Venezuela — This Time, Will it Be Different?

RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

As the American hawks continue to make open threats to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, why is the left’s response toothless? I make a leftist’s case against US-led regime change efforts.

History is all we have; rhetoric is how we sell the history we’re about to make. Today, across the United States, the rhetoric has become clear. The US intends to effect regime change in Venezuela, deposing embattled President Nicolás Maduro. As for how we do it,“all options are on the table.” The rhetoric has intensified over the weeks and has culminated in one of the most blatantly immoral, ridiculous displays of American exceptionalism I’ve ever seen from an American elected official.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has played a key role in developing and selling the US plan for regime change in Venezuela, posted a photo of former Libyan President Muammar Ghaddafi, before the US-led NATO intervention in 2011, and after – when he was brutally sodomized with a bayonet by a group of rebels and then executed. “This will be you” — Rubio appears to threaten with his post, dangling over Maduro the absurd power of the US military to garner allied support and topple states whenever it damn well pleases.

“Venezuela is going through a humanitarian crisis!” Correct – but, why does that mean the US must spearhead the regime change movement? Why is it an assumption that the US operates on humanitarian motivations? After all, Rubio himself openly salivated about the prospect of opening up Venezuela to US oil companies late last month. John Bolton, National Security Advisor and a man who has never seen a resource-rich nation in the global south he didn’t want to bomb, also revealed similar interests on FOX Business, saying “[i]t will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

One might think that this bellicose and naked geopolitical talk is just the neoconservative game; that the real approach is the liberal approach — to pressure Nicolás Maduro into stepping down and to rule out military interventions. But the material reality ends up being the same: US pressure will topple a government that it doesn’t like, meanwhile not guaranteeing the wellbeing of the citizens who live under such a government.

This is how rhetoric becomes the salesman of history. There are crises in democracies around the world, but only one we’ve set our sights on. Facing mounting protests, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has declared a state of emergency for one year and dissolved the federal and provincial governments. Festering tensions in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions have led to a strong uptick in violence and are pushing the nation to the brink of civil war. Our war in Yemen continues to wage on, and despite the fact that the UN says the US-backed Saudi Coalition has been responsible for the vast majority of deaths and draconian starvation techniques, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster continues, and the death toll, at 85,000 people, will only continue to skyrocket.

Is it, then, a coincidence that the one humanitarian crisis we are focused on happens to be the one crisis that sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves? No, it’s not, but the rhetoric would have us believe so.

This rhetoric is pushed by neocons who often beat the drum of all-out war and liberals, who mask interventions in humanitarian language and claim that “this time it’s different;” that, despite the glaring failures of US interventions throughout history, there’s something unique about this specific instance that means our regime-change efforts will somehow yield a different output. But beneath the rhetoric, history is all we have.


2011 – LIBYA

As the New York Times outlined in a brilliant, long-form piece back in 2016, Hillary Clinton pushed heavily for the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. Ghaddafi, who was turned into an international supervillain in the 1980s and then remade into a key regional US ally during the Iraq War was all of a sudden a dictator again, and he had to go. Today, almost 8 years later, Libya remains without a government and has plunged into a political black hole in which ISIS has thrived; transnational, organized criminal groups profit off of the reemergence of slavery; and General Haftar’s posse in Benghazi have shown no signs of progress towards reconciling with Tripoli.

2009 – HONDURAS

During the 2009 crisis of democracy between then-President Manuel Zelaya and the oligarch-backed Honduran military, the Obama administration, along with shady Latin American business interests linked to the infamous School of the Americas, backed a military coup in a poor Latin American nation that already had the highest murder rate in the world. Since then, the homicide rate has spiked by 50%, femicide is pervasive and out of control, and the resultant violence remains one of the main drivers of waves of refugees fleeing to the US for safety.

2003 – IRAQ

The word “dictator” also took center stage in the rhetoric surrounding Saddam Hussein before the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, potentially the worst foreign policy decision of my lifetime. Yes, Saddam was deposed because he was a “dictator (who we sold chemical weapons to in the 80s as a counterbalance to Iran)” who was going to develop “WMDs (which were never found but for the empty remnants of those chemical weapons from the 80s)” and his country needs us to “spread democracy” to it. But we all know what the externalities were – the creation of ISIS, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and the whiplash from such a rapid transfer of political power from the Sunni Ba’athist to the Shi’as remains yet another untenable situation that to this today threatens to plunge Iraq into another civil war.

1980s – CENTRAL AMERICA IN THE COLD WAR

The history of the Cold War is a brutal history that saw the US back anti-leftist/anti-communist groups throughout the region. There frankly isn’t enough time to go through all the atrocities committed by our government during this period, but there are key pieces of our history in Central America during the 1980s that shed a light on what we can expect if the situation in Venezuela unfolds in any sort of similar fashion.

Reagan’s foreign policy was very simple, and he kept it that way. We were told simplified tales about how it was our God-given duty to oppose the “Evil Empire,” and the CIA and State Department carried out that logic on a brutal, undemocratic scale.

This black and white depiction of the world allowed us to cover up our support for the brutal, right-wing government of El Salvador, which, alongside vicious death squads trained by the CIA in Honduras, were responsible for the vast majority of the 75,000 deaths that occurred during its civil war.

In Guatemala, our government’s support for the murderous Ríos Montt saw the lifting of an arms embargo, which Montt then used to continue his genocide against the indigenous Mayan population of Guatemala. When Montt left the government in 2012, he was then convicted of genocide by his own government.

Nicaragua, however, is the example where the red flags really start to fly. The infamous Iran-Contra affair was one in which the US government was found to have circumvented its own laws banning shipments of weapons to non-state actors around the globe. The US concoted a policy of hiding weapons inside shipments of humanitarian aid in order to reach the Contras, a right-wing death squad whose only successes in combat were in massacring thousands of civilians throughout Nicaragua. A horrendous scandal, several members of the Reagan Administration were convicted of lying about the scandal to Congress. One such man was the official in charge of the US policy towards Central America: former Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Elliott Abrams, who would later be pardoned by George H.W. Bush.


Elliott Abrams, after floating around the W. Bush Administration and winding up at the Council on Foreign Affairs, now has a new title in the US government: US Special Envoy to Venezuela. This is why it is so hard to once again buy the argument that, now faced with the possibility of another US intervention in a foreign state, it is now somehow for humanitarian reasons and will unfold differently this time. Never mind the naked threats and stated oil interests by Rubio, Bolton et al – the Trump Administration has appointed a guy literally infamous for sneaking weapons into humanitarian aid and wants us to believe that this time, the aid we’re sending to Venezuela via US military aircraft is totally 100% legit.

The striking thing is how many people buy it.

Even after the UN and the Red Cross warned the US not to politicize the shipment of humanitarian aid precisely because of all of this history, the rhetorical spearhead being used in the US media to push for more action in Venezuela is humanitarian aid.

Until this recent story in NPR, major US outlets both left-leaning and right claimed that Maduro was blocking aid into Venezuela because he’s a dictator who wants to continue the suffering of the Venezuelan people to his political benefit. CNN et al even obsessed for days over a border bridge they claimed Maduro had closed to block the delivery of humanitarian aid, until it turned out that the bridge had never even been opened in the first place. Missing from most of the stories was the context that Maduro had indeed allowed aid shipments of medicine, food and other supplies to come in from the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and his allies. Maduro had only disallowed aid from the US and its allies — the people directly threatening his government with regime change.

But it didn’t matter.

Politicians, both conservatives and liberals, bought into the aid narrative, once again showing how rhetoric will always trump the details on the ground if it means spinning yet another US intervention as a humanitarian endeavor.

