Venezuela Developments Recall Painful U.S.-Latin American Relations
Last Thursday, CNN published a striking update on the attempted assassination of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, including bits of an interview with the self-proclaimed organizer of the failed attack.
In August, Maduro survived an assassination attempt in which two drones armed with explosives detonated during a speech at a military event in Caracas. CNN reported that the Maduro plot was “the world's first known attempt to kill a head of state with a retail drone, purchased online and armed by hand with military grade explosives.”
In the CNN interview, the individual who claimed responsibility, remaining anonymous for obvious reasons, said it was perpetrated by a group of Venezuelan Army defectors who planned and practiced the operation within the borders of neighboring Colombia. The organizer of the attack provided videos of alleged practice runs of the assault to CNN as well.
In a jarring twist, the self-proclaimed organizer claimed that he met with American officials after the failed bombing, adding that “they set up three meetings…to collect information to study the case, but it didn't go past that.” He also said that his group wanted to exchange information with the unidentified Americans for “things in return.”
The State Department predictably declined to comment on the alleged meetings, but reiterated that “[Our] policy is to support a peaceful transition in Venezuela.” On January 23rd, President Trump tweeted into existence a new Venezuelan government, officially recognizing opposition figure Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of the country.
Since then, the U.S. and its Western allies have pressured Maduro to peacefully transfer power to Guaidó, although the Trump administration has maintained that “all options are on the table.” American leaders, including Trump himself, have suggested the U.S.’ primary interest is alleviating the suffering of the Venezuelan people. In spite of American-dominated rhetoric, other global powers, notably China, Russia and Turkey, continue to recognize Maduro as the rightful leader of Venezuela.
While it’s important to note that whether these meetings occurred is yet to be corroborated by an independent source (don’t hold your breath waiting for the CIA to release a statement), the suggestion that U.S. officials clandestinely met with the would-be murderers of a world leader is shocking at first, but upon further review, quite unsurprising.
Even a cursory overview of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America since the Monroe Doctrine positions this kind of accusation as nothing out of the ordinary. The U.S. has a longstanding tradition of meddling in the politics of its Western hemisphere neighbors, using a mixture of economic and diplomatic soft-power, but often relying on violent military coups and right-wing death squads.
As far back as 1954, the U.S. supported a military coup in Guatemala (at the behest of the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita Brands) that overthrew democratically-elected president Jacobo Árbenz and helped establish a military dictatorship under Carlos Castillo Armas. The Armas regime rolled back social and economic reforms enacted by the Árbenz government and imprisoned and murdered thousands of agricultural workers.
In 1973, the U.S. backed a military coup in Chile that resulted in the suicide of democratically-elected president Salvador Allende. The subsequent regime under Augusto Pinochet tortured as many as 32,000 Chileans and executed between 8,000 and 30,000 during his 16-year rule.
From 1976 to 1983, the U.S. backed a campaign of state-sponsored terrorism in Argentina known as the Dirty War. The tumultuous seven-year period resulted in the forced disappearances and deaths of as many as 30,000 students, journalists, Peronists, and labor activists suspected to have held leftist sympathies.
In addition to support for military coups of democratically-elected leaders in favor of murderous autocrats, the U.S. backed right-wing paramilitary groups and death squads in the Guatemalan Civil War, the Nicaraguan Revolution, and the Salvadoran Civil War (see “Elliott Abrams” in the following paragraphs for more information).
Although Venezuela has so far kept U.S. influence largely at bay since the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution in 1999, it has had run-ins with the U.S. regime-change machine since then. In 2002, President Hugo Chávez was briefly ousted from power by military and business leaders, but after the new government was criticized for trying to repeal Chávez’s constitution, the exiled leader was restored to power in less than 48 hours. While U.S. officials denied knowledge of or involvement in the attempted coup, the London Observer reported that senior officials in Washington knew about and approved of the plot, including a notable figure who has resurfaced in recent months: disgraced State Department official Elliott Abrams.
Abrams is inexorably linked to U.S. foreign policy in Latin America since the 1980s: he first came to prominence as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs under Ronald Reagan, and became a ferocious defender of U.S. backed forces fighting in various Central American conflicts. Abrams notably defended the Salvadoran military in the wake of the 1981 El Mozote Massacre, in which Salvadoran government troops murdered more than 800 mostly women, children, and elderly in and around the peasant village of El Mozote using American-supplied weapons. In the wake of the massacre, Abrams dismissed the reports as “communist propaganda,” and in 1993 said “the [Reagan] administration's record in El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement.”
Abrams later became a household name in the latter years of the Reagan administration for his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair, during which Abrams, disgraced lieutenant colonel Oliver North and other intelligence officials covertly and criminally organized funding for right-wing guerillas in Nicaragua after Congress barred funding of the Contra rebels in 1983 with the Boland Amendment. Abrams was convicted on two counts of withholding information from Congress in the wake of the scandal.
Although his conviction temporarily removed him from the public eye, Abrams was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Years later, in an almost comical turn of events, President George W. Bush gave Abrams the exhaustive title of Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations at the National Security Council, despite his exemplary work in the Reagan years actively undermining both democracy and human rights abroad. During the administration of George Bush the younger, Abrams became an important intellectual architect of the Iraq War.
In January, President Trump named Abrams, the man who greenlit the failed 2002 coup against Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez, the United States Special Representative for Venezuela.
All of this is cause for concern of the current state of American and international affairs. Should we assume the unidentified organizer of the failed Maduro plot is being unequivocally honest about U.S. involvement? Absolutely not. We don’t know who this alleged organizer is or what ulterior motives he may have. But should we totally dismiss claims that the U.S. may have expressed interest in an assassination plot of a world leader? It would seem pretty naive to do so with more than 50 years of troubled history to examine, and a motley crew of neoconservatives and war hawks like Elliott Abrams directing our policy in the region. The fact that we must pause and at least consider that the U.S. showed interest in a murder plot against a head of state shows our policies in Latin America have changed little since the Kennedy administration.
As history begins to repeat itself right in front of us, let us not forget that those in Washington driving the conversation around Venezuela have made political careers out of misleading the American public about our intentions and involvement in foreign conflicts. Anyone who says the U.S. wants to help the people of Venezuela entirely out of the kindness of its heart is either being intentionally dishonest, has been totally duped by neoconservative pundits and policymakers like John Bolton and Elliott Abrams, or was born a few days ago. Our history of destructive interventionist policies in Latin America is well-documented and ongoing, and we can see the disastrous consequences of those policies to this day.
Of course, those who voice even mild criticisms of the administration’s strong-handed policies toward the Maduro government will likely be labeled at best as apologizers for the regime, and at worst, supporters of it. Nicolás Maduro is undoubtedly a strongman in charge of a troubled nation, but it only takes a tiny bit of introspection to question the narrative and supposedly benevolent motives behind our intervention in Venezuela and support for self-appointed president Juan Guaidó.