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A Coup in Progress? Trump Moves to Oust Maduro & Install Pro-U.S. Leader in Oil-Rich Venezuela

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The Venezuelan government is accusing the United States of staging a coup, after President Trump announced that the U.S. would recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s new leader. Trump made the announcement shortly after Guaidó, the new head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself president during a large opposition protest. The European Union and the Lima Group have joined the U.S. in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president. Mexico is the one dissenting nation in the Lima Group to still recognize Maduro. We speak with Miguel Tinker Salas, professor at Pomona College, who says, “This is unprecedented not only in Venezuelan history, but in Latin America.” He is the author of “The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela” and “Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government is accusing the United States of staging a coup, after President Trump announced the U.S. would recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s new leader. Trump made the announcement shortly after Guaidó, the new head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself president during a large opposition protest.

JUAN GUAIDÓ: [translated] I swear to assume all the powers of the national executive as interim president of Venezuela, to secure an end of the usurpation and a treasonous government, and to have free elections. If it is to be, let God and country reward us; and if not, let God and country demand it.

AMY GOODMAN: Venezuela’s sitting President Nicolás Maduro, who was recently sworn in to a second 6-year term, responded to Trump’s decision by breaking off relations with the United States.

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] I am announcing to the free people and countries of the world that, as the constitutional president, head of state, head of government, in fulfilling my duties, to which I swore before the people to respect, and have respected, the independence, sovereignty and the peace of the republic, I have decided to break diplomatic and political relations with the imperialist government of the United States. … To sign the diplomatic note giving the entire diplomatic and consular personnel of the United States of America in Venezuela 72 hours to leave the country, signed in the name of the people of Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: The European Union and the Lima Group have joined the U.S. in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president. Mexico is the one dissenting nation in the Lima Group to still recognize President Maduro. Russia, China, Turkey, Cuba and Bolivia are among the other nations expressing support for Maduro.

The United States has been ratcheting up pressure on Venezuela in recent weeks, ever since Guaidó became head of the National Assembly and led an effort to declare Maduro a usurper, in an effort to remove him from office. On the day of Maduro’s recent inauguration, January 10th, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Guaidó to congratulate him on his election victory to head the National Assembly. Then, national security adviser John Bolton announced, quote, “The United States does not recognize Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro’s illegitimate claim to power,” unquote. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence posted a video message to the people of Venezuela.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Hola. I’m Mike Pence, the vice president of the United States. And on behalf of President Donald Trump and all the American people, let me express the unwavering support of the United States as you, the people of Venezuela, raise your voices in a call for freedom. Nicolás Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Pence posted that video a day before Guaidó announced that he was the interim president.

The U.S.-led effort targeting the oil-rich nation of Venezuela dates back two decades, since the late Hugo Chávez became president in 1999. In November, John Bolton accused Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua of being part of a “troika of tyranny.” In September, The New York Times reported the Trump administration conducted secret meetings with rebellious military officers in Venezuela to discuss overthrowing Maduro. In August, Maduro survived an assassination attempt when he was attacked by a small drone. He accused the U.S. and Colombia of being involved in the plot.

All of this comes as Venezuela is facing a staggering economic crisis, caused in part by falling oil prices and broad U.S. sanctions. According to the IMF, inflation is over a million percent in the last year, the highest rate in the world. There are widespread reports of food and medicine shortages. The United Nations estimates 3 million Venezuelans have left Venezuela since 2015, resulting in what the U.N. has described as an “unprecedented migration crisis” in Latin America.

We’re joined now by two guests. In Claremont, California, Miguel Tinker Salas, professor at Pomona College, author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela, as well as the book Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know. And in Geneva, Switzerland, we’re joined by Alfred de Zayas, former U.N. independent expert who visited Venezuela in 2017. He’s professor of law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Miguel Tinker Salas, let’s begin with you, as a Venezuelan, as a professor here in the United States. Can you talk about what just has transpired, the United States recognizing a new president of Venezuela—not elected, he declared himself this in the streets—and Venezuela now saying they are cutting off ties with the United States?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Good morning. This is unprecedented, not only in Venezuelan history, but in Latin America. The only similarity, as a historian, that I can recall was with the Bay of Pigs, in which part of the U.S. plan in landing troops in Cuba was to declare a government in exile, and then that government in exile, up in arms, would request U.S. military assistance, and the U.S. would then land troops. This is a scenario that likely could play out in Venezuela. It depends on what Juan Guaidó decides to do.

There is no way that Maduro can accept another sovereign, another person, declaring to be president within the country. So this is an effort to escalate the crisis, to polarize the conditions further. It is the equivalent, essentially, of Nancy Pelosi saying that Donald Trump is a usurper, he is corrupt, he has laid off 800,000 federal employees, and I’m going to declare myself president of the U.S., and she would be recognized by France, Germany and England. It’s unprecedented.

And again, I don’t see how it resolves any of the fundamental problems that exist in Venezuela. It doesn’t address the economic issues. It doesn’t address the social issues, and simply closes the door to dialogue to negotiations, which I think are the only solution possible in Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday night, Vice President Mike Pence was interviewed on Fox Business by Trish Regan.

TRISH REGAN: Let me ask you about this, because the president’s policies have been seen by some as to be somewhat isolationalist. And he would say, “Listen, we don’t need to bother being in places that we don’t need to be. It’s a waste of our time, our money, our resources, etc.” But he does think it’s important, and you think it’s important, to take a stand on Venezuela. Why?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, President Trump has made no secret of the fact that he is not a fan of American deployments all over the world and American entanglements. Our first president, George Washington, had the same concerns. And yet, President Trump has always had a very different view of our hemisphere. He’s long understood that the United States has a special responsibility to support and nurture democracy and freedom in this hemisphere.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Pence talking about the difference when a country is in this hemisphere. Professor Miguel Tinker Salas, your response?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well, the reality is, Donald Trump has no experience with Latin America. He can sit there and coddle dictators in Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, who’s calling for elections in Venezuela when his own elections were corrupt and, even from the perspective of U.S. observers, were largely illegal; with Jimmy Morales in Guatemala—a president who separates families and their children at the border, a president who will not even consider asylum claims by Latin Americans who are fleeing conditions created in part by U.S. policy in Central America.

The reality is that this is a politically driven agenda, largely by Miami elites, by Marco Rubio, by Mike Pompeo, by John Bolton. And again, as your lead-in indicated, in November, with the declaration of a wish to eliminate what they call the “troika of tyranny,” it was clear that they were going to go after Venezuela, after Cuba and after Nicaragua. And this is now the realization.

It’s no coincidence that this all happened yesterday. Yesterday was the anniversary of the ouster of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez on January 23rd, 1958. So this was very much of an orchestrated event. We saw the build-up for it in the weeks before that with Guaidó’s declaration, Trump’s recognition, then the Lima Group, which had already made a declaration earlier.

I should point out that Mexico and Uruguay are not a part of it, and Mexico and Uruguay have offered to negotiate, to provide the context for dialogue in Latin America, as has Spain and Portugal. So I think it’s important to understand that there are alternative voices out there that recognize that what is happening is an infringement on sovereignty and on the independence of Venezuela, and is against—I would interpret it—against the U.N. Charter, against the OAS and against international treaties, where, again, countries do not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, the OAS has recognized Guaidó as the new president.

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well, we should understand this is Mr. Almagro, who, as head of the OAS, has been the greatest effort—has made the greatest effort to try to have regime change in Venezuela. And the reason why the Lima Group was created is they couldn’t get the OAS to condemn the government of Venezuela, so that the conservative governments within the OAS created the Lima Group as a pressure against the government of Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, a reporter asked President Trump if he’s considering military options in Venezuela.

REPORTER: You made an announcement about Venezuela today. Some administration officials told reporters on a conference call that all options are on the table. Are you considering a military option for Venezuela?”

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re not considering anything, but all options are on the table.

REPORTER: Does that mean you’re considering, though, a military—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re just—all options, always. All options are on the table.

AMY GOODMAN: “All options are on the table.” Professor Tinker Salas?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well, that obviously includes the military threat. And again, what we’re talking about is intervention.

And there’s a long history of intervention in Venezuela. It starts with the very—the discovery of oil in 1922, when there was a symbiotic relationship between the oil industry in Venezuela and the U.S. government and the U.S. society and the U.S. economy. In many ways, the progression of oil industry and oil linked the two countries together. It also meant that the U.S. engaged in a fundamental nation-building project in Venezuela, trying to create institutions that would be similar to the U.S. and that would favor U.S. foreign investments and the repatriation of profits—the only country in Latin America by the 1940s that allowed for foreign capital. But when Venezuela became an exporter of oil, it also became a net importer of food. It created a tremendous dependence.

But the greatest intervention of the U.S. has been the sale of the American way of life, of the consumer value, of the notion that Venezuela was an exceptional country. And it created this dependence to the U.S., to the oil industry, that is now fracturing the country because much of that dependence is to blame for the lack of other economic development in the country, along with government mismanagement, improvisation and, of course, U.S. sanctions, which have worsened conditions in Venezuela, because it prohibits—it impedes the country from access to credit, from being able to renegotiate its debt. So, again, part of that intervention is multifaceted.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask—you look at three countries. 2003, the U.S. invades Iraq, an oil country in the Middle East. Right before, President Trump [sic] coins the term or utters the term of one of his speechwriters—President Bush coins the term “axis of evil,” as they vilify Iraq before the invasion. Go back to 1953, the oil-rich country of Iran: The U.S. funds, the CIA funds a coup d’état against the democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh. And then, of course, you have, right now, in Venezuela—this is an oil-rich country in Latin America. You have John Bolton, the national security adviser, who is now calling Venezuela one of the three “troika of tyranny.” Are you concerned that at this point, with President Maduro kicking out the U.S. from Venezuela, saying within 72 hours, and now the U.S. saying, no, they won’t go, that the U.S. is setting Maduro up for some kind of situation that will lead to U.S. intervention?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: There’s no doubt that this is a tactical pincer movement in which they’re trying to corner Maduro. They know that he has to respond in some way. If he doesn’t respond, he loses support among his own base. He loses credibility. He loses legitimacy. So, in that sense, they know that they can manipulate.

Pompeo has already announced that the U.S. diplomats will not leave. If that’s the case, then it sets up a situation for a crisis that’s reminiscent of Grenada, when the U.S. utilized the medical students in Grenada against the government of Maurice Bishop, who had been killed, as a pretext for an invasion. That’s always the threat. That’s always the challenge. Remembering what Trump said, that all options are on the table, so that there is that concern. Again, that would lead to bloodshed. That would lead to destabilization. And that would be the worst-case scenario.

The best-case scenario, again, is for cooler heads to prevail, for dialogue, negotiations, for the Vatican, for Mexico and Uruguay to provide the context for a dialogue in Venezuela that would lead to some sort of peaceful transformation and peaceful solution.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Miguel Tinker Salas, a Pomona professor and author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela. When we come back, we’ll go to Geneva, Switzerland, to talk with a former U.N. independent expert who visited Venezuela for the United Nations. This is Democracy Now! Back with Alfred de Zayas in a minute.

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Former U.N. Expert: The U.S. Is Violating International Law by Attempting a Coup in Venezuela

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