The Reality Behind Trump’s Venezuela Regime Change Coalition

In the early 1970s, a handful of Sandinistas were in the mountains of Nicaragua fighting to overthrow the 40-year U.S.-backed, brutal dictatorship of the Somoza family. When a powerful volcanic eruption struck Nicaragua in 1971, Sandinista Omar Cabezas later recounted, they told the peasants whom they encountered that God was punishing them for not getting rid of Somoza.

After the Sandinistas triumphed in 1979, the U.S. waged a bloody war to take back the country with a terrorist paramilitary force called the contras, who regularly murdered civilians. President George H.W. Bush made it clear during the Sandinistas’ second election in 1990 that, although he was not God, he would continue to punish Nicaraguans with a trade embargo and war if they did not get rid of the Sandinistas. Weary of war, hyperinflation, and economic collapse, Nicaraguans voted for the opposition: The Sandinistas lost.

Today the Trump administration is repeating the collective punishment strategyin Venezuela with a crippling financial embargo since August 2017 and, since January, a trade embargo. The financial embargo has prevented any measures that the government might use to get rid of hyperinflation or bring about an economic recovery, while knocking out billions of dollars of oil production. The trade embargo is projected to cut off about 60 percent of the country’s remaining meager foreign exchange earnings, which are needed to buy medicine, food, medical supplies, and other goods essential to many Venezuelans’ survival.

Seeking to foment a military coup, a popular rebellion, or civil war, the Trump administration has made it clear that the punishment will continue until the current government is ousted. “Maduro must go,” said U.S. Vice President Mike Pence yet again in early March.

All of this is illegal under numerous treaties that the U.S. has signed, including the charter of the United Nations, the charter of the Organization of American States, and other international law and conventions. To legitimize this brutality, which has likely already killed thousands of Venezuelans by reducing access to life-saving goods and services, the Trump administration has presented the sanctions as a consensus of the “international community”—similar to what George W. Bush did when he put together a “coalition of the willing” of 48 countries to support his disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In this narrative, governments—mostly in the Americas and Europe—that have joined the U.S. in recognizing a parallel government in Venezuela are “democratic”; those who have not, or have declared against the attempt to overthrow the current government are “authoritarian,” with the examples of Russia, China, and Turkey most often listed in news reports.

Let’s look at some of the governments that have joined the Trump administration in this illegal regime change operation, and have joined the trade embargo by recognizing Juan Guaidó as “interim president.” The most important and solid ally of Trump in Latin America is Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, famous for telling a Brazilian congresswoman that he would not rape her because she “did not merit it,” for various racist and anti-gay remarks, and for glorifying political violence. Ironically, given that the Trump administration’s main justification for regime change in Venezuela is that Maduro’s election was illegitimate, Bolsonaro himself came to power in an election of questionable legitimacy. His leading opponent, former President Lula da Silva—at the time the most popular politician in the country—was jailed after a trial in which no material evidence of a crime was presented. The verdict rested on the coerced testimony of a witness who was convicted of corruption, and whose plea bargaining was suspended until he changed his story to match the prosecuting judge’s case. The prosecuting judge, Sérgio Moro, demonstrated strong animus against Lula on a number of occasions—including his release of illegally wiretapped conversations between Lula and then president Dilma Rousseff, his lawyer, and his wife and children. After these and other irregularities and illegalities secured Lula’s conviction, he was unconstitutionally imprisoned before the election. After the election that Judge Moro helped Bolsonaro win by these methods, he was appointed minister of justice.

Other Latin American governments in Trump’s Coalition of the Willing owe Washington some favors for helping them seize power. The government of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández is probably the most extreme example. His party came to power in 2009 with the overthrow of the democratically elected president Mel Zelaya in a military coup. The Obama administration, along with Republicans, helped legitimize the coup and the “elections” that followed. Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, later describedin her memoirs how she maneuvered to keep the democratically elected president from returning to office. In 2017, Hernández retained power by brazenly stealing an election—simply altering the vote totals. This was the inescapable conclusion of journalists and observers from across the political spectrum. Even one of the most fanatical leaders of Trump’s Coalition of the Willing, current OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, rejected the results and called for new elections. Of course nothing happened because the Trump team accepted the results.

