The United States, Venezuela, and 'democracy promotion': William I Robinson interviewed

William I Robinson Jonah Gindin
3 August 2005

The instruments of United States foreign policy have changed since the 1980s. Its interests and objectives remained more or less the same after the fall of communism in 1989-91, but the mechanisms for obtaining them have continued to evolve.

This evolution draws on thinking and planning done in what turned out to be the later years of the cold war. From the early 1980s, during their campaign against Sandinista-led Nicaragua, US policymakers began experimenting with a strategy of “promoting democracy”. This, however, is a euphemism equivalent to “national security” or the “war on terror”, says William I Robinson, professor of sociology at UC-Santa Barbara, who has tracked the idea and the policy since the 1980s.

Robinson worked as a journalist, and later an editor, with the Agencia Nueva Nicaragua in 1980-87, before becoming an advisor on US foreign policy to the Nicaraguan foreign ministry from 1987-90. He witnessed at firsthand US electoral intervention in the Nicaraguan poll of 1990.

Robinson documented all this in his 1992 book, A Faustian Bargain: U.S. Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era, and then set out to theorise this whole shift in US foreign policy, and to look at it around the world. Those efforts culminated in his 1996 book, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S. Intervention, and Hegemony.

In a March 2005 interview with Venezuelaanalysis.com, ex-CIA agent Phil Agee drew a parallel between US intervention in the 1990 elections in Nicaragua and the current application of the same model of intervention in Venezuela.

Many US organisations are involved in Venezuela – including the National Endowment of Democracy and its sub-foundations, the International Republican Institute, the Center for international Private Enterprise, and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center; the NDI and IRI have offices in Caracas.

These groups – along with the US Agency for International Development (Usaid), and a private company on contract from Usaid called Development Alternatives International – are funding Venezuela’s political opposition.

Perhaps the best-known example is the “civil society” group Súmate, whose director Maria Corina Machado was invited to meet President Bush at the White House on 31 May – an honour Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan president, has yet to receive. But Súmate is only the tip of the iceberg: many political parties and partisan NGOs receive grants from these and other channels as part of a multi-faceted US attempt to unseat Hugo Chávez and destroy his “Bolivarian revolution”.

Robinson writes in Promoting Polyarchy:

“Unlike earlier US interventionism, the new intervention focuses much more intensely on civil society itself, in contrast to formal government structures, in intervened countries.” This new political intervention “emphasizes building up the forces in civil society of intervened countries which are allied with dominant groups in the United States and the core regions of the world system.” Thus, civil society plays a key role in “democracy promotion” strategies as “an arena for exercising domination.”

The latest test of Chávez’s popularity is local elections on 7 May, part of an electoral cycle that will culminate in the next presidential poll scheduled for late 2006. With Chávez’s approval-rating at around 70.5%, the US regime-change machine will be hard at work using whatever avenues present themselves. “This is a full-blown operation … to overthrow the government of Hugo Chávez”, says Robinson. “The U.S. state is going to assess all the different instruments” it has available to it in pursuing that end.

* * *

Jonah Gindin: Is the promotion of democracy inherently imperialist?

William I Robinson: The promotion of democracy is inherently not imperialist; on the contrary, it is inherently revolutionary, progressive and wonderful! But the people who are promoting democracy are social movements in the global north and global south, solidarity movements in the north, mass movements in the south. What the United States is promoting, in Venezuela or elsewhere, is not democracy. United States foreign policy has absolutely nothing to do with promoting democracy; what it is doing is inherently imperialist.

But my argument in no way suggests that democratisation movements around the world are creatures of foreign policy; rather, it says that changes in US foreign policy and new modalities in US intervention are meant specifically to challenge, undermine, limit, and control the extent of social and political change in countries where masses of people – including the elite – are struggling for democracy.

In this perspective, US political intervention under the banner of “democracy promotion” is aimed at undermining authentic democracy, gaining control over popular movements for democratisation, keeping a lid on popular democracy movements, and limiting any change that may be brought about by mass democratisation movements so that the outcomes of democracy struggles do not threaten the elite order and integration into global capitalism.

If democracy means the power of the people, mass participation in the vital decisions of society, and democratic distribution of material and cultural resources, then democracy is a profound threat to global capitalist interests and must be mercilessly opposed and suppressed by US and transnational elites.

