FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Venezuela and the Long History of U.S. Imperialism

Illustration by Nathaniel St. Clair

In April 1846, U.S. Army Colonel Seth Thornton led 80 dragoons toward the Rio Grande. Just above the river, they encountered 1,600 Mexican cavalrymen heading north from Matamoros. The Mexican cavalry quickly overpowered the much smaller U.S. force. Eleven Americans were killed, and forty-nine others were captured. When President James K. Polk received news of the skirmish, he declared, “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” On May 13, the U.S. Congress declared war on Mexico.

The entire chain of events was a set up. In 1845, the U.S. annexed the Republic of Texas, which had declared its independence from Mexico nearly a decade earlier. However, Mexico asserted that Texas remained part of its sovereign territory. Moreover, Mexico asserted that the Nueces River – not the Rio Grande – was the boundary between the province of Texas and its neighbors. Even if the U.S. had a right to annex Texas, the international boundary would be located far to the north of where Thornton’s dragoons were defeated. Polk had ordered the invasion of Mexican territory and then presented it to the U.S. public as a Mexican invasion of the U.S.

Even more than simply sending troops into the disputed territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande, Polk laid the groundwork for a U.S. invasion of Mexico for more than a year. In 1845, he sent Louisiana politician John Slidell to Mexico City to settle the dispute over Texas and to purchase the territories of California and New Mexico. The mission was designed to fail. A known U.S. spy accompanied Slidell, and Mexican officials refused to meet with him.

When Slidell reported his failure to the Polk administration, U.S. Secretary of State James Buchanan informed him that he should remain in Mexico longer “to satisfy the American people that all had been done which ought to have been done to avoid the necessity of resorting to hostilities.” In short, Slidell should perpetuate a charade that would give the Polk administration the necessary cover to launch a war. Indeed, that’s what happened. Congress passed the declaration of war, and at least initially, the U.S. public embraced Polk’s narrative. At the end of the war, the U.S. forced Mexico to cede over half a million square miles of territory, including New Mexico and California.

Polk orchestrated his war with Mexico using well-established strategies. In his writing on U.S. imperial wars against American Indian nations, scholar Philip J. Deloria described the logic of “defensive conquest” at the heart of U.S. imperialism. According to the U.S., it uses violence only in response to the violence of others. Its aggression is actually self-defense. These arguments are disingenuous, but they have been deployed to justify wars against Indigenous nations, Mexico, Spain, Vietnam, Iraq, and countless others.

In recent months, the U.S. has used similar strategies against Venezuela. The Trump administration is determined to depose Venezuela’s elected president Nicolás Maduro and replace him with opposition leader Juan Guaidó. At the end of January, Trump appointed Elliott Abrams as Special Representative to Venezuela. Abrams is a veteran diplomat best known for his support of right-wing dictatorships in Central and South America during the 1980s, his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, and his subsequent conviction for lying to Congress. Soon after, the U.S. placed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports, which provide 90% of the nation’s revenue, while also insisting that Maduro allow it to deliver humanitarian aid to the country. The U.S. is simultaneously exacerbating a crisis and asserting that it can solve it.

This past weekend, Abrams traveled to Colombia and soon a U.S.-backed “aid convoy” attempted to cross the Venezuela-Colombia border. Given Abrams’ past of helping smuggle weapons to right-wing militias, Venezuela – along with the United Nations, the Red Cross, and other relief organizations – is rightfully suspicious of the “humanitarian aid” Abrams offers. While accepting aid from Russia, China, and other nations, Venezuela blocked the U.S. convoy. Conflicting reports alternately suggest that pro-Maduro or pro-Guaidó forces set it on fire. Immediately, pro-coup Americans called the violence a violation of Colombian sovereignty, another pretense for overthrowing Maduro. Speaking in Colombia, Vice President Mike Pence referenced the violence and warned that “any who would threaten [Colombia’s] sovereignty or security would do well not to test our commitment to our ally.” Senator Marco Rubio, a vocal cheerleader of a U.S.-backed coup in Venezuela, promised, “The United States WILL help Colombia confront any aggression against them.” Military intervention has been the goal of the Trump administration all along, and recent events are intended to provide justification for it.

In Venezuela, we are watching a replay of the events leading up to the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846. Pro-coup politicians like Trump, Pence, and Abrams are using against Venezuela the tactics that Polk, Buchanan, and Slidell employed to frame the war against Mexico as a “defensive conquest.” Rubio and other supporters of U.S. imperialism have explicitly argued that alleged pro-Maduro violence must be met with U.S. military intervention.

