We can expect those polemics to continue, especially now that Maduro has announced presidential elections will be held in April.
However, some things should never be open to discussion. Above all, nobody should give a shred of legitimacy to efforts by the US and its allies to interfere in Venezuelan politics and impose their own preferred solution to its crisis, whether that means military aggression or economic sanctions.
For many people, all too familiar with the history of US intervention in Latin America, this will go without saying. But it’s a message that can’t be repeated too often, as some of the recent commentary on Venezuela shows.
The Wrong Questions
The New York Times began the year with an op-ed from foreign policy analyst David Smilde asking, “Should the United States Attack Venezuela?” His answer, in brief, was “no”: “A military strike against Venezuela would be folly . . . Venezuela in 2018 is not 1989 Panama, and an invasion would not be a surgical strike.”
But the fact that such a question can even be raised speaks volumes about the foreign policy conversation in elite circles. Just imagine a New York Times column with the headline “Should Russia Attack Turkey?”, weighing the merits of a Russian invasion to depose Erdoğan and protect the country’s Kurdish population from his army. No such article would ever see the light of day, even if it came down firmly against Russian intervention.
Still, Smilde’s perspective deserves critical scrutiny precisely because he is not a reactionary blowhard in the mold of Jackson Diehl or Mary Anastasia O’Grady, whose fact-free diatribes about Latin America still clog the opinion pages. He is an academic whose research has focused on Venezuela and who moderates a blog on the country for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
While rejecting the idea of military action, Smilde calls for intervention of a different kind through “deepening the current sanctions regime.” Who will decide the nature of this “deepening”? Smilde taps Washington for the honors, anointing “the United States and its partners” as the relevant actors in applying pressure to Caracas.
Again, a little thought experiment should help clarify things. If anyone suggested that Russia must take the lead in “deepening sanctions” on the unsavory, ultranationalist governments in Hungary and Poland, they would immediately be reminded of Moscow’s record in Eastern Europe, which disqualifies it from acting as the self-appointed champion of democracy and the rule of law.
There are two clear differences between that invented scenario and the real-life one Smilde is proposing: the United States and its regional proxies have killed far more people than the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes, and there was no “1989 moment” in the Western hemisphere comparable to the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe. US interference in Latin American affairs has not let up for so much as a week.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson invoked the spirits of Pinochet and Videla as one model for “transition” in Venezuela. These are the people who will decide what kind of sanctions the US should impose, and when.
Coalition of the Willing
Smilde declares his preference for “multilateral” sanctions imposed by a coalition of states. Nine times out of ten, when pundits urge the “international community” to do something, they really mean the US and a select group of like-minded countries, and this is no exception. Canada, the European Union, and the so-called Lima Group are all name-checked in Smilde’s article.
Canada and European countries like Britain and Spain have this much in common with the United States: their leading corporations have major investments in the region, and bitterly oppose any government or social movement that threatens the flow of profits. They also have a record of colluding with authoritarian regimes in Latin America. They have no more credibility than the US as champions of human rights.
Apart from Canada, the Lima Group consists of Latin American countries whose governments appear to have been selected because they are guilty of every sin Maduro’s administration has been accused of: rigged elections (Mexico, Honduras), politicians barred from office on dubious pretexts (Brazil), and brutal repression of protests (Colombia still leads the way in this macabre competition). The hypocrisy of their proclamations about Venezuela’s future speaks for itself.
It requires the most extraordinary naivete to imagine that pressure from this quarter is likely to promote democracy in Venezuela or anywhere else.
In a follow-up to his Times op-ed for WOLA’s blog, Smilde argues that “the sanctions [on Venezuela] rolled out by the Obama administration in March 2015 were counterproductive. By any measure they did not reinforce democracy, rule of law or human rights.”
This argument only makes sense if you assume that sanctions were imposed because the US government cared about the liberties and well-being of the Venezuelan people.
However, it is useful to be reminded of those sanctions, because they were applied just two years after Maduro won the 2013 presidential election. Maduro beat his opponent by a narrow margin in the presidential poll, but the PSUV extended its lead in the municipal elections of December 2013. As Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz wrote for WOLA at the time: “The opposition framed the December elections as a plebiscite on Maduro’s government, and lost.”
In other words, Obama’s sanctions — justified under the absurd claim that Venezuela represented an “extraordinary threat” to US national security — were imposed well before the opposition victory in the 2015 National Assembly elections and the events that followed (a bitter standoff between the executive and legislature, protests demanding Maduro’s resignation in the early months of 2017, and the disputed Constituent Assembly election that the opposition parties boycotted). US hostility to the PSUV was already entrenched at a time when it won elections handsomely by, in Smilde’s words, “running circles around an opposition that fail[ed] to engage the broader public with a plausible platform.”
If Venezuela held an election that met every reasonable standard for a fair vote, which still resulted in a PSUV victory, Washington would remain bitterly hostile to the Venezuelan government, and would keep applying pressure for a “transition” until it got its way.
A very different perspective on the sanctions question can be found in a recent Foreign Policy article by the Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez. Rodríguez is a staunch opponent of the PSUV — “I, as much as anyone else, would like to see Maduro go” — who accuses the Venezuelan president of “gross mismanagement” and “serious human rights abuses.” He can certainly not be dismissed as a booster for the current administration in Caracas.
Rodríguez argues that the sanctions regime is based on a false picture of Venezuelan political life that denies the enduring popular base for Chavismo. About one-quarter of the population still supports Maduro — “a remarkably high number given the state of the economy” — and last year’s regional elections showed that the PSUV could mobilize almost 6 million voters to support its candidates: “nearly one-third of the country’s adult population, and more than enough to win a low-turnout election.”
In contrast to Smilde, who describes the financial sanctions imposed by Trump last year as “pretty well thought out,” Rodríguez dismisses the idea that such measures “can hurt the Venezuelan government without causing serious harm to ordinary Venezuelans.” The sanctions have already inflicted real economic damage and made it harder to alleviate the crisis. Rodríguez also brings up something that Smilde omitted entirely from his Times article: the attitude of the Venezuelan people: “56 percent of Venezuelans oppose US financial sanctions; only 32 percent support them.”
Rodríguez argues that “instead of undermining Maduro, sanctions are making it increasingly difficult for the country’s opposition to convince voters that the welfare of Venezuelans — rather than driving Maduro from power — is its real priority.” In truth, if the main opposition leaders have trouble convincing people that the welfare of Venezuelans is their priority, that is because it plainly isn’t and never has been. Their willingness to endorse sanctions is further proof of that.
At some point in the near future — whether that is when the presidential election is held in April, or at a later date — there will be renewed clamor for “something to be done” about Venezuela.
There was no such clamor for action when elections were stolen in Mexico or Honduras, when democratically elected presidents were ousted in Paraguay or Brazil, or when the Uribe regime presided over wholesale butchery in Colombia. In all of those cases, “doing something” would simply have meant withdrawing active support from the fraudsters, coup plotters, and war criminals — but that was never on the agenda as far as respectable opinion was concerned.
Anyone who cares about the future of Venezuela should resist the moral blackmail of “something must be done” — and the related idea that if you oppose one form of intervention (military aggression), you have to propose another in its place (sanctions). The United States and its allies have no legitimate role to play in resolving the Venezuelan crisis, and their attempts to do so should not be given any rhetorical cover.