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Obama Channels His Inner Reagan on Venezuela

On Monday, the White House took a new step toward the theater of the absurd by “declaring a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela,” as President Barack Obama put it in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner.

It remains to be seen whether anyone in the White House press corps will have the courage to ask what in the world the nation’s chief executive could mean by that. Is Venezuela financing a coming terrorist attack on U.S. territory? Planning an invasion? Building a nuclear weapon?

Who do they think they are kidding? Some may say that the language is just there because it is necessary under U.S. law in order to impose the latest round of sanctions on Venezuela. That is not much of a defense, telling the whole world the rule of law in the United States is something the president can use lies to get around whenever he finds it inconvenient.

That was the approach of President Ronald Reagan in 1985 when he made a similar declaration in order to impose sanctions — including an economic embargo — on Nicaragua. Like the White House today, he was trying to topple an elected government that Washington didn’t like. He was able to use paramilitary and terrorist violence as well as an embargo in a successful effort to destroy the Nicaraguan economy and ultimately overturn its government. (The Sandinistas eventually returned to power in 2007 and are the governing party today.)

The world has moved forward, even though Washington has not. Venezuela today has very strong backing from its neighbors against what almost every government in the region sees as an attempt to destabilize the country.

“The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) reiterates its strong repudiation of the application of unilateral coercive measures that are contrary to international law,” read a statement from every country in the hemisphere except for the U.S. and Canada on Feb. 11. They were responding to the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela that Obama signed into law in December.

Didn’t read any of this in the English-language media? Well, you probably also didn’t see the immediate reaction to yesterday’s White House blunder from the head of the Union of South American Nations, which read, “UNASUR rejects any external or internal attempt at interference that seeks to disrupt the democratic process in Venezuela.”

Washington was involved in the short-lived 2002 military coup in Venezuela; it “provided training, institution building and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster” of President Hugo Chávez and his government, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. has not changed its policy toward Venezuela since then and has continued funding opposition groups in the country. So it is only natural that everyone familiar with this recent history, with the conflict between the U.S. and the region over the 2009 Honduran military coup and with the current sanctions will assume that Washington is involved in the ongoing efforts to topple what has been its No. 1 or 2 target for regime change for more than a decade.

The Venezuelan government has produced some credible evidence of a coup in the making: the recording of a former deputy minister of the interior reading what is obviously a communique to be issued after the military deposes the elected government, the confessions of some accused military officers and a recorded phone conversation between opposition leaders acknowledging that a coup is in the works.

Regardless of whether one thinks this evidence is sufficient (the U.S. press has not reported most of it), it is little wonder that the governments in the region are convinced. Efforts to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela have been underway for most of the past 15 years. Why would it be any different now, when the economy is in recession and there was an effort to force out the government just last year? And has anyone ever seen an attempted ouster of a leftist government in Latin America that Washington had nothing to do with? Because I haven’t.

In the major U.S. and international media, we see that Obama has taken a historic step by beginning the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. But among Latin American governments, the sliver of restored credibility that this move has won has been swiftly negated by the aggression toward Venezuela. You will be hard pressed to find a foreign minister or president from the region who believes that U.S. sanctions have anything to do with human rights or democracy. Look at Mexico, where human rights workers and journalists are regularly murdered, or Colombia, which has been a leader for years in the number of trade unionists killed. Nothing comparable to these human rights nightmares has happened in Venezuela in 16 years under Chávez current President Nicolás Maduro. Yet Mexico and Colombia have been among the largest recipients of U.S. aid in the region, including military and police funding and weapons.

The Obama administration is more isolated today in Latin America than even George W. Bush’s administration was. Because of the wide gulf between the major international media and the thinking of regional governments, this is not obvious to those who are unfamiliar with the details of hemispheric relations. Look at who co-authored the legislation that imposed sanctions against Venezuela in December: soon-to-be indicted Sen. Robert Menendez and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, both ardent defenders of the embargo against Cuba. Yet the administration proudly announced that its new sanctions “go beyond the requirements of this legislation.”

The face of Washington in Latin America is one of extremism. Despite some changes in other areas of foreign policy (e.g., Obama’s engagement with Iran), this face has not changed very much since Reagan warned us that Nicaragua’s Sandinistas were “just two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.” He was ridiculed by Garry Trudeau in “Doonesbury” and other satirists. The Obama White House’s Reagan redux should get the same treatment.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera America.

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Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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