Since its outset, the Donald Trump administration has ratcheted up pressure on Venezuela and radicalised its positions, writes Steve Ellner.
In the process, the Venezuelan opposition has become more associated with — and dependent on — Washington and its allies. An example is the opposition protests on February 4. The actions were timed to coincide with the European Union’s “ultimatum” stating that they would recognise the shadow government of Juan Guaidó if President Nicolás Maduro did not call elections within a week.
The opposition’s most radical sectors, which include Guaidó's Voluntad Popular party (VP) along with former presidential candidate María Corina Machado, have always had close ties with the United States. Guaidó, as well as VP head Leopoldo López and the VP’s Carlos Vecchio, who is the shadow government’s Chargé d’Affaires in Washington, were educated in prestigious US universities. This is not uncommon among Latin American economic and political elites.
The ties between the opposition and international actors are strong: Vecchio called the campaign to unseat Maduro “an international effort”. Guaidó, referring to opposition-called protests, said “today, February 2, we are going to meet again in the streets to show our gratitude to the support that the European Parliament has given us”.
In doing so, Guaidó explicitly connected the authority of outside countries to his own assumption of leadership.
The outcome of Washington’s actions is bound to be unfavorable in several ways, regardless of whether or not they achieve regime change. Most important, a government headed by Guaidó will be perceived both by Venezuelans and international observers as “made in USA”. The opposition’s association with foreign powers has already allowed the Maduro leadership to rein in discontented Chavistas.
Furthermore, Venezuelans will perceive any sign of economic recovery under a Guaidó government as tied to aid, if not handouts, from Washington. Designed to discredit Maduro’s socialist government, such assistance will undoubtedly be used to further US economic and political interests.
In fact, US National Security Advisor John Bolton has indicated that he is already calling on oil companies to opt for investments in Venezuela once Maduro is overthrown. He told Fox News: “We’re in conversation with major American companies now… It will 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.”
Washington is dictating opposition strategy, or at least providing input into its formulation. One of the challenges the opposition faces is demonstrating to rank-and-file Venezuelans that the current offensive against Maduro will be different from the disastrous attempts of 2014 and 2017, when anti-government leaders assured protesters that the president would be toppled in a matter of days.
The opposition leadership claims that this time is different for two reasons. First, the regional right turn has deepened, and the opposition can to rely on decisive support from other governments, regardless of how democratic they are — see the neofascist credentials of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
Second, the opposition is counting on the backing of military officers, particularly lower-ranking ones who have allegedly lost patience with Maduro. As well as some defections, junior officers attempted to stage a military coup just two days before mass opposition protests on January 23 when Guaidó declared himself president. Previously, Venezuela’s opposition expressed some contempt for military officers for failing to defy the Chavista government.
The opposition’s new perspective dates back to Trump’s three meetings with military rebels and his statement, made alongside President Iván Duque of Colombia last September, that the Maduro government “could be toppled very quickly by the military if the military decides to do that”. The US effort to encourage the military to step in was again made evident on February 6 when John Bolton tweeted that US sanctions against senior officers for alleged illegal actions could be lifted “for any Venezuelan senior military officer that stands for democracy and recognizes the constitutional government of President Juan Guaidó”.
Recently, Guaidó made a similar offer, implying continuity and closeness between Washington and the shadow government.
Guaidó and other VP leaders are closer to Washington than the rest of the opposition. The Wall Street Journal reported that Guaidó consulted Mike Pence the night before his self-proclamation as president on January 23. According to ex-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, most opposition parties were not aware of Guaidó’s intentions and did not support the idea.
The VP-led opposition is openly working hand-in-glove with Washington. Guaidó recently announced he would attempt to transport humanitarian aid the US has deposited on the Colombian and Brazilian borders into Venezuela. He called on the Venezuelan military to disobey orders from the Maduro government by facilitating the passage.
While playing political benefactor, Washington was clearly manipulating the optics of the situation to discredit Maduro and rally more international support for Guaído. In an apparent rebuke to Washington and Guaidó, UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric on Wednesday insisted that the humanitarian aid be “depoliticised”.
Opposition leaders and the Trump administration are also working together to isolate Venezuela economically throughout the world. An opposition leader, Julio Borges, has campaigned to convince international financial institutions to shun Venezuelan transactions. He urged Britain to refuse to repatriate Venezuelan gold stored in London. Maduro responded by calling on the Attorney-General to open judicial proceedings against Borges for treason.
Similarly, US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are trying to convince international business interests to deny the Venezuelan government access to national assets in their possession.
The Trump administration’s blatant interventionism may backfire and help Maduro counter his sagging poll numbers, which last October the polling firm Datanálisis reported was 23%. Maduro recently lashed out on Twitter at the close nexus between Washington and the opposition, saying: “Aren't you embarrassed at yourselves, ashamed at the way every day by Twitter Mike Pence, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo tell you what you should do.”
Anti-imperialism is a major cornerstone of the Chavista movement. It was born from resentment of US interventionism and heavy-handedness that had for decades controlled many of Venezuela’s resources and dictated its policies.
The maneuvers of the Trump administration and its allies only strengthen this narrative, and are counterproductive to best solving the crisis. Their actions also risk fanning anti-American sentiment throughout the continent.
It wouldn’t be the first time: In 1958, then-vice president Nixon was attacked by a riotous crowd in Caracas. A decade later, Nelson Rockefeller’s fact-finding tour arranged by then-President Nixon faced off with angry disruptive protests. Both incidents were responses to Washington's self-serving support for undemocratic regimes.
Washington today is invoking not only its Cold War policy but the Monroe Doctrine and its view of Latin America as the US’s “backyard”. Indeed, Vice President Pence said to Fox News, answering a question about why Trump is withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan while intervening in Venezuela.
“President Trump has always had a very different view of our hemisphere,” he said. “He’s long understood that the United States has a special responsibility to support and nurture democracy and freedom in this hemisphere and that’s a longstanding tradition.”
Trump recently appointed neocon Elliott Abrams as special envoy to Venezuela. Abrams has in many ways personified the application of the Monroe Doctrine with his blatant disregard for human rights violation and the principle of non-intervention in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s. He was allegedly implicated in the 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez.
Trump’s decision regarding CITGO, a US-based company owned by Venezuela’s state-owned PDVSA oil company, speaks to a dangerous precedent. On February 6, he declared that jurisdiction over CITGO would be turned over to the shadow government. These sanctions ignore the rule of law. The Maduro government was never given the chance to defend itself and legal procedures were not followed.
It is always dubious at Trump’s intentions. His actions in Venezuela could be designed to divert attention from the multiple probes into his own unethical behavior, or they may be a way to draw attention away from the utter fiasco of US interventions in the Middle East.
Trump may also view his Venezuela policy as a quick fix to “Make America Great Again”. Trump also evidently sees the downfall of Maduro as the ultimate proof that socialism doesn’t work. He indicated as much in his February 5 State of the Union address, where after discussing Venezuela, he declared: “America will never be a socialist country.”
Regardless of short-term results of US support for Guaidó, the final outcome will be negative, for many reasons. First, it bolsters the position of the opposition’s most radical elements, thus contributing to the anti-Chavista movement’s fragmentation.
Second, it attaches a “made in USA” label to those positioned to govern should Maduro fall. The stigma would undoubtedly scuttle their chances of maintaining longstanding majority support. It undermine their authority and ability to govern.
Third, the appeal to the military to save Venezuela has terrifying implications for a continent with a long history of military rule. Finally, seizing Venezuelan assets, which have then been turned over to a political ally, violates sacred norms of property rights, eroding confidence in the system of private property.
These four considerations indicate the multiple adverse impacts the Trump administration’s rash approach to the Maduro government will have on the US, Venezuela, and the region.
[Steve Ellner is a retired professor from Venezuela’s University of the East and associate managing editor of Latin American Perspectives.]