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What Are We Doing in Venezuela?

By any standard, Venezuela is a mess. People are starving, medicine is unavailable, and millions of people, mostly poor, have fled the country. All this despite Venezuela having been South America’s richest country in the past and with it still having sizeable oil deposits to export and sustain its economy. Having visited Venezuela in the past, I also know that it is a beautiful country, fronting on the Caribbean, with beaches, mountains and forests. In terms of natural resources, it remains a rich country. It’s government, plus an international oil market that has faltered, has ruined it.

Hugo Chavez was popular, particularly among his country’s poor, but his policies weakened his country’s economic state and he allowed corruption to dictate way too much of what went on and how the government operated. Nicolas Maduro is worse than Chavez, despite claiming to be his heir. Maduro came to power by assuming the presidency after Chavez’ death. Maduro had been vice president under Chavez. He then won a close election, which observers say was so filled with fraud that it was illegitimate. As president, he had the country’s constitution rewritten and a new legislative body filled with his supporters installed. Neither the United States nor many South American countries, including the Organization of American States, recognized his election or his claim to be president. 

This week, Juan Guaido, the recently elected head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, its main and legitimately elected legislative body, announced that he was claiming the interim presidency of the country and declared Maduro’s election as illegal. He was immediately recognized by the same groups that declined to recognize Maduro, including the U.S., Canada, and the Organization of American States. Maduro ordered U.S. diplomats out of the country and so far they have refused to leave. President Trump has not ruled out military intervention in Venezuela.

Chavez and Maduro belong to the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and are avowed socialists. They were and are both supported by Russia, China, Cuba and other Communist countries. Many of Chavez’ policies were blatantly socialistic. Anti-Communist and anti-Socialist forces within the U.S. are strong supporters of Maduro’s ouster, as many of them were of forcing out Chavez. 

We should not be confused by Maduro’s socialist label. He is an autocrat who has subverted his country’s democratic processes, fostered corruption, and has been totally inept at managing his country’s economy or infrastructure. He was elected by his people, but the legitimacy of that election is in doubt. His failure has not been because of his philosophy of governance, but his dishonesty, ruthlessness and ineptness. What is going on in Venezuela is not a contest between capitalism and socialism. 

The United States has a deeply marred history of interfering in the internal affairs of South and Central American countries, either overtly or covertly. Most of the governments we have helped to overthrow have been leftist ones and most of those we have helped to install have been right wing dictatorships. Our motivations have been ideological and protectionist for American economic interests—preventing nationalization of industries dominated and controlled by American companies has been a guiding principle of our interventions. This is a historical pattern that all South American leaders are aware of, as are their people, and one that we must be extremely careful of not falling into again in the case of Venezuela.

As Americans, including our elected leaders in congress and in the administration, observe what is happening in Venezuela, we have to be cautious in how we frame the conflict going on in the country and how we see our role in it. We must not absorb what is happening in Venezuela into our own ongoing political contest between progressives who are friendly toward socialist policies and conservatives who defend capitalism at every opportunity and are horrified of anything that has a socialist ring to it. That’s not the issue in Venezuela right now. We also cannot put protection of American economic interests ahead of regard for another country’s sovereignty. We cannot afford to frame this as a contest of influence between America and Russia or China. And a bottom line is that we cannot allow ourselves to be drawn into a military engagement, which decimates another country’s people and infrastructure and brands us as international bullies.

Juan Guaido and the forces he represents may turn out to be a good interim answer in the quest to get Venezuela back on its feet. We can support him if he gains the presidency or if his party succeeds in ousting Maduro. We can’t become the deciding factor in replacing Venezuela’s leader, because that role needs to come from the people inside the country. Our efforts for regime change in Iraq and Syria and Libya ought to have taught us that such a mission is fraught with danger and leads to disaster. Let Venezuela take charge of is own effort to solve its problems. 


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