Regime change again: The US just can’t seem to stop itself
The pursuit of regime change in far-off countries is proving to be a resilient characteristic of US presidencies, no matter their political leanings. The current White House has taken an active interest in ousting the incumbent Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro in favor of Juan Guaido, opposition leader and self-declared interim president.
Since Maduro came to power in a presidential election marred by fraud, Venezuela has undergone a series of political crises and economic woes. Each iteration has placed impossible burdens on ordinary Venezuelans while the ruling elite have managed to insulate themselves with the country's oil wealth. Acute food shortages have translated into millions of Venezuelans going hungry or malnourished. Meals from soup kitchens are the only sustenance some of the most impoverished can obtain, and even these have begun to turn away the hungry and desperate.
Oil wealth has not brought about an improvement in public services. Ordinary Venezuelans must queue to fill water jugs while the hungry sift through garbage. Others have fled but even that is no guarantee of a reprieve; some women are selling their own hair at the border in order to afford basic necessities.
Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, borrowed heavily and increased government spending in pursuit of ill-conceived “21st century socialism.” Unfortunately, that meant the oil-dependent Latin American nation was ill-equipped to deal with a drop in oil prices in 2016. Venezuela’s GDP had already begun shrinking in 2014 but that accelerated between 2016 and last year, leading to three years of consecutive double digit contraction. Annual inflation soared to over 1,300,000 percent in 2018 and the IMF predicts that it could even go up to 10 million percent this year.
A prolonged recession and hyperinflation led to an opposition coalition gaining control of Venezuela’s legislative body, the National Assembly, in December 2015. However, this “victory” for the opposition was quickly crippled by Venezuela’s top court persistently overturning the National Assembly’s decisions in favor of the Maduro regime.
In 2017, the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court eventually tried to assume the functions of the National Assembly. In effect, the body meant to uphold the law was now intent on also making the law. A swath of deadly anti-government protests and an international outcry swiftly put an end to this power grab. Worse yet, increasingly murky legal frameworks and troubled politics hamstrung the critical decisions needed to address Venezuela’s severe recession, hyperinflation and acute shortages of basic necessities.
For a world tired of war and wary of expensive military excursions in foreign lands, this flurry of activity surrounding Venezuela is just another reminder of yet another cycle of US-led regime change that will probably end in disaster — this time in Latin America, not the usual Middle East.
Opposition rallies, protests and crackdowns have become common but the Maduro regime has not budged. On the contrary, it sought to do away with the National Assembly altogether in a July 2017 referendum to approve a powerful new legislative body called the Constituent Assembly. Initially created to rewrite the constitution, it eventually usurped the National Assembly’s legislative functions, turning the latter into a largely powerless entity. A year later, talks between the Maduro-led government and the opposition collapsed as neither side could agree on the particulars of the following year’s presidential election.
In typical authoritarian fashion, the government unilaterally declared that elections would be held in the first half of 2018. Opposition parties responded by boycotting the low-turnout presidential election that Maduro won amid allegations of vote-buying. In the aftermath of that election, the opposition was joined by the US and more than 60 nations in rejecting the results, effectively turning Maduro into an illegitimate president. Despite this opposition at home and abroad, Maduro proceeded with his inauguration for a second presidential term this year.
Guaido, who had just assumed the leadership of a powerless National Assembly, swore himself in as the interim president at an opposition rally, claiming the authority of the Venezuelan constitution to do so. Unfortunately for Maduro, Guaido is now recognized as the legitimate president by the US, Canada, the European Parliament, Australia and Japan as well as most of the Americas. On the other hand, Russia, China, Iran, Mexico and Turkey have come out in support of the incumbent Maduro. The rest of the international community has not been as quick to get behind the Washington-backed Guaido or declare any support for the incumbent.
Venezuela has the largest proven petroleum reserves in the world and oil revenues account for 98 percent of its export earnings. Most Venezuelan crude is shipped to the United States (41 percent), followed by China (25 percent) and India (22 percent). The US aims to cut off the embattled Maduro from accessing $7 billion in US assets and $11 billion in oil revenues into 2020. By financially starving the Maduro regime, the White House is seeking to eliminate an easy means for the incumbent to buy the loyalty of the military and security services.
Unfortunately, the paradox of crippling sanctions is that they end up hurting mainly those they intend to help, and worsen problems they intend to solve. Although billions are now frozen and earmarked for use by a Guaido-led coalition, these moves by the US will not translate to immediate changes in the daily struggles of ordinary Venezuelans. The desperate situation in Venezuela that unfairly punishes average citizens could justify some form of international intervention.
However, for a world tired of war and wary of expensive military excursions in foreign lands, this flurry of activity surrounding Venezuela is just another reminder of yet another cycle of US-led regime change that will probably end in disaster — this time in Latin America, not the usual Middle East.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell