By KJ Sankara
World powers are in the midst of orchestrating a coup that wouldn’t have been out of place for the Reagan-Thatcher axis in the 1980s.
Venezuela is a rare bastion of socialist, anti-imperialist resistance remaining in Latin America. With Jair Bolsanaro’s election ousting the Brazilian Workers’ Party, it’s also a country facing political isolation in the region.
This article will address the history of American involvement – the aims, means and results – in Venezuela, as well as the region as a whole.
‘American foreign policy’ is a polarising phrase that, when exercised, often brings joy to its perpetrators, pain to its targets and an awkward dilemma of humanitarian concerns and righteous morals for American subjects themselves. Though isolationist as an infant nation, the United States, far from their history of countering European colonialism – whether it be British, Spanish or French – was becoming an “imperial and interventionist power” as early as the 19th century. In 1796, George Washington stated a desire to avoid conflicts with European interests, but over time, the expanding United States “managed to find ideological rationales for their multiplying interventions”. The middle of the 20th century saw Asia and Africa – the former being crucial in the Cold War, and the latter ripe for exploitation following decolonisation – as the focus of intercession, while the emphasis in the late 20th and early 21st century switched to the Middle East. However, one excursion that has lasted for the majority of America’s sovereign existence is in Latin America. In a February 2018 speech – some 195 years after the somewhat infamous Monroe Doctrine was invoked – former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson highlighted this basis of Latin American intervention “as relevant today as it was the day it was written”.
Latin America in the 19th Century
The United States’ involvement in Latin America stretches back to the 19th century. 47 years after the United States of America declared independence, President James Monroe set a foundation for future American intervention. In the speech, Monroe stated “that the American continents… are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Latin America was not being protected out of goodwill – rather, as Luis Aguirre claims, “The Monroe doctrine… was a true “reservation clause” to make future operations possible.” In the decades prior to the speech, the Spanish American Wars of Independence liberated Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Colombia from the Spanish – perhaps Monroe “sought to establish the United States as a presumptive regional arbiter.” Still in a constant defensive state of conflict with the Europeans – Gilderhus notes that Washington pursued three aims to advance American interests: “keep out the Europeans, to safeguard order and stability in areas of special concern, and to ensure open access to markets and resources.” As the American colonies became free states over time, later administrations were able to use the Monroe Doctrine as a platform to exercise American interests – it was Polk who invoked it “as a warning against British and French meddling in Texas and California, regions already earmarked for incorporation into the United States.” It culminated in the United States’ involvement in the Cuban War of Independence and the Spanish-American war. These, after almost a century of remaining peaceful, signalled the transition of the United States from a colony to an imperial power in the continent.
This was, in most senses, affirmed after the 1902 Venezuela crisis, which presented a real test of the Monroe Doctrine; several European nations, including Britain and Germany, were imposing a blockade upon a Venezuela that could not fulfil its foreign debts. Washington invoked the Monroe Doctrine aptly in this case, stepping in with naval power to coerce the European powers. In the end, an agreement was reached – much to the United States’ dismay, it involved economic concessions by Venezuela and “preferential treatment” for the hostile Europeans. In order to prevent such future ventures from Washington’s hegemonic rivals, President Roosevelt invoked the Roosevelt Corollary. which “essentially turns the Monroe Doctrine on its head… the United States has the right, under the doctrine, to go in to exercise police power to keep the Europeans out of the way.” The Santa Domingo affair soon after saw the Washington deploy its military against rebels damaging American-owned sugar plantations – a foreshadowing for the rest of the 20th century; the Corollary was also used to justify interventions in Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti. Roosevelt’s early years were defined by the threat and use of America’s military might – the “Big Stick” ideology – to protect American commerce and gain some sort of foothold in the Caribbean and Latin America.Under William Taft, this changed with the notion of Dollar Diplomacy. Rather than exercising military power over South America, “between 1900-1915, US policymakers devoted considerable energy to the task of encouraging the use of the dollar within Latin American monetary systems…the leading US financial advisor to Latin America -Edwin Kemmerer – was even calling for the creation of a monetary union based on the dollar.” As well as making it easier for private American interests to carry out transactions and the like, it also lay the foundations for American hegemony in the region. Though this was rolled back in the 1940s, it foreshadowed a definitive ideological precedent of American economic hegemony.After decades of being viewed as no different than an imperial power, the Good Neighbor policy would enable the United States to enter a contest for global hegemony. At the time, Hitler and Churchill formed, alongside the United States, a powerful trio, each seeking ideological dominance; democracy was Roosevelt’s choice. The (formerly employed) Big Stick policy threatened alienating Latin American countries further; and Roosevelt himself was wary “of what would happen to any part of the hemisphere that came under German domination.”
After a century filled with American expansionism and culminating in a World War, Dallek notes that “in the 1930s, when Europe and Asia descended into diplomatic crises and wars, FDR expressed the prevalent American “isolationist” attitude that the United States should not be drawn into foreign squabbles”. Non-intervention was an ostensibly successful tactic; this “approach made Latin American nations more receptive to U.S. proposals for security cooperation” and that “the Good Neighbor policy secured vital U.S. interests while at the same time fostered an atmosphere of trust and cooperation between the United States and Latin America.” Tom Long gives a similar analysis; “the payoff of FDR’s ‘good neighbor’ policy became clear. Latin America…stood with the Allies and supported the United States.” In any sense, a clear withdrawal from the region allowed Latin American nations enough autonomy to trust Washington once again.
