WASHINGTON — If you want to hear the true story of impoverished, starving Venezuela — and what is behind the dramatic and hopeful events of the last week — come along with me.
It is 1992. In the lush mountains outside Caracas, the distinguished defense minister, Gen. Fernando Ochoa, is telling me soberly how the Venezuelan military misread the recent attempted coup.
Now it is 1998. It is the day of new presidential elections, and I find myself in the beautiful apartment of the flashy comandante Hugo Chavez, who by then had become a pop celebrity, with his smart red beret and jaunty bearing.
Chavez and I talked for several hours before he went off to become president. Strangely, he seemed to have nothing special to do. Who was he? “I am not a communist, not a fascist,” he said at one point, emphatically. “I am a democrat. We don’t copy other models; we invent them!”
At that time — given what we knew of him — I guessed he would rule as a man of the far democratic left. But when I saw him again, five years later, Chavez was almost a raging godfather!
The press was now his enemy. He was the victim of a “psychological war.”
Since its much-heralded revolution against the military dictatorship in 1958, Venezuela had been ruled by two parties that called their system “democracy,” but used the word fraudulently as they robbed the country blind.
This week, the young head of the National Assembly, 35-year-old Juan Guaido, emerged to challenge Maduro’s socialist “paradise” — legally and legitimately, using a clear part of Venezuela’s constitution. Twenty nations of the world backed Guaido.
Maduro did not immediately take any of his usual violent actions. And forces in Washington and Miami, it turned out, had been quietly working on a plan to back Guaido for some time. Plus, China had given some $65 billion in energy-related loans to Venezuela, only to come to realize the country was unable to produce hard currency.
What’s even more revealing are the details of the plan to back Guaido. The Trump administration has been working with other nations of the hemisphere on a diplomatic plan, primarily non-military and non-traditionally interventionist, to change the regime in Venezuela from within. They are using the power of millions of dollars of blocked Venezuelan funds in U.S. banks, plus American oil investments in Venezuela.
Finally, this week the U.S. imposed sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, an act that could cut off the country’s main source of currency, since the U.S. is the only creditor that pays in cash.
— Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs.