Ramping up war fever against Iran, Donald Trump seems to have jerked his erratic attention span away from his campaign to overthrow Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. The embarrassing fiasco of pretender Juan Guaidó’s failed coup last month temporarily frustrated Trump’s search for an imperial triumph abroad to divert attention from the relentless piling up of legal troubles at home.
But the administration’s hawks, led by National Security Adviser John Bolton, special adviser for Venezuela Elliot Abrams, and Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio, have certainly not given up. So, no one should be surprised when the blustering Trump once again threatens the Venezuelan people with war unless they rise up and throw out their president.
But we might be a little more curious about the enthusiastic backing Trump has enjoyed from the prominent Democrats and mainstream media who have otherwise denounced him for undermining the post–World War II liberal world order—tearing up treaties, disdaining democracy, and holding international law in open contempt.
Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Richard Durbin, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and PBS commentators are among the leading liberal internationalist choristers chanting their support for Trump’s right to impose regime change on another people’s country.
They assure us, of course, that they are not promoting war. Rather, they support the presumably more “moral” policy of harsh sanctions, i.e., an expectation that strangling the Venezuelan economy will cause enough pain and misery so that Venezuelans will throw out Maduro themselves. Economists Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Weisbrot estimate that 40,000 Venezuelans died as a result of US sanctions in 2017 and 2018. Trump has dramatically tightened them this year. And if that doesn’t work?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tells us that Trump also prefers peace, but “military action is possible.” And “if that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do.” Amen, says Senator Klobuchar; “you always leave things on the table,” she said. History suggests that when you put guns on the table, the trigger-happy (e.g., Bolton and Abrams, an architect of the 1980s contra wars in Central America) are likely to manufacture an excuse to use them. Pompeo says Trump doesn’t need congressional approval to send in the Marines, anyway. This limits regime-change Democrats to the role of softening up the public for Trump’s jihad.
Trump claims the support of an international “coalition of the willing,” which of course we also corralled for the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. This year’s group includes some small client states; the newly ascendant right-wing leaders of Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia; and intimidated Europeans who will give Trump his way in Latin American to avoid his ire over their lack of enthusiasm for his warmongering against Iran and his off-again, on-again romance with Vladimir Putin. Like Trump’s Democratic supporters, the Europeans say they are not necessarily endorsing war.
But the bedrock rule of international law is clear. As the charter of the Organization of American States, which the United States has signed, declares, “No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State.” [Emphasis added.]
The exception is self-defense. The notion that Venezuela is a threat to the United States is obviously absurd. Nor can anyone seriously believe Venezuela is planning to invade any of its neighbors.
Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, was a pain in the ass to the US foreign-policy apparatus: opposing the war in Iraq, selling discounted oil to Cuba, and making speeches about US imperialism in Latin America. But neither Chávez nor Maduro was, or could have been, a serious constraint on US global hegemony.
As for the ominous references to Russia’s getting a “foothold” in the Western Hemisphere, the Russians have neither the capacity nor the stomach for challenging US military superiority in the region. They will continue to kibitz, but after their Cuban experience, Putin has little interest in assuming responsibility for an even larger economic basket case.
Still, isn’t the outside world morally obliged to act when entrenched leaders commit genocide or similar crimes against their own people? Yes. And the usual examples are Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the current rulers of Myanmar.
Nicolás Maduro in recent years has certainly become an authoritarian ruler—harassing political opponents, refusing to recognize the opposition-controlled national assembly, and treating dissenters as enemies of the state. But he is hardly in Hitler’s class. Nor is he in the class of some of Washington’s closest friends. The US government–funded center-right organization Freedom House lists 13 countries where freedom is most suppressed. Venezuela is not on the list. Of the eight not in the throes of civil war, four—Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan—are close allies or recipients of US military and economic aid. Thirty-six countries have lower Freedom House scores than Venezuela.
Trump, who still has a cloud over his own election, claims that Maduro rigged the voting in 2018. There’s little doubt that he did, using government power to muzzle the opposition and to buy votes in a low-turnout election. But the major cause of the low turnout—46 percent, down from 80 percent in the 2013 election that Maduro clearly won—was the Trump-supported boycott of the election by some of the opposition parties. The Trump administration even reportedly threatened the leading anti-Maduro candidate, Henri Falcón, with sanctions against his businesses if he ran. And then, earlier this year, Trump declared a formerly obscure hard-right politician, Juan Guaidó—elected to the National Assembly in 2015 by the same system that elected Maduro—as the “legitimate” president.
For 20 years, beginning long before Maduro turned autocrat, the US government has been trying to crush Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”—including encouragement of a failed military coup in 2002. But Chávez remained popular because he redirected oil revenues from rich oligarchs and foreign investors to the majority of Venezuelans, who are poor. Oil money was used to provided housing, clean water, schools, health programs, music education—and yes, access to polling places in poor neighborhoods. In 2012, Jimmy Carter told his Carter Center, “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
The other charge against Maduro is that he has mismanaged the economy. Also true. He denied the state oil company the investments needed to maintain its production, unnecessarily alienated his creditors, and kept spending money when oil prices and government revenue declined.
But Venezuela is not the first oil exporter to have been driven into a debt crisis when prices fell. Those that are not on the US enemies list, like Mexico in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, are able to refinance their debt with private banks and the IMF. But Washington has effectively blocked such aid to Venezuela, has restricted its oil markets, and has frozen its assets in the United States, handing some of the money over to Guaidó. The combination of sanctions and the cut-off of credit turned a floundering economy into a drowning one.
In any event, economic mismanagement hardly justifies intervention by foreigners, much less by Donald Trump, the king of corporate deadbeats. So why the willingness of the Democratic rule-of-law internationalists to join Trump, Bolton, Pompeo, and Abrams in their unlawful and unhumanitarian assault on Venezuela?
Oil may be part of the answer. Venezuela sits on the world’s largest proven oil reserves. And Guaidó has promised to give control of it back to the international oil companies. The industry gives more money to the Republicans, but they spread their largesse. In the 2018 cycle, Texas Senator Ted Cruz received more money from the oil and gas people than anyone else—and his Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, came in second. More importantly, perhaps, the industry supports the think tanks and nurtures the policy mavens who set the parameters for foreign-policy groupthink in Washington.
As we have learned from the debacles in the Middle East, the lure of oil profits and the engrained habit of the US governing class of demanding the right to determine how other countries should be run is a lethal combination. No matter how often our intelligence operations flop, exposing our ignorance of what is going on in other countries—the latest being the failure of Guaidó’s US-supported April coup attempt—the consensus that Washington knows best remains mostly unshaken inside the Beltway.
Despite the incoherence stemming from Trump’s unbalanced mind and his advisers’ rigid ideology, they may well prevail in the short run. It is hard to imagine that Maduro can survive the relentlessly tightening economic garrote, even without a US-supported invasion from the outside.
Then what? There would be more foreign investment in the oil industry, and a little more foreign aid—although not much coming from Trump. But with Venezuela’s plutocrats in charge, progress toward social equality will certainly be rolled back, leaving widespread, simmering resentment that the restored upper class will have to repress—at least as harshly as Maduro has repressed his enemies.
Civil war is also possible. The Venezuelan army, the more than 6 million people who voted for Maduro, and a large swath of Latin America’s population may not sit still for yet another Yankee intervention.
Hope may lie in reluctance from the Pentagon, which is already feeling overstretched in the Middle East and advises caution. And when denied an easy victory, the moody Trump often gets cold feet.
But the march to the brink of war often spins out of control. If we go over the edge in Venezuela, we can expect Trump’s Democratic enablers to explain later why they beat the drums for regime change—as did Clinton, Biden, Kerry, and others who supported George W. Bush’s Iraq War. We’ve heard it before: “Sorry, we really didn’t mean for it to turn out that way.”