In the Western Hemisphere, it’s Venezuela versus just about everybody. The fallout from the country’s crisis has evolved beyond a confrontation with the United States over sanctions to a hemispheric – even global – melee. The most notable result has been the emerging political and diplomatic alignment against Caracas among states throughout the Americas, including the U.S. Washington has historically strong-armed its policies into practice across the region, fostering resentment toward the U.S. throughout Latin America. But in Venezuela’s demise, the U.S. and other American countries have found common ground, and it has resulted in a remarkable shift in how the U.S. relates to Latin America, at least for the time being. Alignment on Venezuela may open the door for further U.S. alignment with the region – as long as Washington can avoid alienating itself once again.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s acting president within hours of Guaido’s announcement that he had assumed the role. On this front, the U.S. is in lockstep with much of the region. Within the Lima Group, a coalition of states in the Western Hemisphere, there’s been overwhelming support for democratic political transition in Venezuela. Like the U.S., the majority of members recognize Guaido. Beyond the Lima Group, the list of countries recognizing Guaido has grown by the day and now includes former backers of President Nicolas Maduro such as Ecuador. Others, like Uruguay and Mexico, have taken a more neutral stance, favoring dialogue over new elections and choosing not to recognize Guaido. Maduro still has some allies, of course, including Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua.
Two factors have shaped the convergence of regional interests over Venezuela. First, the decline of the “pink tide” – a wave of populist governments elected in several Latin American countries – brought to power governments that were ideologically opposed to the Maduro regime’s socialist policies. While the U.S. has been a longtime critic of the governments of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, it was not until populist governments throughout the region started losing at the ballot box that the U.S. found allies in this fight. Second, the spillover from the Venezuelan crisis – particularly the immigration issue – thrust a sizable financial and social burden on its neighbors, which were ill-equipped to handle the fallout. Venezuela’s quick stabilization and immediate access to aid are the keys to stemming the migration. The U.S., too, needs a stable Venezuela – both for regional security and to satisfy business interests in the oil sector. This consensus may seem perfectly sensible. But to fully appreciate just how remarkable the alignment of the U.S. and over a dozen regional states truly is, it’s important to understand the history of the United States’ relations with Latin America.
An Interventionist History
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. interventionism largely defined Washington’s relationship with the rest of the Western Hemisphere. In fact, from 1898 to 1994, the U.S. government was behind 41 changes of government in the region. From the onset of the Spanish-American War to the start of World War I, in particular, the U.S. intervened to forcibly install and control friendly governments in the region. U.S. forces occupied independent Cuba, its Marines held the Port of Veracruz in Mexico, and U.S. troops were on the ground to help Panama gain independence from Colombia.
World Wars I and II provided a reprieve. The U.S. was focused on the Northern Hemisphere’s conflicts, and the Southern Hemisphere took a back seat. But with the onset of the Cold War, its interventionism came back with a vengeance, propelled by the United States’ imperative to keep Soviet influence out of the Western Hemisphere. The strategy, known as “hemispheric defense,” was focused on preventing Soviet-aligned states from encircling the U.S.; Washington needed to avoid a situation where it would have to make good on its threats to launch a nuclear response. So, the United States launched massive covert campaigns to overthrow governments seen as too friendly toward Moscow, eradicate Soviet sympathizers and bolster dissident militants. The notorious Operation Condor in the Southern Cone epitomized these efforts, but they played out across the region.
With this track record, it’s unsurprising that the U.S. has had a strained relationship with its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. Many of the anti-communist regimes that the U.S. helped install and prop up brutally repressed their constituents, and Washington’s economic development plans for the region in the 1980s and 1990s fell flat. Many blamed the U.S. – not mistakenly – for the political violence and economic hardships that plagued the region. This resentment laid the foundation for the rise of leaders like Chavez, who garnered public support by vilifying the United States and promising to chart a course free from U.S. “tyranny and imperialism.”
The United States managed to maintain relatively good ties, built on economic and security cooperation, with countries like Peru and Colombia through the 1990s and into the 21st century. But even in these friendlier countries, the governments had to recognize domestic concerns over capitulating to and aligning too closely with the U.S. But as the Soviet threat receded, the United States’ need to employ force in the region decreased. As its use of force waned, so too did populist, anti-imperialist sentiment. Populist regimes faded away with the emergence of a struggling global economy, and ties between the U.S. and the rest of the hemisphere became less antagonistic.
Playing a New Role
Washington now finds itself in a novel situation – aligned with governments and popular opinion across the Americas – and it must tread carefully if it hopes to maintain these newfound ties. The Lima Group has come out against military intervention in Venezuela, so any use of force there would be damaging to relations across the region. If it reverts to its old tactics, the U.S. will be perceived as blatantly disregarding other countries’ positions on regional affairs, and it will lose the credibility it has gained through its handling of the situation in Venezuela thus far. This could cause Latin American countries to turn toward other potential partners like China or Russia – players the U.S. is actively trying to keep out of its neighborhood.
To navigate this veritable minefield, the U.S. devised a twofold approach. First, it took steps behind the scenes to bolster political opposition and encourage a political transition. Then, it rolled out an international campaign to garner support for regime change and reform. It’s necessary to show the world that the international community – and not just the United States – is driving this effort. This strategy also gives regional actors like Colombia and Brazil an opportunity to shape the process and emphasizes that Venezuelans themselves are pushing for change, which helps legitimize any future government. Conveniently, this all helps keep the U.S. in good standing in the region while laying the groundwork for a pro-U.S. leader to take over in Venezuela and accept U.S. investment in reconstruction efforts.
This two-pronged approach has played out through soft power maneuvers designed to cripple the regime and build an anti-Maduro coalition within the international community. The U.S. government has placed sanctions and visa restrictions on Venezuelan officials; U.S. companies have reinforced official policies (Bank of America, for example, blocked Venezuelans’ use of credit and debit cards); and the U.S. has given Guaido and his interim government access to U.S.-based Venezuelan government bank accounts. The U.S. strategy was also crafted to put Maduro in impossible situations. When the U.S. sent aid to Venezuela, Maduro had to decide whether or not to accept it; taking aid from an adversary would undermine his regime but rejecting it would deny food and medicine to hungry, sick Venezuelans. (Notably, the U.S. delivered this aid to neighboring Colombia to avoid trespassing on Venezuelan territory.) One of the most controversial U.S. moves was reaching out to members of the Venezuelan military. It’s not clear exactly which groups the U.S. is engaging with, but this outreach complements the opposition’s courtship of junior and enlisted military members. Only the military has the firepower and capacity to oust Maduro – something the U.S. doesn’t want to do itself.
The United States is in uncharted territory. Its interests are suddenly in sync with those of many Latin American states. If the U.S. is able to capitalize on this moment and work with its regional partners to help Venezuela through a political transition, it could usher in a new era in American relations. Whether this alignment extends to only a single issue or represents a more permanent shift is yet to be seen.