“America stands with every person living under a brutal regime,” claimed President Trump in his proclamation declaring National Hispanic Heritage Month on September 13, 2018. In the same speech, he reaffirmed the United States’ “commitment to liberty and government accountability and to confronting threats to freedom in places such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.”
In recent months, Trump’s comments have kept international attention on Venezuela. An economic and humanitarian crisis under Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime has persisted for years. In 2017, opponents of Maduro’s government held protests spanning over 100 days, leading to nearly 100 deaths and sparking international outrage. In May 2018, Maduro won a second term in elections widely considered to be rigged, and in August escaped an assassination attempt carried out via drone. Last month, he made a surprise visit to the United Nations, a day after Trump vowed to “take care of Venezuela.”
In the coming weeks, as the US continues to navigate its imperialist history, its responsibility toward Venezuela, and Trump’s threats, Congress may provide a solution.
The economic crisis in Venezuela began in 2014, when the price of oil dropped dramatically. Oil represented 95 percent of the country’s exports. Its financial troubles worsened because the country had already accumulated significant debt. The government lost revenue paying back loans, and in combination with the fall in oil production, government services and government-run industries suffered. Currently, oil production is at a 13-year low, and the country has even begun to import oil. A large part of the government’s response was printing more money, and inflation is forecasted to reach one million percent this year. Prices double every 26 days. Machu Muci, a Venezuelan student at Brown University, explained to the Independent that many restaurants no longer include prices in their menus as they would need to reprint so often.
Foreign goods have become extremely expensive. As the oil sector came to dominate the economy in recent decades, access to basic consumer goods has decreased. Limited imports, a lack of a domestic consumer staples industry, and high inflation have resulted in a situation where it is cheaper to use cash to clean oneself than to buy toilet paper.
Around 90 percent of the country lives in poverty, and the economic crisis has lead to widespread famine. A poll conducted by three Venezuelan universities found that over 60 percent of Venezuelans had woken up hungry because of the inability to purchase food over the past year. The same poll found that the average Venezuelan reported losing 24 pounds in 2017. Water supplies are also low, with only 27 percent having consistent clean water.
Beyond food shortages, medicine is in extremely short supply. 85 percent of basic medicine and 90 percent of supplies for severe conditions are not available, according to The Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela. Infant mortality was so high that in 2016, an average of 31 Venezuelan infants died every day. Muci’s family has left the country, but she explains that, recently, when her mother returned for a visit, “she didn’t even bring clothes because all her suitcase was food, medicines for my grandmother, [and] toilet paper,” she said. Maduro’s regime refuses to allow international aid, worsening the situation. These conditions have sparked a massive exodus—more than 1.5 million people have fled Venezuela since 2014.
This economic collapse is happening in conjunction with a democratic crisis. Nationwide protests for La Salida (“the exit” of Maduro) began in 2014, and have continued until the present day with the support of opposition parties. The 2014 unrest originated in students protesting for increased public security. When leaders of these protests were arrested, student activists around the country spoke up. Soon, opposition politicians joined, and the cause became a general call to end Maduro’s regime. In response, the military cracked down. The protests during the summer of 2017 left over a hundred protestors dead. Human Rights Watch reports that captured opposition leaders were subject to torture including brutal beatings, electric shock, and asphyxiation.
Democratic suppression has also reached government institutions and political leaders. The 2017 election of the Constituent Assembly was determined to be fraudulent by the company hired to oversee it. 33 Supreme Court judges named by opposition parties have been accused of treason, threatened with 30 years in prison, and now live in exile. By the 2017 elections, five of the most prominent opposition parties didn’t run presidential candidates, saying that putting their names on the ballot would only legitimize the rigged results. The regime has even banned certain political leaders from holding public office, such as former Vice-President Maria Corina Machado (the reason given was alleged conspiracy of a coup attempt, although Human Rights Watch reviewed the evidence and found it uncredible). Other politicians are under house arrest.
On September 26, President Trump said, “We’re going to take care of Venezuela [...] Every option is on the table.” Trump had previously spoken of using a “military option, if necessary” to end the oppression of the Maduro regime. Last week, he again hinted at the possibility of armed intervention: “It’s a regime that frankly could be toppled very quickly by the military.” These statements came within weeks of a New York Times report that Trump administration officials had met with Venezuelan rebel officers hoping to gain US support in their efforts to overthrow Maduro. While Trump has continued Obama-era economic sanctions against Venezuela, the notion of military intervention or military support for rebel groups is a significant shift. This approach has earned international condemnation. International organizations, including the Lima Group (whose members include all three of Venezuela’s neighboring countries, Mexico, Canada, and nine more Latin American countries), have come out with statements rejecting military intervention.
President Maduro had his own perspective on the matter. “The oligarchs of the continent—and those who rule them from Washington—want political control of Venezuela,” he claimed in his surprise visit to the United Nations last week. Trump’s discussion of a US-supported military coup legitimizes Maduro’s rhetoric, though this rhetoric is not new in Venezuela. “Yankees go home” is a very common sentiment throughout Latin America, Muci explained, “The government has always used the US as a scapegoat.” She went on to say that the US was blamed for everything from inflation to the death of Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor and leader of the Bolivarian Revolution. Oriana van Praag, another Venezuelan undergraduate student at Brown, described this as “a nationalist, populist rhetorical strategy … [that has] a lot of people very receptive to it nationally and within the Latin American left because it’s not without basis.”
The United States has a long and controversial history with military intervention and backing coups in Latin America, especially against leftist regimes. In fact, resentment of US-led international imperialism was a key element in the basis for the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela through which Hugo Chávez came into power.
Both the American and Venezuelan presidents’ rhetoric have significant historical context. In 1989, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank implemented a Structural Adjustment Program to stabilize the Venezuelan economy––prescribed by international institutions led by the global North in the 1980s to (at least nominally) promote economic stability and development in the global South. The tool has been widely criticized because its drastic neoliberal measures (privatization and removal of trade barriers, for example) left economies vulnerable and dramatically reduced public goods. In the initial stages of the program, the Venezuelan government liberalized the price of gas. Removing government controls increased it dramatically. This political mishap, as well as other US-backed policies, led to what is known as the “Caracazo.” This anger at the government’s compliance with destructive economic policies fueled Chávez’s coup attempts throughout 1992, which gave him national recognition. It is no surprise that anti-imperialist sentiment was at the core of Chavez’s platform when he won the election of 1998.
Controversy surrounding US involvement in Venezuela continued in 2002 during a coup attempt against Chavez. Had the coup succeeded, the right-wing politician Pedro Carmona would have been president. Top US military officials met with Venezuelan officers behind the coup and Carmona himself met with Otto Reich, the Bush Administration’s Assistant Secretary of State for western hemisphere affairs. Declassified CIA documents show that the agency was aware of the possibility of a coup, even knowing the general form it would take. The coup only lasted for 47 hours, and while the role of the US is unclear, the event reinforces Chávez and Maduro’s claims that the US plotted against the then-democratically elected regime. In fact, the silencing and removal of political opposition in Venezuela largely began in response to this coup attempt.
But the roots of this conflict go deeper than the Bolivarian Revolution. A Cold War era ideology of US imperialism also underlies the present possibility of US intervention in Venezuela. In 1945, Venezuelan military leader Marcos Pérez Jiménez came to power with a military junta ousting Rómolo Gallegos, who is considered the first cleanly elected president in Venezuelan history. In 1952, Jiménez called for an election, but later cancelled it because it did not seem to be going in his favor and, instead, he declared himself president. Despite the oppressive, undemocratic nature of the regime, the US supported it. President Eisenhower even awarded Jiménez the Legion of Merit in 1954 for his anti-communist efforts. The low price of oil and Jiménez’s policy of open trade with the US was, of course, a factor.
In the same speech where Trump claimed that “America stands with every person living under a brutal regime,” he also stated, “wherever true socialism or Communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.” US intervention in Venezuela has historically coincided with left wing regimes and reduced oil supplies.
This pattern provides reason to be skeptical of Trump’s intentions. When I asked the two Venezuelan students to respond to Trump’s statement of solidarity Muci responded, “I think it would be more that [...] America stands with every country that has oil.” Venezuela does in fact have the world’s largest proven oil reserves, and oil as a motive for US foreign policy by no means a far reach. From friendly relationships with Saudi Arabia to the CIA’s involvement in the 1953 coup against the Iranian prime minister, oil has been a driving force of US foreign policy.
A bipartisan bill introduced this week in Congress, sponsored primarily by New Jersey’s Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, may offer an alternative that, through a multilateral approach, could address concerns of US abuse of power.
The Venezuela Humanitarian Relief, Reconstruction, and 4 Rule of Law Act of 2018 has a first title focused exclusively on the direct delivery of humanitarian aid. It urges coordination between UN Agencies, the World Health Organization, and The Pan-American Health Organization, among others. The aid includes public health commodities, basic food commodities, and technical assistance for their direct dispersal to avoid misure. Should the aid be rejected, the US would urge the UN Security Council to take action. As mentioned, this is the only way the responsibility to protect allows for military action, but this is considered unlikely. This title also allocates aid to Venezuelans refugees in neighboring countries.
The second title of the bill focuses on restoring democracy. It calls for recognition of the democratically elected National Assembly, international supervision of elections, and NGO support in rebuilding government institutions. The article has sections dedicated to the involvement of regional international organizations, specifically urging the Lima Group and the Organization of American States to use their collective power to hold the Venezuelan government accountable. This title pledges support to the International Criminal Court investigation of Venezuela.
The third title describes the process of restructuring Venezuela’s economy, but these measures are contingent on the restoration of democracy and rule of law in the country. It calls for the return of stolen public funds to the people, the rebuilding of energy infrastructure, and international institution management of hyperinflation and debt. It includes facilitation of negotiations between Venezuela and the countries to which the majority of debt is owed (China and Russia). It also includes plans for extensive research to track down stolen public funds and to work with foreign governments to freeze those assets. Once identified and forfeited, this money would be held and later returned to a democratic Venezuelan government. This process is not outlined in depth, and the lack of a timeline seems concerning, although one would hope details of the exact process would crystalize as the financial investigation produces findings. One of the actors enlisted in the effort of restructuring the economy is the International Monetary Fund, which is sure to elicit a negative response because of the failure of the 1989 structural adjustment program. When asked about the role of the IMF in restructuring Venezuela’s economy, van Praag says, “I would like to think of an alternative solution, but I don’t know if there is.” Interestingly, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) recently created the New Development Bank as an alternative controlled by the global South. Maduro has expressed interest in joining this bank in hopes of addressing the country’s debt. As the New Development Bank was only founded in 2014, it is still unclear what the organization’s practices are or how they will differ from the financial institutions lead by the global North.
This legislation is sure to have critics and is certainly not a complete reversal of US interventionism. It is still a coordinated attempt to determine conditions in a Latin American country. Economic management by the IMF certainly sets off warning bells, but this bill does not stipulate how the IMF plan would be implemented, only that a framework for economic reconstruction should be created. And given the vast humanitarian cost of allowing the Maduro regime to continue unchecked, international action widely called for. “I don’t want to tell Trump or the US to mind their own business,” Muci said, although she does not want military intervention. A recent poll indicated that 84.3 percent of Venezuelans would support multinational intervention if it would bring food and medicine. Another poll found that 88 percent of Venezuelans rejected the idea of foreign military intervention to overthrow the president, preferring dialogue. This indicates that, although economic sanctions alone have not succeeded, the Venezuelan people want a multilateral, nonviolent international response to the conflict.
The legislation focuses on humanitarian and economic assistance. Unlike the military intervention or support of rebel factions, this proposal does not outline who should assume power, but rather works to force parties into dialogue and into restoring democratic institutions. This bill demonstrates that, although the current administration may not be cautious of continuing a history of US imperialism, there is hope in Congress assuming its duty in the realm of foreign policy.
MAYA DAYAN B’21 can’t believe she’s finding hope in Congress.