Trump’s new target

Print edition : September 15, 2017

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro during the closing campaign ceremony for Constituent Assembly elections in Caracas, on July 27. Photo: REUTERS/CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS

A session of the newly elected National Constituent Assembly in progress on August 8. Photo: REUTERS/CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS

U.S. President Donald Trump (right) with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a press conference where he made the threat of military intervention in Venezuela, in New Jersey on August 11. Photo: AFP/JIM WATSON

Supporters of opposition parties elect a barricade as clashes break out with the police in Caracas, on July 30. Photo: REUTERS/CHRISTIAN VERON

U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat of military intervention in Venezuela following the election of a new Constituent Assembly in that country elicits little support from the international community.

President Donald Trump has now turned his attention to Venezuela after threatening North Korea with “fire and fury”. Speaking to reporters in the second week of August, flanked by his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, Trump bombastically stated that a military option against Venezuela was very much open. “We are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering and dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary,” he announced. Even the right-wing governments in Latin America, which have close military and political links with the U.S., were shocked by the statement. The threat of war against Venezuela was made at a press conference that was supposed to be devoted to the more serious crisis in the Korean peninsula.

Foreign Ministers of 12 countries in the continent opposed to the Venezuelan government had just met in Lima, the capital of Peru, and had issued a statement condemning the newly elected Constituent Assembly, terming it a “rupture with democracy”. The meeting was orchestrated by the U.S. State Department to show the world that Venezuela was being increasingly isolated in the continent. But the U.S.-sponsored charade about democracy being trampled in Venezuela was duly exposed after Trump made his chilling statement.

Until the 1980s, the U.S., which considers Latin America its backyard, used to intervene blatantly in the internal affairs of its neighbours, fomenting coups and changing regimes at will. The last full-fledged U.S. military invasion in the region was in Panama in 1989 when George H.W. Bush was President. Manuel Noriega, Panama’s President at the time, was arrested and spent the rest of his life in jail. He died earlier this year. Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, sent troops to the tiny Caribbean island republic of Grenada with a population of over 90,000 to effect regime change after a left-wing government assumed office there in 1983. The U.S. played an important role in organising the failed coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002. It was the Venezuelan people, taking to the streets, who foiled that attempt.

‘Act of madness’

The Venezuelan government was quick to denounce Trump’s statement as “an act of madness”. Trump’s belligerent response came immediately after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro expressed a desire for a “personal conversation” with Trump to explain to him the nuances of the complex political situation in Venezuela. “Mr President, I offer you my hand,” Maduro said in his diplomatic overture to Trump made during the opening of the newly elected Constituent Assembly. Maduro made the gesture despite the Trump administration characterising him as a “dictator” and imposing sanctions on the top leadership of Venezuela, including Maduro and his Vice President, Tareck El Aissami. The Trump administration went to the extent of describing the Vice President as a “drug lord”.

The Barack Obama administration played a part in hastening the deterioration of relations between the two countries. His administration had stated that Venezuela posed “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. interests, and sanctions were imposed on some individuals. The Trump administration has, of course, taken matters to another level altogether by specifically targeting Venezuela’s top leadership and its economic interests. The other heads of state on whom the U.S. has imposed sanctions are Bashar al-Assad (Syria) and Kim Jong-un (North Korea). Two other leaders the U.S. had imposed sanctions on—Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi—were executed after it carried out regime change in Iraq and Libya.

Trump’s latest threat came in the wake of the successful election of a new Constituent Assembly in Venezuela on July 30. Many governments in the region and the international community expressed the hope that the new Assembly would end the political impasse in the country. More than a hundred people have been killed in violence engineered by right-wing opposition parties this year.

The U.S. and its allies in the region had called the vote for a new Constituent Assembly illegal and had promised more punitive actions against the country if it went ahead with the vote. The right to call a National Constituent Assembly is supported by several articles in the Venezuelan Constitution. According to Venezuela’s election commission, more than eight million citizens (41 per cent of the electorate) cast their votes to elect 541 members of the Assembly, despite the best efforts of the opposition to disrupt the elections. The newly elected body is tasked with rewriting the Constitution of the country within two years. The violence had escalated in the run-up to the Constituent Assembly elections, with the opposition resorting to methods that could be described as “terrorist” in nature. The opposition had specifically targeted members of the security forces, and many of those killed in the last four months were security personnel. A candidate for the Constituent Assembly election was killed by members of the armed opposition. More than 10 people were killed as the country went to the polls on July 30. Supporters of the opposition have also died in the violence that engulfed the country. The Constituent Assembly has established a “Truth Commission” to bring those responsible for the violence to justice.