What is new about the strategy of “democracy promotion” is that this opposition and suppression is now conducted under the rhetorical banner of promoting democracy and through sophisticated new instruments and modalities of political intervention.

Jonah Gindin: How can one tell apart NGOs and human-rights groups genuinely dedicated to promoting social, economic, and human rights from the NED-fed variety?

William I Robinson: I think what’s going on is that as every country and community in the world is turned upside down by the penetration of capitalist globalisation, older forms of rule – authoritarianism, dictatorship – are delegitimated and challenged from below. At that point, the United States attempts to establish control of the type of political change that’s going to take place, and to make sure that certain groups get into power and others are marginalised.

Thus, if the US moves into a country like Kyrgyzstan or Ukraine, all the different groups involved in the democratisation struggle are going to come under US purview; some will be favoured by being brought into US programmes through funding, technical liaisons and advisors, while others will be excluded.

In no way are all these different groups stooges of US foreign policy; but those struggling for a completely different vision, one contrary to US and global capital’s interests are going to be marginalised if they can’t be bought. US operatives, and their local allies and agents, will set up alternative or parallel organizations that are more powerful, more moderate, more centrist, more elite-oriented. These organisations and NGOs are going to receive international media attention and funding, and will be able to liaise with other forces abroad.

There are broadly three categories of groups. First, those that are clearly instruments of US foreign-policy objectives, groups trying to limit democratisation and control change; second, those pushed to the margins; third, those the US cannot or has no interest in marginalising or challenging, but which it attempts to co-opt and moderate.

Often there are well-intentioned people with a legitimate political agenda of democratisation, who – because structural or on-the-ground circumstances don’t allow anything else – become sucked into US and transnational elite foreign-policy operations.

Also on Venezuela, Hugo Chàvez, and the “Bolivarian revolution” in openDemocracy:

Ivan Briscoe, “The invisible majority: Venezuela after the referendum” (August 2004)

Ivan Briscoe, “All change in Venezuela’s revolution?” (January 2005)

The global frontline

Jonah Gindin: Where does the US seek to “promote democracy”?

William I Robinson: There are two different categories of “democracy promotion” programme.

The first category is programmes in countries already ruled by elites and in the camp of global capitalism. There, political intervention programmes seek to bolster the neo-liberal elite, to achieve this elite’s control over the state and to cultivate its hegemony in civil society. Cultivating this neo-liberal elite and its domination is the political dimension that complements the economic dimension, which is neo-liberal structural adjustment and integration into the emerging global capitalist economy.

This type of programme has been conducted in dozens of countries around the world. Its flip side is to isolate and discredit popular, nationalist, revolutionary and other progressive forces that may pose a challenge to the stable domination of local pro-US elites or neo-liberal regimes.

The second category of “democracy promotion” is the overthrow of regimes the US disfavours or the creation of a “transition to democracy” in cases where Washington sees “regime change” as necessary for the country’s stability and continued integration into global capitalism.

Haiti is one country that Washington has sought to destabilise in recent years through “democracy promotion”. The groups and individuals now in power in Haiti participated in the destabilisation of the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide; they were cultivated by US “democracy promotion” programmes dating back to the late 1980s and undertaken continuously right up to the March 2004 US coup d’état.

In other cases, countries have been targeted for a “transition to democracy” – that is, a US-supported and often orchestrated changeover in government and state structures. South Africa and eastern European countries fell into this category in the 1990s, as does the current situation in Iraq.

Jonah Gindin: What is the connection between the National Endowment for Democracy and the US government?

William I Robinson: There are close links. The fact that the NED receives its funding from Congress is not the most direct. NED operations are designed in the state department and the White House, often in coordination with the CIA; and everything is undertaken in liaison with local US embassies. The officials put in charge of these operations are typically engaged in a revolving door relationship with the US state; they move in and out of other government positions.

This is a battle over global civil society, and it’s heating up, because there’s no place left in the world that has not been integrating very rapidly into the global system. Venezuela is one of those places at the frontline of this battle.

The overt funding channels established through NED operations, which even then are not entirely above ground, generate an infrastructure of contacts, networks, and channels of influence, that are then available for covert funding and operations. It’s a pattern we see everywhere. In Nicaragua around the 1990 elections, for every dollar of NED or Usaid funding there were several dollars of CIA funding. We know that much from the tip of the iceberg we were able to uncover.

