Almost a month after Donald Trump recognized Juán Guaidó as the “interim president” of Venezuela, and the imperial media started to label Nicolás Maduro as the “disputed” president of Venezuela (as if that were a universally accepted statement of fact), nothing has happened to unseat Maduro. The intended coup does not appear to be advancing. Meanwhile the US continues its sanctions, only now they are sanctioning a country they claim is led by someone who is not Maduro. If one mistook rhetoric for reality, US foreign policy would appear to have been conceived in some sort of Twilight Zone. Back in the real world, the US tacitly recognizes that Maduro is in fact the head of government and state in Venezuela, and both the threats of US military intervention and the sanctions themselves prove that point.
Far from a wave of popular condemnation of the Maduro government, Venezuela instead experiences something of a “slow coup,” mostly based on support from foreign right-wing governments. Following ZA’s sketch of the models used for this intended coup, ranging from Ukraine to Libya and Syria, others warned that we should look out for the “7 rules of regime change” that typically constitute the US’ campaigns of foreign destabilization. Libya was actually an appropriate analogy in some key regards, one of them being that the US was actively inciting chaos by trying to create a situation where more than one government claimed legitimacy. As for Ukraine, it was the Ukrainian Foreign Minister himself who drew the analogy between the Maidan protests and events in Venezuela. Also indicative of this approach is the fact that Trump hired the infamous Elliot Abrams (an ardent “Never Trumper” but an even bigger opportunist), one of the original neocons who played a role not just in the 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela—and has now been called back for an encore—but was also tied to the covert war against Nicaragua, lying to Congress, and providing cover for the notorious death squads in El Salvador during the 1980s. In the US Congress, Democrats in charge of the House Foreign Affairs Committee put together a “team” to deal with Venezuela, including one Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was guilty of rigging electoral processes within the DNC to the disadvantage of Bernie Sanders in 2016—worthy coup experience. (Yet, on that same committee there have been some outstanding exceptions, namely Ilhan Omar.)
Venezuela and the Problem for Trump’s White House
However the problem is that the “slow coup” approach seems to be increasing frustration in the ranks of both the Venezuelan opposition and the White House. How much longer can the US government tolerate its commands being ignored and “defied”? The longer this goes on, the greater the chance that Trump will lose face, at a delicate political time of upcoming US presidential elections and when he has lost so much face already. This is a person who has long boasted that his administration would always be “winning,” winning so much that his supporters would tire of all the winning. What has Trump won with Venezuela? If Trump just lets things continue, Venezuela could learn to survive sanctions the way several other states have also learned to survive them. Venezuela still has some powerful friends: China, India, and Russia chief among them. Venezuela is not under a UN-approved international sanctions regime, the kind imposed on Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. Venezuela still has room for manoeuvre, and even an IOU can carry a lot of weight if it is based on possession of the world’s largest proven oil reserves. In addition, Venezuela’s armed forces declared their loyalty to President Maduro. The opposition made feeble, legalistic efforts to win over the military’s support (basically promising only to not “prosecute” the military for supporting the legitimate government), but this failed from the outset. Meanwhile the military held prominent exercises under the direction of Maduro’s government. The military continued to hold extensive exercises from February the 10th to the 15th, in practice for a counter-invasion. At this rate, Trump could enter the 2020 electoral campaign with Maduro still in power in Venezuela, and Trump’s opponents lampooning him as a failure: all sound and fury and nothing more than promises made of hot air.
The other option of course, the one that Trump frequently repeats is always “on the table,” is US military intervention in Venezuela. This would then be Trump’s first new war added to the list of the US’ current wars. There now appears to be a straight line of seamless continuity running from George W. Bush to Barack Obama and now Donald Trump, especially where regime change in Venezuela is concerned. Trump, who sometimes feigns awful annoyance at the “Obama legacy,” which he pretends to want to destroy, is only too keen to shore it up in Venezuela. The one “national emergency” about which no one is threatening to sue the White House, a “national emergency” decreed by Obama and still in force, is the one that classes Venezuela as an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”. On his way out the door, Obama renewed and extended that same “national emergency”—and Trump loyally picked up the baton. Yet Venezuela has never threatened the US, and the US Congress has not authorized any military action in Venezuela. Will Trump be reticent about usurping authority by continuing to expand the executive power of the imperial presidency? If he does, another charge will then stick during the 2020 campaign: that he is authoritarian. Not just authoritarian, but one also responsible for starting a new, unpopular and costly war, an illegal war. Far from ending the US’ “foreign entanglements” and “nation building” crusades, Trump will have added to them. This would then become the final word on the Trump presidency.
Trailing a long line of failures and broken promises, Trump would be entering the 2020 presidential campaign (if his administration can survive that long), with a brand new war to place on the shoulders of Americans. Tired of all the “winning” yet?
Trump has engineered quite the situation for himself. If he does nothing more, and Maduro survives, Trump loses face. More than that, he has already lost Venezuelan oil for a whole range of US-based oil refineries and transnational shipping firms, not to mention countless billions bypassing the US financial system, and there is already talk of tapping the national oil reserve. It would be a situation where Trump ends up with less than if he had said nothing at all about the Maduro presidency—an indisputable defeat. On the other hand, if Trump chooses the military option, besides the US facing eventual defeat like it has done regularly since Vietnam, the political backlash at home would be devastating. So which is the way out for Trump?
Trump’s Next Move
There are two significant clues that suggest Trump will choose to go to war with Venezuela. One is a foreign clue, and the other is domestic. The first clue is that February 23 is likely to be the turning point. The US and its Venezuelan force multipliers are constructing a situation that could be used to provoke armed intervention by the US: an innocent humanitarian aid convoy, embraced by democracy-loving innocent civilians in Venezuela, fired upon mercilessly by the forces of the “brutal dictatorship”. Not only is the US ready to sacrifice Venezuelan lives, it is likely ready to sacrifice the lives of the US AID personnel currently in Cucuta, Colombia (poor saps, they had better get their life insurance policies in order). It has to be the kind of event that makes most Americans gasp in shock, and demand immediate justice. I don’t know if this can work, or will happen, especially because the Venezuelan government has so far excelled at playing it cool, and outsmarting the opposition.
The second clue, domestic in focus, is that Trump has recently decided to declare a war on socialism at home, with the aid of Fox News, Breitbart, and various alternative right-wing media. The only way for Trump to sell his war in Venezuela is by simultaneously linking it to a war at home. That way Trump can parade himself among diminished groups of supporters and pretend that his policy in Venezuela is what they want, and what they need: a world free of socialism.
The image of “Venezuela” is thus being instrumentalized for use against “domestic enemies,” suggestively linking the two, and the evidence for that comes directly from Trump himself. In his “State of the Union” speech of February 5, 2019, Trump stated the following about Venezuela just before turning back to the US:
“Two weeks ago, the United States officially recognized the legitimate government of Venezuela—(applause)—and its new President, Juan Guaidó. (Applause.) We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom, and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair. (Applause.)
Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country….”
When one heard the speech, the flow from Venezuela to socialism in the US was both smooth and rapid—it was unmistakable that the suggestive link between the two was deliberately planned. To further applause, including from some Democrats, Trump added: “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country”. What they did not hear, and they should have if they truly listened, was Trump’s declaration of war on Venezuela.
Venezuela: The Final Word on Trump
In reviewing Trump’s foreign policy positions over the past three decades, there was one vital piece of evidence that I either overlooked or whose significance I simply did not realize (and since I have not seen the analysis that follows anywhere else, it seems everyone missed this too). While Trump may sound like he is against “endless wars,” “foreign entanglements,” “nation building” and the overthrow of foreign regimes that involves the US in affairs that do not concern it, and while he preaches respect for “sovereignty” and vows not to impose “American values” on other nations—all seemingly exceptional positions for an American president, enough to get him branded an “isolationist”—all of this is conditional on one key factor: distance/proximity.
If a potential target nation is “far away”—for example, Afghanistan and Syria—then it is wrong for the US to get involved. However, if the nation is “close” to the US—i.e., all the nations of the Western Hemisphere—then it is right for the US to intervene because in areas close to home, the US has a “special responsibility”. It’s a claim to ownership, and it’s a return to the classic neocolonial geopolitics of the Monroe Doctrine (and Trump formally cited Monroe in his 2018 address to the UN General Assembly).
The evidence for this notion of a “special responsibility” tied to proximity, comes from Trump himself. While at a golf course in August of 2017, Trump told reporters:
“We have many options for Venezuela, this is our neighbor. We’re all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and dying. We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary”.
Vice President Mike Pence reiterated this explanation to Fox News, answering a question about why Trump is withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan while intervening in Venezuela:
“President Trump has always had a very different view of our hemisphere…He’s long understood that the United States has a special responsibility to support and nurture democracy and freedom in this hemisphere and that’s a longstanding tradition”.
Not speaking out of turn (for a change), national security adviser John Bolton offered further confirmation: “The fact is Venezuela is in our hemisphere. I think we have a special responsibility here, and I think the president feels very strongly about it”.
Trump views Latin America as the US’ “backyard,” sovereignty thus does not apply to the Western Hemisphere’s states. But if Trump does not respect the sovereignty of Latin Americans, then why should they in turn respect the sovereign borders of the US? If sovereignty does not apply in relations between states in the Americas, then Latin Americans should dismiss US sovereignty, and freely pour across the US’ southern border. Where there is no equality and reciprocity, then invasion and counter-invasion will have to do.
If distance/proximity is one factor limiting, even reversing the scope of Trump’s putative anti-interventionism, civilization is another. On a trip to Poland in July of 2017, Trump delivered a controversial speech that many justifiably understood to be a classic defence of “White, Western, Christian civilization”:
“….we will never forget who we are….Americans will never forget. The nations of Europe will never forget. We are the fastest and the greatest community. There is nothing like our community of nations. The world has never known anything like our community of nations. We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers. We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression….That is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization”.