After the end of World War II, however, this attitude proved to be somewhat naive as Washington returned to its jingoistic roots, and Latin America proved to be a pivotal battleground in the Cold War. The success of the Good Neighbor policy was ignored in the face of the alleged threat of Soviet hegemony in the region. With this in mind, three case studies of post-war interventions can be analysed in terms of Washington’s perceived success.
Early involvement in Venezuela – most notably during the Crisis of 1902 – initially created some form of amicable relations with Caracas. After this, “Venezuela frequently appealed to the United States to invoke the Monroe Doctrine against aggressive European States”; this was maintained up until the breakdown of Washington’s relations with President Cirpriano Castro. Mistrust was sown fairly early on – it seemed that the Roosevelt Corollary marked a new era in Washington-Caracas relations; it marked a Venezuela caught in two minds. Castro, perhaps the first to display some form of nationalist or anti-imperialist tendencies, took on the ‘strongman’ role in a nation encircled by a continental superpower and experiencing conditional protection from a growing one. Indeed, “as the Europeans were denied” imperialist penetration of the continent, “the Yankees were permitted, and even encouraged, to replace them”. In response, Castro took aim at the foreign interests currently residing in – and exploiting – his country; this not only presented a threat to American capital in the continent, but also a political rebellion against Washington. Needless to say, “Castro…was not a person whom Roosevelt could deal with”, and in what would be a common occurrence over the next century, Castro was deposed, foreshadowing an unsteady century of relations.Though Eleazar Contreras’ rule from 1935 into World War II “increased the nation’s military and economic subordination to the US”, fears of Soviet influence returned after the war. This was certainly exacerbated after the 1959 revolution in Cuba – an event which represented the outright rejection of the United States in favour of a communist government. Indeed, the Venezuelan people collected funds for the Cuban 26th of July Movement, and celebrated Fidel Castro as a hero upon his first visit to the country in 1959. This puts Washington’s fears into perspective that “in 1963, Venezuela was Cuba’s primary objective for revolution”. The election of Romulo Betancourt, then, was a blessing for Washington, as the Betancourt Doctrine was exercised, ensuring that Caracas would break off “diplomatic relations with governments that gained power through illegal means” – including, of course, Cuba and the USSR. This simultaneously limited Cuba’s threat of expanding leftist ideology while attempting to set a democratic foundation in Venezuela. In any sense, “Betancourt preferred to deal with the US rather than Castro’s anti-Yankee campaign” and overall, “The US was delighted by the results of the Betancourt years”. This was twofold; politically, Betancourt was somewhat left-wing, but anti-Soviet (Communist), and thus, for the Kennedy Administration, posed a “showcase for the democratic left”. Within a Latin America allegedly susceptible to a Soviet-style system, a successful Betancourt would appease left wing popular demands while retaining Venezuela in the United States’ sphere of influence.
Indeed, “historians invariably point to Betancourt’s inauguration as the pivotal point in four centuries of Venezuelan history” – after periods of military rule and strife, it appeared democracy had triumphed, much to the delight of Washington. This democracy, as one may expect, was not completely sovereign – President Kennedy saw a great opportunity for the United States under Betancourt. Speaking in 1962, the President noted that “foreign aid is a method by which the US maintains a position of influence and control…and sustains a good many countries which would…pass into the communist bloc”.
America was not running any sort of deficit here when supporting the Venezuelan State; the protection of capital was still a top priority, and as James Cockcroft wrote, Betancourt turned out to be a “lackey of the State Department” and that “two thirds of the profits made by US companies in Latin America were derived from Venezuela”. Nevertheless, stopping so-called ‘leftist insurgents’ – which meant anything from actual militants to popular democratic movements – was the key priority. When power transitioned to Raul Leoni, the State Department were satisfied that “the Communist and Castroist insurgents almost certainly will be unable to force their way to power during the period of this estimate” – and for the most part, this worked, as any form of “subversive activities quieted considerably during the Leoni administration.” The rest of the 20th century – in terms of Caracas-Washington relations – was fairly stable. Despite nationalisation of the oil industry, American investment – and note, “by the early 1970s over half of all US investment was in Venezuela and most of it in petroleum” – still reaped 30 percent of oil profits. American investment was protected, and leftism suppressed; though Hugo Chavez’s attempted coup in 1992 would prove to foreshadow an unwanted change in Venezuela seven years later.
Chavez’s victory in 1998 threatened both key American interests in Venezuela. Prior to discussing these, one can note the democratic way in which Hugo Chavez came to power. After decades of conservative, centrist and ‘soft left’ leaders, Serge Kovaleski noted that “his victory reflected the discontent among Venezuela’s poor with the political establishment”; and thus, a party formed just two years prior swept the polls – and instantly became a threat to Washington, whose democracy promotion had seemingly backfired.