Even Bernie Sanders, a social democrat considered to be the most left-leaning of any high-profile US politicians, bought into the rhetoric, demonstrating the far-reaching power of whatever official line comes out of the State Department.

The silver lining of this crisis is that it lays bare the empty posturing of liberals and conservatives in the Trump era. Elliott Abrams belonged to the cadre of so-called Never Trump Republicans – Republicans that wouldn’t vote for Trump because of his lack of character, disrespect of norms, and his isolationist posturing on the campaign trail — that is, until Trump started singing the oh-so-sweet tune of regime change. Even liberals – those who claim to oppose Trump on all issues and believe him to be some Manchurian candidate-esque puppet – bought into his Administration rhetoric on Venezuela! If Trump is controlled by the Kremlin, as many continue to believe, in what school of logic does it make sense that Trump would then push for regime change in Venezuela, a strong Russian ally?

The reality is that the US has always had a strong interest in and bloody history of regime change in order to tip the already-skewed balance of power ever more in its favor. Conservatives will beat the drums of war and liberals will mask our intentions in humanitarian language, but the results never seem to work out for the people of the target nations, as Iraq, Syria, Libya and so many other examples demonstrate to us. What history, then, would lead us to believe that somehow a US effort in Venezuela would turn out differently, considering that the vast majority of the military in Venezuela remains in support of President Maduro? Going along with the US playbook and potentially introducing arms through aid shipments to the opposition will only exacerbate an already fragile situation.


Venezuela is, however, in the middle of a deep, political crisis. Nicolás Maduro has transformed Venezuela’s socialist government into what now resembles a kleptocracy more than anything — corrupt officials known to be involved in narcotrafficking continue to pillage public resources to the detriment of the people. Millions of refugees continue to spill across the region, only aided by the International Organisation for Migration, UNHCR, and the gracious citizens of neighboring states. Real change must come to Venezuela.

But that change must come from within, not from an operation that we now know was orchestrated by Vice President Mike Pence, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, Latin American business interests (read: oil), and top US officials. Even Maduro himself has offered to open dialogue with the opposition, but Guaidó fully ran with the aid narrative, even going so far as to riding an aid convoy from Cúcuta, Colombia to the Venezuelan border over the weekend. Guaidó even went so far as to let the world know he would, if president, work to reopen relations with Israel, a move that reflects the growing international coalition of far-right authoritarian leaders consolidating their influence — Brazil’s fascist president, Jair Bolsonaro; Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman, and our own president, Donald Trump have made similar favorable gestures to Netanyahu’s government.

If the left is going to have an alternative to brazen regime change operations, it must rely on diplomacy and good faith. If the United States truly cares about the Venezuelans and the economic hardships they face, we must lift the crushing economic sanctions we’ve placed on Venezuela, which would achieve two things: 1) it would actually prove that some sort of humanitarian agenda is behind our push for regime change in Venezuela and 2) it would make clear how much of the economic suffering is due to the rampant mismanagement of the country by Maduro.

Then, national consultations should be held around the country under the auspices of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, similar to what is taking place under UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé, albeit at a painfully slow rate. This would codify a lot of key questions that Venezuela needs answered about the percentage of Venezuelans who want to see Maduro removed from office, and what the nation’s attitudes are about the best strategies moving forward for the nation. As long as the United States doesn’t lead this international effort, pressure from China and Russia (whose number one talking point at the UN Security Council is national sovereignty) would ensure that Maduro participates.

The US has made its intentions clear. We want regime change, and we’re not taking any options off the table – a sentiment Guaidó regurgitated after his aid convoy failed to enter the country from Cúcuta. But ultimately we truly know what happens in states around the world that become the target of US regime-change operations, and we have absolutely no way to guarantee that a US-led effort, with Elliott Abrams and Donald Trump at the helm, would work, and we know for a fact that it wouldn’t be for humanitarian reasons. After all, history is all we have, and we would do best to listen to it this time.