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Stop Talking About Coups

It's really very simple: the US has absolutely no right to meddle in the affairs of Venezuela, in any way, shape, or form.

Donald Trump speaks to the media at the White House on August 17. Mark Wilson / Getty

A hallmark of the Trump era is the open embrace of ideas and practices that have long been central to the fabric of US politics but have, at least in recent decades, often been publicly disavowed or discussed in slightly embarrassed, hushed tones. So it is with white supremacy, police brutality, and now, military coups in Latin America.

Venezuela is the primary target of current regime change discussions. Unlike the behind-the-scenes support the US gave to past actions — like the coup that toppled Salvador Allende forty-five years ago last week — US officials, including President Trump himself, have loudly and repeatedly proclaimed their willingness to use military force to topple Venezuela’s government.

In August 2017, Trump told reporters, “We have many options in Venezuela. And by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option.” In June, reports surfaced that Trump had to be talked out of invading Venezuela by his own advisers and right-wing Latin American leaders, such as former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos. Trump’s alacrity makes the recent New York Times’ revelation — that “the Trump administration held secret meetings with rebellious military officers from Venezuela over the last year to discuss their plans to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro” — unsurprising.

Rather more surprising is that the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, has joined Trump in calling for military action against Venezuela. In doing so Almagro has placed himself, and the OAS, to the right of Latin America’s conservative leaders. This development also underscores the OAS’s appalling hypocrisy. As AP notes, “For Almagro, the threat of military force is especially surprising given his condemnation of the region’s support for a U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 to remove a democratically-elected but pro-Cuban president.”

But while Trump’s (and Almagro’s) openness and ardency for overthrowing Venezuela’s government is new, the policy itself is not. Since at least 2001 various administrations have sought the same end — just a bit more quietly.

It should go without saying that the US should neither invade Venezuela nor support a military coup to oust its president. That it does not is a sad testament to the arrogance of US empire. But the fact that invading Venezuela is no longer a taboo subject also means it is more urgent than ever to spell out exactly why this is a repugnant and terrible idea.

There are three reasons why the US should keep its hands off Venezuela.

First, the US lacks any moral standing to tell or force other countries what to do. On what basis can a country that resembles an oligarchy more than a democracy (this according to top political scientists and former president Jimmy Carter) criticize other countries for flouting democratic norms? How can anyone believe that such concerns are the real reason for US actions in Venezuela when the US supports governments in countries like Saudi Arabia, Honduras, and Haiti that have atrocious records on electoral democracy and human rights? Is it possible for anyone to believe that the Trump administration truly cares about ordinary Venezuelans’ wellbeing given its profound disregard for the wellbeing of US citizens living in Puerto Rico, Detroit, and elsewhere?

Second, a US-backed coup in Venezuela would be illegal under international law, which prohibits any country from infringing upon another nation’s territorial sovereignty. Foreign interventions have been justified on the basis of “humanitarianism.” But the US cannot plausibly claim that it’s motivated by such concerns since US sanctions have worsened Venezuelans’ suffering — and in fact were designed to do so.

Third, the likelihood that a military coup would achieve the Trump administration’s purported goals of “restoring democracy” and “ending the humanitarian crisis” is vanishingly low. Two distinct outcomes are far more likely: one, the Maduro administration, and its more repressive and authoritarian tendencies, would be strengthened due to legitimate security concerns and the “rally round the flag” effect imperialist aggression often has; or two, a bloody civil war would erupt.

What Is to be Done?

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former top State Department official under George W. Bush, has asked, “If you don’t like the idea of the U.S. talking to the [Venezuelan] military, then what do you propose?” This is a legitimate question, even if Haass’s answer — forming a “coalition of the Latin American willing” to engage Venezuela in regional military action — is profoundly flawed.

One answer, found among a fraction of the US left, is to vigorously oppose US sanctions and offer unconditional support to the Maduro administration. The first part is a no-brainer. The US has no business meddling in Venezuela’s affairs, and sanctions profoundly harm the very people they are supposed to help.

But the second is highly questionable. There is little reason to support the Maduro administration given its central role in creating and exacerbating Venezuela’s profound and deepening crisis. Since 2013 Venezuela’s economy has shrunk by an astonishing 50 percent. Daily life is incredibly difficult due to hyperinflation and profound, chronic shortages of food, medicine, and basic goods. The crisis has caused millions of Venezuelans to flee the country in recent years. While US actions have exacerbated the country’s problems, Venezuelan government (in)action is the prime cause.

So if we should reject US-backed military action and sanctions — on moral, legal, and pragmatic grounds — what then should be done to ease Venezuelans’ suffering and move towards ending the crisis? The answer is that the Maduro administration needs to face the right type of pressure: popular protest from below.

This has already been happening. In December 2017 protests exploded in barrios in Caracas and other cities when the government failed to deliver on its promise to provide pernil (roasted pork leg) in time for Christmas. In June nurses throughout the country went on strike seeking a “dignified salary,” improved work conditions, and more medicine and supplies. The following month a nationwide electric workers’ strike erupted against low wages and deteriorating conditions, and peasants across Venezuela launched the “Admirable Campesino March” to push for land reform and protest the lack of accountability for the murder of hundreds of peasant leaders since 2001.

These protests led Maduro to initiate a series of much-needed reforms in August, including a massive currency devaluation and a major modification to fuel subsidies. Unfortunately, both reforms appear severely flawed and are unlikely to do much to ease Venezuela’s dire economic situation. Further popular protest, however, could push Maduro to introduce more sensible reforms, such as instituting a free float of the currency. The best hope for Venezuela’s future lies in escalating popular protest that pushes the Maduro administration to make more serious reforms, including in the direction of restoring and deepening democracy.

The popular sectors do have some leverage. If Maduro loses workers and the poor — and he already has to a significant extent — he loses his primary social base. But this leverage depends on a delicate balance: if Maduro appears to be the only person standing in the way of a US invasion, civil war, or a repressive and vindictive right-wing military regime, his popularity is likely to rebound, and the willingness to challenge him is likely to wane.

No one who cares about Venezuela should have any illusions about the bleak prospects facing the country. The status quo is horrendous and change is needed. Yet foreign intervention, whether in the form of a US- or regional-backed coup or economic sanctions, would do tremendous harm to the prospects for positive change in Venezuela. There are no magic bullets. The popular sectors have shown, however, that they are willing and able to pressure Maduro. They should be given the chance to do so.

Let Venezuelans resolve the crisis.