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The Looting of Venezuela

How U.S. foreign policy impoverished the country—and boosted corporate profits

Who was the leader of Venezuela from 2019 to 2022? To officials in Washington and much of the American press, Juan Guaidó—a little-known figure with the backing of U.S. officials under Donald Trump and Joe Biden and tepid support in Venezuela—was the country’s legitimate president during that time. Shortly after Venezuela’s longtime president Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, was sworn in for a second term in 2019, Guaidó improbably declared himself the rightful leader of Venezuela. To skeptical journalists and observers, he was a punch line. “Juan Guaidó has been declared the rightful leader of Iowa,” tweeted New Republic climate reporter Kate Aronoff on February 3, 2020, referring to then presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s decision to claim victory in the Iowa caucuses before any of the vote had been reported.

By 2022, then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, addressing the U.S.-hosted Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, appeared not to remember Guaidó when a reporter asked her why “the person that you recognize as the democratic leader in Venezuela” was not in attendance. In January 2023, Axios reported that, although White House and State Department spokespersons declined to say directly whether Washington still recognized Guaidó, a senior State Department official had confirmed that the United States no longer considered him the country’s leader.

Corporate Coup: Venezuela and the End of US Empire
by Anya Parampil
OR Books, 400 pp., $25.00

For those with no connection to or expertise on Venezuela, it can be difficult to independently assess what’s happening there. Whether you consider Maduro the country’s elected leader and Guaidó a U.S.-backed puppet or agree with Vice President Mike Pence’s 2019 assertion that Maduro is a “dictator with no legitimate claim to power” depends on which news sources, officials, and journalists you trust. In 2019, The Washington Post reported, “The United States, Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Canada and nearly four dozen other countries recognize Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela,” adding, “Russia and China, however, continue to back President Nicolás Maduro, who is widely accused of preventing free and fair elections.” Yet, according to an interactive map of “Degrees of Diplomatic Recognition of Guaidó and Maduro,” published on the Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights site in 2020, “While 57 countries have recognized Juan Guaidó since January 2019, many countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia”—that is, most countries—“have quietly continued normal relations with Maduro diplomats in spite of the political crisis.” That list included “major world democracies such as Mexico and India, neither of which have recognized Guaidó as rightful president of Venezuela.”

In her book, Corporate Coup: Venezuela and the End of US Empire, Anya Parampil rejects what she considers the Western imperial line on Venezuela. Parampil pushes back on the dominant narrative that Venezuela’s problems in recent years result from the corruption and mismanagement of its left-wing government. In her view, foreign governments working in collaboration with foreign business interests are to blame for most of the country’s woes; her thesis is that “corporate conglomerates and their government collaborators in Washington and London have worked to install a puppet regime in Caracas by any means necessary.”

Corporate Coup covers a lot of ground. It moves fluidly from the rise of Chávez, Chavismo, and Maduro to the farcical semi-rise and precipitous fall of Guaidó; U.S. sanctions regimes targeting Venezuela; propaganda wars; and the efforts of foreign corporations to extract wealth from Venezuela via sophisticated legal maneuvering. Parampil, who goes out of her way to defend Chávez and Maduro, is not an impartial narrator. Her book is a gripping and well-documented account of American interference in Venezuelan politics, but it also reveals how often reporting from and on Venezuela is run through a partisan filter. There is little consensus, and curious readers must piece together fragmented and sharply opposing views of the country and its complexities to get a fuller picture of both Venezuelan politics and U.S. policy.

Chávez was elected Venezuela’s president in 1998 and served until he died of cancer in 2013, with the exception of two days in 2002 when he was ousted in a short-lived, U.S.-backed coup. Maduro, who once suggested the CIA had orchestrated Chávez’s death (unlikely, according to major media outlets, but not impossible, given the CIA’s record), was then elected. Washington had an antagonistic relationship with both men. Chávez called George W. Bush “the devil” while addressing the United Nations; Bush administration officials suggested the popular and democratically elected Chávez was a dangerous autocrat.

Relations didn’t improve much in the Obama years. Barack Obama signed an initial set of U.S. sanctions against Venezuela in 2014, kicking off a crisis that has driven around one-quarter of the country’s 2014 population to leave in recent years. In the last 10 years, the United States has crippled Venezuela’s oil sector; frozen government bank accounts; placed limits on the country’s ability to issue new debt; and seized fuel from countries attempting to come to Venezuela’s aid. This triggered hyperinflation and led to shortages of food (oil, butter, meat, milk, rice, and coffee) and other necessities, such as toilet paper and medicine. America’s stated reason for imposing sanctions was to discipline Maduro for cracking down on anti-government riots. And according to an executive order Obama issued in March 2015, Venezuela posed an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States—a strange claim at odds with Obama’s own assertion, one month later, that his administration did not believe that “Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government.”