The NED is not the only organisation involved in this kind of intervention, conducted under the umbrella of the US state department and the executive. Many other branches of the US state are dedicated to promoting “democracy”, and other countries are setting up similar branches as well.

I think the weakness in progressive forces internationally is to see the political dynamic in the world today as an effort at US empire. The story then becomes “the US against the rest of the world”, and that’s a grave mistake. A key aspect of globalisation is the rise of a transnational elite that shares an interest in attempting to preserve the current global capitalist order, in defending it and extending it; this elite also shares the view that “democracy promotion” is vital to advance and stabilise this global capitalist order.

There might be tactical or strategic differences in how to do that – over Iraq, for example. In Venezuela we see the same thing: western Europe, Canada, and most Latin American governments would like to see Chávez out of power and an elite order restored, but differ about how to go about it.

The US strategy has largely backfired so far. So there are tactical and strategic differences, but there is a commonality of interest among the leading capitalist states.

Sincerity and self-deception

Jonah Gindin: Do the academics and policymakers behind the “democracy promotion” strategy genuinely believe that they are promoting genuine democracy?

William I Robinson: Antonio Gramsci once pointed out that people don’t have a false consciousness – they have a contradictory consciousness, due to their lived experience. But intellectuals – who are never free-floating, and are always attached to the projects of dominant or of subordinate groups – do have a false consciousness.

Perhaps Gramsci was giving the benefit of the doubt to these intellectuals. There are many respectable and well-intentioned academics from the “first world” who trumpet the new modalities of US intervention conducted as “democracy promotion” and others who deceive themselves (intentionally or otherwise) into believing they can participate intellectually or directly in US political intervention in order to somehow steer it into an acceptable foreign policy.

Some, perhaps many, academics who defend US “democracy promotion” might be called organic intellectuals of the transnational elite; opportunists and mercenaries who know before whom they need to prostrate themselves in order to secure funding and status in the halls of global power. Others are well intentioned. But many first world intellectuals bring an academic colonial mentality, an arrogance of power and privilege, to their “study” of the global south.


Venezuela as example and threat

Jonah Gindin: How serious is the US “democracy promotion” strategy in Venezuela?

William I Robinson: This is a massive foreign-policy operation to undermine the Venezuelan revolution, to overthrow the government of Hugo Chávez, and to reinstall the Venezuelan elite to power. Within the elite, this operation seeks to cultivate a particular transnational group which, once back in power, can proceed to systematically integrate Venezuela into global capitalism.

It is important to emphasise that anywhere where US foreign policy is operating, “democracy promotion” operations are going to be part of a larger foreign-policy strategy. Such operations will continue unhindered. And if more opportunities arise – for paramilitary action, for Venezuela to be isolated by international organisations like the Organisation of American States (OAS) or the United Nations, for Venezuela to be refused international financing – then the US will seize it.

The US state will assess all the different instruments it has, the international circumstances it faces, in order to deploy its resources to best effect. They will all be used in conjunction with one another: internal “democracy promotion” operations, funding of internal opposition groups, electoral intervention, constructing anti-Chávez forces in civil society.

All the available information suggests that there are massive and systematic operations against Venezuela – military, economic, political, and ideological – to crush the revolution and put the elite back in power.

I would never rule out the possibility of an invasion by US forces or an attempted assassination of Hugo Chávez. But I think it is more important to see this strategy against Venezuela as a campaign of attrition against the popular classes in Venezuela, to create a situation where sooner or later the poor majority “gives up” and simply decides that there is no point in continuing to resist the US campaign. This campaign of attrition attempts to exacerbate the economic hardships and deprivations of ordinary people, and to adroitly exploit mistakes made by the Bolivarian revolution.

Jonah Gindin: What makes Venezuela so dangerous to the US?

William I Robinson: Venezuela is the only genuinely revolutionary process in Latin America underway since Cuba in 1959 that is still alive today. The Nicaraguan revolution in 1979 was completely reversed; the Haitian revolution in 1990-91 suffered the same, although it’s still a problem for US foreign policy.

So Venezuela represents a living revolutionary process, and it comes at a strategic and critical moment for all of Latin America and the world, a period when the “Washington Consensus” – the whole neo-liberal programme – is moribund and in complete crisis.

What exactly is going to replace the neo-liberal model is not clear; that’s the current battle throughout Latin America and worldwide. In Venezuela, the revolutionary process promotes agrarian reform, redistribution of wealth, and using the country’s resources to challenge international economic structures. It is a tremendous example of this moment of transition from neo-liberalism to whatever’s going to come next.

