On December 27th 2018 many Venezuelans were startled in the middle of the night by violent convulsions of the ground beneath them. It was the second time in just four months that the country’s tectonic plates shifted angrily, but on this occasion the shock-waves were less intense, so the panic was short-lived. Before sunrise, acerbic Venezuelans were already using the imagery of the earthquake to make their political jibes: “Dear friends”, texted one of them, “not only Caracas but ALL of Venezuela has been shaking for more than sixteen years!”
Venezuela has a history of rare but occasionally devastating seismic upheavals, so two quakes within four months gave me an uneasy sense of foreboding. Little did I know then, that the country’s fault lines were already in flux, not the geological fault lines but the political ones. On January 5th 2019, a previously unknown opposition politician by the name of Juan Guaidó was elected President of the opposition-led National Assembly. This set in motion a chain of political tremors that have been increasing in magnitude ever since and which portend irresistible change. Will these tremors fade away once again, as they have always done in the last few years, or will they lead to the climactic political earthquake that most Venezuelans yearn for?
The United States continues to take the lead in trying to help Venezuelans restore democracy and rebuild their country. But to be successful, the international community needs to work more cohesively. In a previous note entitled “Echoes of the past, shivers of the present” dated 25th August 2017, I wrote “…so far the international community’s efforts appear to be a shambles of division, contradictions and dishonesty” and went on to give examples of their shambolic diplomacy and the shameful hypocrisy between some country’s hollow diplomatic words and their commercial dealings with the Venezuelan regime. To be sure, things have improved since then but not near enough. Nearly two years have passed and with Venezuela’s economy collapsed, the electricity system on its last legs, its society’s moral compass dysfunctional, its democracy dead and on the brink of a humanitarian crisis and the international community continues to dither and blunder.
The United States, for example, keeps all options on the table but most of its partners and allies in Latin America and Europe refuse to do so. The U.S. and most of Latin America recognised Juan Guaidó as interim President of Venezuela from the very beginning but most European partners (with a few exceptions) refused to do so at first, continuing to naively call for dialogue, despite the disastrous situation of the country and the lack of democracy. Most EU nations eventually moved over to the U.S. position, with glaring exceptions such as Italy. The U.S. makes great strides to curb the ability of chavista government officials and their ‘men of straw’ from enjoying their stolen riches in their country but most European partners and other allies continue to welcome them. The U.S. stops buying Venezuelan oil and imposes sanctions but some of its close allies such as India continue to fund the chavistas through their ongoing purchases of Venezuelan oil; and in fact, need to be coerced by the U.S. into stopping their support of such an odious regime. The Juan Guaidó affair, which is giving so much hope to Venezuelans on the ground, is symptomatic of the chaotic approach of the international community. Beyond the above-mentioned confusion concerning his recognition as interim President, one feels disappointed to see the media in so many countries closely aligned with the U.S. continuing to talk about the new “self-proclaimed” President of Venezuela, even though Mr Guaidó assumed power in accordance with article 233 of the Venezuelan (drawn by Chavez) constitution. But what does recognising Juan Guaidó even mean? Whose Ambassadors represent Venezuela? What should countries do if Maduro expels their Ambassadors? Whom does someone pay for oil already purchased? These and a plethora of other prickly questions which the U.S. and its partners seem to be tackling in different ways, exposes the muddled diplomacy of the international community; epitomised perhaps by majestic photos of a cheerful Prince Charles during his recent visit to Cuba (widely acknowledged to be the chavista regime’s spiritual mentor and principal political supporter internationally). One can only look, hope and pray that there is a method to their madness; and in the meantime, the desperate people of Venezuela, who have had to suffer so many false dawns already, remind you of distressed mice in a cruel and never-ending Forced Swim Test (FST) designed to keep them hopeful despite despair and involved in the struggle beyond exhaustion and despite impossible odds; until the revolution, with any luck, collapses.
