They’re Not Sending Their Best People to Stage a Coup in Venezuela

The recent failed invasion of Venezuela by several clown cars worth of idiotic “freedom fighters” is almost too absurd to believe. But the goofballs aside, this misadventure can only be understood in the context of Donald Trump’s increased aggression toward Venezuela and open desire to overthrow its government.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó speaks during the presentation of Operación Libertad at Comité Ejecutivo Seccional de la Organización Política Acción Democrática on March 27, 2019 in Caracas, Venezuela. Eva Marie Uzcategui / Getty

After the CIA attempted to topple Cuba’s socialist government using an army of right-wing Cuban émigrés and failed colossally, the site of the invasion, the Bay of Pigs, has become a shorthand not just for US imperialist intervention in the hemisphere, but the ineptitude and incompetence of the US security state. Last week’s truly bizarre coup attempt in Venezuela, an “amphibious raid” of such raw military power that it was actually thwarted by local fishermen, has many drawing comparisons with the Bay of Pigs. But compared to the absurd plot against Venezuela, the ignominious failure that was the Bay of Pigs comes across as a well-thought out scheme.

Precisely who was behind the attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan government is unclear. But it comes in the context of the Trump administration’s escalating attempts at regime change in Venezuela, a campaign that is fully in line with the longer history of the United States seeking to ensure its southern neighbors remain firmly under the thumb of Uncle Sam.

The plan itself has all the makings of a terrible action movie: An army of sixty would bring down the government by crossing the border and kidnapping Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. The cast of characters could come from a social-political satire, though one perhaps a bit too on the nose. They include a private Florida-based mercenary firm, a Venezuelan general awaiting trial in the United States for narco-trafficking, and possibly an heir to a cheese fortune described by the Associated Press as “eccentric.”

Too on the Nose

Let’s begin with the basic facts of the case, as they’ve been reported so far. At the center of the plot is Silvercorp USA, a Florida-based for-profit security firm.

In a uniquely and bleakly American story, before branching off into toppling left-wing Latin American governments, the firm was founded to counter school shootings by putting special-forces veterans in schools. The security company had hoped to turn a profit in its school security program by charging individual parents a Netflix-like monthly subscription fee of $8.99 to protect their kids. This plan does not appear to have taken off.

Former US Green Beret Jordan Goudreau runs Silvercorp USA and looms large in its social media presence and promotional materials. Before entering the world of private security, he served in both the Canadian and US militaries. In the US army, Goudreau served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, receiving three bronze stars. Near the end of Goudreau’s military career, he was investigated for defrauding the Army of $62,000 in housing stipends. No charges were ever brought.

Silvercorp USA lists several services it provides, including “complex project leadership,” “disaster management,” and “special programs.” The private security firm claims that their “operatives travel at a moment’s notice to evaluate threats levied by political or labor movements, or disgruntled or dismissed employees, calling upon psychiatric resources when necessary. “

The now-deleted Twitter and Instagram accounts of SilverCorp USA imply that the firm provided security for the Live Aid Venezuela Concert in February 2019 in Colombia, as well as at least one Donald Trump rally. In photos featured on social media and in a promotional video, Goudreau can be seen standing around a Charlottesville, North Carolina Trump rally, in one case directly behind the reality TV star turned president, wearing a headset. An Instagram post read “protecting our greatest asset.” The Secret Service, the Trump campaign, and the venue where the rally took place all deny having ever contracted with SilverCorp USA or Goudreau. (I have filed a FOIA request with the Secret Service about their involvement with the company).

Goudreau’s involvement with the Live Aid Venezuela concert led to his new interest in the country. He appeared at a meeting at the JW Marriott in Bogota, Colombia, described to the Associated Press by one participant as a “Star Wars summit of anti-Maduro goofballs.” In Colombia, Goudreau became introduced to Cliver Alcalá, a former Venezuelan general currently accused by the United States of drug trafficking. Goudreau and Alcalá began plotting to overthrow Maduro using 300 former Venezuelan military members in Colombia.

A former US Navy Seal who runs what has been described as a “humanitarian” nonprofit that operates in war zones was tasked with providing medical training to the would-be soldiers. When he arrived, he found twenty men living in a five-bedroom house with no running water and little in the way of food or supplies. He was so shocked, he sought out Goudreau in hopes of convincing him to abandon his foolish plans.

Alcalá, on the other hand, boasted of the plan to Colombian intelligence, claiming Goudreau was a former CIA officer. According to the Associated Press, Colombian intelligence reached out to the CIA who denied Goudreau was ever an officer. The Colombians told Alcalá “to stop talking about an invasion or face expulsion.”

Alcalá ran into further trouble. On March 23, Colombian authorities intercepted a shipment of military equipment, including twenty-six US-made semi-automatic rifles with the serial numbers removed bound for Venezuela.  Shortly after, and on the same day he was indicted by the United States for drug trafficking along with Maduro, Alcalá publicly took credit for the shipment. With a $10 million bounty placed on his head by the United States, Alcalá quickly turned himself over, claiming he had nothing to hide. According to the Financial Times, “He was whisked out of the country within hours, even though Colombian prosecutors said there was no warrant for his arrest and no request for his extradition.”

Amateur Hour

Alcalá was not the only player in this plot. Goudreau also sought out Donald Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller. According to the Associated Press, Schiller introduced Goudreau to members of the Venezuelan opposition in Miami. Schiller apparently ceased doing so after he became concerned about the amateur nature of Goudreau’s plotting.

The Washington Post recounted how in Miami Goudreau had meetings with a representative of a secret committee of representatives of Juan Guaidó. They agreed to sign an agreement for a plot to kidnap Maduro contingent on acquiring funding for the operation. When funding for Goudreau expedition never emerged and Goudreau began demanding the opposition pay him a $1.5 million retainer, they allegedly cut off contact.

Additionally, Goudreau sought out an assistant in Mike Pence’s office and turned to Roen Kraft, “an eccentric descendant of the cheese-making family,” according to the Associated Press, for funding. Pence’s office denies having had contact with Goudreau. Similarly, Kraft denies providing any funding and claims to have split ways with him over questions on military strategy.

The biggest question, however, remains unanswered: what role did the US government or Guaidó’s opposition play in the plot? The Associated Press’s investigation uncovered no evidence of official US involvement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has directly denied involvement, stating, “if we’d have been involved, it would have gone differently.” Donald Trump has similarly denied involvement, stating that had he been behind it, he would have sent the army.

While evidence of a direct US connection has not surfaced, paranoid conspiracy theorists aren’t the only ones who might raise such questions. The United States has a long history of covert actions in Latin America, and the Trump administration has been escalating its bellicose calls for regime change. Even if this was not an official US action, it cannot be entirely divorced from current US-Venezuelan relations. It also seems the United States most likely at least knew about the plot, given Colombian intelligence’s reported inquiries.

As for Guaidó’s “government,” the picture here is entirely different. According to Goudreau, Guaidó signed an agreement with him to pay $215 million for his services. Guaidó has publicly denied this. As proof, Goudreau has provided the media with a copy of the “general services agreement” bearing Guaidó’s signature, as well as audio he claims to be of Guaidó when signing it. And the Washington Post’s own story would seem to confirm that someone on behalf of opposition signed some kind of agreement with Goudreau.

Most of the world first learned of SilverCorp USA and Goudreau on May 1. The Associated Press published a lengthy investigation into the SilverCorp plot. The article, based on interviews with thirty separate sources, presented the scheme as just as moribund as it was hopelessly doomed.

Two days after the world learned of this plan, the Venezuelan government announced that it had stopped a raid by “terrorist mercenaries” on speedboats north of Caracas in La Guaira State. As a result, the Venezuelan military killed eight people and detained two others. Initially, as is often the case, opponents of the Venezuelan government declared that the incident was fabricated. But Goudreau released video explaining that their operation had begun, and they had sixty men in Venezuela.

In addition to this video, SilverCorp USA tweeted out similar information. They tagged Donald Trump in their tweet.

The next day the Venezuelan government apprehended, with the help of fishermen, ten more mercenaries. These were also Goudreau’s men. Included among the captured were two former US Special Forcers veterans. As the week wore on, additional arrests came.

According to Goudreau, he never received any money from the opposition, in spite of the signed contract. He claims he decided to go ahead with the raid, because he was a “freedom fighter” — this is just what he does. Others have suggested that Goudreau may have also had a less altruistic motive: he was hoping to receive the $15 million bounty the US government has placed on Maduro’s head.

A Rogue State on the Loose

Venezuela has long been in US sights, but the Trump administration has sought to escalate attacks on the country. Trump has continuously escalated sanctions against Venezuela even as the country is battling COVID–19. Long before COVID–19, a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that US sanctions on Venezuela had caused 40,000 deaths between 2017 and 2018.

In the last presidential election, the Venezuelan opposition boycotted the election, preemptively claiming electoral fraud. The United States made it clear in advance it would not accept the result of the election. With most opposition refusing to participate in the election, Maduro easily won. (Some have suggested that “the opposition might have won had they not boycotted it.”)

The opposition controls the Venezuelan National Assembly (the fruits of bothering to contest an election). They cited a provision of the Venezuelan constitution that if the president abandons his post, the president of the National Assembly becomes president. Even though this in no feasible way applies to the current situation, a relatively unknown politician, Juan Guaidó self-declared himself president of Venezuela based on this provision. While he has no control over the government, the United States comically recognizes him as the nation’s president.

In brazen defiance of international law, the United States moved to seize Venezuelan government property and hand it over to Guaidó’s “government.” When the Venezuelan government left the US embassy, they allowed US anti-war activists, known as the Embassy Protection Collective, to stay in it. The activists sought to prevent the US government from seizing the embassy and giving it to Guaidó. Since they were the invited guests of the actual government of Venezuela, they viewed their actions as entirely lawful.

While the situation started out fairly low key, after the collective hosted a number of events, it was clear that eventually a larger showdown loomed. On April 30, 2019, Guaidó declared the military no longer backed the government of Venezuela. That turned out not to be true. His attempted coup quickly floundered. In DC, however, supporters of the opposition swarmed the Venezuelan embassy. When it became clear there was no coup, they began an aggressive campaign to force out the Embassy Protective Collective themselves.

I was frequently outside the embassy during this time and witnessed some of what happened. The opposition supporters sought to drive out the people in the embassy through loud, continuous noise. They also purposefully sought to block the delivery of food to those inside. An opposition supporter once ran up to me and began banging a pot in my face while chanting “NO FOOD! NO WATER!” despite my having neither.

The aggressive opposition supporters reportedly questioned journalists and legal observers about who was paying them to be there. In one video, opposition activists followed National Lawyers Guild legal observers down the street banging on pans, attempting to chase them away. I personally witnessed them jeer at a local progressive journalist after she had fainted, and direct a racial slur at a protester. Other such incidents were reported or captured by others on video.

In spite of the aggressive behavior of the opposition supporters, and the Secret Service’s position that they were doing nothing to obstruct food from being delivered, both the Secret Service and DC police gave the opposition activists free rein. On the other hand, anti-war activists did not receive similar treatment.

When Gary Condon, the President of Veterans for Peace, was trying to deliver food and was blocked by the opposition, he threw a cucumber through an open window. He was violently arrested. Code Pink activist Ariel Gold also tried to get food into the embassy by throwing a loaf of bread into the embassy. She was tackled by an opposition activist and arrested by DC police, who charged her with throwing missiles. DC police engaged in a retaliatory arrest against journalist Max Blumenthal.

The most bizarre scene I witnessed was DC police reading a trespass order against the activists inside. Blasting the order over an LRAD sound cannon, it announced that the DC police did not recognize the legitimacy of the “former Maduro regime” and thus the individuals were trespassing. Activists inside were able to call their bluff on the eviction attempt. DC police entered the embassy, cutting through a lock on front. After a negotiation with the activists’ attorney, they resealed the embassy and left. Days later they were removed and charged with interfering with the protective function of the State Department (a trial ended with a mistrial due to a deadlocked jury). The Guaidó “government” is in possession of the building but cannot actually perform any embassy function.

Adjacent to these events, the United States drew significant attention for sending a humanitarian aid convoy into Venezuela. Both the UN and the Red Cross asked the United States not to do this, as they viewed it as a politicization of aid. And the person in charge of this aid convoy, Elliott Abrams,  was a key architect of Reagan’s Central American policy in the 1980s and a key figure during the Iran-Contra scandal, when he used humanitarian aid flights to smuggle weapons to the Contras.

With the United States demanding Venezuela admit the convoy, many on the Left viewed it a cynical PR effort by proponents of regime change or worse an attempt at provocation. On February 23, 2019, opposition activists tried to bring the aid convoy over the Colombian-Venezeula border via a long-closed bridge. In the ensuing scuffle, the convoy was set on fire. Early on, many in the media assumed as a matter of fact that the Venezuelan government was responsible. But the New York Times later reported that video evidence showed the opposition activists who threw Molotov cocktails were responsible for the fire.

Recently, in a move that is disturbingly similar to the run up to the invasion of Panama, the Trump administration has indicted Maduro for drug trafficking (and offered $15 million for information leading to his arrest).  Trump has also sent warships to the Caribbean, which has drawn parallels to US actions in the prelude to the Panama invasion.

This is the context in which Goudreau launched his raid.

What’s Behind the Escalation?

Why has Trump done these things? A common answer is that he is trying to distract from his domestic problems. While probably partially true, it ignores the larger realities of US policy abroad.

In spite of moral panic in some corners about the Trump administration’s supposed lack of bellicosity towards Russia, Trump has repeatedly brought on former Cold Warriors and other hawks to run his foreign policy. Elliott Abrams has been appointed the US Special Representative for Venezuela.  (In addition to his time in the Reagan administration, Abrams also served under George W. Bush and was alleged to have encouraged and had advance knowledge of a 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela that removed Chavez from power for forty-seven hours). While the Trump administration has been a revolving door of personnel, some of the most obsessive proponents of regime change in Venezuela, like John Bolton, have previously worked in his administration.

In addition to these hawkish advisors, Trump has made a point of attacking socialism. In doing so, he not only goes after domestic opponents, but also attacks official “enemies” of the United States like Venezuela. Certainly, Trump’s fixation on socialism is a sign that he views growing socialist movements, as embodied by Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns or the growth of Democratic Socialist of America, as a threat. But he’s also linking his domestic political opponents to supposed foreign “enemies.” While the Left has always faced repression, the onset of the Cold War allowed this repression to escalate by allowing the US government to treat domestic radicals as holding the ideology of an enemy state with which the United States was at war.

The United States has always targeted independently minded governments, especially those pursuing socialist policies. In Latin America and the Caribbean, this history has been particularly vicious.

The private mercenaries of Silvercorp USA, has some historical antecedent in the “filibusters” like William Walker, who in the 1800s staged privately funded military expeditions against Latin American nations. The United States, of course, annexed half of Mexico. Decades before the Cold War, US marines landed in and occupied Nicaragua and Haiti. In 1954, the CIA toppled the democratically elected left-wing government of Guatemala in a coup that would serve as the template for future CIA covert actions. Infamously, the United States toppled democratically elected Chilean socialist Salvador Allende.

After the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, the United States poured money into the right-wing Contras, who routinely engaged in attacks against civilian infrastructure, such as adult literacy centers and health care clinics. The Reagan administration was so dedicated to the Contras’ campaign of terror they triggered a domestic Constitutional crisis by eschewing limits a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate Congress attempted to put on US covert action and executive war-making in Nicaragua, in what came to be known as the Iran-Contra scandal.

Venezuela has long been in the United States’ crosshairs. In 2002, Hugo Chavez was briefly removed in a coup supported by the United States. We know from revelations by WikiLeaks that the United States has been actively supporting the opposition and seeking to isolate Venezuela for some time. And it was Barack Obama who declared Venezuela an unusual and extraordinarily threat to US national security, placing murderous sanctions on the country.

Hugo Chavez and Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution broke with the neoliberal consensus. In doing so, it achieved remarkable results. Chavez presided over drops in unemployment, growth in GDP, reductions in poverty, and increases in literacy. Under Chavez, poverty dropped by 50 percent and extreme poverty dropped by 70 percent. Venezuela dropped to the lowest Gini coefficient, which is used to measure income inequality, in the region. Regional polls during the Chavez years repeatedly showed Venezuelans had some of the highest degrees of satisfaction with their democracy of any country in the region.

These gains were not just limited to Venezuela. Chavez challenged George W. Bush during a 2005 free trade summit and spoke to tens of thousands of protesters outside. He was joined on stage by Bolivian activist Evo Morales, who would soon become president of his own nation.

The Bolivarian Revolution was central to the Pink Tide. Across, Latin America leftist governments, many of them pursuing what they called “twenty-first-century socialism,” came to power via the ballot box. This fostered regional cooperation and dramatically reduced the power of the United States to intervene in the region. Venezuela’s role in fostering an alternative to neoliberalism and US domination made them powerful enemies.

But the situation has since dramatically altered. Parliamentary coups in Brazil and Paraguay removed left-wing governments. Actual coups in Honduras and Bolivia removed their governments. In other Pink Tide countries, Left governments are no longer in power.

And while Venezuela’s remarkable gains helped to do away with the idea that “there is no alternative” to the failed policies of the Washington Consensus, the situation in Venezuela is quite different today as the country is in an economic crisis. Supporters and sympathizers of the Bolivarian Revolution debate the precise origins of the crisis and to what extent policies of the government contributed to it. But two things are clear.

First, the United States has waged an unrelenting economic war against Venezuela through sanctions, designed to destroy the economy. No accounting of the current situation can be complete with pointing this out. As economist Jeffery Sachs said last year, “Venezuela’s economic crisis is routinely blamed all on Venezuela. But it is much more than that. American sanctions are deliberately aiming to wreck Venezuela’s economy and thereby lead to regime change.” Second, it is up for the Venezuelan left and the Venezuelan people to determine the course of their future.

Whether Silvercorp USA got a green light from the US government to act as privateers or was just freelancing, this misadventure can only be understood in the context of Trump’s increased aggression towards Venezuela. While Trump may be escalating these tensions, he is acting within the longer tradition of US imperialism in the region. Ultimately, it is for Venezuelans, not the United States, to determine the course of the country.