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The Reality Behind Trump’s Coalition for Regime Change in Venezuela


In the early 1970s, a handful of Sandinistas were in the mountains of Nicaragua fighting to overthrow the 40-year U.S.-backed, brutal dictatorship of the Somoza family. When a powerful volcanic eruption struck Nicaragua in 1971, Sandinista Omar Cabezas later recounted, they told the peasants whom they encountered that God was punishing them for not getting rid of Somoza.

After the Sandinistas triumphed in 1979, the U.S. waged a bloody war to take back the country with a terrorist paramilitary force called the contras, who regularly murdered civilians. President George H.W. Bush made it clear during the Sandinistas’ second election in 1990 that, although he was not God, he would continue to punish Nicaraguans with a trade embargo and war if they did not get rid of the Sandinistas. Weary of war, hyperinflation, and economic collapse, Nicaraguans voted for the opposition: The Sandinistas lost.

Today the Trump administration is repeating the collective punishment strategy in Venezuela with a crippling financial embargo since August 2017 and, since January, a trade embargo. The financial embargo has prevented any measures that the government might use to get rid of hyperinflation or bring about an economic recovery, while knocking out billions of dollars of oil production. The trade embargo is projected to cut off about 60 percent of the country’s remaining meager foreign exchange earnings, which are needed to buy medicine, food, medical supplies, and other goods essential to many Venezuelans’ survival.

Seeking to foment a military coup, a popular rebellion, or civil war, the Trump administration has made it clear that the punishment will continue until the current government is ousted. “Maduro must go,” said U.S. Vice President Mike Pence yet again in early March.

After the Sandinistas triumphed in 1979, the U.S. waged a bloody war to take back the country with a terrorist paramilitary force called the contras, who regularly murdered civilians. President George H.W. Bush made it clear during the Sandinistas’ second election in 1990 that, although he was not God, he would continue to punish Nicaraguans with a trade embargo and war if they did not get rid of the Sandinistas. Weary of war, hyperinflation, and economic collapse, Nicaraguans voted for the opposition: The Sandinistas lost.

Today the Trump administration is repeating the collective punishment strategy in Venezuela with a crippling financial embargo since August 2017 and, since January, a trade embargo. The financial embargo has prevented any measures that the government might use to get rid of hyperinflation or bring about an economic recovery, while knocking out billions of dollars of oil production. The trade embargo is projected to cut off about 60 percent of the country’s remaining meager foreign exchange earnings, which are needed to buy medicine, food, medical supplies, and other goods essential to many Venezuelans’ survival.

Seeking to foment a military coup, a popular rebellion, or civil war, the Trump administration has made it clear that the punishment will continue until the current government is ousted. “Maduro must go,” said U.S. Vice President Mike Pence yet again in early March.

Let’s look at some of the governments that have joined the Trump administration in this illegal regime change operation, and have joined the trade embargo by recognizing Juan Guaidó as “interim president.” The most important and solid ally of Trump in Latin America is Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, famous for telling a Brazilian congresswoman that he would not rape her because she “did not merit it,” for various racist and anti-gay remarks, and for glorifying political violence. Ironically, given that the Trump administration’s main justification for regime change in Venezuela is that Maduro’s election was illegitimate, Bolsonaro himself came to power in an election of questionable legitimacy. His leading opponent, former President Lula da Silva—at the time the most popular politician in the country—was jailed after a trial in which no material evidence of a crime was presented. The verdict rested on the coerced testimony of a witness who was convicted of corruption, and whose plea bargaining was suspended until he changed his story to match the prosecuting judge’s case. The prosecuting judge, Sérgio Moro, demonstrated strong animus against Lula on a number of occasions—including his release of illegally wiretapped conversations between Lula and then president Dilma Rousseff, his lawyer, and his wife and children. After these and other irregularities and illegalities secured Lula’s conviction, he was unconstitutionally imprisoned before the election. After the election that Judge Moro helped Bolsonaro win by these methods, he was appointed minister of justice.

Other Latin American governments in Trump’s Coalition of the Willing owe Washington some favors for helping them seize power. The government of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández is probably the most extreme example. His party came to power in 2009 with the overthrow of the democratically elected president Mel Zelaya in a military coup. The Obama administration, along with Republicans, helped legitimize the coup and the “elections” that followed. Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, later described in her memoirs how she maneuvered to keep the democratically elected president from returning to office. In 2017, Hernández retained power by brazenly stealing an election—simply altering the vote totals. This was the inescapable conclusion of journalists and observers from across the political spectrum. Even one of the most fanatical leaders of Trump’s Coalition of the Willing, current OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, rejected the results and called for new elections. Of course nothing happened because the Trump team accepted the results.

Colombia has perhaps the second-most bellicose leader in Trump’s coalition, after Bolsonaro. President Iván Duque is the protégé of former president, now kingmaker, Álvaro Uribe. U.S. diplomatic cables released last year showed widespread concerns among U.S. officials about Uribe’s ties to drug traffickers. In the 1990s, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency found that Uribe was “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin [drug] cartel at high government levels.” Uribe is also believed to have long had ties to death squads. He resigned from the Colombian Senate last year in the midst of an ongoing criminal investigation. Uribe has long backed the U.S. regime-change effort against Venezuela. In 2009, numerous South American governments objected to and blocked his plans to expand the U.S. military presence in Colombia.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Michael March 15, 2019 1:01 pm 

    Mark Weisbrot has captured in a few hundred words the history of US relations with Latin America. It is, of course, a deplorable and consistent story with the full history of the US in the region and, too, around the world.

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