Visions of Violence in Venezuela – Grace Thieme
“To the Venezuelans trapped in this nightmare, please know that all of America is united behind you” — Donald J. Trump
America is not united behind Venezuela because many Americans don’t even know what is happening in Venezuela. In this article I aim to first briefly lay out what the situation in Venezuela is. Next, I’ll explain what happened at the UN Summit. Then, I think it’s important to look quickly at the history of US intervention/meddling in Latin America, in order to put the current situation in context. Finally, I’ll lay out the picture as a whole.
When Hugo Chavez died in 2013, power in Venezuela was passed on to Nicolas Maduro. Since then, Maduro has centralized power in the executive branch, and used intimidation to squash any resistance. By giving the military control of important (and lucrative) industries, he kept them loyal to him and his cause. As his presidency went along the Venezuelan economy collapsed more and more. Inflation has run rampant, and according to the New York Times, “80 percent of Venezuelans don’t have sufficient access to food”.
In 2017 massive protests began to swell in opposition to his leadership from all parts of society. To combat the protests, Maduro created a whole new legislative body, the “Constituent Assembly” in order to get around the original, opposition controlled, “National Assembly”. He also rewrote the constitution, and jailed opposition leaders.
In 2018 he was reelected in an election that was widely reported to be rigged. This is when the US began to get involved. In January of 2019, the National Assembly (the original legislative body) voted Juan Guaido as their leader. The US, along with Canada and about a dozen Latin American countries, recognized Mr. Guaido as the rightful leader of Venezuela.
The power struggle has led to widespread violence, including the murder of Naval officer Rafael Acosta in July. Mr. Acosta was tortured so severely by the Maduro regime (who suspected him of treason) that he appeared at his military tribunal in a wheelchair and fainted before he could give testimony. He was taken to the hospital and later died of his injuries. This act of violence galvanized the international community, drawing more attention to the human rights abuses in the region
Donald Trump is a vocal opponent of the Maduro regime, and has been encouraging other nations to publicly acknowledge Mr. Guaido as the rightful ruler of Venezuela. As of February 2019, 65 countries had declared support for Mr. Guaido while 50 UN countries supported Maduro. This all came to a head in September at the UN summit, when President Trump lashed out at European nations for not responding strongly enough to the crisis, and not offering enough aid to refugees.
As part of the effort to pressure Maduro, the members of the Rio Treaty of 1948 met to vote on sanctions and other punitive measures. The Rio Treaty, officially the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, is made up of 17 western hemisphere countries. The idea behind the treaty is that it groups these nations together as allies, so that an attack on one can be considered an attack on all of them. This allows countries to do things like levy sanctions even if they have no process for doing so within their own home governments. It also makes collective action between the countries easier. This treaty was important during the cold war, and was most recently invoked after the 9/11 attacks.
Invoking the treaty in this moment was a contentious move. The Maduro regime argued that invoking the treaty opened the door for a military attack. The United States’ stance is that the situation in Venezuela has become a security risk for the whole region and needs to be dealt with collectively. Some of the Rio Treaty nations tried to solve this dilemma by putting in language that specified that these measured would be economic, not militaristic. The United States representatives argued against including this language. The deliberations got so heated that Uruguay left the treaty altogether, in a display of support for Venezuela. Their foreign minister, Rodolfo Nin Novoa, made the announcement, and is quoted as saying that this decision –
“sets a very serious precedent in the matter of international law, particularly in relation to the principle of peaceful resolution of disputes and the principle of nonintervention, including the possibility of armed intervention”
Here I would like to pause and review some history. The short story is that the US has meddled a lot in Central and South America. We have backed coups and helped prop up authoritarian regimes for more than a century. Some examples of this are as follows:
1903 — The US backed Panamanian forces and helped them separate from Colombia, because they wanted access to the Panama Canal.
1946 — The School of the Americas was founded. US Military and CIA officers trained Latin American military officers. The manuals for these training programs were declassified in 1996 and were found to contain training about how to root out and suppress anti-government forces — they included execution, payment and torture as valid methods.
1973 — The US backed President Juan Maria Bordaberry and his civic-military dictatorship after they forcibly took power in Uruguay.
1985 — The Iran-Contra scandal happened. Basically the Reagan administration snuck around congress, traded missiles and weapons to Iran in exchange for some hostages, and then sent the profits of that arms deal to the Contras in Nicaragua, who were fighting against the communist Sandinista government.
1989 — The US military invaded Panama and arrested their leader, Manuel Noriega
1991 — US forces were sent to Colombia to fight drug trafficking. They failed to stop the traffickers and arguably escalated violence in the region.
1997 — Amnesty International put out a report that stated that almost every Colombian military unit that was found to be killing civilians was doing so with US supplied weapons.
2007 — Board members for the American company Chiquita Bananas confessed to making payments to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary drug trafficking organization, from 1997 to 2004. I highly encourage you to read this article.
Remember how the US argued against language that would prohibit military action (calling it “superfluous”)? Well it is also worth remembering that President Trump has already hinted at the possibility of military action. In February of this year he responded to a question about potential military actions in Venezuela by saying that “all options are on the table”. He also threatened “serious consequences” should Guaido or any of his diplomatic staff be arrested.
In August, Adm. Craig Faller, who heads up the US Southern Command for the US Navy said that the Navy is remaining “ready to implement policy decisions” according to a Fox News Article. The interview with Faller also emphasizes the joint naval drills that the US, along with twelve other Latin American and Caribbean countries, are undertaking off the coast of Brazil. Faller states that the exercises should send a message to Maduro about “what democracies that work together can do across a range of complex threats”.
Our military presence in Latin America does not end there. Military.com reports that in May a detachment of US airmen were sent to Guyana, one of Venezuela’s neighbors, on a four month long humanitarian mission. This mission was “meant to be a stepping stone towards a prolonged relationship with the Guyana Defense Force”. Maj. General Andrew Croft stated that “Guyana is going to become a larger player in this region. . . So it’s important that we are closely tied with them”. Political unrest in Venezuela is cited as one reason we need this type of cooperation.
A Marine task force was sent to Colombia from September 25th through October 5th to conduct joint Disaster Relief training with the Colombian military, according to a US Southern Command website article. The Southern Command states these rehearsals “validate interoperability amongst the two countries’ marine corps and ultimately the development of a standing combined task force postured to respond to [Humanitarian Aid/Disaster Relief] events throughout the region” or, in plain English, “give a reason for the two marine corps to work together, and eventually form a joint task force that would be ready to respond to emergencies around Colombia”.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in Venezuela, but here is the picture that my research has painted. The United States has a long history of interfering in Latin American politics, often quite sneakily. The Trump administration has been keeping the military on alert about the Venezuela situation since early this year — “on the balls of our feet” says Faller. The US argued against language blocking military action during the Rio Treaty meeting. Hundreds of US troops have been sent to Guyana, Colombia and Brazil, countries that neighbor Venezuela, since the summer started, with a focus on improving relations with the armed forces in those countries.
I’m no expert in US foreign policy, but my knowledge of history leaves me inclined to be wary about the combination of the Trump administration’s rhetoric regarding Venezuela and the positioning of our troops in South America. This story has been buried under the never ending barrage of breaking news, but it nonetheless deserves attention. The situation in Venezuela is dire, our diplomatic relationships with our southern allies are tenuous, and our military actions are suspicious. The public needs to stay informed on this issue so that we can hold our government accountable and make good on Trump’s promise to the people of Venezuela that “all of America is united behind you”.
If you have questions or comments about this article please reach out to me through my website www.thecommonthieme.com or find me on twitter @thecommonthieme