Throughout both the Cold War and the post-Cold War eras, U.S. policy regarding dictatorships has been one of unprincipled extremes.
Behavior toward “friendly dictators” has often been embarrassingly cozy. Indeed, Washington often seems to prefer cooperative tyrants to the unpredictability of democratic governments in Third World countries and the policies they might adopt. Thus, during the Cold War, the United States avidly supported ruthless dictatorial regimes in such places as South Korea, Taiwan, Zaire, Egypt, and Nicaragua. On several occasions, U.S. administrations even used the CIA to overthrow obstreperous democratic governments and help install vicious successors deemed to be pro-American. Such operations took place in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, and elsewhere.
Washington’s preference for autocratic allies has not entirely disappeared. U.S. officials have shown few signs of displeasure with Egypt’s government, even though the Egyptian military ousted Mohamed Morsi after he was democratically elected. Likewise, the Trump administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia’s murderous totalitarian theocracy remains exceedingly close, despite Riyadh’s genocidal war in Yemen and other outrages.
Conversely, U.S. hostility towards autocratic governments deemed unfriendly to American economic or strategic interests appears to know no bounds. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have backed an active policy of regime change against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Washington was even more proactive in the cases of Iraq and Libya, leading regime change wars that ousted Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi. U.S. policy toward Iran’s clerical government clearly aims to achieve the same result.
America’s leaders thus appear incapable of adopting a balanced, nuanced policy toward dictatorships. Washington’s stance is one of either fawning collaboration or blatantly hostile meddling. But the Trump administration now has an opportunity to correct that problem and adopt a reasonable middle course with regard to developments in Venezuela.
Nicolás Maduro’s regime deserves no sympathy, much less support, from anyone. Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, adopted socialist economic policies that transformed Venezuela from one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries into an utterly dysfunctional nightmare. In an effort to preserve their political rule, Chavez and Maduro also pursued ever-tightening authoritarian measures. They defenestrated the business community, eradicated a free press, and jailed political opponents. Even though Maduro supposedly won re-election in the May 2018 presidential contest, the balloting was a textbook example of wide-scale fraud. Venezuela has gradually transformed from a socialist, illiberal democracy to a thinly disguised dictatorship.
Serious political turmoil has escalated now that opposition leader Juan Guaido, the head of the National Assembly, declared himself acting president, challenging Maduro. The United States immediately recognized Guaido as the country’s interim president, as did Canada and several other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Most European governments are following suit or are leaning towards full recognition of Guaido. Maduro responded by expelling U.S. diplomats and accusing Washington of sponsoring a coup. Most (though not all) of the Venezuelan military appears loyal to Maduro. The country now teeters on the brink of civil war.
The speed with which the United States and its close allies recognized Guaido’s claim certainly suggests that there was coordination, if not outright collusion, with the Venezuelan opposition. Nevertheless, choosing to recognize an insurgent government is not necessarily improper; it is still up to the faction challenging Maduro to make good on its claim to be the rightful government and to establish effective control over the country. The U.S. decision may be a bold, speculative move, but disputed diplomatic recognition does not constitute a violation of Venezuela’s sovereignty. Moreover, the United States has greater legitimate interests in what takes place in the Western Hemisphere than it does in regions thousands of miles away.
However, it appears that Washington may not confine itself to merely recognizing Guaido. Even before the recent upsurge of dissent in Venezuela, U.S. leaders made their hostility to the country’s left-wing regime apparent. The Obama administration even declared Venezuela to be a national security threat to the United States—an absurd allegation.
Risks of an overreaction are even greater now. The appointment of Elliott Abrams, a notorious advocate of forcible regime change, to a special post in charge of policy toward Venezuela is an extremely ominous development. The administration’s warning to Maduro not to use force against opposition factions also suggests that the United States is becoming more deeply involved in Venezuela’s domestic turmoil. Trump himself previously flirted with launching a military intervention to oust the regime in Caracas. Yesterday, he announced tough new sanctions on Venezuelan oil revenues, which may be seen as collective punishment against an already beleaguered population. Furthermore, television cameras just captured a note on National Security Advisor John Bolton’s legal pad indicating that the United States might be planning to redeploy 5,000 troops from Afghanistan to Colombia, the ideal staging area for a U.S. invasion of neighboring Venezuela.
Trampling on Venezuela’s sovereignty would be ill-advised. Such a step would re-ignite memories throughout the hemisphere of ugly U.S. imperialism during the 20th century. Latin America seems divided over how to deal with the Maduro government. Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina loathe the regime and were quick to follow Washington’s lead in recognizing Guaido. Conversely, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and—most important—Mexico have refused to do so.
Washington needs to proceed cautiously. The tormented Venezuelan people would certainly benefit if the odious Maduro government were to end up on the ash heap of history. But that is a task that the people of that country must perform for themselves. The Trump administration’s behavior thus far has remained within acceptable bounds, but U.S. leaders seem to be flirting with the kind of regime change venture that has backfired so badly in other places. It would hardly be a wise move for U.S. forces to occupy and try to pacify Venezuela against diehard Maduro loyalists.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. He is the author of 12 books and more than 750 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Gullible Superpower: U.S. Support for Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements (2019).