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Maduro’s Venezuela & U.S. Intervention

PC: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Over the last few weeks, rapidly shifting U.S. foreign policy approaches in relation to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela have left many wondering what the future holds for U.S.-Venezuela relations. A number of experts on the history of U.S.-Latin American relations have noted the similarities of the Trump administration’s threats to past interference in Latin America, and are concerned about what a U.S. military invention would mean for the future and stability of Venezuela. The U.S. foreign policy debate came after Donald Trump revealed support for opposition leader Juan Guaidó, with a plan to recognize him as the legitimate President of Venezuela and provide resources to put him in power.

Maduro came to power as the successor to Hugo Chavez after his death in 2013. As his successor, Maduro was meant to be the successor to the socialist Bolivarian Revolution, which Chavez led. As a result of the revolution, Chavez held office for 20 years, maintaining widespread popularity among his base, estimated at about 30% of the population of Venezuela. Much of Chavez’s base was composed of the poor both in urban centers and the countryside, who saw hope in Chavez’s socialist ideology. These Chavistas remained loyal throughout Chavez’s two decades of leadership, and many began to follow Maduro after Chavez’s death. Now, however, the Chavistas are divided, as they must decide whether or not they should abandon Maduro. If they abandon Maduro, the party has a chance of surviving although it will lose its leader. If the Chavistas stand with Maduro, they risk their party losing all credibility by being closely associated with Maduro’s authoritarian government, and the movement dying.

Since coming to power in 2013, Maduro has led Venezuela into a series of economic crises, largely fueled by an over-dependence on the export of oil and price fluctuations in the oil market. Recent U.S. sanctions on oil have further devastated the Venezuelan economy, putting more pressure on the Maduro administration and escalating the humanitarian crisis. In 2015, the Socialist party lost its majority control in the National Assembly, and violent protests broke out in 2017 when Maduro attempted to add another branch to the government to nullify the coalition government that replaced the Socialist party in the assembly. In 2018, Maduro was re-elected in an election that the opposition boycotted. Maduro has been accused of meddling in the election, which is the basis for Guiadó’s claim that he is the rightful president. In August of 2018, the Venezuelan government attempted to stop hyperinflation by devaluing their money, resulting in a migration crisis.

For those versed in Latin American history, U.S. Intervention is a familiar situation. Starting with the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the U.S. has frequently intervened in Latin American affairs. The Monroe Doctrine established U.S. influence over Latin America, and placed Latin American affairs as a high priority in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. invaded a number of countries in Latin America during the 19th and early 20th centuries, often under the auspices of American companies. As a result, the U.S. has been accused of establishing a system of economic imperialism in Latin America. During the Cold War, U.S. policy toward Latin America became even more interventionist, as the Monroe Doctrine was compounded with the policy of containment of communism.

The U.S. has backed and fomented a number of coups, usually against leftist leaders or those who appeared to be leftist (due toties with the Soviet Union or adoption of leftist policies such as land redistribution). The majority of the coups were disastrous for the countries they took place in. In Guatemala, the CIA fomented a 1954 coup that overthrew the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz, and led to a decades-long Civil War. In Argentina, the 1976 U.S.-backed overthrow of Isabel Perón led to the rise of a military dictatorship that disappeared over 30,000 people. The CIA was also involved in the 1973 Chilean coup that led to the rise of the Pinochet dictatorship. Additionally, in Nicaragua the U.S. funded the Contra rebels, who fought to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government. The U.S. backed, fomented, or led, a number of other coups and attempted coups including in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Haiti, and Cuba.

Of course some of the leaders overthrown in U.S.-backed coups were by no means benevolent leaders, and some showed little regard for democracy and human rights. However, by and large, these U.S.-backed coups destabilized nations, led to the rise of dictatorships, worsened human rights, and often led to bloody civil wars. In the decades following the Cold War, an increasing number of people have called out the U.S. policy toward Latin America during the Cold War years. The U.S. has been accused of undermining Latin American democracies, participating in war crimes, carrying out assassinations, and meddling in the internal politics of sovereign nations. Given this history, the U.S. government should take great caution before intervening in Venezuelan politics.

The Bay of Pigs invasion was an attempt by the U.S. government to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro in Cuba. In the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuban exiles composed the majority of the invading force. Most Cuban exiles in the U.S. turned sharply against Fidel Castro, and supported hardline stances against communism by the U.S. government. Some experts have begun to see similarities between the time leading up to the Bay of Pigs and Trump’s recent policy shift in Venezuela. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and its political ramifications domestically, have pushed some security experts to warn caution, even those who otherwise support U.S. intervention in Venezuela,

Like Cubans in the 1960s, Venezuelans have become increasingly polarized over the last several years, both within Venezuela and abroad. Many Venezuelans in the United States have shifted to the right, supporting U.S. intervention to remove Maduro from power. Some political experts see the potential of these Venezuelans and Venezuelan Americans to follow the pattern among Cuban Americans, who largely joined the anti-communist Republican Party. This group has already held rallies in favor of Guaidó, and has the potential to exert significant pressure on the U.S. government.

Several Democrats have already been criticized for speaking out against Trump’s declaration of support for Guaidó, with Venezuelans citing the deepening humanitarian crisis in Venezuela as reason to intervene in the Maduro administration. At the same time, there are some Venezuelans who are ardent supporters of Maduro, in addition to some who dislike Maduro but still support the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution. In Venezuela, the divisions are equally complicated, and are compounded by the worsening economic and humanitarian crisis and Maduro’s authoritarian government.

In January, Guiadó claimed to be the rightful president of an interim government that would replace Maduro. Since then, over 40 countries have recognized him as the rightful president, in an attempt to have Maduro step down. Some, particularly those on the left, have accused the U.S. of interfering in a Latin American democracy, much like during the Cold War. Others, however, claim that Maduro is an illegitimate president who gained a second term through a rigged election, and who is in violation of the Venezuelan constitution. Those who fall into this second school of thought argue that Guiadó is not trying to launch a coup, but rather is following the Venezuelan constitution. Some claim that this is not, in fact, the U.S. meddling in another country’s internal affairs, but is rather the international community supporting the Venezuelan people who are calling for free and fair elections.

Among Chavistas, however, the support for Guiadó by the U.S. is too similar to the Cold War Era interventions. Many worry that this is, in fact a power grab by the opposition, backed by the American government because the U.S. fears socialism. It is unsurprising that many have this concern, given the U.S.’s history of overthrowing democratically elected, and often leftist, governments in Latin America. Some have rallied behind Maduro because of this concern, and not because they support his administration. Although Guiadó has insisted that he will preserve all political parties and protect democracy if he becomes the interim president, many Chavistas fear that their party, and their political power, will be destroyed if the opposition takes over the government.

The political situation in Venezuela has raised a number of questions about our history in Latin America, and the role of the U.S. in the world. While some have accused the U.S. of being imperialistic, others see the U.S. stance on Venezuela as one based in protecting human rights and security. It has forced us to contend with the darker aspects of our history in Latin America, and question our motives. The situation in Venezuela, and our relationship to it continues to become increasingly complex. This is certainly not an issue that will be resolved quickly nor easily.


The author is an employee of the Democratic Caucus of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.  The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Caucus, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives or any individual Representative.