U.S. Policy Toward Venezuela: Seeing The Larger Picture

The analysis of U.S. policy toward the Ukraine and Syria is even more applicable in the case of Venezuela, argues academic and author Steve Ellner.


The analysis of U.S. policy toward the Ukraine and Syria is even more applicable in the case of Venezuela, argues academic and author Steve Ellner.

Since the 1990s, many critics of the U.S. have accused Washington of promoting the dismemberment of nations such as Yugoslavia, in accordance with neoliberalism’s drive to weaken central governments and nation states. Today, Washington’s official policy in nations like Syria and now the Ukraine has been support for rebels that are trying to overthrow the government, even though their chances of success are minimal. In the case of Syria, the U.S. has provided material support for rebels, while in the case of the Ukraine the Obama administration has threatened the government with sanctions even though the dissidents are armed and have attacked security forces. Regardless of one’s evaluation of the two governments (and I’m not defending either one), it could be said that regime change in highly unlikely. The best-case political scenario for those opposed to both governments would be a prolonged armed conflict, perhaps even civil war. The worst-case political scenario for them would be government consolidation and the complete defeat of the rebels. Washington obviously knows this.  Could it be that in cases of governments considered adverse to U.S. interests, Washington prefers a civil war over a normal situation free of discord and violence?

This analysis of U.S. policy toward the Ukraine and Syria is even more applicable in the case of Venezuela. Indeed, there are several key factors favoring the Venezuelan government that make regime change even less likely. First the Chavistas have the electoral support of fifty percent or more of the population with a mobilization capacity that has since 2003 exceeded that of the opposition. Second, less than two months ago the Chavistas defeated the opposition at the polls by a substantial margin. Three, it has solid support in the military, not just from an “institutionalist” faction but from officers who identify with Chavismo. And fourth, Venezuela counts on a united Latin America, more so than at any other time throughout its two-century history, and solid backing during the current conflict from governments throughout the region.

Yet the United States openly supports the opposition. While the entire world (including such non-leftist governments as Mexico and Colombia) recognized the triumph of Nicolás Maduro in the April 2013 presidential elections, Washington was alone in siding with the Venezuelan opposition in refusing to recognize the results. (If the opposition really won the elections in April, how can you explain the Chavista triumph in December whose results were accepted by the opposition?).  All the statements coming out of Washington including those from Kerry to Obama explicitly support the position of the opposition with specific reference to Leopoldo López (U.S. educated at undergraduate and graduate levels who comes from one of the historically richest families in Venezuela), who represents the most extremist current within the opposition. López, with his slogan “salida” openly supports regime change.

Washington along with the opposition leaders are banking on a wearing out process, what is known as “low intensity war.” It may work. It did in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Nicaraguan voters in 1990 felt that the only way to end the ongoing violence was by electing a “moderate,” namely Violeta Chamorro (whose candidacy and party received millions of dollars from the U.S.). A similar scenario may play out in Venezuela. Capriles very skillfully is positioning himself to play the role of “moderate” (he even calls himself a “progressive”) and has distanced himself from López, particularly on the social front (even though both come from the upper class). He states the only way for the opposition to triumph is by getting support from the popular classes, a position which represents an indirect criticism of López for overestimating subjective conditions. In short, Capriles is following the “Chamorro strategy.”

While not minimizing the effectiveness of low-intensity war, there are other scenarios in which the current protests may have a boomerang effect on the opposition and the U.S. First, is the possibility of a backlash which is already occurring in middle class areas, which have been subject to nearly all the violence. Furthermore, events in the Ukraine, which inspired the opposition who were led to believe that “civil protests” could topple regimes, are demonstrating how easy it is for things to slide into armed confrontation with scores of deaths and civil war. Second, members of the middle class opposition are likely to lose hope in the absence of positive short-term results for this all-or- nothing strategy. The staying power of the enthusiasm of these sectors tends to be limited.

Washington also has much to lose. It has a long history of supporting subversive movements that (as in the case of Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954) after reaching power had disastrous long-term effects on the country. Venezuela is not a typical case. It is in the center of world attention.  The failure of U.S. government efforts to bring about regime change in country after country (Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela) after scoring “successes” in Iraq and Lybia would come as a blow to U.S. prestige. In short, much is at stake.