Will Venezuela Crisis Split Democrats?

Pres. Donald Trump’s “State of the (Dis)Union” speech on February 5th was marked by a remarkable incident that did not take place.  He made the following declaration about his administration’s intentions regarding Venezuela:

Two weeks ago, the United States officially recognized the legitimate government of Venezuela, and its new interim President, Juan Guaidó.

We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom — and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist  policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.

Those assembled in the House of Representatives broke out in spirited applause, with Republicans shouting, “Hard Coup, Hard Coup,” and many Democrats responding with calls for “Soft Coup, Soft Coup.” Others sat on their hands silently mouthing “No Coup, No Coup.”

While actual calls for a coup – hard, soft or none at all — did not actually accompany Trump’s remarks, all those in Congress that night knew that the Trump administration was orchestrating a coup in Venezuela and, pathetically, most of those in attendance — Republicans and Democrats — were in support of such an illegal action.

And Trump, never missing an opportunity to attack a political enemy real or imagined, went after Americans’ growing recognition that “socialism” represents a valid alternative to the tyranny of 1 percent capitalism:

Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.

For Trump and many of his rightwing collaborators, a form of “soft” fascism seems like a more appealing state-corporate option.


It’s been nearly two centuries since Pres. James Monroe used the State of Union address of December 2, 1823, to issue what became known as the “Monroe Doctrine.”  In his declaration, he asserted: “The American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Trump, like most presidents before him, seeks to fulfill Monroe’s assertion.

In 1823, the U.S. was a much different country than it is today.  When Monroe issued his declaration, the nation consisted of only 24 states and had a population (in 1820) of only 9.6 million people.  Nevertheless, it was emerging onto the world stage, challenging real and imagined rival powers across the globe.

In1821, Russia claimed control of the entire Pacific coast from Alaska to Oregon and closed the area to foreign shipping.  Shortly after the nation was reunited following the Civil War, in 1867, the U.S. – fulfilling what was known as “Seward’s Folly” — finally acquired Alaska from Russia for a price of $7.2 million.

In ’22, rumors circulated that Spain, with help from European allies, was planning to reconquer its former Latin American colonies. Only Bolivia remained a Spanish colony and, in the Caribbean, Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under Spanish control.  Faced with these apparent threats, Monroe – backed by Sec. of State John Quincy Adams – claimed North, Central and South Americas as part of a vast U.S. protectorate.

Richard W. Slatta, a North Carolina State University history professor, and his students have assembled a remarkable – and deeply disturbing – chronology of U.S. interventions in Latin America from 1795 to 2014.  It details a history of U.S. imperialism, of the plunder and resulting tyranny, that scars all countries south of the U.S. boarder to this day.

The chronology of U.S. interventions into Venezuela’s national life frames today’s calls for a coup, be it hard or soft:

1895 – U.S. extended the Doctrine to include the right to determine the boundary dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain over British Guiana. As Sec. of State Richard Olney explained: “Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition…. its infinite resources combined with its isolated position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable as against any or all other powers.”

1902 – the “Venezuela Crisis” between the U.S. and Germany broke out when Venezuela refused to pay debts to the German, Great Britain and Italy, leading to a naval blockade of the main Venezuelan ports. Pres. Theodore Roosevelt forced the German troops to withdraw and cut a compromise resulting in the “Roosevelt Corollary” that extended the Doctrine, asserting the U.S.’s right to intervene in conflicts between Europe and countries of the Americas.

2002 – a U.S.-backed coup to overthrow Pres. Hugo Chavez lasted for three daysbefore fizzing out.

2010 – Pres. Chavez leads in the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a regional bloc of Latin American and Caribbean states to counter U.S. influence in the region.

2017 – Pres. Trump says he is “not going to rule out a military option” to oust Pres. Nicolás Maduro.

While the Republicans led the fictitious chant for a “hard coup,” the Democrats were divided, split over a “hard” vs a “soft” coup and – for a growing number — a “no” coup. Will Trump’s ham-fisted effort to topple Maduro split the Democratic Party?


South Florida’s three Democratic Congresswomen — Donna Shalala, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell – are among the strongest supporters of the administration’s campaign to overthrow the Maduro government.

Donna Shalala – a classic liberal, Pres. Bill Clinton’s formerSecretary of Health and Human Services and leading Hillary-for-president supporter – has taken an unequivocal stand: “And all of us are waiting to see what the military will do and to make sure that we send very clear messages of our support for the people of Venezuela, for the acting president as well as for military leaders that are prepared to step up and bring down the Maduro government.”

This no-nonsense interventionist position is shared by other Democrats, most notably the (undeclared) presidential candidate, Joe Biden, who said: “The international community must support Juan Guaidó and the National Assembly. It is time for Maduro to step aside and allow a democratic transition.” The declared candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) shouted, “Maduro has to go.”

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) has taken up Trump’s call to oust Maduro:

He [Guaidó] knows how much the Venezuelan people have suffered, how the Maduro regime bankrupted the nation and destroyed its democracy and its economy, and how desperate the people of his country are to rejoin the community of democracies.  I told him we in the United States stand ready to help, and the Venezuelan people need our help to rebuild their country’s democracy and economy and to help the millions of Venezuelan refugees safely return home.

Some Democratic presidential candidates seek cover in the “soft” coup approach.  A spokesperson forSen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said she “supports working with our allies to recognize Juan Guaidó – who was legitimately elected – as the interim president under the Constitution until Venezuela can hold new elections.”  And Sen. Amy Klobuchar whimpered, “I support the people of Venezuela standing up against Maduro, installing a new leader, and restoring democracy in Venezuela.”

But those who appear to oppose a “hard” coup, including U.S. military intervention, don’t want to come out and say it explicitly. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), another undeclared presidential candidate, lambasted the Trump administration’s “loose talk of possible military intervention” as “reckless and irresponsible.”  But then fell back on the “free and fair elections” – or soft coup – stand.  “We should work with our allies and use economic, political and diplomatic leverage to help bring about free and fair elections, limit escalating tension, and ensure the safety of Americans on the ground,” he said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a declared presidential candidate, shares Brown’s half-hearted stand.  She has strongly opposed the use of sanctions and then intones: “The Venezuelan people deserve free and fair elections, an economy that works, and the ability to live without fear of violence from their own government.” Dah?

Unremarkably, the Democrats who take either a hard or soft position regarding a coup in Venezuela present themselves as “progressives.” In the good-old-days of American politics, say 2010, Democrats were “liberals,” “moderates” and – with rare exception – “radicals” (i.e., secret socialists, even Marxists). Unfortunately, today every Democrat claims to be a “progressive.”

A handful of Democrats have come out against U.S. intervention, no matter whether hard or soft.  Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), another declared president candidate, has taken the strongest, most unequivocal stand opposed to intervention.  She said, put simple: “The United States needs to stay out of Venezuela.”  She tweeted, rejecting Trump’s recognition of Guaidó as president: “Let the Venezuelan people determine their future. We don’t want other countries to choose our leaders — so we have to stop trying to choose theirs.”  Like no other politician, she went to heart of the issue, tweeting:“It’s about the oil … again,”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a declared presidential candidate and self-declared democratic socialist, has been criticized for his rather wimpy stand on Venezuela.  However, he’s reframed Gabbard’s statement about the role of oil, recognizing the core driving force of U.S. imperialism.  “However, we must learn the lessons of the past and not be in the business of regime change or supporting coups – as we have in Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic.”  Driving the point home, he insisted: “The United States has a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin American countries; we must not go down that road again.”

Other Representatives have come out against U.S. military intervention in Venezuela.  Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, opposes such a move as do Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN).  Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), a member of Democratic Socialists of America, called the decision to recognize Guaidó a “U.S.-backed coup.”


The split between a “hard” vs a “soft” coup came to a head in the recent Senate effort to pass a resolution supporting Trump’s Venezuela policy that collapsed over a disagreement about the use of U.S. military force.  News reports say a split between Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) to support Guaidó failed because the resolution would not explicitly disapprove of any potential use of the U.S. military.

Forgotten by American politicians, let alone the mass, corporatist media, is that U.S. intervention in Venezuela is not an isolated phenomenon.  William Blum’s Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II is an invaluable resource. Slatta’s chronology, among others, makes painfully clear, U.S. intervention in Venezuela is a relatively modest affair when compared to the many other countries the U.S. has intervened into over the since Pres. Monroe proclaimed the American Doctrine.

Sadly, one can pick almost any country in South America, Central America or the Caribbean and find the U.S.’s bloody interventionist fingerprints scarring the country.  Imperialism, like racism, is an endemic feature of American society.

How far the Trump administration goes in its intervention into Venezuela’s unfolding civil conflict – let alone its undeclared conflict with Iran – may come to determine the 2020 elections.  By forcing a military (or quasi-military) engagement with the Maduro government, including the CIA gaining secret control over key segments of the Venezuela military leading to a “domestic” coup, could force Democrats to decide about a coup.  This situation could split the Democrats and help usher in Trump’s reelection.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.