The Bolivarian revolution is happening when the neo-liberalism dominant in the 1980s and 1990s is now discredited throughout the region. Venezuela could tip the balance and encourage social and political forces in Latin America to move beyond the Washington Consensus.

The fact that Venezuela is a major oil supplier is highly relevant. Oil is a key global resource, especially at a time when the middle east is in turmoil and Iraq’s huge supplies are ruptured.

The battle for global voice

Jonah Gindin: What are the problems facing a government like Venezuela’s that wants to counter an imperialism articulated as the promotion of “democracy”?

William I Robinson: There are two main ones. First, the US has been able to use its enormous power to shift to a new hegemonic discourse, a very powerful rhetoric of “promoting democracy.” Second, the failure of the left, a worldwide democratic failure, makes the challenge very difficult.

This is where a sheer difference of standards applies. If the Venezuelan government and Venezuelan organisations attempted to do in the United States what the US is doing in Venezuela, anyone involved in this programme in the United States (US citizens or foreigners) would be arrested, tried and jailed. In the US, no candidate or party can accept foreign funding, and no foreign government can make any donations at all to groups that are involved in electoral processes.

This is a catch-22 for any popular left or progressive force that wants to challenge the global order. A key fact of the global capitalist economy is that the flow of information is very tightly controlled and image-making is a very powerful instrument controlled by global media which is itself transnational capital, a massive global business. The most important thing for the Venezuelan revolution then becomes maintaining legitimacy and the mass base of support inside Venezuela, with the understanding that the strength of a revolution or a process of social change ultimately lies in its internal legitimacy and support. This is one reason behind the Venezuelan government’s Telesur broadcasting initiative in collaboration with three Latin American partners.

Jonah Gindin: Are there examples of successful strategies opposed to the rhetoric of “freedom,” “democracy,” “terrorism”? Do you see a strategy that Venezuela could pursue in this regard?

William I Robinson: Progressive forces worldwide, the global justice movement, must become aware of these changes in US policy and recognise what it actually means for the US to be “promoting democracy”. This should be part of our global agenda; the global justice movement, solidarity organisations, and social movements around the world. At the 2004 World Social Forum there was a workshop organised by Focus on the Global South specifically on exposing “democracy promotion” as a new, more sophisticated form of intervention. Progressive forces face a huge challenge in promoting meaningful social change in these circumstances.

Two examples of government action are illustrative here: Cuba and Nicaragua. In Cuba in 2003, there were seventy-five dissidents; among them, perfectly legitimate opposition forces, as well as simple instruments of US foreign policy – a very diverse group. But all were collaborating actively with these US programmes, which in just about any country in the world would be considered felonous activity; and all had met with James Casson, of the US special interests section in Havana.

If the head of the Cuban interests section in Washington DC came to California and worked with seventy-five US citizens who are against the invasion of Iraq or are part of the global justice movement, they would all be in jail now. So what did the Cuban government do? It said, in effect, “we’re not going to worry about international opinion. This is something which is illegal in any country in the world, it’s a blatant violation of Cuban and international law”; and it imprisoned the seventy-five. In fact, they got off lightly: they would have received much more serious sentences if that had taken place in the US, or in any other country in the world.

But the Cuban government lost a tremendous amount in public opinion internationally over this; they were condemned by the European Union and international organisations, and the US propaganda machine had a field-day. That’s an example of a government doing what is necessary to respect its own political system, in exchange for international public opinion, because they couldn’t go both ways.

Nicaragua in the 1980s was a no-win situation. The US had the military and economic power to continue to strangle Nicaragua to the point where the population couldn’t possibly stand any more. But the strategy that the Sandinistas had in the late 1980s was to pursue an electoral process and do everything they could to appease international public opinion and convince the world that they were a democratic force – which they were anyway.

That meant sacrificing a tremendous amount of internal legitimacy, and allowing things to happen on the ground in Nicaragua that didn’t take place in any other country in the world. The Sandinistas came away looking like wonderful democrats, good guys. Then they lost power, the revolution unraveled, and Nicaragua went back fifty years.

I think that exposing and denouncing and fighting against this new type of intervention should top the agenda of the global social justice movement and of international solidarity work. That would be the international public opinion battle.

