The crisis in Venezuela, where Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó have both laid claim to the presidency, has now drawn in international players. The United States, Europe and other nations have thrown their support behind Guaidó, the opposition leader, while Russia and its allies are backing Maduro’s regime. These dynamics make it almost impossible to resist making comparisons to the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union vied for the allegiance of South and Central American countries, propping up dictators, funding insurgencies and, at times, even precipitating coups.
Given all this, is it possible to look at current events in Venezuela in any way but through the lens of the Cold War? Yes. And doing so helps us to properly understand Venezuela’s own democratic traditions and aspirations.
To get the necessary historical distance from the Cold War, let’s consider an event that took place over 200 years ago. In 1791, the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, was at the center of imperial geopolitics after its slaves surprised the world by unleashing a massive rebellion against their masters. Taking advantage of the turmoil that the French Revolution had caused in the colony, Haitian slaves rose against the colony’s brutal slave-owner regime and jolted one of the world’s largest producers of sugar at a time when that commodity was one of the most profitable global exports. (Sugar was to the 18th century what oil is to the 21st.)
Because Haiti was France’s most profitable colony, imperial rivals of the nascent French Republic quickly became involved, seeking to exploit the situation to their advantage. Spain and England sent their armies to Haiti, even arming rebel slaves in the hope of damaging France, which tried to quell the rebellion while also fighting those rivals.
Grasping for any option that might lead to freedom, slaves joined either the Spanish, the French or the British armies. They did so not because they cared about the European imperial rivalries of the day. Rather, they rebelled in the hope of gaining their freedom and undermining slavery, an economic regime that all the European empires of the time supported. Indeed, it was not until France decreed the complete abolition of slavery that the majority of slaves joined the French Republic’s army, giving France the strength it needed to achieve victory in Haiti. This calculation worked. As part of the French Republic, Haiti became the first place in the Americas to abolish slavery.
Unfortunately, our ability to understand that 18th-century Haitian slaves were agents of their own history and not mere imperial pawns has not carried over to 20th- and 21st-century Latin America. In contemporary analysis of Latin America, the region’s own democratic traditions and needs have constantly been overshadowed by a focus on global geopolitics. For example, after World War II, Latin America witnessed a veritable “democratic spring” that sought to elevate the region to the social and economic standards of the western democracies of the time. Like their U.S. and European counterparts, Latin American reformers wanted to use the state to create stable and solid middle classes.
But their attempts at reform were constantly reframed in terms of Cold War geopolitics, leading ostensible champions of democracy in the West to crush the movements for democratic reforms across the region. In the name of fighting communism, reformist movements in Brazil, Chile and Guatemala were squashed by brutal dictatorships. On the other side, the left quickly dismissed anyone who criticized Cuba’s Castro regime as a puppet of U.S. imperialism.
The nuances of local democratic politics were overridden by the more potent Cold War geopolitics at play, with consequences that still affect contemporary Latin America and shape our perception of the current crisis in Venezuela. We seem incapable of understanding Venezuela on its own terms, as an internal struggle between Maduro and the opposition and not as a struggle between Maduro and the United States.
To understand Venezuelans on their own means remembering that their political views are framed by their own history of social and democratic reforms and their understanding of historical events that most recognize as crucial: the wars of independence of the early 19th century, the 1958 ouster of the Perez Jimenez dictatorship and the 1989 Caracas riots known as El Caracazo. To ask Venezuelans what they think about these events is as important for understanding the crisis today as any global political divisions. Indeed, Venezuela has lived through some serious disputes over how to evaluate the democratic governments that ruled from 1958 to 1999.
On the one hand, there are those who emphasize the freedom and economic prosperity that characterized Venezuela, at least until the 1980s. They remember a long democratic struggle that began in the independence period, but acquired its contemporary ideological and political form during the 1930s. They remember how, in 1948, the military overthrew Romulo Gallegos, the first Venezuelan president to be elected through universal and direct suffrage, and how this coup quashed their hopes for a democracy that combined social reforms with political freedom.
Because democratic values were already entrenched among a large section of Venezuela’s population, resistance against Marcos Perez Jimenez’s military regime remained alive during the 10 years of dictatorship. When in November 1957, Jimenez committed his second major electoral fraud, groups from all levels of society — from business and religious groups to unions and banned political parties — rebelled against him. The army later joined them, thus precipitating the dictator’s fall in January 1958.
Many of Maduro’s opponents today see themselves as the heirs of this democratic tradition and their struggle against the Maduro regime as similar to the struggle against Jimenez.
On the other hand, there are those who focus on the 1989 Caracas riots to highlight the economic inequalities that Venezuela’s oil-based economy and the great levels of political corruption that its political parties had reached by the 1980s. They see Hugo Chávez’s electoral victory in 1999 as the result of that crisis. For them, Chavez represented a new beginning for Venezuela’s republican tradition, one that would fulfill the aspirations of its founding father, Simon Bolivar.
As in Haiti 200 years ago, there are positions about the current crisis that are exclusively Venezuelan and cannot be interpreted as mere expressions of imperial interests. The sooner we try to understand the nature of Venezuela’s political history, instead of framing it within a Cold War narrative, the better the future of Venezuelan — and Latin America’s democracy — will be.