Venezuela: The Silencing of a Revolution
BY JOSEPH HARRINGTON
In early January, Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself acting president of Venezuela. As the majority leader of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative body, Guaidó invoked Article 233 of Venezuela’s constitution, which states that in an absence of presidential leadership, the head of the National Assembly shall take over as acting president until new elections can be held. Venezuela held its presidential election last year, however, the results were widely considered to be illegitimate, as incumbent Nicolas Maduro prevented his opponents from running and threatened to retaliate against people who voted against him.
While the legitimacy of Guaidó’s declaration is questionable, since Maduro remains capable of performing the duties of president, he has quickly gained the support of many American and European countries, most prominently, the U.S. In the past month, he has appointed ambassadors, held rallies calling for Maduro to step down, and arranged for foreign aid, which Maduro has said he will block despite the humanitarian crisis caused by hyperinflation and mismanagement.
Within Venezuela, Guaidó is a symbol of hope, however to the United States, he is a strategic opportunity. As an engineer-turned-politician who studied at George Washington University in Washington D.C., he embodies many principles of liberal Western democracy, including individualism. Even his persona is reminiscent of a young Barack Obama. And at only 35-years-old and serving his first term as an assemblyman, he is an impressionable young leader who can be influenced by Western countries. Very few inside or outside of Venezuela had even heard his name before this January, yet in less than a month he has gained the support of over 50 countries and over 80 percent of Venezuelans. However, it is unwise for Venezuelans to place their support in anyone who stands against Maduro without considering the consequences of accepting a larger Western presence.
Some American countries, including Mexico and Bolivia, have formed official positions against Guaidó, as they view his ascension to power as another example of U.S. intervention in Latin America. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have taken the lead in supporting Guaidó, making a direct statement to Venezuelans: “Estamos con ústedes. We are with you” This claim feels disingenuous for several reasons, including Trump’s praise for strong dictators and refusal to accept migrants from Venezuela, which is currently experiencing the largest migration crisis in Latin American history. Since 2015, 3.3 million people have left Venezuela or about 5,000 people per day, and that number is only increasing. However, while these claims alone contradict the administration’s official position, it becomes insulting when considering them in relation to the broader history of U.S. involvement in Venezuela.
The U.S. has had an interest in overthrowing Venezuela’s socialist government for more than 20 years in hopes of crushing the “threat” of socialism and returning to the days when U.S. corporations could freely take advantage of Venezuelan oil. The Monroe Doctrine, a U.S. policy initially intended to prevent further European imperialism, also allowed the U.S. to shape Latin American politics for over a century and a half. From 1929 when oil was first discovered in Venezuela to the early 2000s, U.S. oil companies were allowed to extract oil on their terms in ways that did not benefit the Venezuelan people. Once Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor, began his Bolivarian Revolution, he enjoyed massive admiration and support for a decade, speaking out against U.S. imperialism in Latin America and creating institutions to help the long-neglected poor within Venezuela. But even while Venezuela was in an economic boom and Chavez enjoyed massive popularity, the U.S. worked tirelessly to overthrow him, attempting a coup in 2002, sponsoring opposition groups within the country, and launching “humanitarian” investigations to discredit him and justify economic warfare.
The fact of the matter is that Venezuela’s failure was due to its dependence on oil exports coupled with corruption and mismanagement, a trend which has been going on far longer than socialism in Venezuela. This framework has been supported by the U.S. and others for almost a century. While the U.S. government would like to write-off the crisis in Venezuela as an inevitable failure of socialism, it is important for both Venezuela and the world to look at history and see the critical role that the U.S. has had in setting up Venezuela’s collapse since day one. If Guaidó is to truly rebuild Venezuela, he must do it on Venezuela’s terms. He must not become a pawn for U.S.-sponsored regime change.
If the U.S. is able to control how Venezuela rebuilds itself, it will do everything in its power to shape Venezuela into a satellite for the U.S. Trump has condemned trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP in the past for not being beneficial enough to U.S. interests, so it is very likely that he would use leverage in the form of foreign aid and sanctions to get a desirable deal. Even more concerningly, Maduro has indicated that he will not go quietly, which makes a peaceful transition unlikely unless Guaidó can convince those within the military to support him. The presence of the U.S. can only escalate tensions with a regime built on anti-U.S. sentiment. Hopefully, the multitude of other countries who support Guaidó can act as a check to the U.S. in rebuilding Venezuela.
The Bolivarian Revolution was only twenty years ago. While Trump and Pence can ignore history when it benefits them, the people of Venezuela remember their revolution and what brought them to it. Guaidó must find a way to reconcile the need for foreign assistance with the need for Venezuelan autonomy and not allow the message of the Bolivarian Revolution to be silenced.