Graphics: Kristina Völk
The prospect of US military intervention in Venezuela seemed more likely this week, when John Bolton, the US national security adviser, appeared at a press conference with the line ‘5,000 troops to Colombia’ scrawled on his notepad. He later said that “all options are on the table,” heightening fears that the US will seek military action if President Maduro refuses to allow new elections, although some analysts have dismissed the note as a ‘psy-ops’ exercise to frighten Maduro.
The US has recognised his opponent, 35-year-old Juan Guaidó, as the legitimate interim president and has also imposed sanctions on PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil company. On Wednesday, President Trump telephoned Guaidó to assure him he would support “the fight to regain democracy.”
Any move towards military action is likely to be viewed in the light of historic interventions by the US to destabilise socialist governments in Latin America.
The US has long viewed Latin America as part of its sphere of influence, supporting coups against democratically elected leaders in America’s “backyard.” The White House was involved in the regime change in Guatemala in 1954 and the Dominican Republic in 1965. In Chile, President Salvador Allende was murdered in a 1973 coup backed by the CIA, establishing the hard-right military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
The US’s history of backing some of the bloodiest and most oppressive regimes in the region make Trump’s assurances that he will defend democracy somewhat hard to swallow. Maduro knows this, and accused Trump of plotting his murder with the Colombian government in an interview with Russia’s RIA agency. He also refused to consider a presidential vote, saying “I won legitimately. If the imperialists want a new election, let them wait until 2025.”
On Monday, Guaidó ordered Congress to appoint new boards of directors to PDVSA and its US subsidiary, Citgo. As the US has acknowledged him as Venezuela’s official leader, any revenues from oil sales would go directly to opposition accounts. In a national broadcast on Monday, Maduro accused the US of attempting to “steal Citgo from Venezuela,” while General Padrino, the Venezuelan defence minister, said Maduro’s critics were part of a “siege” based on the “Libya format.” For Maduro’s supporters, it will be easy to frame Trump’s aggressive stance as a move towards installing a US-friendly government in a nation with the largest oil reserves in the world.
Some commentators also see Trump’s hawkishness as a desperate move to bolster his popularity at home. In the midst of a government shutdown, Jonathan Wheatley, who covers emerging markets for the Financial Times, argued that a speculative foreign venture could help boost Trump’s ailing poll ratings.
Nonetheless, Venezuela remains mired in crisis. Oil production has fallen by over a third since Maduro inherited the presidency from Hugo Chavez, and the country is heavily reliant on imports. Hyperinflation has caused devastating food, water and medical shortages, and at least 40 people were killed in recent anti-government protests. On January 23, 696 people were detained. Over three million refugees have now left the country, with one million seeking asylum in nearby Colombia.
Some on the left have condemned Maduro, whilst urging caution against military intervention. US Senator Bernie Sanders criticised Maduro’s “violent crackdown” on Twitter whilst reminding followers that “we must learn the lessons of the past and not be in the business of regime change or supporting coups.” Despite this, in the UK, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has faced criticism for his silence on the crisis.
Maduro faces strong international pressure to step down, and as he has recently agreed to negotiations, a peaceful transition may be affected through diplomacy. History suggests US intervention would be highly irresponsible. Jonathan Wheatley has also pointed out that a US-backed opposition government in Caracas would have a hard time gaining the people’s trust.
Yet Maduro may not relinquish his hold on power. His recent offer of negotiations is viewed by critics as simply a means to buy time. After a violent crackdown on protests in 2014, talks with the opposition ended in failure. The Venezuelan army, who are closely monitored by internal spies, are also unlikely to support any attempt at regime change. Furthermore, Maduro is backed by some powerful, if dubious, allies: Russia, China, Syria and Iran continue to support the regime, whilst the majority of Latin American nations recognise Guaidó as the interim president on the condition that he holds new elections, alongside Canada and the US.
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s shattered healthcare system has led to an outbreak of diphtheria and measles, and the country is suffering from electricity blackouts and water shortages. The country is suffering, but a US move to install Guaidó as president could plunge the country into further chaos and violence. It is to be hoped that a peaceful transition of power can be managed with third-party mediators. Yet Maduro remains defiant in the face of calls for fresh elections, so the question remains as to whether he will go quietly.