Venezuela and the Evolution of American Leadership

On April 16 the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl published a column on Venezuela in which he argues that the situation in the country shows “the eclipse of American leadership.” Diehl argues that “through three administrations — four, if you count the still-coalescing Trump team — U.S. policy has been to avoid the faintest hint of meddling in Venezuela.” The implication is that a “super-power looking away” has allowed Venezuela’s descent into crisis.

Considering that Diehl himself has criticized President Trump for his loose relationship with facts, it is remarkable that Diehl’s appropriation of history leaves out major, well-known events that would call into question his “U.S. laissez-faire” narrative.

First, in April 2002 the Bush Administration openly supported a coup against democratically-elected Hugo Chávez, and that was fact is emblazoned on the mind of every Chavez supporter to this day. The events of April 11-13, 2002 are treated by Chavismo as its defining moment (this was on full display in recent remarks by Maduro). And U.S. support is a key prism through which the present is seen (See also Daniel Larison on this point).

In March 2015, the Obama Administration rolled out targeted sanctions on Venezuelan leaders with an obnoxious Executive Order that named Venezuela a “threat to national security.”

Claims from U.S. officials that such language was boilerplate for this type of measure were drowned out by a regional uproar against U.S. intervention. With a diplomatic fiasco brewing on the eve of the Summit of the Americas, the Obama administration needed to take a step back, clarifying that it did not consider Venezuela a national security threat. In any case, the entire episode effectively neutralized any appetite among regional players to engage or pressure Venezuela at that time.

Counterfactuals are inherently speculative, but one can assume that Venezuela would be in a very different place if neither of these ham-fisted pseudo-interventionist moments had happened. They each distorted Venezuela’s national political process and the region’s ability to respond.

The New York Times Editorial Board put forward a more reasoned opinion on the situation noting that the current round of protests might be different given the opposition’s unity and the attention of other countries in the region. David made similar points last week in the Financial Times, noting: “The opposition is in a stronger position now compared to 2014. Maduro is very unpopular. Their demands for elections are more reasonable. The international community supports them more. They could have more success this time.”

Another key difference has been the United States’ willingness to allow other countries in the region to speak up. Indeed, Mexico and Peru took a leading role in the discussion in and around the Organization of American States. And countries in the region are still engaged, as can be seen through the April 17 joint declaration by eleven countries in the region urging the Maduro government to respect the right to protest. This was followed shortly by a United Nations statement suggesting Maduro’s intention of arming the civilian militia would only increase violence.