Even the most left-leaning politicians in Washington have echoed this rhetoric. Despite his track record of opposition to U.S. imperialism and support for left-wing governments around the world, Senator Bernie Sanders insisted that Maduro must “allow humanitarian aid into the country.” Senator Elizabeth Warren made a similar statement declaring that “Maduro is a dictator and does not have our support” and that the U.S. must “provide humanitarian aid.” Even as they stated that they opposed military intervention, Sanders, Warren, and other left-leaning politicians lent credibility to the pro-coup narrative that Maduro has isolated Venezuela from all sources of aid and must be forced to allow supplies into the country. Self-determination is the only solution to the crisis in Venezuela, and demanding that the U.S. be involved, as Sanders and Warren have done, only furthers the goals of the Trump administration.

In the 1840s, the U.S. public only slowly recognized that Polk had initiated the war against Mexico. In 1848, after antiwar politicians gained control of the House of Representatives, they narrowly passed a resolution censuring the president for “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally” beginning the conflict. But, by that point, it was too late to stop the conflict or to prevent the cession of the northern provinces of Mexico. Today, however, offers a new opportunity to prevent a U.S. coup in Venezuela. We can watch events unfold in real time, and with the perspective provided by the history of U.S. imperialism, we can recognize the “defensive conquest” rhetoric adopted by the Trump administration.

As socialism reenters the mainstream of U.S. politics, we must be careful to avoid the narratives that have supported U.S. imperialism for centuries. By refusing to debate these issues on the terms of the bipartisan imperialist consensus, we can argue for democracy and socialism in explicitly anti-imperialist terms.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 03, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Peter Linebaugh
Police and the Wealth of Nations: Déjà Vu or Unfinished Business?
Rob Urie
Class, Race and Power
John Davis
A Requiem for George Floyd
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mutiny of the Bounties!
Richard D. Wolff
Revolutionary Possibilities: Could U.S. Capitalism Turn Nationalist?
Richard Falk
When Rogue States Sanction the International Criminal Court
Louis Proyect
Smearing Black Lives Matter…From the Left
Ralph Nader
Trump and Pence – Step Aside for Professional Pandemic Scientists and Managers
Ramzy Baroud
Tearing Down the Idols of Colonialism: Why Tunisia, Africa Must Demand French Apology
Philippe Marlière
Challenging the French Republic’s Color-Blindness
Richard C. Gross
Attack, Deny
Lee Camp
Connecting the Dates – US Media Used To Stop The ‘Threat’ of Peace
Steve Martinot
The Desire to Kill
David Yearsley
The War on Kitsch
Amy Eva Alberts Warren – Rev. William Alberts
Why are Certain Christians Democratic and Others Authoritarian?
Lawrence Davidson
Covid Madness
Brian Cloughley
Britain’s Disorder and Decline
Ellen Taylor
The US Military Has Its Knee on the Throat of the World
David Rosen
White Nationalists on the Attack
Jeff Cohen
Politicians of Color Should Not be Immune From Criticism
Joseph Natoli
Drawn Away from Reality in Plain View
Frank Joyce
Give Me Liberty,  Give You Death
Jonah Raskin
My Adventures in the Matriarchy
Paul Street
The Racist Counter-Revolution of 1776
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Corruption of the Democratic Party: Talking to Ted Rall about his new book
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
Trump’s Record on Foreign Policy: Lost Wars, New Conflicts and Broken Promises
Paul Edwards
A Bridge Too Far
Jennifer Joan Thompson
How to Do Things With Theses: Chile’s National Police Force Sues the Feminist Artistic Collective, Las Tesis
Shawn Fremstad
Vacations for All!
Thomas Knapp
A Modest Proposal for Compromise on “Confederate” Military Bases
Vijay Prashad, Eduardo Viloria Daboín, Ana Maldonado, and Zoe PC
Venezuela’s Borderlands Have Been Assaulted by COVID-19
Thom Hartmann
COVID Masks: The Latest Faux Conservative Outrage
Jesse Jackson
Mandatory College Football Practices in Time of Pandemic are Nuts
Nicholas Vincenzo Barney
Consensus Politics on the Fringe: The Intellectual Dishonesty of the Intellectual Dark Web
Ted Rall
The Data is Clear: Progressives Should Boycott Biden
Joshua Tartakovsky
Sergei Khrushchev: An Eulogy from His Close Student
Theresa Church
In Reconsidering ‘Normalcy’ Genetically Engineered Trees Do Not Belong
Chelsea Carrick
Let’s Not Lose Momentum
Adam Rissien
Sorry Secretary Perdue, Our National Forests are Not Crops
Paul Gilk
A Few Theoretical Percentages
Thomas S. Harrington
“New Corona Cases”:  A Phrase That’s Tells us Very Little, if Anything,  About the Actual Levels of Danger We  Face
Claire Chadwick
I Got COVID-19 at Work. I Won’t be the Last
George Wuerthner
The Upper Green River Should be a National Park, Not a Feedlot
Julian Vigo
Profiteering in the Era of COVID-19
Ravi Mangla
Policing is Not a Public Good
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail