Sergio Rodriguez Gelfestein has served as director of international relations in Venezuela’s presidential office and as Venezuela’s ambassador to Nicaragua. He is currently guest professor and researcher at Shanghai University in China. In this interview, Rodriguez Gelfenstein explores changes in US military doctrine and their impact on Venezuela.
You analyzed Donald Trump’s West Point address (June 13, 2020) and highlighted some of its claims. Trump said: “It is not the duty of American troops to solve ancient conflicts on distant lands that many people have never heard of," and he declared himself against “endless wars.” This sounds very good. However, it appears that the current White House’s real aim is to make other countries pay for the US’ “safeguarding the security of the planet.” What implications does this have for Venezuela?
The external policy of the United States and its military doctrine are a state policy. I mean that it is not volatile, but rather organized according to imperialist interests that remain relatively long-standing. Nonetheless, analysts and the mass media have a desire to discover every new administration’s “doctrine.”
When you analyze the policies implemented by each administration, you do discover adaptations and subtle differences. Every president attempts to leave a footprint for posterity – to enter the history books. These shifts of US doctrine may be subtle but they must be studied because the US’s operational logic and interests reach around the world.
That is why the West Point address, while predictably ratifying the imperialist drive that characterizes the US, may represent a modification of the doctrine. The US is going through a crisis that isn’t new. It is a crisis that goes back to the 1980s or even earlier, but has been deepening and will get worse with the COVID-19 crisis.
The crisis is precisely what brought Trump to the presidency. He is a man that doesn’t come from the rank-and-file of the political class, but rather a businessman who is supposed to solve by economic means what they couldn’t solve by political ones.
That is why, when reading between the lines in Trump’s speech, what we can see is an attempt or a desire to discharge the economic burden of war on others… all this while making the false claim that the military has “suffered” years of “devastating budget cuts” [from 2017 to 2020 the military spending in the US went from US $596 billion to $793 billion].
So, again, while it is important to understand the shifts and shades imprinted by each administration, the modifications that we can detect in Trump’s speech will not significantly alter US doctrine. That is the true problem for those of us in Venezuela and for the peoples that struggle for sovereignty around the globe.
In John Bolton’s The Room Where it Happened, the former national security adviser relates Trump’s opinion of Juan Guaido. The latter is worn out, according to Trump, and “doesn’t have what it takes.” By contrast, the US president considers Maduro to be “smart and very tough.” In a recent Axios interview, he said that he would “maybe think about” meeting with Maduro despite considering him a dictator. How do you analyze this? Does it show a shift in the US policy towards Venezuela?
We need to read Bolton’s book between the lines. In the first place, it’s an instrument to make money, and secondly to exonerate himself of any responsibilities regarding his tenure at the White House, while pointing the finger at everyone else. In the book we find lies, half-truths, and truths, but especially a huge web of misinformation. That is why those claims should be taken with a grain of salt.
We should make another qualification about the time sequence. In Bolton’s book, Trump’s reflections on Venezuela and Guaido, come from the beginning of last year . People are not analyzing this well, since they assume that it represents a recent “shift.” If what Bolton writes is true, then Trump discovered very early on what Guaido was about.
When Trump likened Guido to Beto O'Rourke, he means someone who started strong and fell very quickly as happened to O’Rourke in the Democratic Party primaries. In other words, we are not talking about a process of deterioration of Guaido’s image. Trump was questioning Guaido’s leadership practically from the onset. Nevertheless, he was backed by Bolton, Pompeo, and Rubio, who respond to a political tendency different from Trump’s.
Since Guaido’s lack of leadership became evident, there has been a desperate search for an “honorable” way out of the debacle… Casting their lot with Guaido has become more burdensome because the US entangled all of Europe and Latin America’s far-right governments. The truth is that today they don’t have a clue as to how to get out of the maze they built.
However, I should say that Guaido’s “presidency” has had its advantages for the US and some of its allies, since it opened the door to the theft of Venezuela’s assets: Guaido has been a pretext to pillage the country’s assets abroad. From that perspective, the self-proclaimed president has been useful to the US’ veiled interests. They took CITGO, stole the gold in the Bank of England, and now they want to steal Venezuela’s Essequibo [large territory under contention by both Venezuela and Guyana which is, according to the Geneva Agreement of 1966, Venezuelan territory]. Economically, the Guaido spectacle was quite a success, but [in Venezuela], it flopped.
They failed to control the country with the world’s largest oil reserves, plus important sources of coltan, gas, diamonds, and gold. Controlling those resources will continue to be the US’s strategic objective with regards to Venezuela.
They invented Guaido and the project didn’t quite work. Nonetheless, the US will continue to support him until something “better” comes along. Along the way, they will continue to invent new things and rehash old methods. It doesn’t matter much if the self-proclaimed president has no support in Venezuela, or if he is corrupt, or if his people are thugs that hire prostitutes with resources earmarked for the “transition,” or if he meets with drug lords… All that doesn’t really matter because their man – with all his imperfections – is one of their lackeys for now.
As for the Axios interview, Trump’s apparent willingness to meet with Maduro is not too relevant now since, just two days after it was broadcast, the White House walked it back.
If we understand a “proxy war” as a war that occurs when two world powers struggle indirectly through third parties, do you think there could be a proxy war involving Colombia invading Venezuela?
I would not put China and Russia’s foreign policy on the same level as that of the US. I don’t think that Russia or China would seek a war with Colombia due to geostrategic interests in Venezuela.
We are not in a Cold War scenario. We are not talking about scenarios like those of Vietnam, Korea, Angola, or Ethiopia in which the US and the USSR were behind the contending forces. Those were proxy wars with an ideological character in a bipolar world.
What could happen here is a US intervention with Colombia as its beachhead. Probably it would not involve the direct participation of the Colombian army, but rather an army constituted by paramilitaries, narco interests, and deserters from Venezuela’s military – but above all mercenary troops and so-called “contractors.”
There is no doubt that the Colombian government would be willing. We should remember that Colombia is a NATO country and that it is accepting the role of an imperialist beachhead in the continent. Nonetheless, I think that this option [military intervention against Venezuela from Colombia] is now less possible for various reasons.
First, there is no consensus in the US establishment about using war to solve the Venezuela “problem.” Of course, they toy with the idea, but they can't be sure of a quick victory, and a prolonged military conflict in a Latin American country would bring about a strong resurgence of the left. The event would rekindle the anti-imperialist and democratic attitudes in the continent.
To say the obvious, this would be counterproductive to the US’ interests, which is benefitting from a general continental slumber with a few honorable exceptions. To give you an example, the FARC and the ELN would not stay neutral in a military intervention against Venezuela.
There are other factors: the political and social situation in Colombia is truly catastrophic, and they can't stir up patriotic sentiment to mobilize people against Venezuela. Also, there is no cohesion in Colombia’s military, which is divided into three sectors struggling to control the drug trade. All this amounts to a situation in which the Colombian establishment lacks unity. In other words, a private army operating against Venezuela from Colombian territory would probably generate further ruptures and a very profound crisis in Colombia.
For this reason, I don’t think that there are conditions for an all-out war launched from Colombian territory against Venezuela.
However, the US is indeed helping to organize mercenary groups for targeted aggressions against Venezuela, and those groups train and have their home base in Colombia. They are doing it, and there is plenty of evidence in this regard.
Though Trump has not been a war president, even if he is as committed as his predecessors to policing the world and destroying the Bolivarian Process, in fact, he is the US president that has initiated the fewest wars since Jimmy Carter. If Joe Biden wins the November elections, can we expect an even more hawkish US policy towards Venezuela?
The November elections are going to determine many things. While it would be naive to imagine a change in doctrine, the elections will affect things in more subtle ways. Obviously, Biden is polling strong now and – as a representative of the establishment and the far-right sector of the Democratic Party – he is likely to widen the US’ military imperialist strategies.
In the meantime what we have is a scenario where rhetoric is at center stage. Look at what happened with the Iranian tankers: the White House made all sorts of threats, but when push came to shove, the military establishment – who are against intercepting the Iranian vessels – imposed its logic and its rationality.
There are several reasons for the aggressive rhetoric. Trump needs to win Florida voters and the big Cuban and Venezuelan capitalists there make important contributions to the campaign. On top of that, Trump made a pact with Marco Rubio, his rival and enemy in the 2016 primaries. The deal goes as follows: Rubio delivers Florida and, in exchange, Trump pursues a Latin American policy in line with Rubio’s program.
So what we can count on for now is continuity: sanctions, diplomatic and political pressure, CIA and Pentagon support for undercover actions, and a belligerent rhetoric. We will see what happens after November. Nonetheless, as you said earlier, I’m almost sure that a Biden government would be much more aggressive against Venezuela than Trump. For us, Biden is even more dangerous than Trump!
In conclusion, and going back to where we started, we should understand that the US military doctrine responds to the internal logic of imperialism: it’s a state doctrine. As long as the world configuration remains as it is, so long as imperialism is alive, we cannot imagine that a change in the White House is going to alter things radically. All we can expect is a change in tactics.