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While the US tried to portray the landing of Russian nuclear weapons capable bombers in Venezuela as a threat, Venezuela clearly sees the US as the threat, which is why the Russian military was invited, say Steve Ellner and Greg Wilpert

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Two Russian bombers landed in Venezuela on Monday provoking a strong rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who tweeted, “Russia’s government has sent bombers halfway around the world to Venezuela. The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer.”

Meanwhile, also on Monday, Venezuelan President Maduro accused the White House and National Security Adviser John Bolton, in particular, of being behind assassination plots against President Maduro. A third piece of news from Venezuela, which further points to US-Venezuelan tensions, is that Goodyear announced on Tuesday that it will close its factory in Venezuela because of the harsh US financial sanctions against the country.

On the surface it would seem that allowing Russian nuclear weapons capable bombers land in Venezuela and to participate in Venezuelan maneuvers, represents an intentional provocation on the part of Venezuela towards the US. However, as Greg Wilpert, the author of the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, and Steve Ellner, the author of the book, “Latin America’s Radical Left,” point out, Venezuela collaborating with Russia not with the aim of provoking the US, but to deter any aggression that the US might direct against Venezuela. President Trump himself mentioned the possibility of military action against Venezuela and the threats against President Maduro’s life are quite real.

“It is it is contradictory on the part of the Trump administration to on the one hand talk about the military option in the other hand object to Venezuela’s attempt to defend itself,” said Steve Ellner in a panel discussion on TRNN.

Greg Wilpert added, “Venezuela is indeed very concerned about the possibility of a military intervention by the United States, regardless of what other people think.”

The government of Venezuela has felt itself to be under siege from the United States ever since the 2002 coup attempt against President Chávez – a coup attempt that the Bush administration supported indirectly via financing and possibly even directly through the provision of logistical support, according to the government of Venezuela. More recently, though, with the first sanctions that President Obama imposed when he declared Venezuela to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States,” the sanctions and the perceived threat from the US have grown continuously.

In a time when governments in the region have been veering sharply towards the right, such as in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and even Ecuador, Venezuela is relieved to see the new government of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador sworn into office. While Venezuela sees Lopez Obrador as an ally, Steve Ellner points out, “Lopez Obrador has stated that it really has a neutral position, but that it wants to play a role in trying to resolve the situation in Latin America, trying to ease tensions in Latin America.” Ellner went on to explain that Lopez Obrador wants to bring Mexico back to its historical role of playing “a non-interventionist role in the region… that was the official policy of the Mexican government even in the 1960s during the heat of the Cold War.”

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Two Russian bombers landed in Venezuela on Monday, provoking a strong rebuke from the U.S. State Department. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted by Tweeting, “Russia’s government has sent bombers halfway around the world to Venezuela. The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is, two corrupt governments squandering public funds and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer,” he wrote. Meanwhile, also on Monday, Venezuelan President Maduro accused the White House and the National Security Adviser John Bolton in particular of being behind the failed assassination attempt against Maduro last August.

NICOLAS MADURO: Today I come out once again to denounce the plot set forth by the White House to destroy Venezuela’s democracy, to assassinate me and to impose a dictatorship in Venezuela. Mr. John Bolton has been assigned, once again, as the chief of a plot to fill Venezuela with violence and to seek a foreign military intervention, a coup.

SHARMINI PERIES: Then there was President Trump’s threats against Venezuela.

DONALD TRUMP: We have many options for Venezuela. And by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option. We have many options for Venezuela and the people are suffering. And they’re dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.

SHARMINI PERIES: Tensions between Venezuela and the United States seem to be intensifying as Venezuela’s economy continues to reel under the pressure of U.S. financial sanctions. The State Department also recently confirmed that it was monitoring Venezuela for terrorist activity, suggesting it might be placed on the list of state sponsored terrorism.

SPEAKER: We continue to monitor Venezuela for activities that would indicate a pattern of support for acts of international terrorism.

SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me now to discuss these developments in Venezuela is Steve Ellner. He is a retired Professor of History at Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela. And for a change, we have him in our studio. Thanks.

