Biden Must Now Determine His Policy Towards Venezuela

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

President-elect Biden has to decide what to do with Venezuela. Mr. Trump’s wish was to take over Venezuela in a sort of self-declared protectorate. He was not alone in the fantasy: although it smelled of neocolonialism, most members of Congress –both Democrat and Republican– agreed, and still join in the daydream. On February 4th, at his third State of the Union address, then-President Trump presented as a guest of honor a Venezuelan, Juan Guaidó, of whom we will see more below. He received a bipartisan standing ovation from the US Congress.

With the nation divided fiercely in half, how could a presidential order to steal an entire country become so easily a Policy of State of the U.S.A.? The reasons go back to before the year 2000.

Before the people of Venezuela voted for Hugo Chávez as president, Venezuela was little known in the US and the media hardly mentioned it. That is because the US had a cozy arrangement with the upper class of the country. The latter had handed over the pumping of, and producing, the crude to US operators. The “administrative costs” paid were hefty, and the US was guaranteed a constant flow of oils and gas. The Pentagon maintained close ties with Venezuela’s military. For the State Department, which provides guidance to the media, no news was good news.

When the media at last mentioned Venezuela, they presented the country regularly as a quite prosperous and stable nation. But they never mentioned that most of its people were poor or very poor, that there was a high rate of illiteracy, that those who were not of the upper class suffered for lack of health care to the point that some adults had never seen a doctor. The indigenous people and Afro-descendants of the nation were treated as lower castes.

The ten years prior to 2000 were called in Latin America “The decade of the dictators”. There had been previously dictators in Latin America imposed or supported by the US, which considered such actions necessary to keep away the specter of Communism. For example, the Somoza family, which lasted in power for 40 years in Nicaragua, and Rafael Trujillo, a dictator for 30 years in the Dominican Republic and so terrible that his own followers finally assassinated him. In 1964 there was a coup d’état in Brazil, followed by a military dictatorship until 1985 supported by the US on the grounds that Brazil was about to become the new Red China; and the bloody model of “El Supremo” Stroessner in Paraguay, who ruled as dictator for 35 years. He gladly said that “There are only three things in life that are worthwhile: power, money and pleasure.” By pleasure he meant women. Eventually, it was found also that young girls were selected and groomed by an unofficial pimp before being presented to the Chief. The gruesome François Duvalier (Papa Doc) ruled over Haiti from 1957 to 1971; he was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) until 1986, when he was overthrown. The US tolerated these dictators in the pursuit of … freedom, democracy, and human rights.

When Salvador Allende was voted president by the people, the US decided that that kind of democracy had to be redefined: the popular Allende was killed and replaced by the Pinochet junta, followed by those of Uruguay and Argentina. These and other friends of the US banded in the Plan Condor, whereby all of the dictators agreed to eliminate, throughout the Southern Hemisphere, leaders deemed dangerous to the dictators.

But the US was also brewing a new deal, one of Free Trade throughout the Continent and led by the US. The concept of “Free” trade while the smell of death, blood, and powder still hung in the air, clashed with the proposal. And so, the dictators were brought down by people and corporations interested more in continental trade than in dictators on the way down. The new century, beginning in 2000, was to be one of no more coups or governments overthrown, and with free elections. But that expectation was promptly dashed in 2002. The first continental leader voted-in as president was Hugo Chávez, who took on with success the difficulties of the working class. The regular people, the majority, loved him. But he was not allowed to change Venezuela and thus set a bad example for other countries. He had to go, and the ancien regime was to be restored even if it entailed a new dictatorship. The upper class and the military, with the approval and support of the US, planned and executed a coup and Chávez was arrested. The coup lasted only two days, because the people came down from the hills and demanded from the armed soldiers, face to face, that they return their president; and the soldiers yielded.

Chávez remained popular, but his time was cut short by a disease and he died while still young (59 years old.) New elections were held, and Nicolás Maduro became president. The US did not recognize either president. No matter how clean and open were elections and referendums, the US never accepted the votes of the people. Maduro morphed in the media from president to dictator: He had to go (and he still has to go).