A struggle in contraflow

Jonah Gindin: Why was the “democracy promotion” strategy not applied to Venezuela in the late 1990s when Chávez’s movement was building momentum?

William I Robinson: We need to avoid thinking of US policymakers as omnipotent because they’re not in the least. On the contrary, they tend to be permanently on the defensive, permanently reacting to social and political forces, often from below, that they can’t control, with very little foresight and very little understanding of the consequences of their foreign policy.

It would be a contradiction in terms for US policymakers to acknowledge the structural underpinnings of the challenges to an international order that they are attempting to promote and defend. So even strategic thinkers in the CIA and intellectuals recruited to help design US foreign policy cannot recognise basic realities; as a result they have very little foresight.

The US was already deeply involved in Venezuela in 1989 and the early 1990s with NED programmes, but they were programmes for a different scenario – one in which a pro-global, neo-liberal elite is in power and US polyarchy-promotion programmes were designed to ensure that civil-society organisations would be groomed to service this elite. I don’t think that US policymakers saw the massive discontent in Venezuela, or thought that different groups there would move towards a project that would challenge the US and the international order.

In the late 1990s, the US was trying to promote controlled political change in Venezuela, but at a much slower pace, because it wasn’t yet a crisis situation for them. It didn’t look like a situation where there was going to be a revolutionary upheaval against the regime – as in Ferdinand Marcos’s Philippines or Somoza’s Nicaragua, or in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.

In Venezuela the US lacked foresight, for reasons that are much more complicated: there was no clear left force which was leading a mass democratisation movement, and no clear dictatorship or single figure among the elite that could be the target of a popular upsurge.

Moreover, it was not clear to US policymakers that Hugo Chávez was going to end up being a revolutionary figure (I don’t even think it was clear to Chávez). If I were a US policymaker in 1997-98, leading up to the presidential elections, I would have said: “Chávez is a maverick, but he’s certainly not a Fidel Castro, or a Marxist revolutionary, and if he looks like he’s going to come into power we could certainly try and control him in other ways. This is not a revolutionary situation.” There was none of the panic about Chávez that there was about Nicaragua in 1978-79.

Where next?

Jonah Gindin: Venezuela is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2006. Is the Venezuelan anti-Chávez opposition more or less divided than the Nicaraguan anti-Sandinista opposition in 1989, prior to the US’s success in unifying it?

William I Robinson: I would say that the elite in Venezuela after the August 2004 referendum loss is probably weaker and more fractured relative to the elite in Nicaragua. By the late 1980s and the approach of the 1990 elections in Nicaragua, there had been a decade in which the US worked to reconstitute the elite that had been shattered after Somoza’s overthrow.

The US also could use military aggression and similar tactics in Nicaragua which it hasn’t been able to do in Venezuela. This aggression opened up internal space within in the Nicaraguan elite in ways that we’re not seeing in Venezuela.

Furthermore, there is some portion of the business community and elite in Venezuela which has decided to seek some kind of modus vivendi with Chávez. That’s something the US wants to avoid. So US “democracy promotion” operations in Venezuela will be aimed not only at unifying the elite, but also making sure no one collaborates with Chávez.

A full version of this interview, conducted by Jonah Gindin, is published in Venezuelanalysis.com

The international situation is also very different than in the late 1980s with Nicaragua. Then, the world economic crisis had given way to the “Washington consensus” and neo-liberalism, presenting the Sandinista government with an increasingly difficult international situation. In Latin America in 2005, there’s an opening in the global system for an alternative, which gives breathing-room to Venezuela.

US policy will continue. After the failed coup in April 2002 the US picked up the pieces and said: “now what do we have on the agenda, what’s the next event, what’s the next possibility, what’s the next angle we could work?” The next one was the oil industry shutdown from December 2002 to February 2003. That petered out, so next up was the referendum, eventually held in August 2004, which Chávez won with 59% of the vote.

Each time, the elite comes away more internally divided. But if Chávez is in power, or if the Bolivarian revolution continues, for forty years, for no matter how long, the US will still be plugging away here. It’s never going to end.

But neither is the resistance. We need to see what’s taking place in Venezuela both historically and also with respect to a new twenty-first century situation of globalisation, because historically this is nothing new: there are permanent outbursts from below throughout Latin America, which can actually manage to take state power and challenge the international system. Each time, the United States has organised a massive response. This is a global reality that engages everyone on the planet.

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