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Battle lines

President Trump’s decision to lead the charge against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has stirred understandable wariness among his opponents. Critics have long decried the impulsive and ideological nature of White House policy; many are also mindful of Washington’s long and checkered history of meddling in Latin American affairs. When national security adviser John Bolton appeared to signal a U.S. military incursion on Monday, it only deepened their apprehensions.

When the Trump administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s president, some American politicians were reluctant to take his side. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) issued tweets decrying Maduro’s actions, including his violent repression of dissent. But Sanders also warned that “we must learn the lessons of the past and not be in the business of regime change or supporting coups — as we have in Chile, Guatemala, Brazil & the DR.”

Others have pointed to the gulf between Trump’s supposed moral clarity on Venezuela and his sustained support for problematic monarchies in the Middle East.

Another set of those on the left, including prominent figures in the inner circle of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, see the events in Venezuela through the prism of Cold War ideology. It’s a worldview that celebrates the Maduro regime as an “anti-imperialist” resister of U.S. hegemony — no matter its record of gross corruption and abuse.

“If imperialism is the ‘highest stage of capitalism,’ as Vladimir Lenin once observed, then the perversion of anti-imperialism bandied about by the contemporary Western left is the most sordid incarnation of contemporary socialism,” wrote journalist James Bloodworth in Foreign Policy. “Activists, protesters, and opposition politicians in countries such as Venezuela and Syria are treated by the followers of this crude doctrine as if they possessed no agency at all and are merely the pawns of American capital.”

There are similar ideological blinkers on the right, where figures ranging from Brazil’s president to a conservative columnist for the New York Times have tried to frame the crisis in Venezuela as the natural outcome of policies advocated by their leftist rivals at home. Raising taxes on mega-rich Americans or protecting LGBT Brazilians, they suggest, will somehow inevitably lead to the scenes of chaos and deprivation in Venezuela.

That conveniently ignores the extent to which Venezuela’s disaster is a product of avarice and thuggishness, not socialist doctrine.

“Venezuela has not just suffered from ideology, it also has suffered from false ideology, from a ‘socialism’ that gave up on health care and education, from a ‘populism’ that put drug dealers in power, and from ordinary greed,” wrote Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum. “The Venezuelan tragedy is the end game of a certain form of politics, the place where so many of today’s ‘illiberal democrats’ may also eventually end up.”

Indeed, illiberal governments are conspicuously among the few nations still in Maduro’s camp. “Just look at who’s supporting Maduro: China, Russia, Turkey, Cuba, Syria, Nicaragua — a rogue’s gallery of dictators and autocrats across the ideological spectrum,” noted Frida Ghitis for Politico. “They don’t want to see democratic uprisings succeed, and in the case of China and Russia, they don’t want to lose the billions Venezuela owes them.”

At the same time, the relatively diverse mix of governments that joined Trump’s recognition of Guaidó tells another story. From the right-wing president of Colombia to the center-left government in Canada, many feel that Maduro’s exit will start the long process of dragging Venezuela out of the abyss. Maduro has presided over a grim economic collapse and an unprecedented hemispheric refugee crisis.

The way forward remains perilous, as historians Federico Finchelstein and Pablo Piccato lay out in a piece for The Post. Maduro could try to brutally clamp down on the opposition, perhaps precipitating more direct U.S. intervention. Or the military could step in to remove Maduro from power but preserve its privileges and powers — not unlike the transition seen in Zimbabwe. Or, animated by American threats and buoyed by Russian mercenaries and Chinese loans, Maduro clings grimly to power and consolidates control.

Infinitely preferable, they say, would be a negotiated solution. “Although several Latin American and European countries have withdrawn their recognition of Maduro’s government, Mexico and Uruguay have not,” noted Finchelstein and Piccato. “As such, they could establish a public negotiation with the different parties, preventing both a civil war and foreign intervention.”


Vice President Pence shakes hands with Carlos Alfredo Vecchio, the charge d’affaires appointed by Venezuela's self-declared president, Juan Guaidó, at the White House on Jan. 29. (Jim Young/Reuters)

For Venezuelans themselves, change can’t come sooner — but few want to see it delivered by U.S. force. “I want a change — but not through a coup or an intervention,” Naikary Agresot, a 17-year-old student in a working-class and heavily pro-regime community in western Caracas, said to the Guardian. “I wish Maduro could understand that things have gotten out of control and make room for someone who truly can change the country.”

Guaidó himself has said that he does not support a military intervention, an option the White House has refused to take off the table. But the fault lines are deepening. My colleagues reported that at least 35 people have been killed and more than 800 detained during protests in the past week. U.S. sanctions are biting into an enfeebled economy, raising the prospect of even worse food shortages.

In response, Maduro’s government has now blocked Guaidó from leaving the country and frozen his assets, moves approved by the country’s Supreme Court on Tuesday evening. It has also vowed vague retaliatory measures against the United States.

“The world is clear on what’s happening in Venezuela,” Guaidó said on Tuesday, shrugging off the regime’s moves against him. “Let’s not desist because of threats and persecution. We will continue to advance in our fight.”

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