“A policy contrary to the interest of an oil company is automatically contrary to the…national interest (of the United States)”.
These were the words of Secretary of State Roy Rubottom Jr in 1956.
Chavez’s decision to persuade OPEC to raise crude oil in early 2000 was one of a series of popular reforms, intended to transform Venezuela from an economic colony into a sovereign, socialist state. As Tom Long explains, “US foreign economic policies centred on liberalised trade and openness to private investment….nationalist, state-led development schemes (were seen) as problematic”.
Thus, when Chavez went on to “seize the assets of a total of 74 privately-owned companies working in the oil services industry”, there was clearly a clash of interests with Washington. By this time, the fight to unseat Chavez was already well underway. As early on as 1999 – months after his election – “Washington strategists shifted from a policy of pressure to contain change to a strategy of all out warfare to overthrow the Chavez regime via a business-military coup”. This culminated in 2002, when the United States gave its funding and tacit approval to a failed ousting. It was revealed that the CIA knew beforehand that “disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chávez”. The Washington Post reported that, “The United States was hosting people involved in the coup ….involvement of U.S. sponsored NGOs in training people that were involved”. While not direct, American funding of opposition, combined with an anti-Chavez campaign from the Venezuelan opposition – funded by Washington – and private Venezuelan media, ensured the coup.
However – in what was a rare failure in ousting an antithetical leader – Chavez was restored by his own people. George Ciccariello-Maher notes that “if it wasn’t for the popular masses springing autonomously into action on April 13th 2002, he would no longer be in power.” The attempts didn’t stop there, of course. A strategic oil lockout ”was defeated through an alliance of loyalist trade unionists, mass organisations and overseas countries…the oil industry was renationalised”. American hegemony had hit a stumbling block with the election of Mr Chavez, who was taking back control piece by piece. Formed in 2004 with Fidel Castro, “the alternative trade agreement advocated by Chavez, ALBA has provided a major counterpoint and countervailing forced to US Imperialism in the region.” After all, Chavez had not only defended Venezuela’s oil, but explicitly moved towards a socialist programme.
In 2011, Barack Obama commented that Venezuela had “threatened basic democratic values”, and most recently, President Trump called for “the full restoration of democracy…in Venezuela”. This makes little sense, however. Former President Jimmy Carter said, “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.” Combine this with Weisbrot’s analysis about how the use of both electronic and paper ballots “makes vote-rigging nearly impossible” and Venezuela’s high voter registration rate – said to be 97% – and it seems the problem isn’t with democracy, but the right kind of democracy. Washington, perhaps, would prefer the type that led to leaders such as Betancourt, leaders that adhered to liberal capitalism.
However, Chavez’s death, while it did not end the rule of the socialist party, certainly weakened Venezuela’s prospects as a successful (socialist) nation. Maduro’s rule, thus far, has created the ground for potential regime change, whether democratic or via a coup. While under Chavez, “Venezuela’s economy was riding the prolonged commodity boom” in order to fund the numerous social programs introduced, the double price crash of oil – firstly in Autumn 2014, then again in January 2016 – meant Venezuelan oil dependency has led to economic downfall. The World Bank noted in 2012 that “96% of the country’s exports and nearly half of its fiscal revenue” were derived from the country’s oil reserves. According to the IMF, inflation is set to hit 2350% in 2018 – a factor leading to the mass protests that occurred in late 2016.
In any sense, it appears that the two aims stated earlier – suppression of leftism and the protection of oil-based interests – take prominence. Regarding the latter, Dominguez notes that oil “exports to the US have fallen in volume” – but the overall oil production decline (as prices dipped) has not changed the nationalised state of Venezuela’s oil.
On the political side, PSUV has still maintained great support from the majority of Venezuelans – as displayed by the success in the July 2017 Regional Elections, in which the PSUV won 18 of 23 states. In all, despite political pressure from the United States (and the OAS) – which included funding opposition and backing attempted coups – Venezuela has held as a bastion of leftism (and anti-Americanism) in the region. Part of their hegemonic success relates to relations with other nations; and this started with the Chavez-Castro links. “Since 2004, the relationship has acquired a closer and more multilateral dimension” as both have worked to ensure bilateral success. Venezuela has gone even further regionally, forming “a new political bloc inclusive of all governments in the region…(which) has rejected Washington’s intervention”. Obama’s declaration of Venezuela as a National Security Threat was not only rejected by Cuba – in fact, “Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Argentina repudiated Obama’s imperialist threats”. To add insult to injury, Venezuela has maintained its relations with both Russia and Iran – geopolitical adversaries of Washington. To outdo the United States, Venezuela’s policy has been one of ‘soft balancing’ – the efforts to “frustrate and undermine the foreign policy objectives of other more powerful nations”. By maintaining socialist ideology, control of their oil, and pragmatic foreign relations, Venezuela has continued to defy the United States in the post-Chavez era. It is only through economic collapse – which is certainly a possibility – that this will change. In any sense, foreign policy towards Venezuela must be considered a failure in Washington’s terms.