EG: On that coup, precisely.
JS: — That Roberto Lovato is talking about.
EG: Right, using the Freedom of Information Act. What Roberto is referring to is the fact that when Chávez is deposed, he’s actually kidnapped, taken out of Caracas, and held on an island off the coast of Venezuela. And this head of the Chamber of Commerce, Pedro Carmona swore himself in as president and proceeded to dissolve all of Venezuela’s democratic institutions — was immediately recognized by the Bush administration. So there are those similarities in the sense that it’s Washington first to recognize a de facto head of state in Venezuela that is obviously favorable to their interests.
Another factor that’s similar that has come out in recent days, some U.S. officials, regarding what Roberto was referring to an article that came out. I think it was AP about these secret meetings between Juan Guadió and Washington officials. Back in that time, there was one of the declassified documents I got under FOIA was from the state department referring to the fact that another piece had fallen into place when they had finally gotten the military on board together with the civil society to overthrow Chávez. So in this case, of course, it’s different because there wasn’t actually a military coup as there was in 2002. There was a sort of proclamation made in public and when we go back to the question of legitimacy — who’s the legitimate president of Venezuela? Again, you know, obviously Nicolás Maduro is the president of Venezuela. He has control of all the institutions. He’s in power. He is the recognized president of Venezuela, head of state by a majority of countries in the world.
And at the same time, Juan Guaidó was recently elected on January 4th as the president of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s congress. Under certain articles in the constitution, if there’s a vacancy in the presidency which is what they’re trying to say, then you know, there would be this new election would be called by the head of the national assembly. And so, that’s essentially what they’re saying. So far it seems as though Juan Guaidó is not saying “I am the president of Venezuela from now until whenever.” He’s saying “I’m the president, interim president in charge so we can convene elections.” And it’s supposed to be within a 30-day period. Although, there’s no evidence that that would happen precisely because the military is standing strong behind Maduro.
RL: And what’s really fascinating is the kind of, the war for the political imagination that’s happening right now. I think on that front, Guaidó and the opposition clearly have the lead on Maduro. Guaidó and the opposition with U.S. support have blasted the political imagination — not just of Venezuela but of the entire world — with this idea that they are kind of, this new, young, hip, even opposition that’s leading democracy when in fact, they are playing the same old game of destabilization that has more than 20 years, millions upon millions of dollars in U.S. aid, overt and covert operations on the part of the United States government, and economic sanctions that the UN special rapporteur on Venezuela, Mr. Zayas said could amount to “crimes against humanity.”
JS: And I wanted to ask, Eva, is the — explain the case that Maduro and his supporters are making for why things are the way they are right now in Venezuela, economically? I mean, the UN says around 3 million people have fled the country since 2015 and that the numbers spiked in 2018 and are continuing. What is the case that Maduro and his supporters make for rejecting Guaidó and the U.S. position in general?
EG: Well, I mean, there’s no question. It’s open and explicit that this is a U.S.-backed regime change operation.
JB: Here in Washington, we’ve been looking at ways to disconnect Maduro from the financial resources he needs to pay the military and otherwise keep himself in power. That could be a very effective way, we think, of helping the legitimate government.
EG: And clearly, when I made reference to the, parallels to the 2002 coup against Chávez and this concept of another piece falls into place, the State Department official who said it a few days ago was referring to Juan Guadió. That finally the opposition had found a new face that would unify them and be able to actually execute, you know, some kind of regime change with a figurehead because that’s what they were missing. All of their leadership has been pretty much burned because they’ve been engaged in violent attempts to overthrow the government in Venezuela for the past approximately two decades and backed by the U.S. And there’s been millions of dollars annually channeled in to back up their political parties, their NGOs to essentially, feed the conflict in Venezuela.
At the same time of course, there has been this widespread mismanagement and corruption in the Maduro government particularly. I would say that, I mean, if we look back you know, things were fairly prospering in Venezuela under Chávez. They started to take a downturn when he got ill in 2011 and then after his death into 2013. Part of it was because during the time period of his illness, there was essentially a lapse on decision-making in the economic realm. And there were decisions that had to be made in order to salvage Venezuela’s oil dependent economy that didn’t take place. And also, there was a lot of embezzlement taking place in that time period anticipating Chavez’s death and possibly the downfall of the government.
