Donald Trump has been hot for Venezuela for some time now. In the summer of 2017, Trump, citing George H.W. Bush’s 1989–90 invasion of Panama as a positive precedent, repeatedly pushed his national-security staff to launch a military assault on the crisis-plagued country. Trump was serious. He wanted to know: Why couldn’t the United States just invade? He brought up the idea in meeting after meeting.
His military and civilian advisers, along with foreign leaders, forcefully dismissed the proposal. So, according to NBC, he outsourced Venezuela policy to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who, along with National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, began coordinating with the Venezuelan opposition. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence called on Venezuelans to rise up and overthrow the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro. On Wednesday, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, the heretofore unknown 35-year-old Juan Guaidó (whose political godfather is, according to The Washington Post, jailed far-right leader Leopoldo López), declared himself president. Guaidó was quickly recognized by Washington, followed by Canada; a number of powerful Latin American countries, including Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia; and the United Kingdom.
Trump has a wobbly sense of history, but his instinct to see Venezuela through the prism of Panama is on the mark. Similar to Panama then, Venezuela is today a nation suffering a long, seemingly insurmountable crisis, governed by a regime challenged by a united (or united enough) opposition, which Washington can use to justify intervention and then install in power once the intervention is complete.
And Trump, looking at Venezuela, is doing no more than George H.W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan before him, who both used a one-off war in the Washington’s “backyard” to reorder domestic and international politics. Latin America and the Caribbean have long been Washington’s workshop, especially useful as a place where rising political coalitions can regroup following moments of global crisis, where they can not only rehearse military and destabilization strategies but also sharpen their worldview and work out moral justifications for intervention.
Reagan’s 1983 invasion of Grenada won praise from many Democrats, who celebrated overcoming not just the trauma of the Vietnam War but the Iran-hostage syndrome. One columnist, previewing today’s reality-showization of politics, said that the invasion gave “American television” one of its “better weeks.” The Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, called the invasion “justified,” as did another harsh Democratic critic of Reagan, Thomas Foley. “Years of frustration were vented by the Grenada invasion,” said New Jersey Democrat Robert Torricelli. Bush’s follow-up invasion of Panama gave television an even better week, and brought the same kind of domestic praise. Both invasions, especially the one of Panama, helped to erode the principle of non-intervention—the foundation of the New Deal diplomatic order—and restore to international law the premise that the United States has the right to wage war on sovereign countries not only in the name of national security but for a higher moral purpose, such as the protection of lives or the defense of human rights.
It seems clear that Trump, himself presiding over a nation suffering a seemingly insurmountable crisis and challenged by a united (or united enough) opposition, is desperate for something to break the deadlock. A quick tour d’horizon reveals strikingly few opportunities. Iran is too risky, for now, and his predecessors have racked over what’s left of the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Venezuela beckons.
We are seeing, sort of, the same kind of coming together witnessed in the run up to Panama and Iraq. “On Venezuela, Where Are Liberals?” wailed the headline for a New York Times column by Bret Stephens last year. They’re with you Bret, they’re with you. Representative Eliot Engel, who now chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, supports Donald Trump’s Venezuela position, promising to introduce legislation to back it up, and he’s backed by Florida Democratic Representative Donna Shalala. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted “America stands by the people of #Venezuela as they rise up against authoritarian rule and demand respect for human rights and democracy.” In Florida, Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost a contested governor’s race to a right-wing Trumpian (and who was himself was redbaited in that campaign and linked by Trump to Maduro), likewise tweeted out support of Trump’s Venezuela policy. NPR’s coverage was fawning. “This is the right call. Thank you, Mr. President,” tweeted Jeb Bush.
For its part, most of the rising social-democratic wing of the Democratic Party has been slow to respond. California representative Ro Khanna was perhaps the first among the congressional left to criticize the bid for regime change, and he did so forcefully, as did, later, presidential candidate and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard. Bernie Sanders botched his response, leading by accepting the premise of Trump’s intervention, that Maduro’s presidency was illegitimate, before noting that the United States “has a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin American countries; we must not go down that road again.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s response has also been muted.
Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar provided the strongest statement: “We cannot hand pick leaders for other countries on behalf of multinational corporate interests,” she said. “If we really want to support the Venezuelan people, we can lift the economic sanctions that are inflicting suffering on innocent families, making it harder for them to access food and medicines, and deepening the economic crisis.” Those sanctions had considerable Democratic Party support.
Maduro, the former vice president to the late Hugo Chávez who won a close presidential election in 2013 and then a disputed reelection in 2018, might fall: The coordination—detailed here in The Wall Street Journal—between the opposition and the White House is impressive, as is Washington’s ability to whip together international backing. That’s different from 1989, when every country in the Organization of the American States, including Pinochetista Chile, opposed Bush’s invasion. Or from 1983, when, in the face of OAS opposition, the Reagan administration had to invoke treaty obligations with the microscopic Organization of Eastern Caribbean States to justify its assault on Grenada. In Venezuela, unlike in past rounds of opposition protest, poor people from historically Chavista neighborhoods seem to be joining the calls for Maduro’s ouster (Rebecca Hanson and Tim Gill, at NACLA, here, have a good survey of the current situation).
