The Wikipedia entry for siege warfare defines it as,
“A form of constant, low-intensity conflict characterized by one party holding a strong, static, defensive position.”
Former Special Envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams cast the focus of American foreign policy towards Venezuela as,
“The point is that this is a path forward back to democracy and the lifting of U.S. sanctions. People said, is there such a path? Yes. Here’s a path. And we spent a lot of time working on it. And we think it is a good path, and one that takes into account a lot of interests in Venezuela. Yeah, I mean, suppose that the regime starts secret negotiations with Guaidó and the National Assembly. And they say: Well, we’re not ready to do the whole framework. Let’s start with some confidence-building measures. We’ll do X. We’ll do Y. We’ll do Z. Plausible.”
A Little History
The word siege is derived from the Latin sedere, which means “to sit”. A siege was an extremely common method of taking a city in the ancient and medieval periods across the world. Rarely did armies ever meet in a pitched battle. Typically, wars were won by the taking and holding of cities with the help of always evolving siege weapons and tactics. Warfare can sometimes be more of a long term mutually coerced negotiation until one side gives up.
The development of siege tactics was closely intertwined with the technology available. The speed of sieges expands and contracts along the lines of distribution of technology and power in political and economic terms. Exponential increases in war technology throughout the modern era quickened the speed of sieges. Until eventually the coerced negotiations contained blitzkriegs over cosmopolitan cities. The logical conclusion of these open city bombings was the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. Fundamentally putting a lock on the speed of war.
This reorganized the pace and logic of war, siege tactics in the post-war 20th century abstracted themselves from larger, hegemonic battles. The Cold War is a perfect example of this, proxy armies and organizations in foreign countries fighting for a variety of reasons, were armed, and funded by the Soviet Union and the United States. These two powers cannot fight directly, or else nuclear war would occur so the magnitude of their conflict inverterd and caused violence in the rest of the world.
The Cold War contained two vastly different political and economic ecosystems that attempted to constrict the other one until submission. This was done by accelerating conflicts but also by building economic networks and favored political development. The United States for instance, used the connections it gained after WW2 in the Pacific to integrate Indonesia and the Philippines fully into the American sphere. This strategy can be interpreted as America increasing the position where their forces in the geopolitical realm are sitting, waiting for the Soviet Union to fall over. Until the point where the inertia of their geopolitical mass is unbearable.
Hugo Chavez and the New Geopolitics
The Soviet Union eventually did fall over, partially due the decreasing power of their communist international system thanks to American influence. In this new geopolitical world system chaired by the United States, the focus would no longer be on the no longer existing hegemonic rival but on countries that lie outside. Nations that have at some point in history attempted to leave the American power structure for whatever reason. It could be domestic human rights abuses, a revolution, social justice, or a combination of them all. America would use its influence to exile enemy countries from their global sphere.
American relations with Iran, Milosevic’s Serbia, and North Korea are strong examples of this new strategy to surround geopolitically countries that would not comply during the early part of this era. American hegemony often helps create the conditions for these belligerent countries to lash out. The American system is far from perfect, and its hyper capitalistic nature allows for international conglomerations to take advantage of countries that are subject to IMF or World Bank conditionality. Making the legality of their exile much easier to justify and strength when they lash out. The 1990’s brought a new world without a real socialist option, it seemed as if western capitalism had won the day.
This new constitution of a version of siege warfare that did not employ armies outside city walls but used the surplus power from being the only global hegemon was brought into the 21the century through an election in Venezuela. In 1998, former paratrooper, attempted coup leader and the nationally popular face of the anti-austerity movement, Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela, earning 56% of the vote. Whatever your thoughts on Chavez, it is quite clear that he had a democratic mandate throughout his terms and stuck closely to the policies he campaigned on. Chavez brought a long-awaited new constitution to Venezuela along with an anti-poverty program he campaigned heavily on.
Once elected, Chavez became an extremely active president both domestically and internationally to the great chagrin of the United States, especially in the oil sector. In 2000, Chavez visited every OPEC country to stabilize and coordinate oil production. These negotiations were a success and countries like Russia and Mexico began to follow OPEC guidelines, which raised the price of oil. His OPEC talks also took him to Iraq where he was the first head of state to visit Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War.
Increasing oil prices would work wonders for Chavez’s new array of social programs funded by a domestic oil trade that took up 30% of the country’s GDP at its peak during the Chavez years. The economy was still more diversified than it was during the 1970s where oil took up almost 40% of the country’s GDP. However, the country still lacked the ability to refine its own crude and its main customer was uneasy United States. Most of this oil was sold at a discounted rate to the American-Venezuela partially state owed gas station and refinery chain Citgo which stretches across America.
Chavez increased talks with large oil consumers like China to try to slowly wean off Venezuela dependence on America. He was vocal in his criticism of American policy in Haiti, Kosovo, Iraq, and Cuba. He towed the line of Venezuela and America’s historic symbiotic relationship through the oil trade. The most severe issue however for American oil companies was Chavez passing a law in 2001 which granted the Venezuelan state a 51% stake in the state oil company. This was accompanied by a doubling of royalties to foreign investors, but this still angered American firms like Chevron and Mobil. These companies had held a commanding stake in Venezuelan oil production since the discovery of oil in the country and throughout multiple iterations of the country’s government. This partial nationalization of Venezuela’s largest industry and asset to fund social programs caused a deep fracture with America’s powerful oil interest. This triggered the start of the present siege of Venezuela and its lumping into the exiled category of hegemonic enemy.
"His buffoonery is neither amusing nor benign."
The Houston Chronicle in response to Chavez’s oil nationalization
Chavez’s geopolitical bravado and domestic support left the United States compromised. Venezuela was still exporting thousands of barrels of crude a week to America but now the Chavez government could negotiate more effectively on prices and practices. Bush Administration officials were as dramatic to say that Chavez was holding them hostage geopolitically. America’s previously secure and close source of oil fields (the largest in the world) was now closed off and regulated by a socialist government. Chavez also was the first elected in a wave of leftist democratic victories in Latin America and seen many as the symbolic leader of the Pink Tide.
This made the rational calculation by the State Department to support a coup against Chavez in 2002 seem obvious. A country trying to act against American wishes could not be allowed to exist so close to American borders like Cuba. These events were documented thoroughly in the film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. American support for the coup was also documented by the New York Times, The Observer and The Guardian. The Bush administration publicly endorsed the coup government within 24 hours of the military assault on the presidential palace. These events marked a more aggressive turn in American policy towards Venezuela.
Chavez returned to power the day after the coup government proclaimed the end of Chavez, through the help of loyal elements in the military and public rallying. These events caused Chavez to grow more radical and more anti-American in his politics and international outlook. A frontal assault in the form of a coup failed the United States and the Venezuelan opposition. It would now be time for them to take a seat and show off the wide variety of siege tactics available in the 21st century.
“The imperialists see extremists everywhere. It’s not that we are extremists. It’s that the world is waking up. It’s waking up all over. And people are standing up. I have the feeling, dear world dictator, that you are going to live the rest of your days as a nightmare because the rest of us are standing up, all those who are rising up against American imperialism, who are shouting for equality, for respect, for the sovereignty of nations.”
Excerpt from Hugo Chavez’s 2006 United Nation Address
“He is an everyday thug"
Nancy Pelosi in response to Chavez calling President Bush the devil
Barack Obama’s Innovations
After the 2002 coup, the Bush administration looked away from Venezuela and towards its operations in Iraq. Thanks to the reinvigoration of OPEC the price of oil was continuing to grow, and Chavez continued to embarrass America thanks to his position as an oil exporter to America and his influence in OPEC. American opposition to Chavez slowed down but behind the scenes Chavez’s opposition was domestically organizing. The Bush administration continued to accuse the Chavez government of supporting drug traffickers and FARC guerrillas with no evidence, but this did little to change Chavez’s domestic support.
The Barack Obama administration took a different approach to dealing with their radical neighbor mirroring their southern coast. Pink Tide leaders like Chavez, Lula and Evo Morales initially took a liking to Obama but the relationship soon soured. Obama continued the Bush line of accusing Latin American leftist movements of being extremist and not to be trusted. These accusations made use of the themes of terrorism that influenced foreign policy creation. Thinly supported attacks on Chavez defined him as a troublemaker on the international stage, legitimizing increased measures to his opposition. The Chavez government continued to accuse the Obama administration of covert operations in Venezuela, but the Americans seemed to have little interest in pursuing regime change at that time.
Obama had his own plans for the American economy and State department that would lay new conditions for its relationship with Venezuela. The United States has the power to shift global trends through developments in its market. Sometimes conventionally affecting enemy states. This was the case for Obama’s deregulation of fracking and American oil production throughout 2014, 2015 and 2016. This led to self-sustaining American oil production that no longer relied on Venezuela’s discounted exports. It had the added effect of weakening belligerent countries within OPEC like Iran and Venezuela that rely on high oil prices.
“I was extraordinarily proud of the Paris Accords because, look I know we’re in oil country and we need American energy. And by the way, American energy production, you wouldn’t always know it, but it went up every year I was president. And you know that whole suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer … that was me, people.”
Barrack Obama, Nov. 27, 2018, at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
"Did you know there's an oil war? Maduro asked the leaders of Venezuela’s state-run business in a speech Monday in which he accused the United States of trying to flood the market with shale oil. “And the war has an objective: to destroy Russia. It's a strategically planned war ... also aimed at Venezuela, to try and destroy our revolution and cause an economic collapse," Maduro added.
From an Al Jazeera report in 2014
The other new condition Obama created was the increased organization and competence of the Venezuelan opposition in the political and non-governmental spheres. American institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have given Venezuelan political parties like Primero Justicia (First Justice), Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time) and COPEI (Christian Democrat ultra-conservative party) funding and international connections. They also are quite open about their long list of organizations they fund in Venezuela on their website. For example, according to the NED’s website US $2,381,824 was officially given out in 2014. Juan Guadio’s Popular Will party was also a part of this network. These groups would help shape the organic reaction to the severe Venezuelan economic crisis that hit after Obama’s next innovation.
Chavez died in 2013 and his Vice President Nicolas Maduro succeeded him after an election victory. This new leadership marked the start of a new strategy towards Venezuela by the United States. Venezuela inflation rates were steadily increasing due to decreasing oil prices and this made essential imports more difficult to acquire by the state. The beginnings of a broad protest movement were starting to occur in the streets in reaction to a perceived economic mismanagement by the socialist government. Maduro had been the long-time foreign minister under Chavez and had increasing difficulty dealing with the contracting economy. He continued to centralize power in a pattern that has been occurring since attempted 2002 coup Maduro witnessed personally.
Obama passed an executive order entitled the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act near the end of 2014. This executive order passed sanctions on the ability of certain Venezuelan officials to participate in international trade. These included high ranking ministers that were now excluded from fulfilling their duties as mandated through the 2013 election.
According to the 1976 National Emergencies Act, in order to pass an executive order that holds sanctions against a foreign country, the country must constitute “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security”. It also must be causing a national emergency within the borders of the United States. Obama passed these measures personally, to impose sanctions and further subject the Venezuelan economy to the painful reality of being locked out of your country’s sole commodity market. Obama also felt the threat was real enough to ignore the Organization for American States constitution that holds a strict no sanctions clause. Obama publicly proclaimed his support for human rights in Venezuela. He brought up the government’s violent crackdown on protestors and the alleged support for FARC guerillas in Columbia.
Obama was praised for his use of supposedly non-violent measures to force change in the Venezuelan state. What kind of change the American state wanted was not clear but obviously took their opposition to the government very seriously. Protests in the country were a major story in international news as the national economy had reached a major contraction. At the beginning of 2014, Venezuela had their largest GDP ever at 482 billion, but the following years would see it drop dramatically. In 2021 the GDP is around 40 billion. The leading cause of why this contraction occurred is the collapse of oil prices halfway through 2014, which fell from $120 a barrel to $50 within six months. Obama’s endless drilling on American soil and the late 2014 sanctions helped this process along.