Trump expanded America’s “economic war” on Venezuela: In 2018 and 2019, he imposed more stringent rounds of sanctions targeting individuals, companies, and countries doing business with Venezuela, as well as the Maduro government’s assets in the United States. The Biden administration has continued to impose some sanctions while considerably easing others on Venezuela’s oil sector, authorizing the country to produce and export oil to chosen markets without limitation for a six-month period if certain conditions are met. (In Washington’s view, they haven’t been; the Biden administration recently revoked a previously issued license authorizing transactions with Venezuela’s state-owned gold mining company and warned that it would reimpose sanctions on the country’s oil sector in April unless Maduro permits what the United States is characterizing as free and fair elections.)

Skeptics like Parampil believe the sanctions were meant not only to harm Venezuela’s economy, but to prevent its left-wing government from functioning and punish those who support it. The fact that Washington did not stop at sanctions lends credence to this view; when U.S. officials failed to dislodge Maduro via economic pressure, they tried to gin up support for Guaidó. And in 2020, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier-turned-private security contractor led Operation Gideon, a poorly conceived attempt to overthrow Maduro that left Maduro in power, eight of those who participated in the operation dead, and dozens captured and jailed.

Corporate Coup proposes an additional motive for the hostilities initiated under Obama: to smooth the way for British and North American companies to swoop in and “rob Venezuela of its most prized international asset”: Citgo Petroleum, the U.S.-based private subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company.

Beginning in 2011, a Canadian mining company called Crystallex engaged in a legal battle with the Venezuelan government over the Las Cristinas gold mine. Crystallex had signed a contract in 2002 to develop the mine. But during the financial crisis of 2008, the Venezuelan government moved to expropriate the mine, and it canceled the contract entirely in 2011. As a result, Crystallex took the government to court. The Washington, D.C.–based International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes tribunal, which administers most international investment cases, is an officially independent entity affiliated with the World Bank, which Parampil describes as “overwhelmingly partial to Western financial interests in practice.” When ICSID ordered Venezuela to pay Crystallex $1.2 billion plus interest in 2016, the country did not comply.

In 2019, a U.S. court ruled that Crystallex could collect its ICSID award by seizing shares of Citgo. Under court rulings that allow one company to satisfy a debt by seizing shares of another, those shares are not transferred directly. Instead, the court auctions off a portion of the indebted company’s assets to raise funds to pay the claim. According to Corporate Coup, the court would oversee “the fire sale of roughly $1.2 billion worth” of Citgo’s assets, “including gas stations, oil pipelines, oil terminals, and refineries throughout the United States—in order to satisfy Venezuela’s debt to Crystallex.” The result would give oil giants like Shell, BP, and ExxonMobil a valuable opportunity to expand their share of the U.S. oil market by absorbing Citgo’s infrastructure.

The book argues that Guaidó’s attorney general, José Ignacio Hernández, aided this effort by appearing as an expert witness and testifying on the company’s behalf in the Crystallex case in 2017. As Parampil reported in The Grayzone, Hernández had been paid to testify as an expert witness against Citgo in a previous suit, when he accepted $163,000 from OI European Group BV, a subsidiary of one of the world’s top glass producers that sued Citgo in 2013. She also observes that Carlos Vecchio, Guaidó’s ambassador to the United States, had worked for ExxonMobil while Chávez was attempting to expel foreign corporations from Venezuela.

The ability of companies like ExxonMobil and individuals like Hernández to profit at Venezuela’s expense is what Parampil means by “corporate coup.” Guaidó’s U.S. backers in business and government handed him control over some of Venezuela’s most valuable assets. Guaidó returned the favor by attempting to shrink the country’s state-owned oil company and carve out a larger role for private companies in its oil industry. This was consistent with the wishes of then U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who pushed to open Venezuela back up to foreign operators and investors in 2019, telling Fox Business that U.S. officials and major corporations were collaborating on how best to exploit the country’s oil reserves for their mutual benefit.

Ultimately, however, Parampil puts the suggestion that enriching multinational corporations was Washington’s primary goal all along in the form of a question: “Was the Corporate Coup enabled by Washington’s recognition of Guaidó merely a side effect of its failed Venezuela regime change gambit, or its intended result?”

It’s a complicated argument that boils down to a familiar refrain: War, economic and otherwise, is fought primarily for profit. Maduro’s opponents may despise him on ideological grounds, but opposition members and U.S. officials also stand to benefit financially and professionally from his ouster. Corporate Coup is persuasive on these points in part because it evokes such a strong sense of déjà vu—we’ve seen this playbook before, not just in Venezuela but in countries around the world, from Nicaragua to Iraq.

If the book doesn’t conclusively prove that corporations directed Washington’s Venezuela policy, it certainly demonstrates the high degree of overlap between the interests of multinational corporations and those of U.S. and Venezuelan opposition officials. Yet some of Parampil’s other observations are less convincing. She is quick to dismiss criticism of Maduro and his allies as unfair, exaggerated, or petty in comparison with U.S. interference. She has a tendency to quote opposition sources when they agree that U.S. sanctions were primarily to blame for Venezuela’s economic crisis but notes only in passing their assertions that Maduro was mismanaging the country’s finances.