Colombia has perhaps the second-most bellicose leader in Trump’s coalition, after Bolsonaro. President Iván Duque is the protégé of former president, now kingmaker, Álvaro Uribe. U.S. diplomatic cables released last year showed widespread concerns among U.S. officials about Uribe’s ties to drug traffickers. In the 1990s, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency found that Uribe was “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin [drug] cartel at high government levels.” Uribe is also believed to have long had ties to death squads. He resigned from the Colombian Senate last year in the midst of an ongoing criminal investigation. Uribe has long backed the U.S. regime-change effort against Venezuela. In 2009, numerous South American governments objected to and blocked his plans to expand the U.S. military presence in Colombia.

President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, another influential hard-right coalition member, also owes favors to Washington. In June, this relationship helped him score the biggest IMF loan in history, $50 billion dollars—subsequently upped to $56.3 billion when the economy did much worse than the IMF had forecast under the agreement. The United States blocked loans to the government of his predecessor and rival from multilateral lending institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank. Since Argentina was running into balance of payments problems toward the end of President Cristina Fernández’s term, this was significant. An even bigger blow to her government came from an apparently politically motivated New York judge, who took more than 90 percent of Argentina’s creditors hostage in 2012 by ruling that they could not be paid until certain U.S.-based vulture funds were paid first. All of these problems with the U.S. were quickly resolved soon after Macri took office in 2015.

The media sometimes singles out President Lenín Moreno of Ecuador to show that there is a “center-left” presence in this illegal and somewhat barbaric enterprise. Moreno was indeed elected in 2017 with the support of former president Rafael Corea’s leftist Alianza PAIS party. But he quickly took a sharp turn away from his mandate, forming an alliance with right-wing oligarchs and using extra-constitutional means to consolidate power. He is now trying to put the former president in jail on what look like trumped-up charges. Moreno has been rewarded by Washington with $10 billion in loans from multilateral institutions, including $4.2 billion just scored from the IMF last week. If $10 billion doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that the loan, expressed as a percentage of the Ecuador’s economy, would be equivalent to the U.S. receiving $1.9 trillion. No surprise that Lenín Moreno has joined the Trump Coalition.

The president of Paraguay also has cause to thank the United States godfather. His party, the Colorado Party, ruled the country for 61 consecutive years, the majority of it under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. In 2008, a leftist bishop named Fernando Lugo won the presidency against heavy odds. However, he was toppled in a parliamentary coup in 2012, which was opposed by almost all of South America; once again, Washington worked with the OAS to help legitimize the coup. So, there’s another South American president happy to join the U.S.-led push for a right-wing leader in Venezuela. Yet one more is President Sebastián Piñera of Chile, a Pinochet sympathizer who appointed two former allies of the U.S.-backed dictator to his cabinet last year.

This is how we do it—today, at least. A few years ago—when most of the region was governed by left-of-center governments, Trump wouldn’t have gotten a single government in the region to support an illegal regime change operation. Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry discovered this in 2013 when violent opposition demonstrators were in the streets in Venezuela, trying to overturn Maduro’s first election. There was absolutely no doubt about the election results, and almost every government in the world recognized them. Kerry soon found himself completely isolated; Washington gave in and accepted Maduro’s election.

Then there is Europe, which for a number of historical reasons has only occasionally pursued a foreign policy independent of the United States. This is especially true for Latin America, where the Monroe Doctrine, shamelessly invoked in public by National Security Advisor John Bolton a few days ago, is generally respected. That said, some arm twisting was necessary to flip Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain, who had rather insubordinately opposed the Trump sanctions against Venezuela even prior to the trade embargo and recognition of Guaidó in January. His foreign minister, Josep Borell, told the press that the administration had received “pressure” from Washington. Sánchez’s PSOE socialist-led government was also under intense pressure from the big Spanish media, which has been in full regime-change mode for some time; they face elections at the end of April. Spain was particularly important in securing European support for this venture, since other countries, including Germany, often take Spain’s view seriously on policy in Latin America.

