WHY IS THE U.S. government so intent on overturning Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro?

It’s not because our government has any interest in the welfare of the Venezuelan people. Okay, fair enough — they have a government of their own to look after their welfare. However, the U.S. government does have a huge interest in protecting and expanding potential for U.S. oil corporations to profit from Venezuela’s vast oil reserves.

Beginning in the early 1900s, Venezuela’s newly discovered oil fields were in the hands of foreign corporations. Oil production was nationalized in 1976, but the Venezuelan government continued to allow those same corporations (ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Total) to extract the oil — and also much of the profit, just leaving behind a healthy share for the ruling dictatorship and the Venezuelan elite.

Most Venezuelans continued in abject poverty, despite the enormous wealth that lay beneath their feet. The U.S. supported the dictatorial Venezuelan leadership, as long as U.S. corporate oil coffers continued to be filled and refilled.

The U.S. government (and oil magnates) were surprised and very dismayed when in 1998 Hugo Chávez won the popular vote by a large margin, on the promise of working to retain oil revenue to benefit ordinary Venezuelans rather than foreign corporations and the Venezuelan elite.

The U.S. tried to help the ousted Venezuelan elite to get rid of Chávez, who was kidnapped but then released when the people turned out to demand the return of their democratically elected president.

To the chagrin of the U.S., Chávez then set about forcibly buying out the foreign oil interests and directing oil profits toward his people’s needs: health care, education, housing, agriculture. During those years, oil prices were high, and the government was able to accomplish a great deal.

When I visited Venezuela in 2011, Chávez’s popularity was palpable among the common people I met in Caracas, on farms in the countryside and fisheries on the coast. Not so in Washington, where the U.S. worked to obstruct his government’s central project, funding his opposition and maligning him personally in every way possible.

Under Chávez, the Venezuelan government made some mistakes, easy to see in hindsight, but maybe not so easy to avoid, given the powerful foreign forces aligned against them and the fact that they were breaking with a centuries-long history of colonial subjugation followed by foreign economic domination.

They eagerly began to bring about rapid social change: eliminating illiteracy, instituting free universal health care and free public education (including university), initiating a massive public housing project, providing cheap, rapid public transportation to far-flung impoverished neighborhoods in Caracas, giving grants and interest-free loans for projects designed by and for small communities all across the country. However, in their eagerness to carry out their vision, they failed to reinvest adequately in their economic engine: the oil industry.

The untimely death of Hugo Chávez of cancer in 2013 was an unforeseen catastrophe. He was succeeded by his then vice president, Nicolás Maduro, who was elected president in his own right, and who would attempt to continue implementing the Chávez agenda. However, he lacked the Chávez charisma, and soon enough, Maduro’s government also lacked the economic wherewithal, as oil prices dropped precipitously: another catastrophe.

To top it off, Maduro has followed some very bad advice regarding economic policy, resulting in catastrophic inflation.

Meanwhile, powerful U.S. support for the Venezuelan opposition to the Chávez agenda continued unabated, and President Obama added sanctions. The country’s economic downturn was reinforced by increasing sanctions, today doubling down as U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil are cut, potentially eliminating almost half of its existing market.

Venezuela is not in the hands of an evil dictator bent on keeping Venezuelan wealth for himself and his cronies, as we are constantly being told by mainstream news media in the U.S. Chávez, and then Maduro, were elected multiple times, in free and fair democratic elections, as attested by phalanxes of neutral international observers.

On the other hand, self-appointed “interim president” Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. and then several other companion governments have recently anointed, was not elected to the Venezuelan presidency (interim or otherwise) by anyone.

Venezuela is in desperate straits. This is partly of their government’s own making, but greatly exacerbated by the overweening power of the U.S. government acting on behalf of transnational corporate greed. We in the U.S. need to do our best to rein in our government’s brutal sanctioning of a struggling country already reeling under massive inflation, impoverishment and threat of mass starvation, driving thousands to seek relief in bordering countries.

I call upon our elected representatives to educate themselves on the situation in Venezuela and work to restrain the White House from fomenting civil war there or, worse, actively engaging in Libyan-style regime change.

Reed recently retired from Keene State College as an education professor specializing in social justice issues.