An African proverb captures the growing concern about a geopolitical showdown between world powers over Venezuela: “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”
As in most proxy conflicts, Venezuela is a spoil in a larger prize. For the United States, it represents an opportunity to control the agenda in the region, sideline Russian influence and ensure that China takes a back seat. In a fight among elephants, it’s Venezuelans who stand to lose.
But Venezuelans have already lost so much. For years they have suffered under an economy in free-fall and a government in chaos. The scale of the crisis is staggering: an inflation rate that has surpassed 1 million percent, a historic economic contraction, plummeting oil production, an exodus of more than three million people. Today, the risk is that as geopolitical concerns sideline Venezuelans’ daily plight, a dire situation may become worse. By pursuing sudden, all-or-nothing regime change against Nicolás Maduro and in favor of the opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the United States has turned a regional crisis into a global power struggle. Why now?
Some say oil. The country sits atop the world’s largest proven reserves of crude, which is closer to the United States than most other major suppliers. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, have boasted that a Guaidó presidency would mean a windfall for United States oil companies.
But even at the height of tensions when Hugo Chávez was Venezuela’s president, oil shipments to the United States never stopped. Even now, companies like Chevron and Halliburton continue to operate in the country. Before sanctions announced last week on the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, Venezuela received as much as $8 of every $10 in oil sales from the United States. The reality is that Venezuela depends on the United States far more than the other way around.
Some claim democracy has driven the Trump administration to intervene. But when President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras stole the election in 2017, the United States offered him full support. Likewise, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tacitly backed Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales, as he quashed a United Nations-mandated anticorruption commission, Cicig, in a move widely seen as antidemocratic. And anyone who claims to promote democracy and human rights would condemn the appointment of Elliott Abrams as special envoy to Venezuela. His involvement in covert operations and support for death squads in Central America in the 1980s has been well documented.
If not oil or democracy, what, then, drives United States officials’ outsize push to oust the Chavismo leadership, and with what larger implications for Venezuela and Latin America? For the United States, regime change in Venezuela means reclaiming leadership over its “backyard,” as then-Secretary of State John Kerry characterized Latin America in 2013, after nearly 20 years of marginalization.
Mr. Chávez was first sworn in as president on Feb. 2, 1999. He was swept into office partly by promising to reverse United States-led austerity, free trade and privatization policies that brought inequality and poverty to millions across the region. As Mr. Chávez spotlighted their suffering, he helped to usher in a new crop of leaders regionally willing to assert greater political independence from the United States.
As left-wing governments won office across Latin America, they used the spike in commodity prices to distribute wealth and lower poverty. They also formed strategic partnerships to counter United States influence in hemispheric affairs, opening up relations and major investment with then-booming China and Russia. When Brazil helped scuttle the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2005, it proved that the era of overriding United States influence in the region was over. Washington had lost the ability to set the agenda.
But the tide has turned again. Corruption, mismanagement and exhaustion with left-wing governments have ushered in governments that are more aligned with United States trade policies and political interests. In Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru, new leaders are reversing pink-tide policies that weaned the region away from United States influence and toward other markets and alliances.
Washington did not engineer this shift, but it stands ready to take the reins. Last week The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump administration officials have long sought to target Cuba and stem Chinese and Russian inroads in the region. Regime change in Venezuela would accomplish both. It is here where Chinese and Russian influence in Latin America has been strongest, to the tune of billions in cash, credit or sales, especially of weapons and technology. Cuba relied on Venezuelan oil and services to weather sanctions by the Trump administration. And there is the symbolic victory — it was in Venezuela where the regional shift away from United States influence began two decades ago.
For the United States, time is of the essence. Consolidating influence and leadership in Latin America depends not only on achieving regime change in Venezuela, but doing so quickly. Each day Mr. Maduro retains power gives Russia and China more leverage to seek an outcome that does not shut them out completely from Venezuela or the region, losing not only what they have invested but also future opportunities to do so, as The Economist recently argued.
But such an outcome would undermine the power the United States is seeking to reassert, driving instead a winner-take-all strategy requiring rapid escalation to resolve, no matter the costs. A winner-take-all strategy undermines prospects for a peaceful transition in Venezuela. It sidelines left-wing political groups domestically and abroad who would abandon Maduro but feel instead compelled to fight to the end.
There are alternatives. Calls for negotiation toward free and fair elections have emerged from Latin America and Europe. In the past, Mr. Maduro has used negotiations to stall and cling to power, but the landscape now has changed. With the world’s attention on Venezuela, Mr. Maduro and his backers at home and abroad would find no room to prevaricate. Fresh elections would allow Venezuelans to determine their future on their own terms, paving the way not only for a legitimate presidency in the short term, but for a more stable transition in the long term.
Otherwise, it’s the grass that stands to suffer.
Alejandro Velasco is an associate professor of Latin American history at New York University, and author of Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela.