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Vijay Prashad discusses the extent to which US interest in Venezuelan oil and other natural resources is driving Trump’s policy of seeking regime change. The link is not that straight-forward, but it is there, says Prashad

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GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.

While the international community is lining up on different sides of the political and economic conflict in Venezuela, it is worth taking a step back to see what exactly is at stake in this conflict. National Security Adviser John Bolton recently gave credence to what many critics of U.S. foreign policy have been saying: that the conflict in Venezuela is about guaranteeing U.S. corporations access to Venezuela’s massive oil reserves.

JOHN BOLTON: We’re in conversation with major American companies now that are either in Venezuela, or in the case of Citgo here in the United States. I think we’re trying to get to the same end result here; you know, Venezuela’s one of the three countries I call the Troika of Tyranny. It’ll make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of the United States. We both have a lot at stake here making this come out the right way.

GREG WILPERT: Then there is President Trump himself, a number of years ago, argued that the U.S. should simply take the natural resources of the countries they invade.

DONALD TRUMP: But we have to go in to save these lives. We should do, on a humanitarian basis, immediately go into Libya, knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically, very effectively, and save the lives. When it’s all done, we go to the protesters who end up running the country. They’re going to like us a lot better than they will if we don’t do it. More importantly, we’re going to save lives. And we should then say, by the way, from all of your oil, we want reimbursement.

We should have said “We’ll help you, but we want 50 percent of your oil.” They would have absolutely said “OK, 100 percent.” In fact, they would have said “How about 75 percent?” So—and isn’t it sad? We could have had anything we wanted. We could have had 50 percent of those oil fields. You know, in the old days when you had a war it’s to the victor belong the spoils.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to discuss how oil fits into Venezuela into the sirens start over.

Joining me now to discuss how oil fits into the Venezuela equation is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is director of TriContinental Institute for Social Research, and chief editor of LeftWord Books. Thanks for joining us again, Vijay.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

GREG WILPERT: A few years ago, Venezuela was certified as having the largest oil reserves in the world; larger than those of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Iran, or any other country. This much is not in dispute. Still, those who say that this is not about oil say that international oil companies will be involved in Venezuelan oil production one way or another. Currently, for example, there are many international oil companies producing Venezuelan oil, such as Chevron, Total, Eni, and BP. So how would a successful overthrow of Maduro benefit these oil companies?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Frankly, this is and isn’t about oil. It should be said that there is immense overcapacity of oil at present. The 1 million barrels of oil a day that Venezuela had been providing for the world market could be easily substituted by the 1.8 million barrels a day of excess capacity coming out of Saudi Arabia. Oil prices are at extremely low levels; $53, roughly, a barrel. The estimates suggest that over the course of this year oil will remain between $53-$56 a barrel. This is about maybe half of what oil prices were only five years ago.

You know, it’s an incredible collapse. We already know that a lot of refining capacity is idle, because there’s overcapacity of production. There’s not as much demand coming from China, and so on. So the oil market is already relatively in disarray. And so there is no immediate urgency for the United States and its allies to, you know, grab Venezuelan oil.

I think, somewhat separately, the United States under Trump, Bolton and this team of people that have their eye on Venezuela, see that Venezuela is at a weak point, and they’re politically taking advantage of an economically difficult situation in Venezuela to push for a change of government. This is not, you know, something which is driven by economic need, although there is a long-term desire to control Venezuelan oil. They’ve made that clear. We don’t need to establish that. But what is actually happening is that the timing has been very propitious for the United States to strike Venezuela at its very weakest point, when oil prices are low. And given that Venezuela relies on export oil, this has hurt the country. The sanctions regime have idled Venezuelan freighters, which don’t have a place to go to sell their heavy crude. So they’re using the oil market weakness to attack Venezuela.

GREG WILPERT: So, another criticism about the argument that this has to do with oil–and other natural resources, of course. We shouldn’t forget that Venezuela has also major reserves in gold, and diamonds, and other things. The other argument is that there are many other countries involved in this conflict, such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and various countries of Europe, such as Germany, the UK, who don’t necessarily represent U.S. oil company interests, as far as we know. So how do you explain their involvement, and why they’re supporting the U.S. in all of this?

VIJAY PRASHAD: You see, you know, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there’s been very few attempts, particularly kind of scaled-up attempts, to show that there’s an alternative to the kind of suffocating capitalism that we experienced in these two and a half to three decades. You know. The lack of an alternative has meant that many people’s hope and expectation of a different world have been really quite dampered.