It is hard to find any current international treaty that allows the US or any other country to simply declare that it is taking over another –and smaller– country. Imagine that Canada declared that it was taking over, say, Colombia. There would be an outcry throughout the world. Without international treaties to cite, and without approval of the UN’s Security Council, the US rested on the approval of allies in Western Europe, countries short of oil and gas and interested in access to immense deposits of hydrocarbons. (As an aside: Canada would not be allowed to grab Colombia in any case, because the latter is now a member of NATO, although the country is neither North nor Atlantic.)

The US under Trump looked for some way to justify its piracy and came up with a “King for a Day” gambit, choosing and anointing as president a young man from within the Assembly of Venezuela under an obscure rule that applied for only a limited time, and which expired. The US packaged Juan Guaidó to promote intervention in Venezuela, perhaps inspired by what Colombia did with the imaginary Juan Valdéz to promote its coffee.

The US scraped up what Venezuelan assets and millions of dollars it could find and turned them over to Guaidó –now a clownish meme– claiming that he would administer better the country. But he could not. His actions sounded like collusion with treason, including by allowing the US to send mercenaries to generate social disorder and, ultimately, assassinate Maduro. The plots have failed. They were to have been successful once Trump sent in Elliott Abrams, a neocon expert in undoing governments in Central America who was sanctioned by the District of Columbia Bar for lying to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair. Whatever Abrams prescribed has made no difference, and Maduro is still president of Venezuela.

President-elect Biden would not want to begin his term saddled with the mess that his predecessors left behind: two predecessors, as Barak Obama went as far as declaring in 2015 that Venezuela represented an imminent danger to the US, without the facts to support such an assertion.

Had Trump’s plan worked, Biden might have pressed on, but the reality is that what the US has done to Venezuela remains an embarrassment for the US. In recent days, various sources have floated the  idea that Biden would take back some of the sanctions now in place, but only if Maduro ignores the past and ensures “free and fair” elections. That is not simple. For the US, the only acceptable elections are those that result in what the US decides, as history shows; from Brazil 1964 to, more recently, Bolivia. The OAS (Organization of American States) is but an extension of the State Department, and the CIA is expert in organizing the desired results.

Further, there are still powerful interests who want to take Venezuela as it was done to Puerto Rico in 1898, but now with far many more natural resources at stake. And others who pushed the plan enthusiastically don’t want to end up with eggs on their faces.

The President should consider, aside of domestic politics in Miami, that Latin America is looking much as it was in 2002: Argentina is now run by the left wing of the Peronists; the MAS has returned to power in Bolivia; Brazil’s people are unhappy with their president while Lula regains political ground; the Chileans are demanding a new Constitution and their current president is facing low levels of support; Ecuador, which made friends with the US under the current presidency, may change direction in the coming elections with a new candidate supported by Rafael Correa, one of the Left presidents who emerged in 2006. Even the islands of the Caribbean are showing independence through CARICOM and other associations.

Biden has said that he wants to mend countries affected by Trump’s actions. That refers mainly to Europe, but, if he wants to do the same with Latin America –our neighbors–, he should consider the changes taking place in the Southern Hemisphere.

At a prior Summit of the Americas of 2015, when Obama was President and Biden his Vice, and Hugo Chávez handed to the president a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Obama said:

When I came to my first Summit of the Americas six years ago, I promised to begin a new chapter of engagement in this region. I believed that our nations had to break free from the old arguments, the old grievances that had too often trapped us in the past; that we had a shared responsibility to look to the future and to think and act in fresh ways. I pledged to build a new era of cooperation between our countries, as equal partners, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. And I said that this new approach would be sustained throughout my presidency; it has, including during this past year. I’ve met that commitment.

Yet, four years later, on June 28, 2019, Hillary Clinton, then in charge of the State Department, guided successfully a coup d’état in Honduras. President-elect Biden, the Vice-president at the time, surely knew of the coup.

For decades, the US has maintained toward Latin American neocolonial policies of dictatorships, coups d’état, and, more recently, regime change. Will Biden maintain the current plan of the US to overthrow the president of Venezuela?

Reminder: The United States will host the Ninth Summit of the Americas in 2021. The Summit takes place once every three years and is the only meeting of all leaders from the countries of North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean.

Luis Rumbaut lives in Washington, DC.