On my way to Potosí, the Bolivian I was sitting next to on the bus pointed out to an old airstrip that had been constructed by USAID, “Underneath are atomic bombs left by the Americans.” Incredulously, I inquired as to the reason why the US government would leave valuable nuclear weapons in the middle of Bolivia. The man shrugged as if the reason was obvious, “To blow up our silver mines if we don’t do as they say.”
Having spent over a decade in Latin America, conspiracy theories involving the US and its Machiavellian plans to subjugate and conquer the region are nothing new to me. They are the outcrop of deeply ingrained cultural beliefs that are reinforced through education. From conservative rural peasants to progressive urban intellectuals, many Latin Americans, one way or another, have bought into the idea that wealth flows from underdeveloped countries on the “peripheral” to developed ones in the “center.” This view has come to be known as dependency theory, and it forms the basis for some of the more outlandish notions regarding US imperialism in the region.
Yet for some reason, policymakers in the US are either unaware of this sentiment or, even worse, have chosen to ignore it. Understanding the above paradigm is crucial for any government attempting to play a positive role in the region. Unfortunately, time after time, the US has chosen to disregard perception when it comes to its foreign policy.
Over the last few years, the US has ramped up its use of sanctions as a foreign policy tool in Latin America. This time, the target has been Venezuela, which is now led by Nicolás Maduro, the successor of the late socialist leader Hugo Chávez. In January, the Trump administration announced a fresh round of sanctions aimed at the country’s state oil company, PDVSA.
As I have previously noted, sanctions rarely work as intended. In the case of Venezuela, they have breathed a whisper of truth into Caracas’ claims that the country is currently the victim of an economic war (guerra económica) waged by Washington. Maduro has frequently pointed to US sanctions as evidence of a broad-based plan to destroy the Venezuelan economy even though until recently these sanctions were largely designed to target the upper echelons of the regime while minimizing the economic impact on the general public. Nevertheless, the blame for rampant inflation, food shortages, and declining productivity (all of which had become evident well before sanctions were imposed) can be credibly, if not factually, shifted from the Venezuelan government to Western imperialism.
While it may sound absurd that ordinary Venezuelans cannot differentiate between their own government’s policies and targeted regime sanctions, remember that Venezuela, like most of Latin America, has a long history of dependency theory indoctrination, indoctrination that was intensified during the last 20 years of the Chavista regime. In many cases, US sanctions simply confirm what many Venezuelans have assumed was true all their life: namely that the US is an imperial power bent on robbing the resources of Latin America to fuel its capitalist economy at home.
So far, sanctions have been a major propaganda victory for the Maduro regime, but now the US government is exacerbating the problem by supporting opposition leader and self-proclaimed President Juan Guaidó. I don’t challenge the claim that Guaidó is likely the highest genuinely elected authority in Venezuela at this point. However, overt US support for Guaidó undercuts his legitimacy. Already, media sympathetic to Maduro is talking of a slow US-backed coup, a claim that gains credence through the statements coming out of the White House.
The fundamental problem is that there is no upside to supporting Guaidó. His taking power is entirely dependent upon support from the Venezuelan military or massive coordinated popular protests. (The latter is less likely as Chavismo is still relatively popular even if its current embodiment, Maduro, is not.) Unless the US is ready to remove Maduro militarily and maintain Guaidó in power, there is little that it can do but sit on the sidelines and shout encouragement.
Conversely, if Guaidó does manage to take over, his reputation will have already been seriously tarnished by US support. Even among the growing number of people who have become disenchanted with Maduro (and to a lesser extent Chavismo) US involvement represents a redline, a clear threat to Venezuelan sovereignty, and a validation of dependency theory. Moreover, in the likely scenario that Guaidó fails in his bid for power, the US will have handed Maduro a significant propaganda victory that will allow him to curtail civil liberties even further.
This doesn’t mean that the US shouldn’t take any action at all. Providing humanitarian aid to Venezuelans fleeing violence and starvation is not only moral but is the kind of goodwill that increases our soft power. While most foreign aid is directed to long-term development, people are more appreciative of food in their bellies. Years after the 2004 tsunami, the US military is still respected in Indonesia for its effective distribution of water, food, and medical supplies. A similar effort along Venezuela’s border with Colombia would be well received among refugees and difficult for Chavistas to criticize.
Policy makers need to understand that in today’s world,
perception is far more important than any underlying motivation. Whether or not
US policy towards Venezuela is actually altruistic and sincerely concerned with
restoring democracy in the country, a core belief in dependency theory coupled
with decades of cynicism bolstered by less than admirable past US interventions
will leave most Venezuelans doubting America’s true intentions. Actions have
consequences, and in this case, the US is only undermining the very forces they
are attempting to strengthen.
Policy makers need to understand that in today’s world, perception is far more important than any underlying motivation. Whether or not US policy towards Venezuela is actually altruistic and sincerely concerned with restoring democracy in the country, a core belief in dependency theory coupled with decades of cynicism bolstered by less than admirable past US interventions will leave most Venezuelans doubting America’s true intentions. Actions have consequences, and in this case, the US is only undermining the very forces they are attempting to strengthen.
Update: The Wall Street Journal has claimed that sanctions targeting Venezuela’s oil exports are indeed working, with oil production in Venezuela falling by more than 10% since December. However, it’s hard to assess just how much of this drop is related to sanctions (big oil players like Chevron are mostly exempt, anyway) rather than a deepening of the political crisis in the country. To put this in perspective, in the last 18 months, oil production has dropped off by more than half, so obviously, this is a significant problem that predates the latest economic sanctions. The danger here is that the Maduro regime will be able to rally moderate Venezuelans by providing clear evidence of the US’ “economic war” despite the fact that most of the country’s oil production problems are self-inflicted. Instead of letting Chavismo discredit itself, we are providing cover for bad policymaking.