Reflecting on this, I argued elsewhere that “Trump respects sovereignty only for those who are qualified to possess it: White Western Christian nations, in loose terms”. I noted that Trump evidenced the most respect for nations that are linked to the US through cultural parentage—“but where cultural affinity is lacking, Trump chooses the American materialist’s preferred substitute for culture: money, and lots of it”. Trump thus has respect for European nations plus Israel (i.e., Euro-America in the Middle East), but also China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia—that is the map of Trump’s world of sovereign states. The rest of the world is inhabited by what he freely calls “animals,” and “monsters,” shit-hole nations usually ruled by “brutal dictators”—this is the wild neocolonial frontier: it is the world beyond the pale, and beyond the pallid.
It is outside of the domain of Trump logic where we find Trump’s supposed anti-interventionist stance on Syria and Afghanistan directly collides with his actions against Venezuela and Iran, a fact noted by many others besides myself. (Except Iran does not fit within Trump’s logic as described above, which shows that it’s not much of a logic at all.) In the world of the critically rational, where people struggle to understand reality and not deny it, where contradictions need to be explained even if they cannot be reconciled, then this is how Venezuela will be the final word on Trump, especially if a war happens—read each sentence on the left, and then interject the word on the right as a corrective:
|Donald Trump’s Explicit Position (Myth)||The Final Word (Reality)|
|“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world”…||Venezuela|
|“We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone”…||Venezuela|
|“each nation of the world must decide for itself what kind of future it wants to build for its people”…||Venezuela|
|“America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination”…||Venezuela|
|“I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship”…||Venezuela|
|“Around the world, responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination”…||Venezuela|
|“Here in the Western Hemisphere, we are committed to maintaining our independence from the encroachment of expansionist foreign powers”…||Venezuela|
|“Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered. And so we must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all”…||Venezuela|
|“Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect”…||Venezuela|
|“…you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first”…||Venezuela|
|“The United States of America has been among…the greatest defenders of sovereignty”…||Venezuela|
|“We are going to have to stop being the policemen of the world”…||Venezuela|
|“the United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world. We don’t want to do that”…||Venezuela|
|“it is now time to bring our troops back home. Stop the ENDLESS WARS!”…||Venezuela|
Before being elected president, Trump spoke specifically about Venezuela and Hugo Chávez in brief comments to the Miami Herald, saying: “Their leaders are not very friendly to our leaders. But, of course, our leaders don’t get along with too many people….” On Chávez he said, “He had some feelings, some very strong feelings, and he did represent a lot of people, and he represented a lot of people that had been left behind”. However, even then, Trump made comments that suggested he wanted to become involved in Venezuela’s affairs. His wish has come true, but it’s Venezuela that will have the final word.
4 thoughts on “Venezuela: The Next Move and the Final Word”
Venezuela will indeed have the last word. It has large citizen militias and a loyal army so there will be a prohibitive cost to invasion. The Guaido charade has actually split the internal opposition even further. And the economic blockade may actually force the government into some real socialist measures like expropriating land and industries to serve the people’s needs. Yes, socialism in Venezuela will be one more unintended consequence of American foreign policy!
Maximilian C. Forte
those are useful points. In fact, there is evidence that the opposition is fracturing (yet again), with one section now effectively “crying uncle” by calling for a “transitional government” jointly with Maduro and the ruling party, which is itself a major concession. Venezuela is no longer feeding the US war machine with its oil, and once it completes its international realignment, US-based oil transnationals will be locked out for good. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of foreign creditors are about to find Venezuela defaulting on its loan repayments, and at that point it’s an open question whether they will ever be fully repaid (and they can thank their friend Trump for that). Finally, the fact that the opposition has played its hand in the ugliest way possible, by going full tilt towards US military intervention, makes it impossible for them to have a viable political future in Venezuela, along with the economic interests that back them. In any other country–including the US–they would have been arrested and charged with treason if not terrorism as well. At this point a one-party state without a mixed economy makes the most sense–Venezuela is going to need a very hard outer shell to survive future destabilization, while internally it will have to reorient the economy to serve the interests of the working class exclusively, or risk losing support. However, I am not sure that Maduro is the leader that can do all this, so we will have to keep our eyes open for any changes on the governing party’s side. Thanks again for the obviously thought-provoking comments.
Thanks and lots of respect for the work you do Max. I very much agree about Venezuela’s need for a hard outer shell and a hard line against its internal elites. The continuing Chavista emphasis on peace and dialogue internally is either really smart or really stupid in that context. If it is just about winning whatever middle ground remains between Chavismo and the more genocidal elements of the opposition that would make strategic sense: let the opposition be responsible for the onset of civil war. The worrying thing is that Maduro presents this endless pacifism as a matter of Christian principle, and truly may not be up to the job when the brutality of events leaves all that in the dust.
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