In the summer of 2017, Donald Trump, giving one of his blithering, impromptu Q&A sessions, threw in an extraordinary aside, in that way he has of appearing to give voice to the various notions that ricochet around the inside of his brain pan, before he can think about whether they ought better to remain unsaid:
A military option for Venezuela?
This seemed frighteningly random, a rogue thought that landed out of the blue, but that’s because we aren’t really paying attention to what’s been going on in South America, where an ongoing economic and political calamity in Venezuela is spilling over into neighbouring countries and spurring an exodus of literally millions of people attempting to escape the civil and economic strife. Venezuela is in the throes of a prolonged crisis that’s getting worse by the day.
There’s a long history to all this, but to cut to the chase, the wheels started to come off during the regime of Hugo Chavez, who became President in 1999. Chavez was just the sort of fellow to drive the right wing American political class to distraction; he was rabidly anti-American, avowedly socialist, and a dedicated follower of “Bolivarianism”, a populist ideology he derived from the philosophy of the revered 19th Century revolutionary Simón Bolívar. On paper, the principles of this ideology, which came to be called “Chavismo”, varied little from what you’d expect of any enlightened political movement, with a focus on social justice, and of course, given Latin America’s long history of subjugation by colonial powers, national sovereignty. As always, the devil was in the details.
The Chavez program of social reform enjoyed considerable initial success, with lots of money thrown at public services to improve wealth distribution, health care, education, and social justice generally. He expropriated and redistributed millions of acres of farmland over the objections of their wealthy owners, established tens of thousands of agricultural communes, and brought in a program of price controls, all to address the ongoing problem of malnutrition. To assist in this, he established a chain of government-owned supermarkets. He nationalized utilities, steel companies, cement producers, and coffee plants. He promoted worker activism and the formation of unions. Unemployment dropped, inflation dropped, nutrition improved, social conditions improved, and it was all going swimmingly, save that Chavez was also a dyed-in-the-wool autocrat, and, of course, endlessly corrupt, as was his entire judicial, law enforcement, and bureaucratic apparatus.
The problem was that the early gains were unsustainable. It was all run on oil money, Chavez having also taken control of that industry after giving the boot to Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhilips. This was fine only so long as the world oil price was high, and when it began to plummet in the wake of the shale oil “fracking” boom, the whole economic house of cards began to collapse. When Chavez died in 2013, and power transferred to the current president, Nicolás Maduro, things were already becoming dire. Deep economic recession began around 2014, inflation hit highs that now exceed 1,000,000% – yes, one million per cent – food shortages led to something akin to famine, with 75% of Venezuelans losing an average of almost 20 pounds of bodyweight during Maduro’s tenure, and to quell discontent Maduro became even more authoritarian than his predecessor. As the economic crisis has deepened, and Venezuela began defaulting on foreign debt, widespread poverty, privation, and a crackdown on dissent have led to the migration of over three million people out of the country. Inflation is now forecast to reach ten million per cent this year. People are destitute, hungry, and very angry.
In the meantime, a coalition of opposition parties has gained control of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s parliament, and an opposition leader has emerged, Juan Guaido, who came virtually (and suspiciously) out of nowhere to lead what amounts to a counter-revolution. Guaido is now claiming the position of President, calling Maduro an illegitimate usurper following the current President’s easy victory in 2018 elections that were almost certainly rigged. Many countries, including Canada, and crucially, the United States, are recognizing Guaido as the legitimate President.