Washington is taking things one step at a time, trying to take their partners and allies with them. Unfortunately, the U.S. is burdened by relationships laden with mistrust and even hostility from most of its Latin American neighbours (and many neutral nations) – a legacy of over a century of U.S. interference, expansionism and prejudice. Some people will argue that the antipathy is well-deserved. This may well be the case but in the current crisis, it is irrelevant and of little consolation to Venezuelans, who will remain oppressed for a very long time unless the international community can come together. And at the end of the day, no one but the United States has been stepping up to the plate. Furthermore, let us be honest, to some degree, the hostility felt towards the U.S. is also due to the efforts of many Latin-American caudillos, despots, dictators, Marxists and sometimes even democrats, who throughout contemporary history have whipped up local public opinion and vilified the ‘gringo’ for their own self-seeking political and economic interests: i.e. in local politics it can be profitable to point an accusing finger at a foreign ‘villain’ (particularly when that ‘villain’ is a powerful and imperious nation) to deflect local public opinion from focusing on the ‘villains’ at home and their own misconduct. The last twenty years of unremitting crackpot ranting by Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro against ‘The Empire’, its ‘Economic War’ and its impact on the fatherland is a case in point.
This note is not a place to defend the United States record but unless we change the narrative, we are never going to be able to work together effectively, as it will continue to be difficult for Latin American leaders to convince their electorate that their nations ought to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States against the Venezuelan regime.
We are always reminded of some of the haughty, expansionist and prejudiced U.S. polititians and businessmen of former times but how often are we reminded that while the U.S. expanded its geographical, political and economic interests and influence across Latin America by means foul and fair, there were always a cadre of U.S. polititians in Congress and more broadly speaking, of individuals across the economic and social fabric of the country battling against expansionism and interventionism. To be sure, those people were mostly unable to change the course of U.S. foreign policy, although they did sometimes soften its worst excesses, but it would be an injustice to forget them; or to forget the many positive contributions which their nation has made throughout history.
In the aftermath of a dreadful Japanese earthquake of 1923 and despite tensions between the two countries rising, the U.S. helped Japan and U.S. citizens gave generously, leading a Tokyo newspaper to exclaim: The Americans have behaved “like the Americans of old. They have been efficient, sentimental and generous in giving and forgetful of everything in their zeal to help the helpless sufferer”. So let us for a change talk about the Americans of old, and while on the subject of earthquakes, let us remember that the United States was one of the few foreign nations that sent humanitarian aid to Venezuela in the aftermath of its most infamous earthquake; the one in 1812, which nearly ended the Venezuelan war of independence before it had started properly and upon the rubble of which Simon Bolivar made one of his most legendary speeches. And while talking about Venezuela’s war of independence and the United States, most people know about Simon Bolivar’s famous condemnation of U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America, but let us remember that one of his most cherished treasures was a medal that belonged to George Washington, given to him by the descendants of the North American independence hero; and that both Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Miranda (‘The Precursor’ of Venezuelan independence) admired the United States deeply. Let us remember that it was U.S. citizens who funded Miranda’s first liberating expedition in 1806, with the possible connivance of the U.S. government; that most of the men who joined that voyage were initially U.S. citizens, including a grandson of John Adams, second U.S. President; and that most of the men who died in that wretched expedition (in other words, the first men to perish defending the Venezuelan tricolour) were actually U.S. citizens. Let us remember that the ‘Stars and Stripes’ was the inspiration for the idea of having stars in the Venezuelan national flag and that the contiguity between the U.S. and Venezuelan independence days is no coincidence. It would be the irony of ironies if Mr Donald Trump, supposedly the most despised U.S. President in Latin America for decades, made his mark in the history books as the one U.S. President who saved Venezuela’s democracy and who began the rapprochement between the United States and its Latin American neighbours.
Back to the present day: The international community’s approach appears to be:
(1) To isolate the chavista government through non-recognition and
(2) To strangle it economically
Presumably the hope is that these measures will make the regime collapse. However, the strategy is flawed because it seems to be based on a number of seemingly misunderstood realities of the situation on the ground. It ignores the facts that:
(a) Nicolas Maduro and his cronies are never going to give power to the Venezuelan opposition, unless they are forced to do so.
(b) The Venezuelan military are never going to abandon the chavista regime, unless they are forced to do so and
(c) The Venezuelan military (and other government institutions) is said to be infiltrated by the Cuban military and intelligence services (which re-enforces “b”).
The plan is also inconsistent with some lessons from history. Firstly, when the U.S. and its partners reason that non-recognition will lead to a collapse of the chavista regime, they forget that this has been tried before, without success: i.e. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognise the Soviet Union (in its various guises) and its Bolshevik government in the hope that non-recognition coupled with Allied military interventions, would cause it to collapse under its own weight. The Soviet Union was in effect a pariah state for many years, recognised by none of the major world powers of the time (it took the U.S. sixteen years to establish diplomatic relations) and yet, it did not collapse. The chavistas are in a much better position to overcome isolation than the Bolsheviks in the early 1900s, because Maduro and his cronies are recognised as Venezuela’s legitimate government by two of the world’s superpowers (China and Russia) and many second-rate powers and client states. The recent shenanigans at the UN Security Council are a case in point. Secondly, when the U.S. and its partners reason that choking Venezuela economically will lead to a collapse of the chavista regime, they also forget that this has been tried before, without success: U.S. President D.W. Eisenhower placed an economic embargo on Cuba in the early 1960s in the hope that this would crush the island’s economy and lead to a collapse of the Castro government. Despite lacking in resources the regime did not collapse, because of economic support from the Soviet Union. The chavistas are in a much better position to overcome economic strangulation than Fidel Castro was, because Nicolas Maduro and his cronies have the economic backing of both Russia and China; but more importantly, because unlike Cuba, they have access to vast resources (see later).
So the only question that seems to matter is whether military intervention is necessary or indeed essential. I don’t have an answer to such a difficult question but what is true, is that most U.S. partners in Europe and Latin American are not in favour of it. It has been said that nations do not send troops unless their vital interests are seriously threatened but this is one of the main ironies of the Venezuelan debacle: Do Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Argentina’s Macri and Colombia’s Duque and Peru’s Vizcarra and Ecuador’s Moreno and Uruguay’s Vazquez and Mexico’s Lopez Obrador and the rest of Latin Americas’ leaders not realise that the biggest threat to their democracies is the very same chavista regime which they often de facto side with, when they stand against the United States on questions pertaining to Venezuela? And the same goes for democracies and their leaders beyond Latin American borders, because if oil is the nourishment that sustains the revolution at home, it is also the catalyst through which it stimulates instability overseas; instability that creates the ecosystems that breed the international partners, advocates and client states which are absolutely essential for the regime’s long term survival. This is precisely what we saw from Cuba during the 60s and 70s and from Venezuela in the last twenty years – Equatorial Guinea’s recent UN Security Council voting in favour of resolutions supporting Venezuela and its authoritarian regime (a country with which it has no cultural or historical ties and with which, until recently, it had no relationship whatsoever) may just be the latest example of this. And if Washington and its partners were concerned when (despite the embargo) Cuba started exporting its Marxist revolution across the continent (and beyond its borders), they would do well to remember that Venezuela is like Cuba on steroids, because the chavistas control the largest proven oil reserves on the planet: i.e. Venezuela has nearly as much oil under ground as the United States, Canada and Russia combined (it also has the seventh largest gas reserves in the world and many other mineral resources). So Maduro and his cronies have enough oil to continue exporting their revolution for nearly 500 years!
29 March 2019
 In an FST mice are dropped in a glass tube or container filled with water. As the walls of the container are slippery, the mice cannot escape but they struggle on until exhaustion. They then give up and eventually drown. The average time it takes for the mice to stop struggling is noted. You then take another group of mice and repeat the experiment. But this time you fish the mice out of the container just before they give up. You dry, feed and give them some rest before dropping them back in. This second time the mice will struggle on for much longer than in the original control experiment. This is because of their memory of the previous experience (i.e. the struggle was indeed followed by relief) and illustrates the important power of hope! https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22555240
 See George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower
 (Using 2016-17 data).