STEVE ELLNER: Good to be on the program, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Yes. It’s good to see you without having some fog in between. And joining us in our studio is also Gregory Wilpert. He is the author of the book, Challenging Venezuela by Taking Power. And he is the managing editor here at the Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: My pleasure.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Steve, let me start with you. Steve, let’s start off with these bombers landing in Venezuela. We have seen repeated images of this in the mainstream press. And given that Venezuela is not very far away from the United States, it’s of course presented to us as a repeated threat. Now, also we are hearing that these bombers are capable of carrying nuclear weapons. So give us a sense of what Venezuela is trying to do here with these bombers landing, and of course, the unsaid statement here is that these are Russian bombers also. So what is the message that Venezuela is trying to communicate here?

STEVE ELLNER: Well Sharmini, I think it’s quite obvious given the language of the Trump administration, and Trump himself, who has stated numerous times that the military option is on the table. That it shouldn’t be surprising that Venezuela will attempt to gain some kind of backing from other countries, such as Russia in this case. It shouldn’t be at all surprising. And it is it is contradictory on the part of the Trump administration to, on the one hand, talk about the military option, and on the other hand, object to Venezuela’s attempt to defend itself.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, of course, this is reminiscent of some history in Latin America. Tell us about that.

STEVE ELLNER: Certainly. Well, it brings to mind the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. But of course, the context is very different in terms of polarization, Cold War polarization, as opposed to the situation today. I would say that Venezuela is simply trying to send out a message and that is that Venezuela will defend itself in the context of a possible U.S. intervention.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Greg. So what is the message you think the Venezuelan government is trying to communicate here and will it be effective?

GREG WILPERT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I totally agree with what Steve is saying. I think it’s also important to remember that President Maduro was in Russia actually only two weeks ago, where they probably discussed doing exactly what now happened, in other words, to have joint military exercises as a show of strength, as a way of showing that Venezuela won’t let itself be bullied by the United States since this has been a long term goal and objective of the United States, to get rid of President Maduro. So that’s really, I think, all there is to it.

Of course, it’s being portrayed as something that Venezuela is trying to provoke the United States. And I think that’s of course always the alternative interpretation that I think people in the media, people who think, oh, Venezuela has nothing to fear from the United States, that is the mainstream media and the mainstream pundits, tend to try to portray it that way, and therefore, what Venezuela is doing is a provocation against the United States. And so, we have to react to that provocation. But I think if you just dig a little bit deeper you see that Venezuela is indeed very, very concerned about the possibility of a military intervention in the United States, regardless of what maybe other people think how likely that is. The Venezuelans, especially the government of Venezuela, thinks it’s very possible.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Steve. Do you agree with Greg in the sense that the situation has changed at this moment? Because there’s been endless threats in terms of the U.S. threatening Venezuela and the Bush administration previously. There has been various attempts to threaten the Chavez government at the time, and then now, Maduro. And Maduro is on record repeatedly saying that he is under threat, his presidency is under threat. There is been assassination attempts. How serious is this escalation?

STEVE ELLNER: Well, I think that’s exactly what it is. There’s an ongoing escalation. The tension has always been there, since the early years of the Bush administration, but it’s just gotten more and more tense. And with the executive decree of Obama declaring that Venezuela represents a threat to U.S. national security, and then Trump’s reiteration of that statement and then the financial sanctions against Venezuela, and then the attempted assassination of Maduro, his wife and the high military command, all of whom would have been killed had that drone attack been successful. So there is an escalation and I think that Venezuela has all the reason the world to be afraid of the military option. Firstly, it’s stated explicitly. And secondly, you have to see it in the context of this ongoing escalation.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Greg. Let’s assume here that this threat is somewhat real, particularly given that we know that there was an attempted coup against President Chavez. We are back in almost the same kind of situation, at least as far as the exchange between the U.S. And Venezuela is concerned. How serious do you think this threat is?

GREG WILPERT: Well, I mean, the problem is a bit of course that Maduro, and Chavez before him, mentioned the possibility of various attempts against his life, both Chavez and Maduro have mentioned that over and over again. And so, for people outside of Venezuela, again, see that a little bit as perhaps the possibility of somebody crying wolf too many times and don’t find the possibility very real. But we have to keep in mind, of course, also that the United States launched over one hundred–I can’t remember what the number was–assassination attempts against President Fidel Castro. Of course, it was a long time ago. Now, I’m not saying that all of these plots were all launched from the United States, but there is a very, very violent element in the extreme opposition in Venezuela that is really chomping at the bit to try to kill him.

And there have been many instances, many examples of evidence that have come forth, not every time that Maduro or Chavez before him mentioned the possibility of assassination attempt, but they have provided evidence every once in a while. And the fact is that, and actually very recently, there was another statement coming, I think it was from this opposition leader–well, I don’t know, I hesitate to call him a leader–but the extreme opposition figure who was recorded once again talking about the possibility of assassinating Maduro. And so, that element definitely exists. Now, to what extent they’re cooperating with the United States, we don’t really know for sure, but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Let’s go back to what Greg had said earlier, which is that Maduro did go to Russia. He spoke with President Putin and these bombers have now landed in Venezuela shortly after that visit. So let’s talk about the Russian involvement here, which obviously is escalating the situation, and what interest does Russia have in terms of engaging in this kind of posturing?

STEVE ELLNER: We can only guess, Sharmini. But certainly, the Russians are concerned about U.S. encroachment on Russian space and also bases surrounding Russia, in an escalation in that sense, in terms of the presence of U.S. troops throughout the world and bases throughout the world and the expansion of NATO as well. So I mean, it could be that Russia is thinking in terms of presenting the United States with a situation in which the United States will be pressured into sitting down and talking to the Russians in order to reach some kind of agreement on that score. I mean, that’s just a hypothesis. But the fact of the matter is that the Russians have indicated that they support Venezuela, they support Venezuelan sovereignty. China has stated the same. And so, it seems to me that the situation is getting more and more intense with the pronouncements on the part of Russia and on the part of China that something has to be done. And the threats of a military intervention in Venezuela only makes the situation worse.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, let’s shift to the region now. Any threat against Venezuela of this nature, the region we’ll have to react. And for the first time, we have a Mexican president that was recently inaugurated two days ago, and he’s a progressive, left, Venezuelan supporting president in Mexico. Greg, let me go to you on this. How do you feel that this will impact the dynamics in the region?

GREG WILPERT: I think it’s definitely a major boost for Maduro and Venezuela to have somebody like Andre Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico as President. I mean, there was a big controversy about whether Lopez Obrador invited Maduro to the inauguration, and people tried to dissuade him, but he stood firm and had him come to the inauguration. So he definitely has a friend and Lopez Obrador, and that’s a huge boost because Mexico’s one of the largest countries in Latin America. And now, with all of the left governments having pretty much disappeared from the rest of the continent, with the exception of perhaps Bolivia and Nicaragua, that is really a very important base of support for Maduro to have.

And so, it’s absolutely indispensable, I think, especially in light of the fact that not only have the countries lost their leftist presidents, they’ve actually moved hard to the right in many cases. We might get back to the new president in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who is an extreme right-wing president and is chomping at the bit to somehow undermine the government of Venezuela. So it’s a really important counterbalance to have. And then, of course, the Conservative government in Colombia, as well. And basically, Venezuela is surrounded now. On one side to the West is Colombia, and to the South is Brazil, threatening Venezuela with the possibility of a real military intervention. And having Mexico on its side is absolutely indispensable.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Steve. Map for us the friends and foes of Venezuela in the region.

STEVE ELLNER: Right. I think that rather than see Mexico as an ally of Venezuela, I think it’s more accurate to see Mexico as a neutral country. And I think that that is the significance of Lopez Obrador. And what Greg said about Lopez Obrador’s firmness in the face of the pressure on him not to invite Maduro to his inauguration, the fact of the matter is that Mexico is not a Bolivia, or Mexico is not in Ecuador in the times of Correa. Mexico, Lopez Obrador has stated, that it really has a neutral position but that it wants to play a role in trying to resolve the situation in Latin America, trying to ease tensions in Latin America. And think that’s very significant, especially when you consider that the position of Pedro Sanchez in Spain is very similar.

Pedro Sanchez was critical of the Chavista government, but when he came to power, he stated that he wants to maintain a neutral position, he’s not going to criticize anybody, either the Maduro government or the opposition, because he wants to play a positive role in trying to ease tensions in Venezuela. The type of role that Rodriguez Zapatero, also a member of the same party that’s in power, has been playing in the last couple of years, trying to broker some kind of an agreement between the opposition and the Maduro government. So I think that this might signal a new trend of countries that play a neutral position. In fact, Sharmini, this is the position of the Mexican government going way back in time. It’s really a legacy of the Mexican Revolution. The Constitution of 1917 says as much, that the Mexican government will play a neutral role, a non-interventionist role in the region.

And that was the official policy of the Mexican government even in the 1960s during the heat of the Cold War, the culmination of the Cold War period and the isolation of Cuba. Mexico had a very distinct position from that of the rest of Latin America and the United States. That tradition was broken, first by Ernesto Zedillo in the 1990s, and then Vicente Fox in a bigger way, Calderon, Pena Nieto, each one of those governments broke with that tradition that Lopez Obrador is now restoring.

SHARMINI PERIES: Steve, with the changing dynamics in Latin America, Bolsonaro on one side, extreme right wing politician that has taken over Brazil, and we have AMLO, you said he was a moderate figure, but he’s going to be forced into a position if there’s any military aggression against Venezuela. So give us a bit more context as to how feasible military aggression on Venezuela would be.

STEVE ELLNER: Yes. I think that up until about six months ago, the position of other Latin American governments in opposition to a military intervention in Venezuela made military intervention less likely. In fact, it was kind of surprising that conservative or right wing governments, such as that of Macri in Argentina and Temer in Brazil and Pinera in Chile, took a position critical of the statement of Luis Almagro, who seconded Trump’s statement that the military option is on the table. And these countries, the members of the Lima group in South America, stated that they were in opposition to military intervention in Venezuela, undoubtedly not because they have any qualms about military intervention, but rather they would be afraid of resistance within their respective countries, mobilization. That would be very unpopular throughout the region.

So up until about six months ago, it looked as if a military option was not feasible. But more recently, say in the last couple of months with the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil and the position of Duque in Colombia, recently elected president of Colombia, both of them represent a more radical right, maybe the difference between the right and the ultra right in terms of possible support for military intervention. After all, Bolsonaro stated during the campaign that he would consider, or he implied that he would consider military intervention in Venezuela. So it seems to me that you have the unlikely situation of the polarization on the right in Latin America, and thus the election of Lopez Obrador and his assumption of power, his inauguration in December, signals a new kind of situation, a polarization of countries that oppose military intervention and countries that are considering it.

SHARMINI PERIES: Greg, let me also go to you here. Institutionality, the U.S. has always been able to flex its muscles at the OAS, Organization of American States. Now, that was more difficult for them to do when there was left wing governments in Latin America, but the situation has changed. Will the U.S. be able to flex its muscle now at the OAS? Because obviously we have somebody who is the head of the OAS who is actually congratulating the Bolsonaros of Latin America. And also is the Lima group a more objective body, and what is it? Many people don’t even know what it is.

GREG WILPERT: Well, to answer that question first, it’s a group of, I think, twelve or fourteen countries in Latin America that are mostly, basically conservative, and specifically come together to put pressure on Venezuela and to convince them to basically give into their demands of freeing what are being called political prisoners and various other things. So that’s definitely a group that has applied important pressure and has essentially undermined the regional integration efforts that started back with Chavez’s election, essentially, but with the creation UNASUR, particularly. Because UNASUR was supposed to bring together all countries of South America, the Union of South American Nations, and now they have not been able to agree on a Secretary General for UNASUR, and it’s being gradually dismantled.

As a matter of fact, to that extreme that even the president of Ecuador, who once presented himself as a leftist, is now saying that he’s turning over the building to a party that used to be in the opposition, not a party, an organization. And so, he’s basically dismantling UNASUR, and it looks like it’s going to completely fall apart. And with that process, it definitely means that the OAS, the Organization of American States, is coming back to the forefront, which always has been the major forum for the United States where it had the dominant power. I mean, its headquarters are located in Washington, DC and it always has been able to manipulate things in its favor at the OAS. Not always, but certainly when most of the countries are conservative.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Let’s leave this issue of the military threat for now. But please join me for a continuing conversation with both Steve Ellner and Gregory Wilpert. And in the next segment, we’re going to take up the issue of the sanctions that have been imposed on Venezuela and the impact that is having on the country. I thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.

Steve Ellner is a Contributing Editor ofLatin American Perspectives and the editor of “Latin America's Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century.