CAVAN HOGUE. Democracy in Venezuela?

Much of the current situation arises from internal conflicts and policies but US policy has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with US commercial, ideological and strategic interests. Foreign support for Maduro or Guaidó is based on predictable ideological and national interest lines. Domestically the military supports Maduro against widespread unrest and public demonstrations but how long this can last is a moot question. All parties call for peaceful solutions although the US has reserved its options. I look at some of the complexities.  

The situation in Venezuela is complex. The oil rich country has descended into economic chaos largely because of government mismanagement although US sanctions haven’t helped. This has led to widespread dissent and civil unrest which results from poverty and economic chaos rather than ideology. Many people are fleeing across the border to neighbouring countries as people in Guatemala and Honduras are for much the same reasons. However, the governments in those two countries while of equally dubious legitimacy have different foreign friends.

After a burst of democratic government in Latin America there has been a move to the right in recent years. Even those governments not elected in fundamentally flawed elections tend to the right in their politics and economics. Authoritarian regimes of the right and the left remain. The right leaning ones tend to be friendlier to the USA than the left leaning but there remains a deep suspicion of the US throughout the region because of its history of interference. In relations with Latin America, US policy has had more to do with the rule of the CIA than the rule of law.

The USA has recognised Juan Guaidó as legitimate president on the grounds that President Maduro’s election was flawed and that the loser is therefore the democratic choice. Despite the rhetoric, we may be sure that the US action has nothing to do with the protection of democracy. The US has a long record of replacing Latin American democracies with pliant dictators for commercial, ideological or strategic reasons. Nicolas Maduro ticks all three boxes. Venezuela is a major oil producer and his erratic socialist policies can be seen as a threat to world and US oil interests. His major supporters are countries the US sees as threats such as Russia, China, Cuba, Iran and left leaning Latin American countries like Bolivia and Ecuador. Not much is known about Guaidó but he supports the market economy and would not have the same visceral dislike of the US or threat to foreign investment. His main claim to fame is that he is opposed to Maduro. Maduro is playing the nationalist card.

Support for Maduro is coming from countries with commercial or ideological interests in keeping him in power. Russia is a major investor and China also has a toehold. The EU has important economic interests. EU investments make up about a third of foreign investment in Venezuela and not unreasonably they could see Maduro as a threat to those investments. The EU has called for elections but fallen short of endorsing Guaidó as President presumably on the grounds that he was not elected president. The US argument is that the election was rigged – which it probably was – and therefore the loser should take office. They have not made such a fuss about the rigged elections in Guatemala and Honduras. Australia has followed the demand of Secretary Pompeo to pick a side and followed the US line obviously because it is the US line. There was no other reason for us to get involved.

Latin America is divided. Most members of the 14 member Lima Group have condemned Maduro and called for measures to promote democracy. The idea of Guatemala and Honduras as protectors of democracy beggars belief. Real democracies like Chile and Costa Rica are led by more conservative governments who would not like Maduro. They want to explore ways to contribute to the restoration of democracy in that country through a peaceful and negotiated solution; Encouraged by the spirit of solidarity that characterizes the region and the conviction that negotiation, with full respect for the norms of international law and the principle of nonintervention, does not violate human rights and democracy, and is the only tool that ensures a lasting solution to the differences.

Mexico has taken its traditional view that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is a Trump admirer and unsurprisingly opposes Maduro.

The UN Security Council Resolution was clearly political. Secretary Pompeo’s knowledge of Latin America was shown by the fact that he couldn’t even pronounce Maduro correctly. The Russian argument that what is happening does not threaten international peace and security has some validity even if that is not the real reason for Russia’s support of Maduro. Turkey is an interesting one. Perhaps they are concerned about US interference in their battle with the Kurds?

So we have widespread discontent in Venezuela which is being held in check by Maduro’s control of the military. How long he can keep the lid on revolt and maintain the loyalty of the armed forces remains uncertain. The situation may be resolved by the deposition of Maduro through purely domestic factors. Given its track record, CIA courting of the military to stage a coup is always a possibility but so far there is no hard evidence of that. US sanctions may be tightened although so far oil exports have not been targeted. Any deal, perhaps brokered by the Lima group, would have to protect the military from repercussions and manage a genuine election.

Internationally the situation is fraught with Russia threatening to block any foreign ( i.e.US) military action against Maduro. The US says it is keeping all options open and their best hope is to wait for implosion. So long as they can keep Trump and Bolton on a leash things should not get out of hand. Possibly the international pressure will encourage the military to step in.

If, as seems likely, Maduro is eventually replaced by Guaidó, he will face a herculean task in satisfying popular demands for better economic conditions in time to quell domestic discontent. Whether or not he can do it remains to be seen.

Cavan Hogue was Ambassador to Mexico and Central America and opened the Australian Embassy in Chile. He speaks Spanish and has travelled widely in Latin America.


Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat who has worked in Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as at the UN. He also worked at ANU and Macquarie universities.

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