Luca Dannetta, Queen’s University
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro is currently withholding food from his people, blocking foreign aid from entering the country, and imprisoning political opposition. Most of the Western world has publicly announced support for a take-over by the leader of the opposition, Juan Guaido, in the name of freedom and democracy.
But there is so much more to this story than a simple question of democracy versus dictatorship. This is a story of socialism, oil, military coups, and neocolonialism, and it leaves major questions regarding how the world should proceed, regarding the legacy of US foreign policy in the western hemisphere.
In order to fully understand the implications of this affair and be able to critically analyze the interests at play, it is essential to understand the historical record of American political interference in Latin America.
Since the middle of the 20th century, the US has supported – via military and economic aid –numerous coups in order to overthrow democratically-elected leaders in Latin America, with the primary intent of ousting any leader with socialist tendencies or policy prescriptions. These interferences were largely justified by Cold War ideological warfare and the policy of Containment.
For example, in 1973 the CIA aided in a coup which ousted Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected democratic socialist President of Chile. The coup was followed by the 17-year reign of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship which was accused of numerous human rights violations. Pinochet was strongly backed by the US in both economic and military terms.
Just three years later, the US supported a right-wing coup which ousted the democratically-elected President of Argentina, Isabel Peron. The US government eagerly supported the resulting military dictatorship of General Jorge Rafael Videla, which committed many human rights violations, including extrajudicial arrests, mass executions, and torture. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger payed multiple official visits to Argentina during Videla’s reign.
During the Reagan administration, the United States backed and funded the Contras, a far-right rebel group that was engaged in active and violent opposition to the socialist government of the Sandinista Junta in Nicaragua. The administration engaged in a propaganda campaign, downplaying the Contras’ human rights violations in order to alter public opinion in their favour. Even after Congress prohibited further financial support to the Contras, the Reagan administration continued it covertly, funded by illegal arms sales to Iran.
The Eisenhower administration backed a Guatemalan coup in 1954 to overthrow a left-leaning leader who was re-distributing land and seeking reparations for tax fraud by the American-based United Fruit Company. The Kennedy administration and the CIA conspired to overthrow Cuba’s Communist regime, failing spectacularly at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. The Johnson administration supported a Brazilian coup in 1964 to overthrow a center-left social democrat and to prevent Communist influence from arising in the resulting power vacuum. The Reagan administration contributed to the brutal suppression of workers’ revolts against the United Fruit Company’s exploitation of foreign workers in El Salvador.
In short, the United States has a long and grisly history of interfering in Latin American domestic politics.
Most of these interferences were focused on undermining political mobilization among socialists and workers, as part of the broader policy of Containment which sought to prevent the spreading influence of Soviet Communist ideology during the Cold War.
But the practice of facilitating regime change in Latin America did not end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As recently as 2002 and 2009, the US supported coup attempts in Venezuela and Honduras.
Elsewhere, the United States has focused its foreign interference on a different goal: oil.
The history of America’s escapades in oil reserve exploitation hardly needs to be categorized.
Most famously, in 1953, the US Central Intelligence Agency cooperated with the British MI-6 in a plot to overthrow the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had led the charge on the nationalization of Iranian oil reserves. The joint operation ousted Mosaddegh, placed the American-backed Shah back into full political power, and restored control of the nation’s oil reserves to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation, a British oil conglomerate.
Accounting for evidence from Latin America and the Middle East, it is quite clear that US foreign policy over the past three quarters of a century has been shaped by two significant goals: undermining socialism as a legitimate form of economic government and maintaining unrestricted access to foreign oil reserves.
This is where Venezuela becomes important for two reasons.
Firstly, Venezuela has been ruled by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998.
Secondly, Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, an estimated 296.5 billion barrels, which as of 2012 accounted for roughly 20% of all global oil reserves.
Importantly, Venezuela’s oil reserves were nationalized in 1976, bringing the nation’s oil under control of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), a state-owned oil corporation. Since winning power in 1998, the United Socialist Party has tightened regulations in order to explicitly tie oil reserves to the state. For example, government policy requires that the PDVSA maintain a controlling stake in any joint ventures with outside energy companies. These regulations ensure that the oil remains primarily under the control of Venezuela, and not foreign oil conglomerates.
Thus, in Venezuela we see the convergence of two key US foreign policy interests: a massive reserve of oil, and a socialist regime that is trying to protect said oil from exploitation by foreign corporations. It is easy to see why Venezuela has been a thorn in America’s side, but they have had no legitimate justification for facilitating a regime change.
Enter: Nicolas Maduro.
After the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013, Maduro won a special election as the new leader of the United Socialist Party and took power in April of 2013. Maduro largely continued the policies of the Chavez administration, but took multiple steps to seize more power than he would normally be afforded by the constitution. One of the main mechanisms by which he did this was by creating a brand new Constituent Assembly, which would supplant the powers of the old National Assembly and would possess the power to alter the constitution.
Maduro’s tyrannical and dangerous moves were strongly opposed by the people, by Venezuelan opposition groups, and by the international community. Since 2013, both the Obama and Trump administrations have imposed harsh sanctions, largely aimed at preventing Maduro from enriching himself via profits from the PDVSA. For example, the US has barred American companies or citizens from purchasing debt or accounts receivable from the Venezuelan government, including from the PDVSA.
The challenges to Maduro culminated in January of 2019, when Juan Guaido, the leader of the opposition in Venezuelan Congress, declared himself the true President of Venezuela, and began urging the Venezuelan military and people to recognize him over Maduro.
Thus appeared the perfect storm for US foreign policy interests. Since the late 20th century Venezuelan oil has been protected from aggressive foreign exploitation, and now a dictatorial socialist leader who abuses his authority and treads on the norms of democracy is in power. He is withholding food from his citizens, undermining legitimate democracy, and squandering valuable natural resources, leaving the state in poverty. In comes a new, young, well-liked politician in Juan Guaido, who claims to have the voice of the people behind him. This all sounds like the perfect justification for a forced regime change.
On top of this, an envoy of Juan Guaido’s government-in-waiting has vowed that a Guaido administration would loosen regulations in order to allow private oil companies to have a greater stake in joint ventures with the PDVSA. This would open up Venezuelan oil to investment and exploitation by foreign oil companies.
So now the US can support the un-democratic takeover of an unelected leader, who can oust a socialist government guilty of human rights violations, and in doing so, open up 1/5th of the world’s proven oil reserves to exploitation by foreign corporations. And the whole world seems primed to back them up – Canada, Spain, France, Britain, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and many others have publicly announced their support for Guaido.
In other words, the US has the opportunity to undermine another Latin American democracy, open the flood gates for Venezuelan oil, and feel like freedom fighters while the rest of the world pats them on the back.
And there is no indication to suggest that the Trump administration will shy away from this opportunity. Trump has already hinted strongly that a US-backed military coup could be forthcoming, and his administration has even discussed coup plans with rebel Venezuelan military officials.
Furthermore, the administration’s rhetoric has been eerily reminiscent of Cold War language that depicted socialism and democracy as irreconcilable ideals in order to justify interference in Latin American domestic politics.
Last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Woodstock of American Conservatism, Vice President Mike Pence presented a stark dichotomy between socialism and freedom, reminding Americans that it was the latter that gave America “the highest quality of life, the cleanest environment on earth, and improved the health and well-being of millions around the world.” The Trump administration also claimed that it would continue “dialogue with all Venezuelans who demonstrate a desire for democracy” and would work to “bring positive change to a country that has suffered so much under Maduro.”
It is important to note that one of the major military leaders with whom the US has been in dialogue is on the American government’s own sanctions list of corrupt officials in Venezuela.
The moral authority claimed by the Trump administration on the issue of Venezuela is questionable at best.
Throughout this power struggle, the US has only made things worse for Venezuela and its people. The Trump administration ramped up sanctions, which has made it nearly impossible for Venezuela to recover financially. For example, in August of 2017, Trump signed an executive order that prevents Venezuela from profiting off dividends from the PDVSA’s US subsidiary Citgo and bans trading on bonds the Venezuelan government issued to circumvent previous sanctions that cut them off from western markets.
In essence, US policies have made a stable financial recovery almost impossible without either foreign aid or a new regime supported by the Trump administration.
To be clear, I am not saying that Maduro should remain in office as the President of Venezuela. He is a ruthless dictator who has undoubtedly corrupted the character of Venezuela’s democracy and used his political power to suppress opponents and punish dissent.
I am saying that the world needs to think critically about the interests at play in Venezuela’s power struggle. Given the United States government’s history of interfering in Latin American domestic politics, actively undermining socialist governments all over the world, and fighting wars to maintain direct access to foreign oil reserves, it does not seem unfathomable that there is something more going on here than the ‘fight for freedom.’
Replacing a dictator elected to the presidency under suspicious circumstances with a leader who was not elected to the presidency at all is not democracy.
The best course of action is for major powers to work with Venezuela to facilitate a new, fair, and free election, and let the Venezuelan people choose what path the country should take.
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