Venezuela: A Test of U.S. Hegemony in Latin America

By Eric Hershberg

Lima Group members standing at a podium

Lima Group members in Torre Tagle in Perú / Flickr / Creative Commons

The showdown in Venezuela reflects an extraordinary attempt by the United States government to resurrect hegemonic power in Latin America.  From the mid-19th century to the dawn of the 21st, it was common for Washington to directly overthrow Latin American governments or to bolster clients seeking transitions to dictatorship or democracy.  But recent years had witnessed a clear decline in U.S. hegemony.  As Latin America appeared to have escaped Washington’s imperial reach, many of us were persuaded of the finality of the Obama administration’s recognition that the era of the Monroe Doctrine had ended.  We were dismissive, perhaps excessively, of the assertion of Trump administration officials and advisors that the infamous Doctrine could somehow be revived.

Yet the dynamics of the Venezuelan confrontation result from an unprecedented, Washington-forged hemispheric coalition – of the genuinely willing – trying to force a regime transition.  Traditionally, Washington conducted such interventions on its own, opposed by most of Latin America.  Yet today not only the 12 members of the Lima Group but also Canada and several EU governments are on board with the administration’s boldly assertive intervention in Venezuela’s political crisis.  Russia’s and China’s support for incumbent President Nicolás Maduro underscores that what is at stake is the enduring relevance of the Monroe Doctrine, which almost two hundred years ago unilaterally established an American veto over extra-regional engagement with nominally sovereign countries “in its own backyard.”

For champions of the Trump administration’s policy, asserting hegemony – after the Obama administration had declared it “dead” – is an end in itself.  Rejecting the Monroe Doctrine did not provoke a crescendo of acceptance from much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, and abandoning that stance has been a core aspiration of right-wing foreign policy networks that have taken over the Executive Branch.  Countless statements over the years by the presumed architect of the present intervention – de facto Secretary of State for Latin America Senator Marco Rubio – reflect how an enduring hatred for the Cuban Revolution, and movements inspired by it such as Chavismo and the ALBA alliance, fuels antagonism toward intra- or extra-regional engagement that call into question U.S. authority.  Russian and Chinese interest in sustaining Chavismo thus reinforce Washington’s determination to eradicate it.

  • Venezuela today is an ideal target for a US-sponsored intervention to bring about regime change and reassert American hegemony in Latin America. The dictatorship is increasingly vicious, and Maduro’s claim to legitimacy is entirely fraudulent.  Moreover, Maduro’s government has so wrecked the economy that desperate millions are fleeing the country, creating an urgent humanitarian crisis that overwhelms neighboring countries already unable to provide for the basic needs of their own populations, making them more amenable to an interventionist exit.
  • Venezuela’s opposition has been long hindered by incompetence and racked by competing personal ambitions. With its most assertive leaders imprisoned, under house arrest, or in exile, it has proven incapable on its own of bringing about Maduro’s removal, either peacefully through his rigged institutions or through uprisings in the streets.  Absent an internal path toward regime transition, conditions were ripe for Washington to coax regional partners to back a daring strategy of intervention.  To have any prospects for success, the venture required that the domestic opposition finally unify – or at least acquiesce in –the anointment as Interim President of Juan Guaidó, a young political unknown whose ties with right-wing patrons are not as well known.  That unification, presumably, was made possible by recognition that only with external support could internal resistance succeed, and only with a unified or quiescent opposition would the international partners take the aggressive stance that they did.

Just as the opening to Cuba was the signature achievement of the Obama administration with regard to Latin America, the effort to overthrow the Venezuelan government appears destined to be the signature act of the Trump administration.  The support of almost all of Latin America for it will have consequences far beyond the fate of the incompetent dictator clinging to power in Caracas.  If their gambit succeeds, Senator Rubio and National Security Advisor John Bolton could move on next to Nicaragua and then perhaps to the king’s crown in Havana. 

  • Those tempted to attribute this to abhorrence of violators of democratic norms would do well to consider the administration’s supportive stance toward increasingly authoritarian regimes in Honduras and Guatemala. Those cases, and the recognition that much of the opposition leadership wants to restore Venezuela to “what it used to be” (i.e., before Chavez tried with considerable popular support to forever end what Venezuela used to be), underscore the ideological drivers of U.S. policy today.  While Washington may have embarked on a course that can finally extricate Venezuela from Chavista misrule, the history of American influence over the region does not bode well for what a return to U.S. hegemony in Latin America could bring.  Surely that point is not lost on leaders of countries such as Mexico and Uruguay.  If the coming weeks bring a continuing stalemate between the Venezuelan regime and opposition, perhaps their good offices could catalyze a negotiated path to free elections and to a resulting regime that would not be Made in USA.


January 31, 2019

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  1. Max Cameron

     /  January 31, 2019

    Thanks for this analysis, Eric. Was the Lima Group really forged by Washington and is it fully onboard with Washington’s vision of regime change? Or does it have a little more autonomy from the US than you seem to imply? Surely most countries in the region would not welcome a return to the Monroe doctrine. Also, is there no internal path to change? What about a negotiated political settlement, backed by international pressure? Surely that is where the larger international community can play a role short of intervention, which would be a disaster. Your thoughts?

  2. Kurt Weyland

     /  January 31, 2019

    Do you have anything to say about the socioeconomic catastrophe & humanitarian disaster & massive refugee crisis that the openly authoritarian Maduro regime has created — and that many Latin American countries and the US are finally trying to do something about?

  3. Eric Hershberg

     /  February 1, 2019

    My thanks to readers who have commented on my Jan. 31 post.

    In response to Professor Weyland’s query, yes, I have quite a lot “to say about the socioeconomic catastrophe & humanitarian disaster & massive refugee crisis that the openly authoritarian Maduro regime has created.” In the post, I wrote that “(T)he dictatorship is increasingly vicious, and Maduro’s claim to legitimacy is entirely fraudulent. Moreover, Maduro’s government has so wrecked the economy that desperate millions are fleeing the country…”
    This harsh assessment of Maduro’s misrule has been consistent in my writing about Venezuela for many years. In a May 26, 2016 post on this same blog, for example, I wrote:
    “…the Bolivarian project has descended into an incompetent Putinism in the tropics, (and) is collapsing under the weight of monumental mismanagement of the economy. Many of the ills of the Venezuelan petrostate predate Chavismo, but during a collapse in oil prices President Maduro has doubled-down on profligate economic policies introduced by Hugo Chávez, bringing the country to catastrophe made worse by increasingly draconian repression of loyal and disloyal opposition alike.”
    A year earlier, another AULA Blog post that I co-authored focused on Maduro’s “Crossing the Line” into outright dictatorship. And the AULA Blog has published numerous analyses of the social and humanitarian catastrophes engineered by the country’s rulers.
    The focus of yesterday’s article was not on that topic but rather on the extraordinary implications of the U.S. and Lima Group response to the Venezuelan crisis. Speaking to that question, Max Cameron a) suggests that I may have overstated Washington’s role as protagonist in recognizing Juan Guaidó as Interim President; b) notes that a revival of the Monroe Doctrine is not something the Lima Group countries would endorse; and c) adds that an international intervention (by which I gather he means “military intervention”) “would be a disaster.”
    With regard to Max’s first point, we have multiple sources indicating that the Americans sponsored clandestine visits months ago by Guaidó to major Lima group capitals and to Washington. In addition, during the fall, many signs here in Washington pointed to a concerted effort — which several sources with whom I consulted at the time attributed to the U.S. Executive branch — to enlist key Latin American embassies to convey inside the beltway a message of enthusiastic regional support for a transitional government anchored by Leopoldo López and Voluntad Popular. The pivotal role of VP — Guaidó’s party — struck us as noteworthy, as it reflected a preference that was reflective more of a U.S. position than of, say, OAS Secretary General Almagro’s. Certainly Almagro himself, who has been eloquent in condemning the brutality of the Venezuelan dictatorship and in mobilizing opposition to it, was instrumental in getting the Lima Group united behind an aggressive strategy. But this specific strategy looks to me to have been designed at the National Security Council rather than the OAS.
    On Max’s second point, I agree entirely that a restoration of the Monroe Doctrine is not something that would be endorsed by most of the Lima Group countries, but a key message of my piece, and of a striking article published yesterday by the Wall Street Journal, was that this may nonetheless be precisely what they’ll get if their gambit succeeds in Caracas. Governments throughout the hemisphere (including Canada) should consider the implications of Bolton’s October speeches about “troikas of tyranny” and “triangles of terror.” Those speeches were consequential, and rather than taking place in a vacuum it seems to me likely that they portended an action plan, phase one of which is now being implemented.
    Finally, I agree with Max that a military intervention would indeed be a disaster. That is why I hope that the coming days will see a settlement — perhaps brokered by some combination of Mexico, Uruguay and the EU, which reportedly is backing down from its pledge to recognize Guaidó as Interim President absent scheduling of new elections by this weekend. That settlement would have to revolve around Maduro’s immediate departure and scheduling of internationally supervised elections. The alternatives are all very bleak.

  4. David Clennon

     /  February 5, 2019

    Could Guaidó be characterized in any way as a social democrat? At least one proponent of intervention is using that label to justify US/Lima Group/Canadian actions as something other than a right-wing coup.

  5. Harold Cárdenas Lema

     /  February 12, 2019

    Interesting post. Not long ago, talking again about US regime change policies in Latin America, covert or open military coups in the region, was inconceivable unless you were a real hardliner. What the Venezuelan crisis has achieved is to “normalize” the rules of engagement that existed during the Cold War.
    Is very cheap for the US government to engage in Latin America when the national morale is low (ie. Vietnam), but watching Marco Rubio and Trump making a moral case (or even Pence, just returning from Saudi Arabia) on Venezuela to overcome the losses of the government shutdown and score political points with the right-wing Latin American community in Florida, is just awful.
    Just discovered this blog, looks good to discuss policy. Very good articles.


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