U.S. Intervention Could Be Maduro’s Lifeline
Attempts at regime change have backfired on Washington before.
Once one of Latin America’s longest-running democracies and the country with the largest proven crude oil reserves in the world, Venezuela has been driven to the brink of collapse by years of economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, and mounting authoritarianism by President Nicolás Maduro’s government.
Starvation and malnutrition are now widespread. Years of recklessly printing money have rendered Venezuela’s currency practically worthless. Hyperinflation reached 1.3 million percent last year and could reach 10 million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. More than 3 million Venezuelans have already fled the country in Latin America’s largest-ever refugee exodus, sparking humanitarian crises in neighboring states. On Jan. 23, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that “all options are on the table” if Maduro used force to put down the protests that have swept the country in the last few weeks.
But the prospects for a change of regime in Venezuela look dicey, especially one driven from D.C. While two dozen countries have followed the United States’ lead and recognized the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, there are good reasons to be wary of Washington’s latest moves. The U.S. history of attempted regime change in the region and Trump’s loose language are both working against an opposition that faces a still formidable foe in Maduro’s regime.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Guaidó coordinated his announcement with the United States beforehand as part of a concerted effort by the United States and its Latin American allies to force Maduro out. The Trump administration appears to have been debating regime change in Caracas for some time. In August 2017, Trump surprised the Pentagon by announcing that a “military option” was on the table for Venezuela—a claim he allegedly repeated to several alarmed South American leaders a few weeks later. In September 2018, the New York Times reported that Trump administration officials had met with disgruntled Venezuelan military officers multiple times to discuss the possibility of a coup. Although Washington ultimately decided not to support the coup plotters, Maduro jumped on the story and continues to blame the United States for his country’s political upheaval.
This highlights the dangers of the Trump administration’s loose language when it comes to regime change. While administration officials may see regime change as a morally sound response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding within Venezuela, many in the region are skeptical of Washington’s intentions—for understandable reasons.
When Maduro warned his supporters last week “don’t trust the gringos,” he evoked a long history of U.S. meddling in Latin America dating back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Gunboat diplomacy drove U.S. policy in the early 20th century. Indeed, as the historian Greg Grandin once summarized, “by 1930, Washington had sent gunboats into Latin American ports over six thousand times, invaded Cuba, Mexico (again), Guatemala, and Honduras, fought protracted guerilla wars in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti, annexed Puerto Rico, and taken a piece of Colombia to create both the Panamanian nation and the Panama Canal.”
The academic literature on regime changes paints an overwhelmingly negative picture of the prospects of success: Studies have shown that foreign-imposed regime changes do not improve political or economic relations between the intervening and target states. They rarely lead to democracy, and, regardless of whether they are conducted covertly or overtly, they increase the likelihood that the target state will experience a civil war.
Yet however ineffective a tool regime change has been, it’s one that the United States has often resorted to. Following World War II, covert action replaced gunboat diplomacy as its preferred form of intervention in the hemisphere. For instance, my recently released book, Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War, documents 18 U.S.-backed covert regime change attempts in Latin America during the Cold War—10 of which saw U.S.-backed forces assume power. Because Washington’s role in most of these missions was quickly exposed, many of these covert operations have become lasting symbols of U.S. imperialism in the region: the 1954 Guatemalan coup that ousted the democratically elected leader Jacobo Árbenz, the 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the 1964 Brazilian military coup, the 1973 Chilean coup that gave rise to Augusto Pinochet’s military regime, and the Reagan administration’s support for anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua.
In April 2002, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, was ousted for two days in a military coup before regaining power. Afterward, Chávez accused the United States of playing a role in the coup and later claimed that the United States was trying to assassinate him. (Declassified U.S. government documents later revealed that while the CIA was aware of the 2002 coup beforehand, Washington did not back the coup and instead issued “repeated warnings that the United States will not support any extraconstitutional moves to oust Chávez.”) Nevertheless, Chávez continued to use the allegations of U.S. meddling as to paint himself a socialist folk hero and undermine his political opponents for the rest of his presidency.
Given this history, many Venezuelans remain suspicious of Washington’s motives, and only 36 percent hold a favorable view of the United States. Consequently, the Trump administration’s recognition of Guaidó is likely a double-edged sword: While it may increase his stature in the eyes of U.S. allies, it is also likely to undermine his legitimacy among Venezuelans wary of U.S. meddling.
There are other practical obstacles in the way of Washington’s hopes. To begin with, recognizing Guaidó is unlikely to bring meaningful change on its own. It is hardly news that the United States wants Maduro out, so backing Guaidó is unlikely to change the existing balance-of-power calculations of Venezuela’s key domestic players.
The same holds true internationally. Maduro retains support from his foreign backers, most importantly Russia and China, which have not only provided his regime with billions in foreign investment but can also effectively block any U.N. Security Council resolutions against Venezuela.
History also suggests little reason for optimism. This is not the first time that the United States has sought to undermine a foreign regime by diplomatically recognizing its domestic opponents. Washington refused to recognize Manuel Noriega’s handpicked president in Panama following disputed elections in 1989. Throughout the 1990s, Washington did not recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In 2011, then-President Barack Obama recognized Libyan opposition forces while Muammar al-Qaddafi was still in power. The following year, he recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. In each of these cases, however, Washington’s withholding of diplomatic recognition on its own did little to weaken the foreign government’s de facto control over its territory, and the United States later escalated to covert or overt attempts at regime change.
In the case of Venezuela, Guaidó has said he needs the backing of three groups to succeed: the people, the international community, and the military. Of the three, the allegiance of the armed forces is arguably the most important, and, unfortunately for Guaidó, also the most difficult to acquire. High-ranking Venezuelan military officials see their survival as tied to the government. For years, Maduro has bought their loyalty through lucrative government contracts, and they risk charges of corruption, human rights abuses, and drug trafficking should his regime fall. While rank-and-file military officials may be more sympathetic to Guaidó, they face serious logistical obstacles to organizing an effective resistance. On Jan. 20, for example, Maduro easily quashed a small soldiers’ rebellion.
At the heart of the Trump administration’s policy lies a gamble: If Maduro falls and democracy flourishes in his place, relations with Caracas are likely to improve, and Washington can claim to have been on the right side of history. If Maduro stays in power, however, the United States risks appearing complicit in what Maduro and his supporters have described as a “coup attempt.” Maduro will also have scored a propaganda victory against the United States, and he can continue to deride Guaidó as one of America’s “political puppets.” Worse still, having staked their reputation against Maduro, U.S. policymakers may feel compelled to escalate their actions to covert or overt attempts at regime change to force Maduro out.
If diplomacy fails and U.S. policymakers escalate their attempts at regime change, they may be setting themselves up for disaster. Within Venezuela, there is little domestic support for foreign intervention. A November 2018 poll, for instance, found that only 35 percent of Venezuelans would support “a foreign military intervention to remove President Maduro from his position.”
The president of the Mexican Senate’s foreign relations committee, Héctor Vasconcelos, put Washington’s dilemma well: “Nothing will contribute more to the questioning of the legitimacy and credibility of Juan Guaidó than the support he is receiving from the United States. We are in Latin America and this should be understood by the White House. … Learn something from history.”