By Ryan McMaken*
The United States has a long, violent history of intervention in Latin America, although few Americans know about it. Were one to ask the average American, for example, about the US occupation of the Dominican Republic — which lasted for eight years from 1916 to 1924 — one is likely to only receive a blank stare in return.
Even in the cases of those interventions which are more famous — such as the Spanish-American War or the Panama invasion of 1989 — details remains virtually unknown among much of the general public.
Perhaps this willful ignorance results partly from the fact the overall legacy of US robust record of repeated interventions in Latin America is not a good one.
Whether we’re talking about the 1954 US-backed Guatemalan coup, the US support of Batista in Cuba, multiple occupations and interventions in Haiti, or the second invasion of the Dominican Republic, it cannot be said that interventionist US policy in the region has a record of producing political stability and economic success.
The Dark Side of “Humanitarianism”
This doesn’t prevent some American interventionists from trying. In recent months, US foreign policy-interventionists like John Bolton have relentlessly called for more US-sponsored regime change — this time in Venezuela —and have turned Venezuela into the latest proxy-battlefield between the US and nuclear-armed Russia.
The rhetoric around this latest regime change follows essentially the same playbook of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria. In none of these cases were US policy goals achieved, although in all cases, the US did manage to destroy local infrastructure and human lives to an impressive extent.
Interventionists, however, are counting on the short memories of American voters who may have already forgotten that the “humanitarian” interventions in Iraq and Libya did little more than create a power vacuum filled by Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Certainly, neither “peace” nor “prosperity” are terms that could describe any country recently targeted for humanitarian wars.
Bolton and friends are also counting on the idea that Americans will continue to embrace the idea that doing “something” is better than doting nothing, even though “something” has been repeatedly shown to be, by far, the most destructive option.
As historian David Kennedy noted in his book The Dark Sides of Virtue:
[I]t is easy to overstate the humanist potential of international policy making. Many of the difficulties encountered with human rights activism arise equally in humanitarian policy-making campaigns. Policymakers can also overlook the dark sides of their work and treat initiatives which take a familiar humanitarian form as likely to have a humanitarian effect. It is always tempting to think some global humanitarian effort has got to be better than none. Like activists, policymakers can mistake their good intentions for humanitarian results or enchant their tools — using a humanitarian vocabulary can itself seem like a humanitarian strategy. … It is all too easy to forget that saying “I’m from the United Nations and I’ve come to help you,” may not sound promising at all.
Indeed, humanitarian interventions have hardly been slam dunks even in cases like the Rwandan Genocide, as Stephen Wertheim noted:
[H]umanitarian interventionists often assumed military challenges away, failing to think concretely how intervention might unfold…[But] a war to stop the Rwandan genocide would have been nothing like as simple as interventionists later claimed…Interventionists truly committed to achieving humanitarian results must appreciate the difficulties of forging peace after war — and register the potential harms of postconflict occupation in the calculus of whether to intervene in the first place … On the whole, humanitarian interventionists tended to understate difficulties of halting ethnic conflict, ignore challenges of postconflict reconstruction, discount constraints imposed by public opinion, and override multilateral procedures.1
Given that the current socialism-induced disaster in Venezuela hardly rises to a level even approaching the Rwandan Genocide, it’s hard to see how US’s record on foreign interventions in recent decades could possibly be overlooked in favor or yet another invasion.
Of course, opposing US bombing of Venezuelans — which is what “humanitarian intervention” likely means — is not the same thing as supporting the Maduro regime itself. Nor is the fact that immoral opportunists like John Bolton and Michael Pompeo hate the Maduro regime reason enough to like it. The problem with Pomeo and Friends isn’t that they badmouth kleptocrat politicians like Maduro. The problem is US Bolton, et al incessantly push the line that is is either moral or effective to launch yet another “humanitarian” war.
Nor do these interventionists even offer a critique that is either unique or insightful. Nearly anyone who isn’t a true sympathizer with socialist regimes — i.e., Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn — can see the transformation of the Venezuelan economy from a mixed economy to a largely socialist one — known as Chavismo — has been predictably terrible for the Venezuelan standard of living.
By most accounts, shortages are rampant, blackouts are frequent, the entrepreneurial economy has been decimated, and homicide rates are way up.
Proving the Chavistas Right
And this is why its so unfortunate the US administration has essentially declared war on the current regime. By declaring war on Maduro, the US administration only helps the regime shore up its base, play the victim, and draw on nationalist tendencies to secure its position. Cuba, of course, offers an instructive precedent in this regard.
For example, supporters of Maduro — and his predecessor Hugo Chavez — always drew a sizable amount of support from Venezuelan nationalists who opposed any US meddling in domestic affairs, and who suspected the US was seeking constantly to essentially turn Venezuela into a puppet regime.
Chavez bragged repeatedly about his ability to withstand us efforts at replacing him through various CIA machinations and coup attempts. Whether these were real or imagined, both Chavez and Maduro were able to solidify their base through fears of US meddling.
Now, by explicitly declaring war on the Venezuelan regime, the US regime has only confirmed what Chavez and Maduro have claimed all along. The Administration has, in a sense, legitimized Chavismo foreign policy.
Moreover, the US declaration of War against the regime has served to make it easier to accuse all opponents of the regime as US stooges.
It’s easy to see how this works just by observing American politics.
In the United States nowadays, it’s quite easy to be accused of being in service to the Kremlin — as John McCain said of Rand Paul — by taking certain political positions. Specifically, anyone who supports the Trump Administration — which is said to be in the thrall of Vladimir Putin — or who pushes a relatively restrained foreign policy, opens himself to labels such as “foreign agent” or “traitor.” These terms are thrown around casually as if it’s simply self-evident that anyone who opposes the CIA’s latest scheme, or who points out James Comey’s obvious bias and incompetence, must be doing Moscow’s bidding.
Now, imagine if the Russian state had come out in 2016 and said it openly supported the Trump candidacy and planned to invade the United States if Trump were not elected.
Clearly, this would inflame sentiments of nationalism and whip up support for those who were seen as enemies of the Kremlin. It would become easy to accuse anyone who supported “Russia’s man Trump” as a traitor. Being “pro-American” might become synonymous with opposing Donald Trump.
The analogy fails in some respects, of course, because no well-informed person thinks Russia can actually invade North America.
In Venezuela, on the other hand, the threat of invasion by the US is very plausible and real. Thus, the stakes in real life in Venezuela are far higher than in our imagined US scenario. Faced with a very possible invasion — and aware of the US’s abysmal record on spreading “freedom” in Latin America — many Venezuelans may be even more inclined to support a regime they don’t like if it’s perceived as a bulwark against becoming a puppet state of the United States.
Moreover, US sanctions against Venezuela provide a scapegoat for the regime’s failed economic policies. As the Venezuelan economy continues to stagnate, the regime can simple say “we’d be doing much better if we didn’t have these US sanctions to contend with.”
The same phenomenon has been observed in Iran for decades. Various US administration repeatedly threaten Iran with invasion, sanctions, and destruction, yet the residents there don’t rise up to welcome their new American overlords. Indeed, the constant war of words only gives the Iranian regime a convenient scapegoat.
Americans are no different.
Thus, by choosing sides in the Venezuelan conflict, the US has likely made the replacement of Maduro even less likely. The internal conflict has been transformed from a fight over which factions shall control the central government, and turned into a referendum on preventing US control of Venezuela.
The thought of US control, of course, isn’t opposed by everyone. But given the long history of Latin American nationalism — which is often reminiscent of US nationalism — it’s not hard to see why many Venezuelans have failed to take the streets to demand the current regime be replaced by the CIA’s preferred candidate.
*About the author: Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
Source: This article was published by the MISES Institute
- 1. Stephen Wertheim, “A solution from hell: the United States and the rise of humanitarian interventionism, 1991–2003” in the Journal of Genocide Research (2010), 12(3–4), September–December 2010, 149–172.