Late philosopher and novelist George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In recent weeks, this sentiment has showed itself to be true in regards to the ever-escalating governmental crisis in Venezuela. As he is prone to do, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to extend the tentacles of his foreign policy into places it doesn’t belong. This time he has chosen South America, and has acted by providing military aid to the embattled president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro, under immense protest and pressure from the Venezuelan people to abdicate his premiership after potentially fraudulent elections last May, has sought to remain in power at all costs. One particularly extreme measure to preserve his power was his blocking of international humanitarian aid to relieve people who have been crushed by a crumbling economy, viewing such aid as an imperialistic American Trojan horse. In the fight to decide Venezuela’s future, the United States and most Latin American and European Union countries have decided to support Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, as interim head of state. If he becomes the provisional president of Venezuela, Guaidó says he will call for new elections to determine democratically who will rule his country, after leading the charge against Maduro and his corrupt election last year.
Along with their packages of material aid, the U.S. and its allies in the Venezuela crisis have tried to bring international legitimacy to Guaidó’s efforts to restore democracy. Their biggest challenge in doing so, however, has been gaining the support of the Venezuelan military. In an interview published in The Washington Post on Feb. 7, Antonio Rivero, a former Venezuelan general who was exiled in 2014, noted that challenges in this regard mainly come from the military allegiances to late President Hugo Chávez and his ideas. Some Venezuelans see Maduro as the “son” of Chavez and his legacy. Rivero also noted that military personnel are concerned that their illegal activities, such as black market drug trafficking, will be punished under Guaidó or another future president’s rule. As such, it has proven difficult for those who support an interim Guaidó presidency to convince the military leadership in Venezuela to join the cause and abandon Maduro.
Moscow has made this task even more difficult in the last month, after planes carrying 100 Russian troops landed in Venezuela. Putin hopes to bolster the staying power of Maduro and fortify his military support with his own forces. For quite some time, Russia has provided aid and other resources to the Maduro regime, which, unlike aid coordinated by Guaido, was accepted by the military government. On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump scolded Putin, telling him to “get out” of Venezuela, and his national security adviser John Bolton warned against external interference in the Western hemisphere by states seeking to prop up Maduro. The Russian president responded by promising to continue arming Caracas and to keep troops there.
This pattern of involvement from Russia is eerily similar to its actions in Syria shortly after the breakout of the Syrian Civil War. In the cases of both Venezuela and Syria, two authoritarian leaders have acted against their own people in order to maintain power. The U.S. placed a plethora of sanctions against the offending regimes. Then, Russia came in to support the regimes and keep the tyrannical leader in power against the will of the people. Both Damascus and Caracas have had historic ties with Russia, and Putin likely hopes to assure that these governments remain firmly allied with Moscow in the foreseeable future. The thought of Venezuela — a member of OPEC and a longtime Russian ally — growing closer to the West is likely a deep concern of Putin’s.
Further, Russia is not the only state with which the U.S. and Europe have had frosty relations that is growing more involved in the situation in Venezuela. China, also a supporter of both the Assad and Maduro regimes, has come out in support of Russian efforts to maintain Maduro’s rule. This February, China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have spoken out against the fraudulent elections in which Maduro claims to have been re-elected and called for another round of elections. On March 26, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang took a shot at U.S. efforts to halt Russia’s interference by stating that “Latin America (is not) a certain country’s backyard.” Beijing’s intent to again support Russia, as well as their own agenda in Venezuela, is not a surprise.
China has also worked to maintain strong relations with Caracas since the turn of the century, eyeing Venezuela’s chief resource: oil. When Venezuela was ruled by Chavez, the two countries cooperated on oil trade on a large scale. Though it has stressed a policy of non-interference in international affairs, China has subtly been active within Latin America, quietly advancing its own goals. A prime example was in 2011, when China financed and built Costa Rica’s Estadio Nacional soccer stadium as a supposed gift to the country. The gift came with a price, however: Costa Rica soon cut its trade with Taiwan, a longtime adversary to Beijing. It also opened a large free trade agreement with China. Though China’s government claims it avoids interfering with the affairs of sovereign governments, even in Latin America, it is on record for having used bribes to get what it wants from other states. So much for respecting another nation’s independent will.
Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo should remember the past and realize that they must escalate their efforts to see Guaidó peacefully take the role of interim president in Venezuela. Though Trump’s resistance to sending troops to Venezuela or elsewhere abroad may be justified, his administration’s lack of concrete action in response to Russia’s and China’s efforts will lead to a bad outcome for the United States and the Venezuelan people.
Former President Barack Obama waited too long when Putin entrenched his forces in the Syria conflict and China aided Assad on the world stage. Though the Venezuelan crisis presents different challenges, the same must not be allowed to happen. If prior mistakes are repeated, then with or without U.S. sanctions against the Maduro regime, the people of Venezuela will continue to starve and suffer, and their economy will be run further into the ground. Hyperinflation has risen to a historic rate, and citizens are already forced to make drastic choices such as whether to eat stray dogs and cats or let their families go hungry.
In the face of this mounting regional threat, Washington should also remember the foundational U.S. foreign policy established by the Monroe Doctrine. Hostile states consolidating their military power with a regional adversary has proven frighteningly dangerous to America in the not-too-distant past. Though the Cold War may be over, Trump should remember that a threat to freedom and democracy abroad — especially within our hemisphere — is a threat to us.
Noah Ente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.