When I first visited Venezuela in 2010, Hugo Chávez was still the country’s president.
Venezuela in those days wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed sipping Scotch (the national drink of choice) in Carabobo and boating on the Orinoco River. But I could tell that things were not going to end well.
“The reality of Chávez’s regime,” I wrote at the time, “is that it is a sham democracy. . . . Private property rights . . . are routinely violated. Chávez nationalizes businesses more or less at will. . . . And, like so many tinpot dictators in Latin American history, he makes a mockery of the rule of law by changing the constitution to suit himself.”
Chávez died in 2013, but things have only gotten worse under his successor, Nicolás Maduro. The Venezuelan economy has descended into the abyss of hyperinflation. Despite having vast reserves of oil, the country’s power grid barely functions. There are chronic shortages of food and medicine. An estimated 3.4 million people have fled the country.
Throughout Maduro’s reign, outsiders have speculated that he would be ousted and a democratic government established. “Surely this can’t go on,” has been the refrain. But it has. My Venezuelan friends have learned that the seemingly unsustainable can last a horribly long time, especially with the Chinese buying Maduro’s oil and the Cubans and the Russians providing other forms of support, including security forces. The opposition, never well organized or united, has been ruthlessly suppressed.
Last week, there was a brief glimmer of hope. Early on Tuesday, opposition leader Juan Guaidó — who is recognized by the United States and numerous other countries as Venezuela’s legitimate president — posted a video of himself at a military base, standing next to another Maduro opponent, Leopoldo López, and surrounded by men in uniform. López had been under arrest since 2014 but was now apparently free. This was supposed to launch the “final phase of Operation Freedom.”
The glimmer was soon snuffed out. Guaidó’s bid to topple Maduro ended with protesters being brutally crushed by armored cars in the streets of Caracas. Too few soldiers defected to his side. No big Chavista names jumped ship. López hastily sought refuge in the Spanish Embassy. Maduro appeared on state TV to declare victory.
The most surprising feature of this story has been the reaction of the Trump administration. In a perplexing statement on CNN, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear that the United States had been working with the opposition to get Maduro out. Indeed, he said Maduro’s airplane had been “on the tarmac,” ready to fly him to Cuba, but “the Russians indicated he should stay.” Later, National Security Adviser John Bolton named three top officials in Maduro’s government — including the defense minister — who had committed to defecting but at the last minute changed their minds.
All we know about the famously belligerent Bolton suggests he must be itching to take military action to get rid of Maduro. For Bolton, it is not so much the humanitarian disaster or the urge to restore democracy that argues for the use of force; it is the fact that a hostile regime in the Americas is being propped up by Russia, China, and Cuba.
Yet, as far as I can gather, the president himself has no appetite for military action. Despite his occasional tough talk, President Trump prefers trade wars to actual wars. When he hears arguments for intervention in Venezuela, he has ghastly visions of Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a Pentagon briefing, US forces would have to stay in Venezuela for at least six years and spend $80 billion to reestablish order in the country.
Unfortunately, this is the way countries learn from history: patchily. So scarred is the nation by what has come to be perceived as failure in Iraq (and before it in Vietnam), that successful interventions have been forgotten. No one now recalls that it was the United States that ended the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnia and Kosovo, for example, and brought Slobodan Milošević to justice. No one today discusses the invasion of Panama in 1989, which terminated the reign of a criminal despot who had much in common with Maduro, General Manuel Noriega.
How Vladimir Putin must have enjoyed getting the credit for keeping Maduro in power — and with the tiniest of Russian contingents. How fascinated the Chinese must be to find that, even in what John Bolton last week called “our hemisphere,” the American Colossus has no stomach for a fight.
Some readers may remember the light-hearted Scottish film “Gregory’s Girl,” which ends with two sexually frustrated Glasgow teenage boys setting out to hitchhike from Glasgow to Caracas (in the belief that girls outnumber boys in Venezuela). Well, there are not many takers for the road to Caracas in Washington today. That tells us not only how far Venezuela has fallen since the early 1980s, when Venezuelan per capita GDP was close to 40 percent of the US level, as opposed to 4 percent today. It also tells us how far American power has diminished since those distant days.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.