So, when Maduro’s government takes over, they made very poor decisions regarding Venezuela’s currency. The inflation, it’s unbelievable. The currency is essentially worthless and it’s true, there’s been a wide scarcity of basic food products, medicines, you know. The healthcare system that was flourishing under Chávez providing healthcare to all Venezuelans, I mean, I took part in that. I lived there for nearly 12 years. It was an excellent system especially compared to the United States, you know. It’s now practically inexistent. And I mean, the same — there were all kinds of subsidized food markets run by the government stocked with products. Most of that is gone.
Now people are dependent on food boxes the government supplies which in turn has led to that kind of loyalty. And especially because as of two years ago, you acquire them with a card, an ID card that the government requires you have which also registers who you vote for. So, I mean, that goes into the whole concept of were the elections legitimate or not? And again, this has nothing to do with the fact that this is a U.S. regime change operation, you know, that I highly oppose. But at the same time, we cannot forget, you know, on the ground what’s taking place. And yes, it should be a sovereign decision of Venezuelans who is their head of state. It should not be imposed from abroad but there are serious complex difficulties facing Venezuelans today.
JS: Roberto, I wanted to ask you about that very issue. Would you say that this is entirely made by the United States or is this a combination of factors, outside intervention and mismanagement or corruption in the Maduro administration?
RL: Oh, it’s clearly a combination of factors. They find themselves between the rock of internal corruption, mismanagement and overdependence on oil and the hard place of U.S. sanctions, U.S. legal moves to isolate Venezuela in the global community like they did with other governments like Iraq. When you look at the imbalances in the reporting, with respect not just to economics but to violence, right, the violence. Clearly, the Maduro government has killed people in the opposition but so have the members of the opposition killed Chavistas and other non-Cnavistas. There’s been bombings. There’ve been bombings of childcare facilities, hospitals, television stations, assassination plots.
EG: Well, there was also a drone attack on Maduro just last year.
Newscaster: This was the moment when two bomb laden drones allegedly exploded during a military parade in Caracas on Saturday.
Newscaster: Security agents quickly surrounded President Nicolás Maduro and hustled him off the reviewing platform. Meanwhile, Venezuelan soldiers marching in formation broke and ran in all directions.
EG: It was a confirmed attempt. Even the United States, you know, condemned that attempt and violence in the country. Also, then again calling for Maduro to step down or whatever. But the point is that it’s the same opposition. Juan Guaidó is a part of that same opposition. All of these figureheads we’re now seeing with this discourse of democracy and a peaceful transition in Venezuela being recognized around the world as the true Democrats in Venezuela, they have a very public history of violence, of anti-democratic actions, and of consistent attempts to overthrow the government through these attacks, violent attacks, assassination attempts and now, what we’re seeing is the coup. But I think this is just the culmination that now has come to a head under the Trump administration that has clearly taken the most aggressive stance and has decided I think, mainly spearheaded by Marco Rubio, that time is up. That this is the path forward and that they are clearly ready to intervene militarily in Venezuela.
JS: And Roberto, you have Vice President Mike Pence basically spent the entirety of last week calling for the overthrow or removal of Maduro. He had his “Hola, I’m Mike Pence” moment.
MP: Hola, I’m Mike Pence. The Vice President of the United States.
JS: Elliott Abrams who is a known war criminal from the dirty wars in the 80s in Central Latin America and beyond.
EA: This crisis in Venezuela is deep and difficult and dangerous and I can’t wait to get to work on it.
JS: You have John Bolton who is now the National Security Adviser who is one of the most risible neocons on the planet.
JB: We’re going to announce sanctions against Petroleos de Venezuela Sociedad Anónima or PDVSA, as it’s known by its Spanish acronym, the state-owned oil monopoly.
JS: Why does the United States — cause it’s not about democracy and it’s not about anti-corruption — why does the United States want Maduro out of Venezuela, Roberto?
RL: I want to speak a little bit about Elliott Abrams because I was in El Salvador back and forth at the time that Abrams was appointed and throughout his tenure as one of the key architects to Central America policy that left 80,000 dead in El Salvador, about 200 to 250,000 dead in Guatemala, and thousands more killed in Nicaragua by the Nicaraguan Contras backed by the Reagan administration. And I myself was pursued by death squads in El Salvador and in Los Angeles, California. You can look it up in The L.A. Times. When you have somebody like Elliott Abrams, you do have the Trump administration putting the United States on war footing. And I would encourage those liberal progressives who are kind of buying what the media’s telling them uncritically about the situation in Venezuela to really open up their political imaginations and use their intelligence to look at the history of destabilization programs in the United States and to ask themselves, look, am I comfortable being on the same side as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Honduras, Hernandez —
JS: Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
RL: Benjamin Netanyahu. I mean, you have this festival of the extremist to fascist-right taking hold of the geopolitical situation to define Venezuela something other than what it really is. As we’ve been discussing here in great detail. Yet, too many liberals and progressives are here getting cozy with Mike Pence, Donald Trump, and all these other really rogue figures. So, Mr. Pence’s comments come as no surprise to anyone that’s followed U.S. policy in Venezuela or in Central America or in all of Latin America. This is clearly within the context of U.S. policy to intervene in Latin America. Again, why are peers in the media even, are curating this story to make it seem like good opposition versus bad Maduro is beyond me.
JS: Who has benefitted the most in Venezuelan society? What sectors of society are backing Maduro because they have something to show for it?
EG: The ones who have most benefited are private businesses.
JS: From Maduro’s time in office?
EG: Absolutely, because they’ve been engaging in price gouging. They’re responsible in large part for the hyperinflation in the country. They are making massive profits. Those who have been running the currency schemes to sell dollars at these elevated prices. They’ve been making millions and millions of dollars.
JS: So who are all these people demonstrating in support of Maduro?
EG: Well, those are mainly who are lower class, who are still dependent on the government, but also those who are ideologically driven to support a government that they believe sees them, visualizes them, gives them visibility in the country and is still prioritizing social needs over profits. I mean, nonetheless, I mean, like I said, under Chávez that seemed to be a reality. It’s transformed under this government because the corruption is so widespread.
JS: Eva, explain what we know thus far about the U.S. move and if that seems to be indicating that removal of Maduro including by potential military intervention is on the table. What do we know right now about this aspect of the story, the U.S. covert and overt campaign to have Maduro removed?
EG: Essentially, the naming of Elliott Abrams to oversee this operation is a direct sign that they are pursuing a military operation. Most likely some kind of special forces or you know, something they think would be clean and simple but it will not be that way.
JS: You’re talking about U.S. special operations forces.
EG: Absolutely, I mean, remember Venezuela is a very geo-strategically located country. It has a maritime border with Puerto Rico. There are U.S. military air bases in Curaçaoand Aruba which are less than 50 kilometers off Venezuela’s western Caribbean coast. They’ve got Colombia right on their western border in a highly, you know, it’s a jungle area. And we know, anyway that the U.S. has a very heavy military presence in Colombia, especially with special forces and intelligence. And then you have —
JS: They’re just there to stop those drugs from coming in though, Eva. They would never be involved with this.
EG: On the eastern side, you have Brazil that’s now with Bolsonaro with a right-wing government that’s already opened the doors to U.S. military presence. And you have Guyana which also has a U.S. military presence. So, you know, I think fundamentally that presence exists and actually, the plans have been drawn up from a long time ago because the U.S. generally has contingency plans on a military level in case of any instability. They’ve been foreseeing and actively encouraging this in Venezuela for a long time. However, the discourse has become increasingly more hostile. There have been statements now coming out, you know, Mike Mulvaney, others near Trump saying he’s definitely considering very likely a military option in Venezuela.
John Roberts: Venezuela, is the U.S. ruling out military action if Maduro refuses to cede leadership?
Mike Mulvaney: I don’t think any president of any party who’s doing his or her job would be doing the job properly if they took anything off the table.
EG: So I do believe that they’re heading that way precisely because Maduro shows no sign of budging, you know. And they’re proceeding to say this is it, there’s no alternative. I don’t think that the Maduro government would fall into any kind of trap where they would engage in a confrontation with the United States because they know precisely, even though they have a half a million military strong in their armed forces, and they have advanced weaponry that they’ve acquired primarily from Russia over the past few years. They certainly could combat to defend themselves but they’re not superior to the U.S. force. They know that.
I think this aggressive hostility and explicit statements, you know, and impending military intervention is designed to intimidate Venezuela’s military that up till now is backing Maduro but we could see signs of that weakening over the next few days. And that could be the final piece that falls into place for a regime change. I don’t believe that Maduro and his inner circle would walk out peacefully. I think that there would be further violence in the country and bloodshed which is unfortunate. I personally believe there should be a negotiated solution. There should be an electoral process despite the fact that Maduro is the legitimate president currently of Venezuela. He was elected. He runs the state but because of this level of confrontation is unsustainable for Venezuelans — for the sake of the country — there should be an electoral process and Venezuelans should be given another opportunity to choose their candidates. But at the same time, there are some that have been imprisoned that should be released that were imprisoned and were alternative candidacies, including from the Chavista side such as Miguel Rodriguez Torres who was building an alternative from within Chavismo and was imprisoned two years ago to basically suppress his movement.
JS: Roberto, I wanted to ask, what is your response to people on the left who say this is not helpful to have this conversation when you Elliott Abrams, Mike Pence, John Bolton, Donald Trump and the entire force of the U.S. empire with Maduro and Venezuela in their crosshairs right now?
RL: I would say nonsense. There’s nothing, in what I have said, that prevents us from doing the one thing that is within our power here in the United States which is mount a powerful anti-war movement, as we always have, over every U.S. intervention. You can be anti-war and critical of things like corruption and mismanagement of the Venezuelan government. So, there’s nothing that separates criticism and analysis of the actual situation in Venezuela from mounting a powerful and necessary anti-war movement that, by the way, should rise up. Because just look at the way not just Marco Rubio, but look at Dick Durbin and all of these Democrats, even Bernie Sanders out there talking about Maduro this and that and joining hands with some of the most extreme, nefarious elements in modern U.S. history in what will probably be a bloodbath in Venezuela.
JS: And you just mentioned Marco Rubio — and Eva, I want you to weigh in on that same issue of the critique coming from some sectors of the left — but, just to clarify for people Marco Rubio of course, a senator from Florida. He last week tweeted: “Biggest buyers of Venezuelan oil are Valero Energy and Chevron. Refining heavy crude from Venezuela supports great jobs on the Gulf Coast. For the sake of these U.S. workers, I hope they will begin working with the administration of President Guaidó and cut off illegitimate Maduro regime.” Marco Rubio is openly saying, basically, that these big energy companies should be supporting a coup effectively against Maduro.
EG: I mean, I have no doubt whatsoever that this is a regime change operation, that they plan actively on using military force if the Venezuelan armed forces do not betray Maduro and depose him themselves. You know, I just wanted to say that I’ve been labeled a traitor. I’ve been labeled an opportunist for speaking out and being critical of some of the policies and behavior of Maduro. I have written an op-ed in The New York Times where I did compare him to Trump because I believe there are a lot of characteristics that are similar with the erratic behavior. You know, I think it’s a failing on the left that there is no space for criticism.
The fact that in Venezuela, a party that was built, essentially the socialist party of Venezuela built under Chávez’s leadership with the aim of being this inclusive party where they could be self-critical became quickly hierarchical. Anyone who criticized was immediately either expelled or labeled a traitor. All of us who have been critical from within the left have been labeled and termed in that sense. You know, we’re now aiding in the opposition and in the regime change effort. That is just blatantly false and does a disservice to really trying to build an honest and successful movement of social justice. There has got to be a space for debate and dialogue and criticism and certainly, especially in these very tense and sensitive moments we must be able to speak honestly. Otherwise, people will not understand.
This is not an issue of black and white. This is not the opposition’s bad, Maduro’s great. Or Maduro’s bad and the opposition is great. And amongst those two sides, there are millions of Venezuelans whose lives are at stake who are really just looking for a government that’s going to care for their basic needs and a country that defend itself from foreign invasion. You know, they’re open to relations with the whole world but not imposition. And I think a majority of Venezuelans do oppose active U.S. intervention but they do want out of this crisis.
JS: Eva Golinger, thanks for coming back to join us on Intercepted.
EG: Thank you for having me.
JS: Roberto Lovato, thank you very much for joining us.
RL: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: Eva Golinger is a former adviser to Hugo Chávez. She is also the author of “The Chávez Code.” Her most recent book, just published, is “Confidante of ‘Tyrants.’”
And Roberto Lovato is a writer and journalist, currently teaching at UCLA.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, you can log on to TheIntercept.com/join to join the more than 3,000 other people who have already come on board as sustaining members. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.