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Creating a Coup Climate: the Historical Roots of U.S. Foreign Policy Towards Venezuela

Photo Source Eneas De Troya | CC BY 2.0

U.S. foreign policy tends to follow a highly rational and well-calculated pattern. This makes it effective, and also ruthless. The U.S. government’s hostile attitude towards leaders like Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro certainly fits this pattern, and time will tell whether the failed assassination attempt on President Maduro on August 4 is a part of this. While many news reports now focus on what exactly happened that day, it can enlightening to step back for a moment and put this event in a much broader context. Such an exercise reveals the origins, consistency, effectiveness and, perhaps in a somewhat sinister way, the beauty of U.S. foreign policy planning and execution in the Western Hemisphere.

A good place to start is WWII. Even before Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan had been defeated, U.S. strategic planners realized the United States would emerge from the war as a global superpower. They subsequently laid out plans for a new world order in which the United States would wield “unquestioned power”. U.S. planners created the concept of the “Grand Area”, a region under U.S. control that consisted of Western Europe, East Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. 

Within the Grand Area every country was given a “function”. East Asia’s function was to be a “cheap source of vital raw materials”, an “economic and strategic prize”. The oil reserves of the Middle East were not only regarded as “one of the greatest material prizes in world history”, but also, if the U.S. managed to control it, as a “stupendous source of strategic power”, something that has guided U.S. policy towards the Arab world ever since. In the case of Latin America, George Kennan, one of the leading architects of the post WWII world order, simply described its resources as “ours”. Besides control over resources, other important functions were to provide markets and cheap sources of labor for U.S. corporations and investors. Because industrial development and modernization was not among the functions of the Third World, U.S. planners anticipated popular resistance, and invented ways to deal with it.

Resistance from the Latin American population was described by the State Department as the “philosophy of the New Nationalism”. This sentiment of economic nationalism emphasized that “the first beneficiaries of the development of a country’s resources should be the people of that country” – not U.S. corporations. To deal with this threat, Washington responded in February 1945 by declaring a New Economic Charter of the Americas. One of its expressed goals was the “elimination of economic nationalism in all its forms.” And although the methods used might by “unpleasant”, George Kennan stated, they are necessary to ensure that Latin America’s resources remain “ours”. What followed was a series of U.S. interventions that continue until this day, Venezuela being just one case on a by now long list.

Interestingly, U.S.-Venezuela relations used to be good. For instance, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who ruled Venezuela as a military dictator between 1950-1958, ensured his country carried out its function. For this loyalty, he was awarded the Legion of Merit by President Eisenhower in 1954. In the 40 years following the overthrow of Pérez, subsequent Venezuelan governments kept conforming to U.S. political and economic interests. Venezuela, for instance, accepted Washington’s Neoliberal agenda of the 1980s and 1990s and provided lucrative contracts to U.S. oil corporations. The election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, however, was a game changer. 

Chavez, who together with Maduro won 15 out of 18 major democratic elections, attempted to bring more economic benefits to his supporters, which mainly consisted of the working class and the poor. This not only gave him continued strong support from large sectors of the population, it also resulted in Venezuela’s rise in the UN’s Human Development Index score between 2000 and 2012. In the process, however, Chavez went after U.S. oil concessions, rejected the Neoliberal agenda and expressed his disapproval of the way the U.S. responded after 9/11, such as the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. After Chavez’s death, Maduro was democratically elected to continue these kind of policies. When considering U.S. Grand Area planning, Chavez and Maduro pose an obvious threat, for two simple reasons.

The first reason has everything to do with Venezuela having the largest proven oil reserves in the world. Just like in the Middle East, this enormous amount of oil is a great “material prize”. U.S. corporations and investors want themselves to be the “first beneficiaries”, something that Chavez, Maduro and their supporters try to prevent.

The second reason has everything to do with the demonstration effect, sometimes called the “domino theory”. Anyone who understands power will quickly realize that if the U.S. stands by quietly and allows one disobedient government to remain in power, one that does not carry out its function, it may motivate other populations and governments to try the same. Therefore, no matter how insignificant a country, the U.S. has to make it suffer and try to remove its government in order to demonstrate to the rest of the world what happens to disobedience. 

Among the “unpleasant” methods the U.S. has employed on numerous occasions to overthrow a government (called “regime change” in Western propaganda) are military coups that bring into power a more obedient leadership, economic sanctions and assassinations. Allende’s Chile provides a good example of how this can play out. Economic mismanagement by Allende laid the basis for an economic crises that was purposefully exacerbated by U.S. economic sanctions aimed to, as Richard Nixon put it, make the Chilean economy “scream”. The logic behind this is easy to understand. Economic misery most likely will result in public dissatisfaction with the government, which helps to create what the CIA calls a “coup climate”. In this context, U.S. encouragement of the Chilean military to get rid of Allende resulted in a military coup, the death of Allende and the rule of the dictator General Pinochet, who proved to be everything U.S. leaders had hoped for. 

Venezuela’s economy, due to a period of low oil prices and Maduro’s mismanagement, has been screaming for a while, and the economic sanctions that President Trump has implemented, have made the economy scream some more. Perhaps, although there is no conclusive evidence so far, U.S. officials judged that the “coup climate” was sufficiently advanced enough to attempt a military takeover. U.S. officials have already admitted to have secretly met with Venezuelan military officers who were plotting a coup. What followed was a failed assassination attempt aimed at Maduro using two commercial drones armed with explosives. It is to early to tell whether, and if so to what extent, the U.S. government was involved. Considering the pattern of U.S. actions in Latin America from 1945 onwards, however, it would fit in nicely, just as the failed U.S. supported coup to oust Chavez in 2002 is consistent with the way the United States government tends to act.

One could actually go further back in time than WWII in order to shed light on U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America. In the early years of the United States existence, a time when Latin America was still a Spanish and Portuguese colony, Thomas Jefferson already expressed his vision, or perhaps his hopes, that as the U.S. would continue to grow stronger, it would eventually be in a position strong enough to take Latin America away from Spain “piece by piece”. In 1898, the U.S. seized the opportunity to first assist Cuba in its liberation struggle against Spain, only to then occupy the island and turn it into a defacto U.S. colony.

In the following decades, the U.S. Marine Corps spread U.S. dominance across the Caribbean and into Central America through a multitude of invasions and occupations. The overall goal was, besides projecting U.S. power into the region, to facilitate the rise of pro-U.S. leaders who would create conditions favorable to U.S. corporations and investors. What this meant for the Caribbean and Central American population was mostly a continuation of colonial-style economic systems, such as Cuba’s plantation economy that became mostly owned by U.S. businesses. 

The biggest threat to these practises was the usual, namely economic nationalism. In order to suppress nationalist movements, one of the techniques U.S. strategic planners eventually came up with was the establishment of military rulers supported by national guards. U.S. government officials referred to this process as bringing “order and stability”, a description obediently taken over by the media. Substitute these words with “democracy and freedom”, and one has a fairly accurate picture of today’s propaganda.

During this pre-WWII period, Venezuela was praised by the United States as a role model other countries in the region ought to follow. Venezuela’s dictator Juan Vicente Gomez not only ruled his country with an iron fist and an ideology expressed in the phrase “Gomez unico” (Gomez alone, nothing but Gomez), but he also opened up the economy to U.S. investors and gave U.S. corporations access to Venezuela’s rich oil supplies. All in all, Gomez provided a “strong and stable government, one which maintains order”, according to a U.S. representative.

It is possible to go back even further in time, all the way to the age of colonialism, to gain more insight into the origins of today’s Latin America and its relation to the West. European colonialism, as elsewhere, created an underdeveloped economy based on the production and export of raw materials and agricultural goods. Within this economy a small group of native local elites, who collaborated with the Spanish and Portuguese colonists, prospered. This landowner and merchant elite, to further their own interests, organized the movement for independence in the 1820’s and then, while Western countries industrialized, continued to run colonial-style economic policies based on agriculture and raw materials.

The superpower of the time, Britain, was very pleased with this development. British manufactures and investors did not want an independent Latin America to industrialize and turn into a powerful competitor. They wanted the local elites to keep things as they were. It resulted in a mutually beneficial relationship. Latin American large landowners and merchants who dominated the political scene would continue to focus on producing and trading agricultural goods and raw materials; and they would open up their markets to the West. This allowed British businesses, merchant houses and investors to own many of the valuable export trades, be it in Brazilian coffee, Chilean nitrates or Argentinian beef. It firmly kept Latin America in its Third World position. Later the U.S. simply replaced Britain as the dominant foreign power and established the same sort of relationship with the Latin American elites. The result was a continuation of similar colonial-style economic policies, leaving similar consequences.

The obvious conclusion based on the history discussed above, one that is not allowed to enter the mainstream media, is that the U.S. does not care what kind of government is in power, as long as it is obedient and subordinate. The U.S. has worked with democratic leaders and with dictators, and the U.S. has overthrown democratic governments and dictatorships. Overall, however, because of the sentiment of economic nationalism among the Latin America people, the U.S. has usually prefered authoritarian military rulers. If Maduro would succumb to a military coup, or if Maduro’s failing economic policies and his increased authoritarianism alienate his supporters, it is not at all unlikely that his successor will be a pro-U.S. right wing authoritarian, perhaps related to the military, someone who knows how to bring back “order and stability” to Venezuela, or as is said nowadays, “democracy and freedom”.

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