Even if the Trump team had a global majority—which it doesn’t, with only 50 out of 195 countries worldwide backing Venezuelan regime change—their deadly economic sanctions, theft of assets, military threats, and other actions to topple Venezuela’s government would be no more legal or legitimate than George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, or the many U.S.-led regime change efforts that have taken place in this hemisphere. That’s unsurprising, given who’s at the wheel: perennial regime-change advocate John Bolton, for example, or special envoy Elliott Abrams, who supported what the UN later found to be genocide in Guatemala, as well as the US-sponsored atrocities in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s. The cast of characters supporting this regime-change effort, whether in Washington or among some of its closest allies, should underline what is already obvious: The United States’ attempt to oust Maduro has nothing to do with democracy or human rights.

This article originally appeared in The New Republic.

More articles by:

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).


April 24, 2019
Susan Babbitt
Disdain and Dignity: An Old (Anti-Imperialist) Story
Adam Jonas Horowitz
Letter to the Emperor
Lawrence Davidson
A Decisive Struggle For Our Future
John Steppling
The Mandate for Israel: Keep the Arabs Down
Victor Grossman
Many Feet
Cira Pascual Marquina
The Commune is the Supreme Expression of Participatory Democracy: a Conversation with Anacaona Marin of El Panal Commune
Binoy Kampmark
Failed States and Militias: General Khalifa Haftar Moves on Tripoli
Dean Baker
Payments to Hospitals Aren’t Going to Hospital Buildings
Alvaro Huerta
Top Ten List in Defense of MEChA
Colin Todhunter
As the 2019 Indian General Election Takes Place, Are the Nation’s Farmers Being Dealt a Knock-Out Blow?
Charlie Gers
Trump’s Transgender Troops Ban is un-American and Inhumane
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Just Another Spring in Progress?
Thomas Knapp
On Obstruction, the Mueller Report is Clintonesque
Elliot Sperber
Every Truck’s a Garbage Truck
April 23, 2019
Peter Bolton
The Monroe Doctrine is Back, and as the Latest US Attack on Cuba Shows, Its Purpose is to Serve the Neoliberal Order
David Schultz
The Mueller Report: Trump Too Inept to Obstruct Justice
Geoff Beckman
Crazy Uncle Joe and the Can’t We All Just Get Along Democrats
Medea Benjamin
Activists Protect DC Venezuelan Embassy from US-supported Coup
Patrick Cockburn
What Revolutionaries in the Middle East Have Learned Since the Arab Spring
Jim Goodman
Don’t Fall for the Hype of Free Trade Agreements
Lance Olsen
Climate and Forests: Land Managers Must Adapt, and Conservationists, Too
William Minter
The Coming Ebola Epidemic
Tony McKenna
Stephen King’s IT: a 2019 Retrospective
David Swanson
Pentagon Claims 1,100 High Schools Bar Recruiters; Peace Activists Offer $1,000 Award If Any Such School Can Be Found
Gary Olson
A Few Comments on the recent PBS Series: Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
April 22, 2019
Melvin Goodman
The NYTs Tries to Rehabilitate Bloody Gina Haspel
Robert Fisk
After ISIS, a Divided Iraq, Wounded and Grief-Stricken
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange as Neuroses
John Laforge
Chernobyl’s Deadly Effects Estimates Vary
Kenneth Surin
Mueller Time? Not for Now
Cesar Chelala
Yemen: The Triumph of Barbarism
Kerron Ó Luain
What the “White Irish Slaves” Meme Tells Us About Identity Politics
Andy Piascik
Grocery Store Workers Take on Billion Dollar Multinational
Seiji Yamada – Gregory G. Maskarinec
Health as a Human Right: No Migrants Need Apply
Howard Lisnoff
Loose Bullets and Loose Cannons
Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada
Dreaming in Miami
Graham Peebles
Consuming Stuff: The Polluting World of Fashion
Robert Dodge
Earth Day: Our Planet in Peril
Weekend Edition
April 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What Will It Take For Trump to Get His Due?
Roy Eidelson
Is the American Psychological Association Addicted to Militarism and War?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Time is Blind, Man is Stupid
Joshua Frank
Top 20 Mueller Report “Findings”
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Will Never Go Away
Paul Street
Stephen Moore Gets Something Right: It’s Capitalism vs. Democracy
Russell Mokhiber
Why Boeing and Its Executives Should be Prosecuted for Manslaughter