Coup attempt

A few rogue elements who once served in the Venezuelan armed forces tried to storm a strategically located military base in central Venezuela after the elections were held. It is no secret that U.S. intelligence agencies have been working overtime to infiltrate the Venezuelan armed forces in order to precipitate a military coup. The leader of the coup attempt was a captain of the Venezuelan National Guard who was cashiered on disciplinary grounds in 2014. Cuban President Raul Castro, in a message to the Venezuelan government, said the elections demonstrated the “popular support” in a “clear and emphatic” way for the legacy of the Latin American liberator, Simon Bolivar, and for the architect of the Bolivarian revolution, Hugo Chavez. He, however, asked Maduro to be prepared for “a strong struggle” against “international harassment and blockades”. Raul Castro assured Maduro that the Cuban people would be “in the front row of militant solidarity” with the Venezuelan people in their struggle.

The topmost priority of the new Assembly is to restore political calm and end the disruption and chaos precipitated by the opposition-controlled parliament. From day one, the opposition was only interested in toppling the democratically elected President. Leaders of the 11 Latin American countries that make up the Bolivarian Alliance, which met in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, described the creation of the Constituent Assembly as a “sovereign act” aimed at helping the nation overcome its political problems and divisions. The U.S. and its allies in the region do not recognise the Constituent Assembly and maintain that Venezuela is under a “dictatorship”. This view is not shared by many countries, including the majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries. Russia and China have recognised the legality of the Assembly and the credibility of the recently held elections. Both countries have criticised the U.S.’ escalation of pressure on Venezuela. The Non-Aligned Movement, currently chaired by Venezuela, supports the government.

After the election of the Constituent Assembly, there are signs that the violence that erupted more than four months ago has started ebbing. The opposition could not muster too many people to protest against the opening of the Constituent Assembly. Only a few hundred people joined the protests. There are signs that the unity of the opposition parties is fraying. The right-wing parties that are closely tied to the U.S. have condemned the decision of the other opposition parties to participate in the provincial elections scheduled to be held in October. They have called for a total boycott of the elections.

According to many observers of the region, Trump’s talk of military intervention was made to bolster the sagging morale of the die-hard sections of the opposition, which have refused to sit down for a dialogue with the government to end the political crisis. A survey by a reputed polling firm in Venezuela showed that less than 10 per cent of the populace support foreign military intervention in their country. Mike Pompeo, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), said in a television interview that Venezuela posed a threat to the national security of the U.S. “The Cubans are there, the Russians are there, the Iranians, Hizbollah is there,” Pompeo said. Venezuela has good relations with the three countries the CIA Director mentioned. It is not known why he added Hizbollah, the Lebanese political party, to the mix. Pompeo said that Trump’s remarks on Venezuela were meant to give the people there “hope and opportunity to create a situation in which democracy can be restored”.

Venezuelan Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez described Trump’s threats “as an act of craziness and of supreme extremism”. He said there was “an extremist elite governing the United States”. The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, said the world now knew “that those who were against Maduro were only looking for a military intervention from the empire”. Vincente Fox, the former right-wing President of Mexico and no friend of Maduro, said that Trump’s “mouth is quicker that his mind”. He warned Trump not to wreck the world the way “you’re wrecking the U.S.”.

The South American trade grouping Mercosur, which comprises Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, criticised the American threat to militarily intervene in the internal affairs of another Latin American country. Venezuela remains temporarily suspended from the organisation because of an alleged failure to uphold democratic norms. All the Mercosur states, barring Uruguay, are under right-wing governments. Despite this, Mercosur said the “only acceptable means of promoting democracy are dialogue and diplomacy”.

Colombia, the U.S.’ staunchest ally in Latin America and which shares a long land border with Venezuela, also criticised Trump’s statement. The country’s Foreign Ministry said it condemned “military measures and the use of force” and that all efforts to resolve the political problems in Venezuela should be peaceful and respectful of its sovereignty. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who was hosting visiting U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in the third week of August, was even more forthright. “The possibility of military intervention should not even be considered,” he said. “America is a continent of peace.” Pence assured Santos that the U.S. was looking for a “peaceable” solution to the crisis in Venezuela, only to backtrack later while addressing anti-government Venezuelans in Colombia. He told them that the U.S. would not stand aside and watch Venezuela “collapse into a dictatorship”.

The alt-right ideologue Steve Bannon, who recently quit as Trump’s Chief Strategist, said in an interview that the military hawks in Washington were trying to influence Trump to opt for a military intervention in Venezuela. Bannon said the U.S. military was aware that it could not go to war against North Korea. They think Venezuela would be a soft target. The U.S. has for long coveted Venezuela’s vast hydrocarbon and mineral resources. After the threat by Trump, Maduro called for military exercises in the last week of August. He said millions of civilians would also participate along side the military.