Support a New Birth of Freedom in Venezuela

Venezuela’s history of revolutionary change is a bent but unbroken thread leading back to the first stirrings of freedom sparked by Simon Bolivar’s armed fight against the Spanish empire and his export of the struggle to every corner of Latin America.

In examining closely the current struggle to unleash liberty and a better way of life for all Venezuelans, it is important to recall that history and the U.S. role in both supporting progressive change and at times standing in its way.

Until the discovery of major oil deposits in Venezuela early in the 20th century, the most prominent connection between the two nations was the role of Venezuelan independence hero Francisco de Miranda in fighting for U.S. freedom from King George III. Venezuelans retain a high regard for de Miranda’s brave assistance to our fledgling country, while unfortunately he is virtually unknown to most Americans.

By the time World War I came to a close, oil had overcome romantic notions of our mutual revolutionary past as the most important link between the two nations. U.S. petroleum interests arrived in force to secure lucrative concessions and feed the growing global appetite for oil. Creeping corruption, environmental damage and the shrinking of other important economic sectors, especially agriculture, were accompanied by an increasing concentration of wealth in the elite.

The seizure of power in Venezuela by the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1948 took place against the backdrop of the increasing influence of foreign oil companies in the country to exploit petroleum resources in the post-war expansion. President Romulo Betancourt, during his first administration in the years of World War II, had angered petroleum interests by securing half the profits generated by foreign oil companies in Venezuela. Perez Jimenez, who overthrew Betancourt’s successor, took an ardent anti-communist stance, endearing himself further to Washington, which happily overlooked his violent campaign against dissidents so long as oil profits continued to flow into U.S. corporate coffers.

However, the burning instinct for freedom and justice among the Venezuelan people would not be suppressed. Popular discontent among both civilians and the military led to the dictator’s overthrow in 1958 and new hopes for change under the second presidential administration of Romulo Betancourt, the father of modern democracy in Venezuela. Among other reforms, he took the power of electing the president from the Congress and gave it to the people and introduced universal suffrage.

The election in 1960 of my uncle President John F. Kennedy in the U.S. led to a reassessment of economic colonialism in Latin America and throughout the world. Betancourt was a key ally with President Kennedy in launching the Alliance for Progress in the region, a landmark program respecting Latin American sovereignty while channeling housing, education and jobs to the region rather than bombs and guns and petroleum engineers. It was a campaign aimed at showing the best aspects of American capitalism and winning the Cold War battle between competing systems.

Betancourt warmly welcomed President Kennedy to Caracas to mark the opening of the first projects of the Alliance. Later, my father, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, visited Venezuela and was greeted by rapturous crowds. In 1981, I helped carry Betancourt’s casket through the streets of Caracas and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and respect not just for his personal legacy but also for the hopes of democracy he embodied. In my own visits to Venezuela, I always try to squeeze in a visit to the neighborhood named for my father, where I’ve been greeted by incredible warmth and friendship from residents profoundly grateful for the close ties between our nations.

Tragically, the new approach to Latin America ended with the premature close of the Kennedy administration. That was followed by a descent into the maelstrom of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and a resumption of interventions in Latin America by the U.S., most notably in the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, for the first time in Venezuelan history, Betancourt transferred power to a democratically elected successor.

U.S. oil companies continued to wield enormous influence in Venezuela, endorsing the periodic transfer of power between the country’s two leading parties, Accion Democratica and COPEI, while oil sites like Lake Maracaibo became environmental disasters. The Arab oil embargo of the U.S. after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 sent oil prices skyrocketing and Venezuela, the only OPEC member to continue to supply oil to the U.S., saw a quadrupling in revenues. But in a morass of corruption, the windfall was squandered by payoffs to the elite before oil prices slumped and the Venezuelan economy sagged.

By the time I first visited Caracas in 1979, the divide between rich and poor, opportunity and despair had hardened. Poverty reigned in the hillside shanties built around Caracas while the wealthy prospered in gated communities and their vast rural holdings went fallow. The oil price shocks of the time, caused by the Iranian hostage crisis, opened an opportunity for Citizens Energy to help poor families and senior citizens who couldn’t afford the cost of staying warm. We signed crude oil contracts with Venezuela, refined the oil, and sold the byproducts, everything from Vaseline to gasoline, except for the heating oil cut, which we shipped to Massachusetts to provide at a deep discount to needy families.

Working with Venezuela’s more progressive oil leadership, we also re-invested profits to build a solar hot water heating system in Caracas’ largest maternity hospital and fund innovative agricultural projects in rural Venezuela. Trying to recapture the spirit of the Alliance for Progress, we also launched social projects in other countries negatively impacted by rising oil prices. We re-invested profits in building the largest solar project in the Caribbean – a hot water heating system at a public hospital in Montego Bay. We introduced bio-mass energy projects to Costa Rica and started coffee-drying operations fueled by bio-gas in rural cooperatives.

I was appreciative of the partnership with Venezuela but deeply concerned about its radical inequality, especially as oil prices fell and the oil-dependent economy failed to keep up with social needs. The rural poor were still locked out of unused land and the urban poor suffered without running water and electricity, while the one-tenth of the one percent in the country continued to live on vast estates, send their children overseas to study and shop in the chic boutiques of Miami, New York, Paris and London.

Once again, popular resentment could not be contained. Hugo Chavez, an army officer who had vaulted to fame after a failed 1992 coup, was released from prison and came to power in 1998, promising a new Bolivarian Revolution based on political empowerment of the poor, sharing oil wealth through a new social contract, and broader socialist policies aimed at ousting the old order.

The oligarchs of course struck back, engineering a crippling strike of the national oil company and, with a wink and a nod from the U.S., bringing Chavez down in a brief coup, which was foiled by a popular uprising against the coup leaders. Chavez forged ahead with his Bolivarian revolution, providing better housing, access to education, nutrition and health care. Riding the rise in oil prices, Venezuela saw significant reductions in poverty and a marked increase in voter participation.

Confidence in Chavez was based in part on never shying away from using elections to cement his ties with the people and endorse his policies. He survived a recall vote, lost a referendum on changing the constitution, and put himself and his party before voters in numerous local, regional and national elections.

His style of leadership was confrontational and imperfect. He was widely criticized for his socialist-inspired policies of distributing wealth to the poor – his speech at the United Nations denouncing President Bush certainly didn’t help quell criticism – and those barbs included shots at his efforts to help the poor in other countries. After major oil companies refused pleas from U.S. senators to help the poor in the wake of rising oil prices caused by hurricane-related refinery shutdowns along the Gulf Coast in 2005, Chavez directed CITGO Petroleum Corp., a U.S. subsidiary owned by the Venezuelan people, to work with Citizens Energy to provide assistance to struggling U.S. families. Venezuela was the only country and CITGO the only company to respond to our request for help.

For ten years, we distributed over $500 million worth of Venezuelan oil to warm millions of struggling individuals living in homes, apartments, tenant-owned cooperatives, on Native American reservations and in homeless shelters.

Chavez continued the assistance, even after the 2008-2009 recession caused oil prices to plummet. By the time Chavez grew ill with the cancer that killed him in 2013, the price of oil had recovered. Despite some doubts, Chavez named Nicolas Maduro as his successor but the Bolivarian Revolution faltered as Chavez’s overmatched heir failed to grapple with falling state revenues as oil prices once again started descending.

Maduro’s unfortunate reaction to growing discontent at rising inflation and shortages of basic needs like food and medicine was to hope Chavez would whisper counsel in his ear. His magical thinking did not include listening to his own conscience as he quelled dissent by jailing political opponents, banning parties from running for office, stripping the opposition-controlled National Assembly of power, stacking the judiciary, putting military loyalists in charge of the economy, sidelining a recall effort and creating a sham all-powerful alternative legislature to do his bidding.

When I called for Maduro’s resignation in 2017, it was hard to believe the country could spiral even further into dictatorship and despair. Even back then, he was rejecting offers of humanitarian aid to relieve malnourishment and infant mortality haunting barrios where residents once cheered the promise of better lives.

But now Maduro has doubled down on allowing political ideology to overrule the need to feed starving children and provide medicines to elderly grandparents. There is no more powerful symbol of Maduro’s obstinate and damaging reign than images of the bridge between Colombia and Venezuela blockaded to prevent the movement of humanitarian supplies to Venezuelans in desperate need.

Maduro’s response to the growing crisis is to turn a deaf ear to cries for change, accuse opponents of treason, blame outside powers for the failures of his own making, and hide behind a phalanx of generals as if the support of military cronies is a substitute for the consent of the governed. The continued blockade of desperately needed humanitarian relief is simply unconscionable.

Maduro’s decision to put greater value on his political survival than the welfare of his own people now faces a new uprising.

The hope of an end to the Venezuelan nightmare lies now in the legitimate constitutional right of National Assembly President Juan Guaido to the presidency. His lawful declaration of the illegitimacy of Maduro’s claim to office came after last year’s discredited presidential elections, with opposition candidates and parties once again banned and voter participation registering at barely 50%.

The fledgling government of Juan Guaido deserves more international support in order to increase pressure on Maduro to depart the presidential palace and allow the interim government to schedule new elections and rescue Venezuela from the political, humanitarian, and moral horrors of the Maduro regime.

While I have concerns about how the history of the U.S. meddling in the affairs of Latin America plays into Maduro’s victimization narrative, the only real victims of his self-serving rule are the poor of Venezuela, whose trust he has betrayed and whose future he has sold in pursuit of his own ambitions. The voice of neighboring democracies in Latin America against the Maduro regime should continue to lead the call for overdue change in Venezuela.

Meanwhile, the U.S. should work with our allies to push for the restoration of full political, human, and civil rights for the people of Venezuela, the end of Maduro’s rule, and the full powers of the national government in the hands of Interim President Juan Guaido as he moves towards new elections.

Heroes like Francisco de Miranda would expect nothing less.

We have a long and rich history of cultural, political and economic ties with Venezuela. As an American who embraces that history and as someone who has long admired the resilience, generosity and democratic values of its people, I support a new birth of freedom in Venezuela and a renewed commitment to using its vast natural wealth to lift the lives of the poor.

Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former member of the United States Congress from Massachusetts, is chairman and president of Citizens Energy Corp.