Western non-intervention killed Spanish democracy in the 1930s. Venezuela must not be next
LOS ANGELES – In his 1982 Nobel lecture, the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez condemned the West’s insistence on “measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves” and “forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all.” That is, in a sense, what the West’s progressive left is doing when, caught up in an outdated narrative about Latin American revolutions, it fails to recognize the associated devastation.
It is because of this failure that, until fairly recently, the most heinous—and long-lasting—insurgency in Latin America’s history, waged by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), had advocates in the European parliament. Now, the story is repeating itself, with many Western leftists rejecting any international effort to push back against President Nicolás Maduro’s disastrous leadership.
The scale of the disaster should not be underestimated. Severe food and medication shortages are the new normal. The International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation will reach ten million percent this year. The result is a desperate people, 10 percent of whom have already fled the country. Among those who remain, 90 percent live below the poverty line.
A revolutionary delusion has collapsed, leaving behind only the tyrannical rule of a class of corrupt tycoons—effectively a mafia—that has purchased the military’s loyalty with massive cash bonuses and lucrative oil-smuggling and drug-trafficking deals. The mafia’s opponents are repressed, often brutally. In terms of the number of political prisoners, Maduro’s Venezuela has joined the ranks of China, Cuba, and Turkey.
One might expect US President Donald Trump’s administration to minimize Maduro’s repressive practices. But Trump was also quick to recognize the leader of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, as interim head of state, after Guaidó, with widespread support among Venezuelans, invoked a constitutional provision to challenge Maduro’s legitimacy.
Practically all of Venezuela’s democratic neighbors—including socialists in these countries—have spoken out against Maduro’s tragic parody of a revolution. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla and Colombia’s most emblematic far-left politician, has labeled Maduro “a dictator.” Brazil’s Socialist Party denounced his regime as “crazy” and “a totalitarian state,” while the country’s former left-wing president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, distanced himself from his Workers’ Party’s endorsement of Maduro. Even the Venezuelan socialist group Marea Socialista denounced Maduro’s “totalitarian tendencies.”
But leftist politicians in the West resist taking a similar stand. America’s rising socialist stars staunchly oppose this approach. Representative Ilhan Omar has warned of a “US-backed coup” aimed at picking a leader “on behalf of multinational corporate interests,” and ignorantly defined the opposition as “far right.” (Guaidó is a member of a social-democratic party.) Likewise, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez agreed that the large-scale, human rights-violating crisis is an “internal polarized conflict,” and argued that the United States should not recognize Guaidó as head of state.
Senator Bernie Sanders, for his part, invokes America’s dark history of interventions in Latin America when discussing Venezuela. In the United Kingdom, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who memorialized Maduro’s mentor Hugo Chávez in 2013 for his “massive contributions to Venezuela and a very wide world,” also opposes “outside interference in Venezuela.”
These leaders subscribe to a Cold War worldview, in which virtually any domestic revolution stands in direct opposition to the ultimate enemy: Western imperialism. By not recognizing the nuances of the current crisis, they end up effectively advancing the interests of multiple dictatorships, including those in Iran, Nicaragua, Syria, and Turkey, as well as the real colonial powers in Venezuela right now: China, Cuba, and Russia.
In Venezuela, Russia is following its playbook from Syria, where it intervened not to save besieged people, but to prop up the tyrant they were trying to escape, Bashar al-Assad. Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping want to secure repayment of the massive loans they have issued to Venezuela’s Chavista regime. And free oil from Venezuela has been vital to Cuba’s economic survival.
These ties mean that Maduro’s regime poses a legitimate national security risk to the US. Though Trump himself was probably motivated to recognize Guaidó more by his desire to win support from Hispanic voters, the fact is that Russia’s deepening military cooperation with Venezuela could conceivably result in a modern rendition of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But there is a more fundamental issue at play. The world’s dictatorships support Maduro because they want to undercut the principle, adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, that the international community has a responsibility to protect populations from atrocities carried out by their own governments. By backing Maduro, they seek immunity for themselves. Defending the spirit of the so-called R2P principle, which the left should cherish, was a key motivation behind the decision by many other democracies—including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, and the UK—to recognize Guaidó.
Rather than stick to their old political dogma, leftist political figures should heed the voice of Toshiko Sakurai, a Venezuelan exile. “I am sick of you,” she told the Spanish left. “We both believe in public universal education and health care financed with taxes” and “a safety net and wealth redistribution.” But, she continued, “supporting socialist policies doesn’t keep me from denouncing the brutal monstrosity being inflicted upon my country.”
The 2008 economic crisis has fueled the rise of a new political class that revived the social-democratic call for a fairer society. These figures are right to reject any consideration of a potentially calamitous foreign military intervention in Venezuela. But—for the sake of their own political credibility, as much as the principles of human rights and democracy—they must abandon well-meaning but obsolete assumptions in foreign policy.
Instead, the left should support increased international pressure on the Maduro regime, including through the sanctioning and isolation of its core leadership. Efforts to boost the capabilities of Venezuela’s suppressed democratic opposition would also help.
Western non-intervention killed Spanish democracy in the 1930s. More recently, it sustained Assad’s appalling tyranny. Venezuela must not be next.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy