Maduro’s claim that Washington has used cyberwarfare to bring down Venezuela’s power grid cannot be so easily dismissed

By Stephen Gowans

March 11, 2019

In the last few days Venezuela has been afflicted by power failures, escalating the misery of a population already menaced by an ongoing economic crisis.

Two explanations are offered to account for the outages.

Western news media point to the alleged economic mismanagement of the Maduro government, which has, in their view, crippled Venezuela’s power gird via under-investment.

The Maduro government counters that the United States has brought down the power grid through a cyberwarfare attack, part of its project of bringing Juan Guaidó, the US-backed Venezuelan legislator to power, by plunging the country into chaos and blaming the crisis on Maduro.

The US news media say that Caracas has offered no evidence to back up its accusation that Washington has unleashed a cyberattack on Venezuela, but equally offer no evidence to substantiate their own accusation that the Maduro government’s economic policies are to blame for the crisis.

We are thus presented with a fact (the outage) and two competing narratives, neither based on hard evidence. Which of these narratives is more credible?

Washington very likely has the cyberwarfare capability to cripple Venezuela’s power grid. On November 12, 2018, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that,

The United States had a secret program, code-named “Nitro Zeus,” which called for turning off the power grid in much of Iran if the two countries had found themselves in a conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. Such a use of cyberweapons is now a key element in war planning by all of the major world powers.

If the United States can turn off the power grid in Iran, using a cyberweapon that is now a key element in war planning of all the major world powers, it’s highly likely that it can do the same in Venezuela.

What’s more, the United States has on at least two occasions carried out cyberattacks against foreign states. Significantly, the attacks were unleashed against governments which, like Venezuela’s, have refused to submit to US hegemony. US cyberattacks were used to cripple Iran’s uranium enrichment program (now widely acknowledged) and to sabotage North Korea’s rocket program, the latter revealed by various sources, including, again, by the New York Time’s Sanger:  “[F]or years….the United States has targeted the North’s missile program with cyberattacks,” the reporter wrote in August, 2017.

The aforesaid, of course, is only evidence of capability, not of commission, but when placed within the context of Washington making clear its intention to topple the resource nationalist Maduro government, US capability, motivation, and practice, does very strongly cast suspicion on the US government.

Last week, US National Security Adviser John Bolton conceded (even boasted) that US policy in Venezuela is guided by the Monroe Doctrine, a doctrine which effectively claims US hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. In November, he used florid language to rail against Venezuela and other Latin American states which have rejected the Monroe Doctrine as belonging to a “Troika of Tyranny,” and forming part of a “triangle of terror” while acting as “a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.”

In 2002, as undersecretary of state, Bolton added Syria, Libya, and Cuba to George W. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil,” a regime change hit list which initially included Iraq, Iran and North Korea. All of the designated states were regime-changed or subjected to attempted regime change by Washington.  Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria were or are resource nationalist states, like Venezuela.

Revealingly, Bolton used the occasion of denouncing what he called Venezuela’s “poisonous” ideology of socialism (more accurately termed resource nationalism) to sing hosannas to Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, an unequivocal reactionary, who Bolton lauded as a positive “sign for the future of the region” in light of Bolsanaro’s “commitment to free-market principles.”

Commitment to free-market principles is code for welcoming the takeover of a country’s land, labour, markets and resources by US free enterprise. Bolton infamously told Fox Business that “It’ll make a big difference to the United States economically, if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.” Indeed it will. Venezuela has the world’s largest reserves of oil, and is teeming with other natural resources, including gold, coveted by wealthy investors, including those with stakes in Canada’s giant mining companies (explaining why Ottawa has played a lead role in the Lima Group’s efforts to drive Maduro from power in favor of the foreign investment-friendly Guaidó.)

Guaidó showed why he has been decried as a US puppet when he said his economic “plan called for … opening up Venezuela’s vast oil sector to private investment,” along the lines envisaged by Bolton. The self-proclaimed president’s plan “includes privatizing assets held by state enterprises,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Under the Maduro government, investment in Venezuela’s oil industry must take the form of joint ventures with the country’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, which is required to hold a majority share. Under a Guaidó government, that would change. Foreign private-owned companies would be allowed to own a majority stake in any joint-venture, and reap higher profits.

To return to the US narrative: If we accept the US-directed view that the power outages are caused by the Maduro government’s putative mismanagement of the electrical system, it appears all too convenient that the blackouts should happen precisely at the moment Washington is engaged in an effort to drive Maduro, and his “poisonous” ideology of resource nationalism, from power.

It seems more likely, given Washington’s long history of sabotaging the economies of countries that are insufficiently accommodating of US free enterprise, that US cyberwarfare capabilities were pressed into service to force Venezuelans to endure even more misery than has already been engendered by US-orchestrated sanctions. The aim is to increase pressure on Maduro to step down. As the Economist revealed, “Mr Guaidó and Mr Trump are betting that hardship will topple the regime.”

This parallels US efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba. As historian Louis A Perez Jr. explained in a 2002 article in the Journal of Latin American Studies,

[C]entral to US objectives was the need to maintain the appearance that the collapse of Fidel Castro was the result of conditions from within, by Cubans themselves, the product of government economic mismanagement, and thereby avoiding appearances of US involvement. The United States sought to produce disarray in the Cuban economy but in such a fashion as to lay responsibility directly on Fidel Castro.

US officials affirmed that the goal was to make “Castro’s downfall seem to be the result of his own mistakes’.”

[US Ambassador Philip Bonsal] in Havana early stressed the importance of appearance: ‘ It is important that the inevitable downfall of the present Government not be attributed to any important extent to economic sanctions from the United States as major factor.’ The United States, Bonsal wrote … sought ‘ to make it clear that when Castro fell, his overthrow would be due to inside and not outside causes’. This was the purport of a lengthy memorandum by George Denney, Director of State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The idea was to eliminate Castro ‘without resort to invasion or attributable acts of violence and violations of international law’, specifically by ‘creating the necessary preconditions for nationalist upheaval inside Cuba … as a result of internal stresses and in response to forces largely, if not wholly, unattributable to the US’.

If the “Castro Communist experiment” was to “appear to have failed not on its own merits but as a result of obvious or inadequately disguised US intervention,… the validity of Castro’s revolutionary course might remain unquestioned.” Denney warned that if Cuba’s socialism was interrupted by the force of the world’s foremost ‘imperialist’ and ‘capitalist’ power in the absence of a major provocation, such action [would] discredit the US and tend to validate the uncompleted experiment.”

In Cuba, the United States sabotaged the economy through sanctions and tried to pin the blame on Castro and socialism. In Venezuela, the United States appears to have sabotaged the electrical grid and pinned the blame on Maduro

To be sure, there is, at this point, no concrete evidence that Washington has sabotaged Venezuela’s electrical grid, but it has the capability to do so, a record of using cyberattacks against countries slated for regime change, a motivation to throw Venezuela into crisis, and a game plan it has used repeatedly in other countries.

The US hand may be absent from this week’s power failures in Venezuela, but chances are it wasn’t.