More puzzlingly still, she refers to former Fox News host Tucker Carlson as the “premier critic of Washington’s foreign policy establishment in US media.” Really? That her book has received advance praise from Carlson (“Anya Parampil is one of the most insightful people I’ve ever met. I’m proud to say I’ve stolen much of my understanding of the world from her”) makes one wonder: How can Parampil square her praise of Carlson as a “fervent anti-interventionist” with his 2019 call for war with Mexico or his 2023 suggestion that the United States should send an “armed force” to Canada to “liberate” the country from its elected leader, Justin Trudeau?

Like her colleagues at The Grayzone, the primary outlet for which she writes, Parampil strongly supports national sovereignty and opposes U.S. interventionism, sometimes to the point of siding with authoritarian regimes. (She has claimed, for instance, that the United States, not Putin, started Russia’s war with Ukraine: “Putin initiated the beginning of the end of a war that started with the 2014 US coup in Ukraine.”) She is no fan of Hillary Clinton (onetime advisee of her father-in-law, Sidney Blumenthal); she classes Clinton, along with Mike Pompeo and Antony Blinken, as an “interventionist zealot.” Maduro attracts Parampil’s sympathy and respect. While she allows that many of Chavismo’s “foreign sympathizers” now see Maduro as “more authoritarian, less committed to revolutionary ideals, and less equipped to manage Venezuelan affairs than his predecessor,” she insists that this perspective overlooks the obstacles that Maduro has faced, confronted with “sustained, turbulent insurgency” and “sophisticated tactics of financial warfare.”

It’s clear that Parampil loves Venezuela. She wrote Corporate Coup after making three extended reporting trips there between 2019 and 2021. Yet her narrative occasionally veers into cartoonish stereotypes: American officials are invariably stupid or duplicitous, Venezuela’s problems are overstated or fictitious, and Guaidó supporters are ultra-privileged tools of the United States. In February 2019, a caravan of trucks packed with boxes from the U.S. Agency for International Development was preparing to drive from the Colombian city of Cúcuta to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuelans. In Parampil’s telling, they were actually preparing for “a provocative incursion into Venezuelan territory.” Parampil and her journalist husband, Max Blumenthal, spoke with a number of suspiciously prosperous-looking pro-Guaidó Venezuelans gathered to cheer on the trucks. The men, Parampil writes, “appeared to have wandered off the country club and into the city streets,” while the women “modeled salon-treated hair and powdered faces that melted in the Caracas heat.”

Despite widespread reports of food scarcity in the country, Parampil is skeptical of Venezuelans who say they are suffering. One woman claims to be hungry and to find food prices, particularly that of kale, prohibitively high. Parampil isn’t buying it. “One by one, lipsticked women in designer sunglasses spun their yarns of agony,” she writes, adding, “It was clear they were accustomed to foreign reporters believing anything they said.” When a “heavy-set woman with a coiffed gray bob” claims to be without food or medicine, Parampil has had it. “Yes, Venezuela’s economy had been ravaged,” she writes, adding, “Yes, Venezuelans were struggling to purchase food and going hungry. Yes, the country was unable to import basic supplies and medicine. But if there was starvation in Venezuela, this crowd was not afflicted by it.”

Perhaps not. But it’s unclear why Parampil spends so much time insisting that many Venezuelans have plenty to eat and so little time seeking out those who don’t. Since she acknowledges that some Venezuelans were going hungry, it would be useful to hear directly from them whom they blame for their plight, whether it’s Maduro, anti-Chavista thugs, conniving U.S. officials, cruel U.S. sanctions, or some combination thereof.

Anger at vicious and stupid U.S. policies that benefit multinational corporations more than people has understandably ballooned in the years since the Iraq War and Occupy Wall Street. One of the challenges the global left now faces is how to mobilize a large number of people around a common agenda—one broader and more durable than defeating an unpopular candidate, defending the lesser of two evils, or stopping a particular war.

Corporate Coup makes a strong case for the desirability of a new world in which power is distributed more equitably among nations, but it’s less clear-eyed about the path to building one. People rarely rise up spontaneously and move in the hoped-for direction, especially when they sense they are being told only part of the truth. Building a society that is open and democratic as well as equitable requires willingness to criticize perceived allies, whether Maduro or, for Americans fearful of Trump regaining power, Biden. Acknowledging the deficits—and in some cases, the errors and abuses—even of people and causes you support is essential to making the strongest possible argument in their favor.

Despite its focus on the immiseration of Venezuela, Corporate Coup ends on a hopeful note. “The people I’ve met in Seoul, Damascus, the Gaza Strip, Caracas, and beyond do not hold the US public responsible for the crimes of their ruling elite,” Parampil assures readers. But the problem is that members of the ruling elite do not see even the worst U.S. foreign policy blunders as “crimes”—and they are perfectly willing to overrule those who do. Democracy is ideal unless or until it interferes with U.S. objectives, and that applies to the majority of Americans calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, as well as to the Venezuelans who elected Chávez and Maduro.

Corporate dominance is, as Parampil argues, a central impediment to true democracy in the Unites States and abroad. A democratic foreign policy is undoubtedly possible, but it will require Americans in particular to do more work and less wish-casting. Corporate Coup convincingly documents how disastrous U.S. policy on Venezuela has been for Venezuelans, Americans, and the world at large. It’s much harder to enlist enough people and exert enough pressure to bring about a compelling alternative.