What are we to make of the deteriorating and regionally increasingly perilous situation in Venezuela? Residents of this oil-rich nation are starving, fearful of government retribution if they speak out in protest and, in desperation, millions are fleeing to neighbouring Colombia and elsewhere. The beleaguered regime of President Nicolas Maduro clings to power in the face of a self-proclaimed alternative government headed by Juan Guiado and recently recognised by the United States and other nations. In fact, American President Donald Trump and both of his Secretaries of State have been harshly critical of Maduro for the past 18 months.
The Americans have taken aggressive action to undermine Maduro, who as the allegedly populist chief of state and has overseen economic and social chaos in a nation that should, because of its oil riches, be a rampart of relative political stability in northeast South America. While much of the world is siding with the American position, including a strong majority in the Organization of American States, Maduro retains the support of Russia, China and Cuba.
Is this regional crisis likely to lead to regional or wider conflict? There have been rumours of 5.000 American troops being prepared for deployment to the Venezuelan border with Colombia. These apparently originated from marginal notes on US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s notepad that a reporter thinks he saw. Likely more significant is a comment made by the influential Bolton to another reporter’s question about why the US is rattling its sabre so vigorously with Venezuela while at the same time appearing to pull back from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Bolton’s reply was quick and to the point: “Because Venezuela is in the Western Hemisphere,” he said. In doing so, Bolton reminded us of one of the most durable tenets of American foreign policy for the past 200 years. That tenet is the Monroe Doctrine.
Enunciated by US President James Monroe in 1823 at a State of the Union address and at a time of widespread hemispheric resistance to the colonial yoke of Spain and Portugal especially, this policy decried attempts by non-hemispheric nations to impose control over parts of North, Central or South America. Such attempts, Monroe stated, would “be viewed as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”
During the centuries since that proclamation, both the British (for reasons of solidarity and expediency) and the Canadians (for reasons of pragmatic necessity) have probably been the most consistent outside supporters.
It is interesting and relevant that despite the tumult of early 19th century resistance to colonial powers Spain and Portugal, both the proximate cause of the original Monroe Doctrine and the greatest challenge to it arose from the same non-colonial power. That power is Russia.
Monroe was exercised in 1823 over a Russian declaration of territorial sovereignty over much of northwestern North America, attached to a warning excluding all non-Russian shipping or fishing vessels from the seas around the area. And in 1962, the world faced perhaps its most dire existential threat since Hitler’s Nazism from the potentially nuclear standoff between the United States and the then-Soviet Union over installation of Soviet offensive weapons systems in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
So maybe the more things change, the more they stay the same. Russia and Cuba have been central to the exercise of the Monroe Doctrine before, and here they are again. And they are joined by China, whose maritime behaviour in the South China Sea and elsewhere is reminiscent of the Russian declaration of territorial maritime sovereignty in 1821.
In ratcheting up the pressure on the Maduro regime, the Trump administration has imposed tighter sanctions, including freezing oil imports from Venezuela and moving against the state-run Citgo oil company. The OAS has for months condemned Maduro’s deplorable human rights record, disastrous stewardship of his nation’s economy and authoritarian attempts to crush dissent.
While military action against the Venezuelan government does not seem imminent, neither does a settlement. Russia and or China would be expected to veto strong UN Security Council actions against their client, and several analysts believe Maduro still commands the loyalty of sufficient elements of the Venezuelan military to hang on, at least for a while longer.
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan people will continue to suffer.