Somehow, Venezuela has moved toward the top of our list of foreign enemies. Presidents Obama and Trump have portrayed it as a dangerous challenger to American power.
It’s an odd choice. This nation of 28 million, perched on the northern coast of South America, is effectively bankrupt. Its navy has six small gunboats, three frigates that can barely sail out of sight of land, and two 40-year-old submarines. Yet according to many in Washington, it ranks with China, Russia, and Iran as an urgent threat to American security.
In 2015, evidently moved by reports of corruption and human rights violations, Obama declared “a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.” He began imposing sanctions on Venezuela’s government and leaders.
Trump has intensified the pressure. The United States has sanctioned more than 150 Venezuelans, revoked the visas of more than 1,000 others, and offered a $15 million bounty to anyone who delivers President Nicolás Maduro into our hands. We have seized billions of dollars in Venezuelan assets; placed Venezuela on lists of countries that support terrorism, drug trafficking, corruption, and human rights abuses; and sought to prevent it from processing or buying oil, once the mainstay of its economy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, echoing Obama’s exaggeration, has declared Venezuela “a true threat to the United States.” US Navy warships, including guided-missile destroyers, conduct maneuvers near the Venezuelan coast.
Last year Trump announced that the United States would no longer recognize Maduro because of the doubts, shared by many Democrats, about the legitimacy of his 2018 re-election. The true president, Trump declared, was a little-known politician named Juan Guaidó. He invited Guiadó to be a guest of honor at his State of the Union address last year. Leaders of both political parties treated him like a hero. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said he had touched “the conscience of the world.”
In mid-2019 Guaidó proclaimed the “definitive end of the usurpation” and called on Venezuelans to rise up in rebellion. Nothing happened. Then, in a bizarre escalation last April, three boatloads of American mercenaries tried to land in Venezuela to set off an uprising. Their “Bay of Piglets” effort ended with eight would-be invaders dead and more than a dozen others arrested. “As for who bankrolled it, we’re not prepared to share any more information,” Secretary Pompeo said afterward.
Describing the event a few months later, Senator Chris Murphy tweeted: “It got real embarrassing. We tried to organize a kind of coup, but it became a debacle. Everyone who told us they’d rally to Guaidó got cold feet and the plan failed publicly and spectacularly, making America look foolish and weak. Since then, it’s been a running comedy of errors.”
Realizing that he is unlikely to topple the government, Guaidó has begun negotiating. His aides have met with Maduro supporters in Norway and Barbados. Both sides have said they want to work together to fight the spread of COVID-19, which has killed nearly 500 Venezuelans. Maduro has invited the European Union to monitor upcoming parliamentary elections. Yet the United States rejects all efforts at compromise. Regime change remains our single goal.
Maduro’s government provides free housing to about 3 million Venezuelans, along with subsidized food and medical care. Nonetheless the country is suffering tremendously from a combination of mismanagement and the weight of sanctions. Inflation is raging. Five million citizens have fled. So why do American leaders insist on crushing a nation that poses no conceivable threat to the United States? The official answer — Maduro is corrupt and repressive — is hardly credible, since we happily support governments from Ukraine to Honduras to Saudi Arabia that are demonstrably more corrupt and repressive.
Domestic politics is part of the explanation. Republicans and Democrats alike have concluded that appearing militantly anti-Maduro will win votes in Florida. Yet pressure on Venezuela began long before this political campaign.
The real reason for our wildly disproportionate focus on Venezuela is that Maduro is an outspoken socialist who regularly denounces US policies in Latin America and the world. Our refusal to tolerate foreign leaders who defy us lies at the heart of this heartless campaign.
It should not be up to Americans to decide whether Maduro is a bad leader. Our efforts to depose him have not only contributed to impoverishing millions of Venezuelans, but have led him to build relationships with Russia and Iran — surely not a positive development for the United States. Now that both sides in Venezuela seem ready to make a deal, compromise looks possible. The United States should join with the European Union in promoting talks. Instead we insist on confrontation. Nowhere in the Western Hemisphere is the United States more deeply complicit in making ordinary people suffer, with less reason, than in Venezuela.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.