Is CIA Fomenting Unrest to Challenge
Referendum in Venezuela?
Amy Goodman interviews James Petras
Democracy Now, November 30, 2007
James Petras, Professor Emeritus
of Sociology and Latin America Studies at Binghamton University,
New York. He is author of a number of books including "Social
Movements and State Power."
JUAN GONZALEZ: In Venezuela, tens of thousands
of protesters marched through the capital city of Caracas Thursday
to oppose a series of constitutional changes proposed by President
The referendum is coming to a vote on
Sunday. Chavez plans to lead rallies in favor of the reforms today.
Venezuelans will vote on sixty-nine proposed changes to the nation's
constitution that include eliminating presidential term limits,
creating forms of communal property and cutting the workday from
eight hours to six.
Thursday's demonstration was the biggest
show of opposition to the constitutional overhauls so far. On
Wednesday, hundreds of students clashed with police and the Venezuelan
national guard. Most surveys say the outcome of the December 2nd
vote is too close to call.
AMY GOODMAN: This week, President Chavez
claimed the US government is fomenting unrest to challenge the
referendum. His foreign minister went on television late Wednesday
revealing what he said was a CIA plan to secure a "no"
victory. The confidential memo was reportedly sent from the US
embassy in Caracas and addressed to the director of Central Intelligence,
James Petras is a former professor of
sociology and Latin American studies at Binghamton University.
He is author of a number of books, including Social Movements
and State Power. His exclusive article in "Counterpunch"
is called "CIA Venezuela Destabilization Memo Surfaces."
Professor Petras joins us now from Binghamton, New York.
Welcome, Professor Petras. Can you start
off by talking about what exactly this memo is? Have you actually
seen it? What is it reported to say?
JAMES PETRAS: Well, I picked it up off
the Venezuelan government program. It describes in some detail
what the strategy of the US embassy has been, and most likely
the author, Michael Middleton Steere, who's listed as US embassy,
may be a CIA operative, because he sends the report to Michael
Hayden, the director of the CIA.
Now, what the memo talks about essentially
is, first of all, the effectiveness of their campaign against
the constitutional amendments, and it concedes that the amendment
will be approved, but it does mention the fact that they've reduced
the margin of victory by six percentage points. The second part
is more interesting. It actually mentions the fact that the US
strategy is what they call a "pincer operation." That's
the name of the document itself. It's-"pincer" is "tenaza,"
and it's, first of all, to try to undermine the electoral process,
the vote itself, and then secondly, once the vote goes through,
if they are not able to stop the vote, is to engage in a massive
campaign calling fraud and rejecting the outcome that comes from
the election. So, on one hand, they're calling a no vote, and
on the other hand, they're denouncing the outcome if they lose.
Now, the other part that's interesting
about this document is what it outlines as the immediate tasks
in the last phase. And that includes getting people out in the
street, particularly the students. And interestingly enough, there
is a mixture here of extreme rightists and some social democrats
and even some ex-Maoists and Trotskyists. They mention the Red
Flag, Bandera Roja, and praise them actually for their street-fighting
ability and causing attacks on public institutions like the electoral
But more interestingly is their efforts
to intensify their contacts with military offices. And what they
seem to have on their agenda is to try to seize either a territorial
base or an institutional base around which to rally discontented
citizens and call on the military-and it particularly mentions
the National Guard-to rally in overthrowing the referendum outcome
and the government. So this does include a section on a military
And it complains about the fact that the
groups under its umbrella or its partners are not all unified
on this strategy, and some have abandoned the umbrella operation
and, secondly, that the government intelligence has discovered
some of their storage warehouses of armaments and have even picked
up some of their operatives. And they hope in this that this is
not going to upset their plans.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, James Petras, this
is obviously a very explosive memo, coming just a few days before
the actual referendum. And while it certainly sounds like many
of the types of tactics that the CIA has used in prior international
adventures, has there been any confirmation whether this memo
JAMES PETRAS: Well, obviously, it's a
memo that the US will denounce. They always have this clause in
their operation that they should be able to have an out.
Secondly, the Venezuelans are very tolerant
of their opposition. The Chavez government has not expelled the
operative here, Michael Middleton Steere. There have been discussions,
I've gotten from my sources in Venezuela, in the foreign office
to expel this official, but they haven't actually taken that step.
And it goes along with this very libertarian outlook in Venezuelan
government. You know, many of the people involved in the overthrow
of the president, the military takeover for forty-eight hours
in 2002, many of them never were put on trial and never were arrested,
and they're back in action in this referendum. So law enforcement
regarding what would normally be called insurrectionary activity
in the United States-many of these people would have been locked
in Fort Leavenworth and the key thrown away-in Venezuela, the
golpistas, the people involved in coup planning and operations,
are having a second, third chance.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you, in this
country, the main focus has been, obviously, in the corporate
media on the attempt to do away with term limits for the president.
But this is a very extensive major reform of Venezuela's laws
or its constitution. Could you talk about the various other reforms
that are involved in this vote on Sunday?
JAMES PETRAS: Yes. One of them, and probably
one that's going to turn out the biggest votes for Chavez, is
the universal social security coverage for many of the street
vendors, domestic servants, other people that are in the so-called
informal sector, which covers up to 40% of the labor force. So
this 40% of the labor force will be covered now by universal social
The second thing is the thirty-six-hour
The third is the devolution of community
funds directly to local neighborhood organizations and what they
call communal councils, which incorporate several neighborhood
councils. They will be directly funded by the federal government,
instead of the money going through municipal and state governors,
where a lot of it is skimmed off the top. So there's another very
It also will facilitate the government's
ability to expropriate property, especially large areas in the
countryside that are now fallow and where you have hundreds of
thousands of landless agricultural and small farmers. So it's
a way of facilitating social change.
It also stipulates that the economy will
continue to be a mixed economy, with private-public, public-private
associations, partnerships, as well as cooperative property. The
cooperative property is largely an employment absorption sector.
It doesn't contribute that much to the GNP, but is seen as a way
of absorbing the large numbers of people in the unemployment or
These are some of the major provisions.
The government has argued, with some effectiveness, that in the
parliamentary systems you have indefinite terms of office. And
they mention in the case of England with Tony Blair being reelected
as many times as he wanted. They could have cited the President
Howard of Australia, who was elected innumerable times. And they
cite the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in
power for the last fifty years, with different prime ministers,
but at least an organization with an enormous capacity to be reelected.
So they don't see this as-they don't describe this as an unusual
happening, much more like a parliamentary system, rather than
a presidential system, though in this case-
JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you, are there
also some protections or new sections of the constitution dealing
with racial minorities and also with gender orientation?
JAMES PETRAS: There is guarantees, constitutional
guarantees, for women and homosexuals and especially Afro-Venezuelans.
Of course, Chavez himself is part-Indian, part-African and part-white.
So, essentially, Chavez has made racial equality, not only legally,
but in substance, a major point on his agenda. And I would say,
in my visits and conversations, that even among his middle- and
upper middle-class opponents, there is definitely a factor here
of race. This is going to be not only a class-polarized referendum,
but the race issue is prominent, and the right has emphasized
the fact that-in a very hostile way-that Chavez is of African
descent. And they have in the past put caricatures in their publications
depicting him as a gorilla. And when Mugabe of Africa, president,
visited, they had Chavez and Mugabe walking as if they were two
gorillas. And this is national newspaper; this isn't simply yellow-sheet
AMY GOODMAN: James Petras, we have to
take a break, but we're going to come back to this discussion.
Professor James Petrus is a Professor Emeritus of sociology and
Latin American studies at Binghamton University in New York. We're
talking about Venezuela. We'll also talk about the latest in Bolivia
and Chavez negotiating with the rebels in Colombia and Uribe,
the Colombian president, cutting that off. This is Democracy Now!
Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Professor Emeritus
James Petras-taught at Binghamton University, Latin American studies,
in New York-talking about what's happening now in Latin America,
particularly focusing on Venezuela. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah. Professor Petras,
I'd like to ask you, you're a longtime respected observer of the
developments in Latin America and the left in Latin America. And
I have a question about this, the issue of the term limits. Many
people who support Chavez are still worried about this attempt
to eliminate term limits and create a possible lifetime presidency,
in that it seems to once again focus on the individual, rather
than on building the kinds of organizations and structures that
can, in essence, change a society, transform a society, the emphasis
on the cult of the individual, as opposed to building organizations
and political parties that will carry on after that leader has
gone. Your response to that?
JAMES PETRAS: Well, President Chavez has
been very supportive of local organizations. I mentioned these
community-based, neighborhood-based organizations. He has also
launched a political party, not a single party state, but a party,
the party of socialists, Venezuelan Socialist Unity. And so, he's
making big attempts to institutionalize the basis of his policies,
and he's encouraged new trade unions and also peasant organizations.
One of the serious problems is that when
Chavez's popularity rose, a great many individuals, politicians,
jumped on the bandwagon from very diverse backgrounds, from conservatives
to Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Marxists, etc. And this
has been a problem for two reasons: one, it has eroded internal
coherence in their ability to carry through and implement some
of the policies that they've passed; and second of all, there
is a great many people with a career of corruption that have entered
into the Chavista movement, particularly in administrative posts.
And Chavez is very aware of this, and
he's aware of the hostility of many of his rank-and-file supporters
to many of the especially elected officials in the municipal and
even state governments. So he's assumed political leadership with
the support of his mass base in order to counteract some of these
internal problems that they have, and it may have unfavorable
consequences in the future. But in the short run, it allows for
at least some resonance in the executive branch with the popular
And this is a very hot issue now, because
the government-not exactly Chavez, but the ministers have not
intervened to end the scarcity of some basic commodities. There
has been a campaign by retailers and commercial outlets and distributors
at hoarding and creating artificial scarcities; despite the fact
the government is importing millions and hundreds of millions
of dollars in foodstuffs, they're not getting onto the shelves.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Petras, I wanted
to ask quickly about Bolivia, the proposed constitutional changes
there. On Wednesday, opposition groups staged a general strike
in six of Bolivia's nine provinces against the government-backed
changes. Bolivian President Evo Morales says the plans will give
Bolivia's indigenous and poor communities a greater voice in running
the country. The proposals will go before a national referendum
in the coming months. This is President Morales speaking from
the presidential palace in La Paz.
PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] I
hope that tomorrow morning these five governors are here to have
a dialogue. I hope that in five or nine of our departments that
we can lay down new social policies together for Bolivia, because
this is a government for all Bolivians, not a government for just
one sector of them, as some of our companions have said.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Petras, Bolivia
and Evo Morales, do you see similarities with what's happening
JAMES PETRAS: No, because Morales has
adopted a policy of conciliation with the elites, hoping that
he could construct what he calls Andean capitalism, in which there'd
be subsidiary benefits for the Indian communities, largely creating
greater degrees of autonomy. But the autonomy issue has been taken
up by the states, the rightwing states, and it's become a trampoline
for a secessionist movement. And I think these measures of autonomy
have been reinterpreted by the extreme right, and they have assumed
the leadership in five of the nine provinces. And they're heading
for a major political and constitutional confrontation.
And let us be absolutely clear what this
is all about. The oil and gas wealth is precisely in the states
that the right controls, and they are in favor of secession, in
which they will control Bolivia's wealth, even though they may
be less than a majority of the population. So this is just like
in the United States. This is the equivalent of the Confederates,
and they've been running roughshod in their states on opposition.
Let me give you just one quick example.
They have been assaulting the delegates at a constitutional convention.
The government of Morales has not intervened with the military
to protect these people. In fact, they're holed up now in a military
school, where they're carrying on their constitutional deliberations.
And we've had other cases of assaults on Indian groups in Santa
Cruz, in Beni and other provinces that are associated with the
secessionists. And it's both a racial issue once again, as well
as an oil and gas issue, and it's all hung around the issue of
a secession, a white-dominated confederacy in which there will
be no land reform. The wealth will continue to be shared between
foreign corporations and the oligarchy.
AMY GOODMAN: James Petras, I want to thank
you for being with us, Professor Emeritus of sociology and Latin
American studies at Binghamton University.
JAMES PETRAS: Keep up your good work,
AMY GOODMAN: Thanks very-
JAMES PETRAS: It's extremely helpful to
all of us researchers and scholars and students of Latin American
and world affairs.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you for your
work, as well, Professor James Petras in Binghamton.