Aidan Turek ’20
In 1935 a crochety old man gave a speech entitled “War is a Racket” as part of a national speaking campaign in Depression-era America. It was a grand indictment of American warmongering that claimed all American wars were declared in the interest of the few, the wealthy, coldly sacrificing lives in the protection of dollars. The man’s message would have sounded hollow were it not for the fact that he was a retired Marine Corps Major General, Smedley Butler, who had seen service in the Philippines, Cuba, China, and in the ‘Banana Wars,’ a term that describes three decades of American involvement in Latin America.
The Banana Wars saw military actions in nearly every Latin American country as the Monroe Doctrine was actualized. The Banana Wars were also fought on behalf of powerful American corporations—Standard Fruit, now Dole, and the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita. American foreign policy in the southern direction exists within the confines of our past, between Smedley Butler’s impassioned denunciations and the lofty missions of anti-imperialism and the defense of democracy.
American policy towards Venezuela perfectly captures the complexities and ambiguities of American diplomacy. In mid-2017, Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro, successor to Hugo Chávez, declared his parliament illegal on the grounds of falsified elections, after which point he formed another parliament heavily representing Maduro’s own party and announcing a 2019 election, which saw him reelected by an astonishing margin. Juan Guaidó, President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, declared himself President owing to the illegality of Maduro’s reelection in January 2019. The Trump administration has recognized Guaidó, while the President has himself warned that if Maduro does not step down, “you will find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out. You will lose everything.”
International humanitarian aid to Venezuela, a nation which has seen severe goods shortages, is seen by Maduro as a ‘trojan horse’ for an American invasion, and has been stopped at the border. China, who has lent over fifty billion to the Maduro government (repaid by practical Chinese ownership of a third of Venezuelan oil), has backed the government and criticized an American invasion, though Secretary of State Pompeo and the President have both expressed openness to the possibility. A blackout plagued Caracas this weekend which President Maduro blamed on an American “electricity war,” while Guaidó stumped the capital denouncing the administration, emphasizing the increasing tensions that beset the nation.
The support of China and Russia is just as strong as American rhetoric, making any foreign intervention highly unlikely. Internal forces will be decisive and may well come down to one factor—the Venezuelan military. Maduro’s popularity, bolstered by limitations on oppositions and free speech, as well as Maduro’s own propaganda, have maintained a strong level of support in country. Military forces tend towards stability to preserve their corporate continuity—generals don’t revolt if they aren’t certain of victory—and the Maduro regime is seen by some as the more stable option, especially in China’s case when substantial financial investments are present.
Hugo Chavez significantly purged much of the armed forces, while many leading military figures, most significantly Diosdado Cabello, President of Maduro’s illegal parliament, were brought into the state and given demesne over such lucrative institutions as Venezuela’s state-run oil industry. This being said, the armed forces serve only to lose by backing Maduro if he is popularly overthrown. In February, Venezuelan Air Force General Francisco Esteban Yanez Rodriguez announced via YouTube that he had “disavowed” the Maduro government, claiming that “90% of the armed forces of Venezuela are not with the dictator.” While this figure is unsubstantiated, given that regular soldiers are paid little more than minimum wage, it is possible that a military group centered around lower-ranking officers could follow Yanez’ lead and fatefully undermine Maduro’s crumbling authority. In the author’s opinion, the proverbial waters are already muddied. Maduro tweeted on Saturday “¡Yankee Go Home! ¡Somos Antiimperialistas!”
American action will be condemned regardless of our actions, called imperialists by opponents, domestic and foreign, with their own alternative agendas. Given an American tradition of high ideals and cynically selfish intervention in the Americas, it is very much our obligation to do right by our neighbors. Immediate action must be taken to ensure humanitarian aid reaches the beleaguered Venezuelan populace. Positively expressing American intentions will demonstrate to the wavering Venezuelan military that supporting Maduro is a political dead end. Apparent populace dissatisfaction can be channeled by Guaidó to end the hollow self-interested dictatorship of Nicholas Maduro and reestablish democracy to our troubled neighbor. Moreover, by humane and guided actions such as this, Trump’s incoherent foreign policy can be set on the right direction, allowing us to finally shed ourselves of Smedley Butler’s bitter legacy.