Oscar Gray argues that the US have a responsibility to intervene in Venezuela to ensure that Venezuelan citizens have the right to self-determination
In recent weeks, America and its allies have sought to drive a wedge between Maduro and his military, in the hopes that his authoritarian dictatorship will crumble. Depending on your view of intervention, this is either a grievous breach of a nation’s right to self-determination or a moral stand necessary to relieve Venezuelans of poor governance. On the ground, the situation is truly dire.
Hugo Chavez bequeathed his successor, Maduro, a country without a diversified economy, high corruption and rising inflation. Since 2013, Maduro seems to have ensured that this situation was transformed into a living hell for most Venezuelans, who on average have lost 11 kg in weight since 2017 due to famine induced malnourishment. Paramilitary biker gangs enforce Maduro’s rule in Caracas, a city with a reported murder rate of 120 per 100,000, compared to 1.2 per 100,000 in London in the same year. Caracas had more murders in 100,000 people than London did in its population of 8.6 million.
Venezuelans are escaping their country in the millions, with its neighbouring states taking in over 3 million refugees since the economic malaise began. The collapse of once most prosperous nation in South America has had ramifications that risk destabilising the America’s in much the same way the Syrian conflict has Europe and the Middle East. Venezuela is in dire straits.
It came as a surprise that President Donald Trump came out against an autocrat, something he has often been reluctant to do in the past. He has not been known to make moral stances, his foreign policy has been defined by a fluidity unseen in the conventional strategising of his predecessors.
There has been speculation, harking back to an image of Bush, Blair and the Iraq war, that America desires Venezuela’s oil. Such a view is misplaced. America has become a net exporter of energy since 2018, the fracking industry has become advanced enough to produce a surplus. Additionally, Venezuela does not hold the strategic, geopolitical importance of the Middle East, neither does it link to a broader strategy, as Iraq did in the ‘war on terror.’
Two possibilities may be motivating Trump’s stance on Venezuela. Firstly, he, or his advisers, have realised that Venezuela’s potential to destabilise the region, with migrants moving northwards to the United States. Considering Trump’s election victory coming down, essentially, to an anti-immigration policy stance, such an influx could be a significant blow to his legitimacy. Secondly, Ernest Hemmingway once said that war is a panacea for domestic issues and ‘the refuge of political and economic opportunists.’ Trump is under enormous pressure, and this week it was revealed that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is to be unveiled soon. Perhaps Trump is looking for his Iraq, a significant conflict that could shift focus away from his failing administration. If this is the case, the diplomatic pressure that we have seen in recent weeks, will likely be the beginning of an escalation, in which Trump’s personal rhetoric becomes more extreme, culminating in a haphazard execution of an ill-thought intervention. Hopefully, Washington will continue to handle the situation with a delicacy Trump is not known for.
There is an inherent difficulty in acting on Venezuela. Sovereignty has become the central tenet of modern international relations, something that Russia and China often stress hypocritically. The west has been, by far, the primary violators of this order, one that they helped construct after the second world war. America must be careful, it has become embroiled in countless foreign wars, and it could risk its declining diplomatic reputation with a direct intervention that outstays its welcome. Their track record has left the world tired and mistrustful of both their motives and means.
From Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya, America’s wars have been a frequent, unmitigated disaster, alienating would-be allies through misinformed and misapplied doctrine. I have never been someone who has supported America’s more aggressive foreign policy ventures, often moaning that they impose their philosophy on states that never desired democratic institutions. However, Maduro has created a humanitarian crisis that cannot be ignored, if ever there was a time for America to use its ability to act unilaterally to protect a civilian populace, one that has demonstrated a genuine willingness for democratic change, it is now.
Too often, Russia been able to criticise American action, using Washington’s unilateralism to their advantage in justifying future activities of their own. Russia is distorting norms and highlighting America’s own hypocrisies. At some point, America needs to react. Russia’s interest in Venezuela, primarily in the oil sector, serves to complicate the matter further. A non-ideological cold war seems to be emerging: Russia is attempting to rebalance systemic power, in Ukraine, Syria and now in Venezuela. America cannot afford to ignore such manoeuvres in South America.
This is not to say I advocate a second cold war. Rather, in a world where populism and absolutism are on the march once more, America should be providing the alternative, defined by freedom of speech and democratic choice. Washington must use its vast diplomatic and covert arsenal to ensure that the newly sworn-in opposition leader, Juan Guaido, receives as much protection and support as America can provide without ‘troops on the ground.’ If America still practices what it once preached, it has a responsibility to do what it can to ensure Maduro’s unchecked power does not triumph in this escapade.
The United Nations outlined a concept of sovereignty that is contradictory. Self-determination relates to the right of people to rule themselves. Venezuelans should be granted this opportunity, such a right cannot be inferred from Maduro’s authoritarianism, which violently suppresses and starves its hapless population.
Furthermore, this conception of sovereignty, an unquestioning commitment to the primacy of the state in the international system, ignores the ramifications of instability on the global community. If we are to assume sovereignty is requisite, it must depend on the correct governance of states. That is not to say democracy should be pre-conditional to statehood, but that gross misapplication of public funds and severe mistreatment of a state’s population requires external action, America is best placed to undertake this.