OK, that’s all vastly over-simplified. Here’s a clarifying timeline: https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/venezuela-timeline-political-crisis-1.4993519
For a graphic representation of the various ways that the economy has collapsed, see: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-46999668
The main point is that Venezuela is now a proper mess, its society on the verge of collapse, and there are rumblings in America that something should be done about it. What? Well, economic sanctions, including an embargo on Venezuela’s oil exports – a thoroughly crippling possibility – would be one way to go. That would certainly pile even more agony upon the beleaguered population, but might push the moment to its ultimate crisis and lead to regime change. What prompts this column, though, are ominous headlines like this:
That’s about as comforting as a headline that reads No specific knowledge of plans to carpet bomb Cincinnati: Senator Rubio
Here’s the thing. We tend not to think about it, but Venezuela has huge geopolitical/strategic importance on account of its proven oil reserves, which by most estimates are even larger than Saudi Arabia’s. This is just the sort of thing that animates the more hawkish elements of the US policy community. The US also has a long history of antipathy towards socialist governments in Latin America, and has intervened there repeatedly in support of American geopolitical and economic interests. Readers may remember the invasions of Panama in the 1990s, and Grenada in the 1980s. Those with a good memory will also recall the Reagan administration’s covert war against the socialist Sandanista regime in Nicaragua, which was the impetus for the Iran-Contra scandal that should have resulted in multiple prison terms. That, however, ain’t the half of it.
America may not be an imperialist nation in the 19th Century European mould, but sometimes it’s pretty close – to put it crudely and polemically, the US doesn’t want to conquer, occupy and administer other countries like England, France and Spain did, it merely seeks to ensure that conditions are favourable so that its corporations can pillage them while doing more or less the same thing. That’s the, you know, lefty interpretation of events, which sadly has a great deal of historical and factual support. Down south, the classic beneficiary of this policy bent was the United Fruit Company, a quintessential early prototype for the modern multinational, which for much of the 20th Century virtually ran Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala, among other places, the genesis of the nickname “banana republics”. This was all part of a piece. When it comes to economic and military intervention, America comes closest to the traditional imperialist model in Latin America.
In 1823, the US declared the whole region off limits to European powers with the Monroe Doctrine, and has treated Latin America as its own particular sphere of influence – “geopolitical playground”, if you’re being all lefty and contrary – ever since. In the century between 1898 and 1994, America intervened over 40 times, directly or indirectly, to overthrow Latin American governments. This is a good summary, produced at Harvard:
The nationalization of American corporate interests, like, say, booting Exxon and ConocoPhillips out of the country, has been a reliable trigger for such intervention, and thus a nagging concern over another military adventure has been vexing folks like me ever since Chavez first took power. Now, with this hugely important oil power in disarray, the conditions are ripe for some sort of action to “stabilize the region” and install a more friendly regime, purportedly, no doubt, on humanitarian grounds, and, naturally, to promote “national security”. The latter argument is buttressed by Maduro’s friendly relationship with Russia, which has led to the recent appearance of Russian air and naval assets, including huge and sophisticated “Blackjack” strategic bombers, in the Western Hemisphere, as if Putin had never heard of the Monroe Doctrine, the bounder. Moreover, it was just reported that shadowy Russian military contractors, Putin’s equivalent to the US Blackwater outfit, have arrived in Venezuela to buttress Maduro’s grip on power, a provocation that could play right into the hands of Trump’s most hawkish advisors. For his part, Putin, either oblivious or cackling while he rubs his hands together, seems to be doing his level best to stir the pot:
Trump’s talk of military options and “keeping all options open” hasn’t done much to quiet concerns, and worse, John Bolton, the gleefully interventionist National Security Advisor and all around militarist bon vivant, has for a while been making typically bellicose statements about Venezuela and other socialist countries in South and Central America. In November 2018, this was the headline:
He was railing against Nicaragua and Cuba as well as Venezuela, promising stern measures to discipline what he called the “Troika of Tyranny” – good one, John! Then, just a few days ago, this was the story in the Washington Examiner:
“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,” Bolton told reporters in response to a question about whether Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro is equivalent to “all the other dictators” around the world.
When Bolton says “our hemisphere”, what he means is Our hemisphere. Property, more or less.
