The Trump administration’s recent moves on Venezuela have so many historical echoes it’s a veritable déjà vu layer cake. The appointment of Elliot Abrams as U.S. Special Envoy to Venezuela last week was the icing on the cake. Abrams is an unrepentant interventionist, notorious for being found guilty for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. But he also guided U.S. policy towards supporting genocide in Guatemala under Reagan, was the architect of the Panama invasion under George H.W. Bush, and was the central figure in the failed coup in Venezuela against Hugo Chavez in 2002 under George W. Bush. If Abrams’ appointment is any guide, history may well repeat itself again, unless we apply its lessons — and fast.
"We've seen the regime change movie before, and it doesn't end well."
We Know How This Movie Ends: The Disasters of Economic Coercion and Military Intervention
Imposing coercive economic measures has been a staple of American foreign policy for quite some time, despite their penchant for failure and the collateral damage often left in their wake. Sanctions that aim to damage the Venezuelan economy have taken a serious toll on civilians, contributing to the hyperinflation that’s sent the cost of consumer goods sky-high. The UN’s special rapporteur to Venezuela, Alfred de Zayas, said that the type of broad-based and unilateral sanctions the Trump administration has imposed are illegal under international law and that they meet the legal definition of “crimes against humanity.”
Speaking about the Venezuelan refugee crisis, Mr. de Zayas told The Independent, “When I come and I say the emigration is partly attributable to the economic war waged against Venezuela and is partly attributable to the sanctions, people don’t like to hear that. They just want the simple narrative that socialism failed and it failed the Venezuelan people.” On Monday, the Trump administration doubled down on this coercive approach, announcing aggressive new sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry.
As for the military option, there’s no reason to think it would go better than the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan. Retired Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, who was a high-ranking U.S. general responsible for South America, told Vox that a military intervention was the wrong course of action. Venezuela has a 515,000-person military that would fight back in any intervention. Even if an intervention succeeded in removing Maduro, civil war and a U.S. occupation could follow.
Given the economic woes already plaguing the country, two possible outcomes include a long occupation and nation building (a la Iraq) or a temporary intervention that topples the government but leaves behind years of chaos and violence (a la Libya).
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The administration’s loose talk of military options is dangerous, and should be met with vocal opposition. So far, with a few exceptions, opposition to intervention has been scarce, most notably from Democratic members of Congress. The Iraq War had far too many Democratic enablers, and the consequences of their complicity have rippled out for decades. Opposing regime change should be a no-brainer at this point for progressives, Democrats and the anti-interventionist wing of the Republican party. The time to speak up is now, before the crisis escalates.
There is a Diplomatic Path Out of This Crisis
Progressives in the United States are often torn between two impulses: support for democracy and human rights on the one hand and opposition to another disastrous U.S. intervention on the other. But that is a false dichotomy. Democracy means that Venezuelans are allowed the space to address their challenges through peaceful dialogue without coercive measures by outside actors. Polls show that a large majority of Venezuelans — including many of those who oppose Maduro — oppose foreign military intervention to remove Maduro. Instead of military action or coercive economic sanctions that do more harm than good for the people of Venezuela, the United States can help Venezuelans with humanitarian aid, and by supporting dialogue to resolve the standoff.
It’s important that progressives touched by the large protests in Venezuela and the suffering of the people also recognize that Venezuela is highly polarized across lines of class and race. Venezuela has a long history of racism and white supremacy that is still playing out. Venezuela does not fall neatly into a narrative about “the dictator” versus the “the people.” Latin America expert Hazel March points out that “49% to 80% of Venezuelans, both pro- and anti-Maduro, are ‘in disagreement’ with the radical opposition’s use of violence as a political tool. Not all who oppose Maduro support the radical opposition or want them in power.” At the same time, many Venezuelans remain loyal to the legacy of Hugo Chavez, who is seen by many as someone who was focused on the needs of the poor after a succession of governments focused on the needs of elites. These complexities underline why the best approach is broad-based negotiation and not the imposition of a parallel government.
The Vatican as well several Latin American nations have brokered peaceful dialogue between the Maduro government and the opposition. Recently Uruguay and Mexico have called for resumption of talks and a “new process of inclusive and credible negotiations with full respect for the rule of law and human rights” to prevent bloodshed. The United States should support this diplomatic approach that can deescalate the situation and avoid war.
We’ve seen the regime change movie before, and it doesn’t end well. Let’s take it off repeat, and speak up now to avoid another senseless, costly, ill-advised American war.