Trump Intervention in Venezuela’s Political Crisis Could Trigger Civil War

Interview with Miguel R. Tinker Salas, Leslie Farmer professor of Latin American Studies, History and Chicana/o Latina/o Studies at Pomona College

Venezuela, already gripped by a severe political and economic crisis, is now the focus of a concerted effort by the Trump administration to oust the South American nation’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro. Juan Guaidó opposition party president of the National Assembly declared himself interim president of the country during a massive anti-government protest on Jan. 23, not long after Maduro was sworn into office for a second term.
The Trump administration recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president, maintaining that the May 20 election won by Maduro lacked credibility. Canada, the European Union and other Latin American nations governed by conservatives followed the U.S. lead, insisting that Maduro step down and new elections be called.  However, in this escalating crisis, Maduro retains the support of Russia, China, Mexico, Bolivia, Uruguay, Cuba, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
On Jan. 28, President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton announced new additional sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, depriving Maduro’s government of $7 billion in assets, and $3 billion more by the end of the year. The imposition of new sanctions was preceded by the Trump appointment of Elliot Abrams as the administration’s new special envoy on the Venezuelan crisis, who is well known for his guilty plea of lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal and his association with Central American death squads during the U.S. “dirty wars” in the region. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Miguel R. Tinker Salas, professor of Latin American Studies and History at Pomona College, who assesses the current political and economic crisis in Venezuela and the risk of civil war resulting from U.S. intervention.

MIGUEL R. TINKER SALAS: I think that the overall crisis boils down to the fact that Guaidó, by declaring himself the interim president, he’s a non-elective figure. He was a relatively unknown figure in the National Assembly and immediately recognized by the Trump administration, the conservative governments of South America, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia – and then, within a matter of hours by the European Union, speak to a very much of an orchestrated effort here to unseat Maduro, which is relatively unprecedented in Latin America.

We’ve had other efforts, and constitutional coups, whether they be Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti or with Mr. Zelaya in Honduras or even with Chavez in 2002 when the U.S. and the Bush administration, backed a coup against a Chavez, arguing that he had resigned his post. So in one way, we see a coup. That doesn’t negate the fact that Venezuela is facing a severe economic crisis with shortages of food stuffs and medicine on a daily occurrence or 3 million people have left the country. Manuel Maduro has been proven in competent in running the economy. But if that’s the condition, the reality is that what is being attempted is an effort to unseat a president, claiming that he’s not legitimate, claiming because the opposition did not participate in the May 20th election that somehow he is no longer legitimate and that foreign powers can dictate who will be the president of Venezuela. And that’s a very, very problematic precedent for democracy in Latin America.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor Salas, what are the chances – as Nicolas Maduro – has called for a mediation by the United Nations and the Vatican to address this problem in a nonviolent way, in a manner that won’t create more upheaval for the people of Venezuela?

MIGUEL R. TINKER SALAS: I think right now, the odds are very, very little. The opposition has essentially opted for the policy of foreign powers in pressuring Maduro by not participating in the May 20th election. And by walking away from the negotiating table when Jose Luis [Rodriguez] Zapatero, the former Spanish prime minister, was negotiating with the opposition and the government rules of engagement and walking away from that. They essentially have clearly a marked the fact that they are not interested in negotiation. They seek the ouster. And the problem is that in seeking the ouster of a government, whether you like him or not, what you’re doing is creating conditions for instability because, what’s to say tomorrow, Maduro is ousted and now the Chavistas are the opposition and they do the same thing for those who have assumed power. My point being that there has to be a negotiated settlement, but that is the only possible solution. And by recognizing Guaido, by pushing for a break in the military, by putting the society with sanctions between a rock and a hard spot, they’ve essentially eliminated a negotiating option from the table. And it made Maduro’s departure the only issue subject of conversation,

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor Salas, what are the chances are that we could see armed conflict break out in Venezuela in a much more substantial way than the street violence we’ve seen in recent years? What about the United States intervention at this point? There’s even been talk from the Trump administration that they’re not taking the sending of U.S. troops to Venezuela off the table for possible future policies they may pursue. What are your concerns around U.S. intervention or with United States, backing a surrogate force taking up arms and fighting the Venezuelan military.

MIGUEL R. TINKER SALAS: That’s my greatest concern. Who can recall the Dominican Republic? Recognize that the Johnson administration, hid behind a phone call, multinational force that involved the Brazilians and others. (Brazil’s President Jaime) Bolsanaro has already spoken openly about wanting to oust Maduro. So has (president) Iván Duque (Márquez) in Columbia. So have other governments in Latin America. That’s why, again, I say they are not interested in democracy in Latin America.

They’re interested in regime change in Venezuela. Today, Bolton, after he spoke with (Treasury Secretary Steve) Mnuchin to announce new sanctions against Venezuela, and the yellow briefing paper that he had written 5,000 U.S. troops to Colombia. That could have been psychological ops or it could have been U.S. troops being sent to Colombia. And again, when you have something like that happening, the first thing one thinks about is some sort of incident, some border incident. Something happens, as we saw with the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam or as we saw in the case of so-called weapons of mass destruction. Any of those things can happen as a pretext or as a precursor to then be able to take part in an intervention. And that’s what worries me the most because that would be disastrous for Venezuela and it would be disastrous for Latin America.

And long term, these invasions have not gone good. If you’re in the U.S., you can always think of what’s happened in Libya in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Honduras, in Haiti, in El Salvador. The record is one of death and destruction.

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