Then over the weekend, we get this from conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt on Meet the Press:
Hewitt is a bit of right wing crank, in many ways a more respectable and presentable version of Rush Limbaugh, albeit one with a history of disliking Trump. He’s a radio talk show host. He very much approves of the “peace through strength” approach of the Reagan era, and is quite enamoured of the likes of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, whom he sees as laudably strong, not like all those party-pooping liberal wimps who always cry about stuff like civilian casualties and collateral damage. He has his opinions. There’s no reason at all, however, to think he has any special insight into likely US policy towards Venezuela or anywhere else.
Still, it’s right about now that the script calls for the Americans to make a move. They might well start by conspiring with one or another military faction to stage a coup, probably to put this fellow Guaido in charge, perhaps under appropriate military supervision. The more disturbing prospect is a more robust intervention involving US armed forces, perhaps some mix of air, naval and special forces assets. Way off to the end of the horror show continuum is a full-scale invasion.
Is any of this possible? The coup, sure, a genuine invasion, almost certainly not. I think. Despite his campaign rhetoric about bombing the shit out of people, seizing Iraqi and Syrian oil fields, and killing the families of ISIS members, and all his early bluster about the relative size of nuclear buttons, Trump actually seems to be quite averse to wars and military interventions abroad. He wants out of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan – which, in spirit if not dismal execution, puts him in line with many sober analysts on the left – and he’s so isolationist he also wants out of South Korea, Japan, and Europe. His disdain for NATO may be highly satisfactory to his buddy Vlad, but it’s also consistent with decades of Trumpy rhetoric stretching back long before he ever seriously considered running for office, in which Donald has repeatedly carped about his nation being “ripped off” by freeloading foreigners who won’t pay for their own defence. His position on the traditional American alliance structure may brand him as a realpolitik naif and general A-hole, but it doesn’t smack of somebody eager to send the military off on a tour of the world’s hotspots willy-nilly, or even when it’s vital to US interests.
The possible “derangement factor” this time is the “wag the dog” scenario, that is, the trick of engaging in a foreign military adventure to distract the public from domestic political problems. If Trump, mired in scandal and defeated on his existential wall crusade, was inclined to wag any pooches, now would be the time. He’d no doubt have John Bolton’s, and probably Mike Pompeo’s, enthusiastic support. Having absolutely no sense of geo-strategic realities, it might even seem to an embattled Donald like an easy win that could take some of the pressure off, a handy way to divert the news cycle away from indictments, resigning cabinet members, unbuilt walls, and Mueller. Send in the Marines and change all the headlines!
I doubt it. But what do I know?
Geez, just a little while ago I was worried about Iran. With a guy like Bolton lurking about, you have to worry about everywhere, really. Hawks like him never seem to understand that even apparently successful military interventions, of which there are few, almost invariably come with counterproductive blowback that does more harm than good in the long run. It’s as if they keep expecting a repeat of the post-WW II successes in Europe and Japan, rather than the more typical disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, invasions which at first seemed both painless and triumphant. It’s almost never clean and tidy that way. Military intervention breeds popular resistance, antipathy, insurgencies, and more trouble down the road, while making everybody in the surrounding region nervous and suspicious. Nowhere could this be more the case than in Latin America, where the long history of US interventionism has fostered eternal mistrust and often hatred.
Things have generally gone America’s way in this hemisphere, but I’m still of the view that America’s long term interests would be better served by a little more reticence, a little less eagerness to be the bully that dictates outcomes across the region. For once, now, the policy community should decide to adopt a hands-off approach, and break the cycle. In this new century, America needs friends and allies, not quavering vassals. It’s high time to forgo the pursuit of ultimate economic and strategic advantage for the United States, and have a care for the people who never seem to benefit in the least from American interference – quite the contrary, truth be told, and that’s a shameful thing.
No more, I say.
Which brings us once again to the miserable conclusion that I don’t run the world, which is a pity, really.
Update: get a load of this bullshit intimidation ploy, as Bolton lugs around a notepad, face out, with only one thing written on it in big letters: