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No one disputes that Venezuela, an oil exporter once more prosperous than many European countries, is in a deep political and economic crisis. Or that President Nicolás Maduro is largely responsible. And few think the United States, as the hemisphere’s dominant power, has no legitimate role to play in resolving the crisis.
But the long US history of unilateral intervention in Latin America has left even countries favorable to the US uncertain of its intentions. It’s not just history. Recently US officials spoke of humanitarian assistance and called for the departure of Mr. Maduro in the same breath. Both Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton have referred to Latin America as within America’s sphere of influence.
Some historians see a return to an era that had started to fade. Says Prof. Max Paul Friedman at American University: “We were starting to see signs that the US had given up the idea of resolving disputes by sending in the Marines and forcing resolutions to its liking, but now it seems we might be returning to the bad old days of the imperial approach.”
As the United States opened its humanitarian-aid coffers in recent weeks to send tens of millions of dollars in food and medical supplies to the people of Venezuela, the display of Yankee altruism was not met with universal praise across Latin America.
Instead, some circles in a region with a long history of US heavy-handedness and unilateral interventions decried the action as the “weaponization of humanitarian aid.”
US leaders from the White House, State Department, and Senate (primarily in the person of Florida Republican Marco Rubio) spoke of the assistance and in the same breath called for the departure of Venezuela’s embattled president Nicolás Maduro, resurfacing deeply entrenched suspicions about US intentions and an “our way or regime change” approach to the region.
The controversy swirling around US humanitarian aid to Venezuela underscores how the image of the US as Latin America’s big-stick-wielding policeman and imperial power, once thought to be losing its salience, has come roaring back – and is once again hampering US effectiveness in the region.
“The history of US interventions is seared into the political and cultural consciousness of Latin America, and the way the US is proceeding on the Venezuela crisis surely reconfirms that image for many people,” says Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan historian and professor of Latin American studies at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.
“The rhetoric from the Trump administration and the self-evident objective behind actions like the humanitarian aid conform with many popular assumptions about US treatment of Latin America. It’s reopening some old wounds,” he adds – wounds that many experts in the region say in some ways had started to heal.
No one disputes that Venezuela, a top global oil source once more prosperous than many European countries, is in a deep political and economic crisis, or that Mr. Maduro is largely responsible for the collapse. And few think the US, as the hemisphere’s dominant power, has no legitimate role to play in reversing the downward spiral.
But at the same time, the long US history in the region has left even those in Latin America most favorable to the US ambiguous about Washington’s involvement in efforts to help resolve the crisis.
“The crisis in Venezuela is so profound and tragic, and is having such a tremendous impact around the region, that Latin Americans are desperate to find some way to get it resolved,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. “People know this effort is going to include the United States, but at the same time there are widespread hesitations and concerns because of the historic role the US has played in the region.”
The Lima Group
Mr. Shifter notes, for example, that the Lima Group of countries, formed to organize a regional response to Venezuela, explicitly kept the US off its list of participants when it set up shop in August 2017. And separate from the Lima Group, Mexico and Uruguay are working to facilitate dialogue between Venezuela’s warring political factions, distancing themselves even further from the US stance that “Maduro must go.”
Venezuela’s political standoff reached new heights this week when opposition leader and self-proclaimed legitimate president Juan Guaidó returned to Caracas after a week outside the country building support around South America. Mr. Guaidó – who is recognized by more than 50 countries, including the US and many in Europe, as Venezuela’s legitimate president – arrived in the capital Monday to massive throngs of supporters.
At one point Guaidó climbed a scaffold and jubilantly declared the imminent end of the country’s “dictatorship.” But Maduro apparently thought better of his threat to arrest his rival – a move analysts said would have turned Guaidó into an instant martyr.
Instead, Maduro opted to try to let the Guaidó challenge “fizzle out,” Professor Tinker Salas says. At the same time, Maduro, in a desperate bid to shore up his regime, appears to be focused on finding new oil customers (India placed a modest order in February, for example) and working around hardening US sanctions.
In the meantime, Venezuelans continue to go hungry, while thousands leave the country every week across land borders to seek refuge in neighboring Colombia, Brazil, and beyond.
It’s a dire situation the US understandably wants to address. But the rhetoric Trump administration officials are using in conjunction with US actions and the image President Trump is cultivating globally are only complicating US efforts on Venezuela, experts say.
Sphere of influence
Both Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton have referred to Latin America as within America’s sphere of influence, a loaded image that leaves even staunch US supporters cringing, Tinker Salas says. Trump’s appointment of Elliott Abrams as his special Venezuela envoy was also widely taken as a sign of a more muscular US approach to the region. Mr. Abrams is a longtime diplomat with a controversial past of involvement in the Central America wars of the 1980s, including the Iran-Contra arms scandal.
Last weekend Mr. Bolton said in a CNN interview that the Trump administration embraces an updated version of the Monroe Doctrine (the 19th century policy that declared Latin America “hands off” to other global powers), one that demands a “completely democratic hemisphere.”
Bolton raised eyebrows around the hemisphere last fall when he declared a “troika of tyranny” – Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua – in a Florida speech, hinting that under Trump the objective in these cases is regime change.
Trump has also continued to drop the occasional hint that military intervention remains “an option.”
But part of the reason Latin American governments remain suspicious of US paeans to democracy is that in the past such policies covered for military interventions seeking not democracy but pro-US governments. At the same time, Shifter says, Latin Americans look around and don’t see the US under Trump consistently pressuring despots and promoting human rights.
“Even Maduro’s staunchest opponents in the region want to keep some distance from the US and from Trump since they can’t point to evidence that he is really focused on promoting democracy around the world,” he says. Aside from Latin America and in particular Maduro, “the rule they see is Trump’s admiration for strongmen and lack of opposition to autocrats.”
Reviving a fading era
Some historians see the Trump administration’s interventionist polices toward Venezuela and unfriendly regimes in Latin America more broadly as a return to an era that had started to fade.
“We were starting to see signs that the US had given up the idea of resolving disputes by sending in the Marines and forcing resolutions to its liking, but now it seems we might be returning to the bad old days of the imperial approach,” says Max Paul Friedman, a professor specializing in US foreign relations at American University in Washington.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “good neighbor policy” adopted in the 1930s was the first stab at a noninterventionist approach to Latin America, Professor Friedman says. President Barack Obama then went farther in trying to set a new tone in hemispheric relations, he adds, by having his secretary of State, John Kerry, declare the Monroe Doctrine “dead” and establishing relations with Cuba’s communist government.
But the US appears to be shifting back to old practices in its approach to Venezuela, Friedman says, and that leaves Latin America torn between history and democratic aspirations for the region.
That history explains why much-needed food and medicines destined for desperate Venezuelans could end up tagged as a “weaponization of humanitarian aid,” Friedman says.
Noting an earlier instance of the US politicizing humanitarian aid – when it used the cover of aid shipments to funnel arms into cold-war-era Central America – Friedman says it’s not surprising the US aid delivered to Colombia’s border with Venezuela ended up in some eyes symbolizing something other than altruism.
“The US could have tried delivering the aid through a neutral channel like the UN, but the way this was done declared to many that under the Trump administration humanitarian aid is once more an instrument of regime change,” he says. “That raises a lot of ghosts from the past while putting a lot of people at risk.”