But Venezuela’s military, comprising at least 235,000 soldiers with a back-up of at least a million and a half pro-government militia members, is so far supporting Maduro. Counter-protests to defend the government appear to be smaller than usual but still comprise a significant number of people. More than a dozen have been killed, but the main axis of confrontation is fast moving from the streets to the diplomatic arena. According to The Guardian, the “US initially ignored the Maduro government’s order expelling embassy staff, but late on Thursday the state department announced it was withdrawing ‘non-emergency US government employees.’”
It’s a split-screen coup, with two competing realities. On one side is a president sitting in the presidential palace, still in control of most levers of government, including the military and police, recognized as legitimate by, among other countries, China, Russia, and Mexico. On the other side is an alt-president, said to be hunkered down in the Colombian embassy, promising amnesties and issuing virtual decrees that have authority with perhaps half the population, and maybe a dozen nations, led by Brazil, the United States, Britain, and Canada. But not the European Union. “All options are on the table,” says Trump, threatening a military response. But there is an emerging sense that, with Venezuela’s military standing pat, he might have lost his bet. Brazil, now led by the homophobic, genocide-celebrating, rape-threatening Jair Bolsonaro, said it won’t participate in a military intervention. “I don’t think the [Trump] administration has thought through all of the consequences of taking action as quickly as it did in recognizing Guaidó,” said Roberta Jacobson, who served as Barack Obama’s and, for a time, Trump’s assistant secretary of state for Latin America (a position that is now vacant).
Whatever happens, it’s clear that the left wing of the Democratic Party needs to sharpen its crisis-response message, to figure out a way to use such moments to put forth a compelling counter-vision to the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment. Not too long ago, there appeared, in the pages of newspapers and journals, a spate of articles wondering what a left-wing foreign policy might look like. “Where Is the Left Wing’s Foreign Policy?” asked the headline for an article by Sarah Jones last year in The New Republic. In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, there emerged a young generation of wonks offering specific, practical, and feasible steps for how to achieve, say, Medicare for All, or implement a progressive tax structure and a Universal Basic Income. But, as Jones and others pointed out, foreign policy was largely ignored.
Some tried to fill in the void. They offered either specific proposals on vexed topics such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Saudi war in Yemen, China, trade, and Russia, or put forth broad “principles”—including, as Daniel Bessner, a scholar of American foreign policy, wrote in The New York Times, “accountability,” “anti-militarism,” “threat deflation,” and a social-democratic “internationalism.” Should Ocasio-Cortez one day find herself on the House Foreign Relations Committee, they could undergird her attempt to forge a left foreign policy. Added up, the proposals and principles offered by social-democratic foreign-policy advisers-in-waiting are good and decent.
But Trump’s Venezuela putsch attempt reveals that foreign policy is a much more volatile realm of political action, a more primal arena of national identity and collective imagination, than domestic policy. At least since the early years of the presidency of Barack Obama, the Republican Party has been using Venezuela to cohere its message, fusing together an implicit racism and an explicit defense of individual rights and capitalist freedom. The 2009 coup in Honduras gave the right wing an opportunity to use Obama’s initial qualms about the coup to shore up a narrative that equated Obama with both Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, a narrative that Trump has put to effective use. “They want to make us into Venezuela,” he said recently. As social rights—to health care, to education, to a decent life—gain in popularity, the right has perfected the “but Venezuela” response. In doing so, it conveys a whole, fairly coherent worldview. Ocasio-Cortez, say Republicans, is “hellbent” on turning Americans into “Venezuelan socialists” (though Chris Cuomo, of all people, recently had a surprisingly effective comeback).
That Sanders’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s response to Trump’s putsch has been subdued is understandable. The Maduro government is hard to defend except in the abstract—based on the principle of sovereignty and non-intervention—and abstraction is a difficult realm in which to put forth a credible political vision. There’s a deep, insurmountable tension between the ideal of national self-determination and the ideal that human dignity shouldn’t be sacrificed to national self-determination. And the left Democrats want to keep the political debate focused on domestic politics: saner taxes, Medicare for All, and a Green New Deal are, in the context of the horridness of US domestic politics, a lot to take on.
But a political coalition cannot dominate the domestic policy debate unless it also dominates the foreign-policy debate. My favorite example of this is when Michael Dukakis, Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1988, tried to make something out of Iran/Contra. He couldn’t. After raising the issue in one of his debates with George H.W. Bush, Bush responded as if he were brushing away a fly: “I will take all the blame” for Iran/Contra, Bush said, “if you give me half the credit for all of the good things that have happened in world peace since Ronald Reagan and I took over from the Carter administration.” Dukakis didn’t raise the issue again.
The political terrain has shifted, and Trump, whatever happens in Venezuela, won’t be able to use foreign policy to such effect. But if the social-democratic wing of the Democratic Party wants not just to react to an existing agenda but set a new agenda, it needs to realize the extent to which foreign policy is the place where, in Gramscian terms, hegemony is established—not over other nations but within this nation; where normative ideas concerning how best to organize society get worked out; where contradictions—between ideas, interests, social groups—get reconciled. That reconciliation comes about not through a laundry list of pragmatic policies but by seizing the ideological high ground.
As the unfolding events in Venezuela reveal, that high ground is up for grabs—though Ilhan Omar gives us a map of how to take it.