And I think it’s in this context that we have to see what was done in Venezuela from the election of Hugo Chavez in 1999 onwards. I mean, Mr. Chavez and the Bolivarian experiment was never just about Venezuela. It was a regional experiment that expanded through the critique of the free trade areas of the Americas; you know, when they created the ALBA network, the Bolivarian areas of the Americas. This procedure that was set in place by the Venezuelans–I mean, the Venezuelans led the attempt at a kind of regional integration, and provided an alternative to neoliberal policy frameworks, experimenting with new kinds of regional trade, and so on. This, of course, deeply threatened the oligarchies of South America and Latin America, and very much threatened the political order dominated by the United States.

So you know, you’ve got to see that from 2002, when there was an attempted coup against the Chavez government, from then onwards there’s been a political them to undermine the Bolivarian project across Latin America and to overthrow the government in Venezuela. So you know, it’s in this context that you should understand the emergence of right-wing governments, whether it’s in Brazil, or Argentina, or, you know, strengthened right-wing governments in Colombia which denied allowing a peace deal to go through. You know, these governments have long wanted–these political tendencies have long wanted to overthrow the Bolivarian dynamic across the hemisphere, and certainly in Venezuela.

You know, it’s this reason why the Lima Group is so important. But I just want to say one more thing about this Lima Group. You know, the leader of the Lima Group is Canada. Canada plays a very important but silent role across South America. The Canadian mining companies have their fingers in each and every one of these countries. In fact, the mining rules in Colombia were written by a Canadian overseas development initiative. So it’s not like Canada is all about Justin Trudeau smiling, and you know, an alternative liberal agenda from the United States. They have a vicious mining agenda which they are running in South America, and that’s the reason that Canada has come across as a leader alongside Peru, and Brazil, and these other countries of the right inside the Lima Group.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah, I think it’s important to note that the Lima group has the 12 conservative governments of South America plus Canada in it. But I want to make one more question about kind of addressing some of the things that you are saying. That is, you know, during Trump’s State of the Union address, one of the points that he was making, especially when he addressed Venezuela, was to specifically point to Venezuela and say that this was a socialist country. And that he used this, then, and said, basically, look at the disaster, the economic disaster that Venezuela is now, and used that as an argument against socialism everywhere, and said we’ll never accept socialism in the United States.

So I’m just wondering, you know, on the one hand you’re saying that the Venezuelan example was supposed to be an alternative to neoliberalism. But many people now are saying–you know, and especially people like Trump–are pointing to Venezuela as an economic basket case, and therefore could never possibly serve as an example for a real alternative. And this gets, of course, particularly tricky, that is, for defenders of the Venezuelan project, when it’s pointed out that the economic crisis actually pre-dated the decline in the oil price or the decline, the imposition of U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. So what do you say to that argument, that Venezuela at some point actually ceased to be a positive example for an alternative to neoliberalism?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Greg, this is a very important and serious discussion. When it comes to the fact that over the 20th century and into the 21st century most attempts at a post-capitalist government, post-capitalist society have taken place in what we might call the realm of necessity. In other words, in countries that have been colonized, or in one way or the other suffer from endemic poverty. You know, whether it’s the Russian Revolution, or the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, or it’s the Chinese Revolution of the 1940s, the Vietnamese in the 1970s. And certainly Cuba in the 1950s. These were extremely poor countries, and many of the smaller ones–that is, Cuba, Venezuela, smaller in terms of its comparison to Russia and China. These countries were often one-commodity countries; you know, Cuba was basically a producer of sugar cane, and maybe rum. And Venezuela a producer of oil, largely, in terms of what it exports.

So these countries already, prior to the experiments of post-capitalism, were struggling in a world of colonialism, a world which had enforced poverty on them. We haven’t had, really, a revolutionary situation or a post-capitalist experiment in parts of the world which had enjoyed the fruits of colonialism. There was no revolution in Germany, no revolution in Britain, in the United States, and so on. It’s very hard to, you know, come out and say “I’m against socialism because socialism failed in Vietnam.” I mean, frankly, you’ve bombed agriculture in Vietnam during that war using chemical weapons, essentially, and then you expect them to so easily produce socialism. These are places which we consider the realm of necessity. They are struggling to build a post-capitalist future. And I think it’s quite ungenerous of people to attack these experiments, and somehow use these experiments as a way to once again say that no alternative is possible.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, I’m sure this conversation will continue, but we’ll have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Vijay Prashad, director of the TriContinental Institute for Social Research. Thanks again, Vijay, for having joined us today.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.