Barack Obama is a self-declared realist and makes no qualms about it. He admits that on occasion the USA will ‘twist the arm’ of governments that do not follow Washington’s suit. Rather casually, Obama presents such principles as something that comes along with his job – as if USA citizens were tacitly (manifestly?) voting for it, regardless of any other considerations, any time that they choose a president. Against this background, one can understand why, for instance, he did not show signs of moral conflict when receiving the Noble Peace Prize a few of years ago: ‘the Swedish Academy members surely know about a principle so many times put in practice by USA presidents in the past’, he must have thought, ‘so let’s get the Prize and the job done!’
That job has indeed been done very many times in Latin America and the Caribbean, a region famously labelled by USA’s foreign policy designers as their ‘backyard’. Despite meagre results in the recent past, Washington keeps its foreign policy traditions in place, as the latest move towards Venezuela suggests.
On 9 March, Obama passed an Executive Order announcing that the situation in Venezuela ‘constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat’. It also formalised sanctions against seven Venezuelan public functionaries (from an attorney to members of the military and the national guard) who, in Washington’s version, would be responsible for human rights violations in last year’s guarimbas. The latter were protests, part of them violent, that caused, in addition to large economic losses, 43 deaths that, as the Attorney General publicly reminded in a piece published by the Venezuelan newspaper Últimas Noticias on 10 March, are being investigated and have brought to the courts several members of security forces. It is also to be recalled that among the casualties there were 10 members of the security forces, killed by snipers.
This type of sanction against Venezuelan functionaries is not totally new (since 2006, a total of 40 Venezuelan functionaries have received comparable ones, yet the formality and tone of this new announcement was that it came with a declaration of ‘national emergency’ in the USA. This move was not taken lightly in Venezuela, where last month the government aborted a coup attempt. Right after Obama’s announcement, Nicolás Maduro gathered his cabinet of ministers and the military commanders in Caracas. That very night, in a special tv program broadcast from the presidential palace, Maduro addressed the Venezuelan people for nearly two hours in a speech in which he did not only congratulate the seven functionaries who had been targeted by USA sanctions, but also appointed one of them (general Gustavo González) as the new Minister of Home Affairs. Maduro’s speech, shrouded in anti-imperialist references, harshly criticised Obama for what the former disqualified as a mere destabilising exercise and in turn announced several concrete measures to reinforce national security before the possibility of external intervention. The following day, Maduro formalised before the National Assembly the request for an ‘enabling law’ to legislate around those measures [the ‘enabling law’ is a constitutional mechanism through which the National Assembly grant special legislative powers to the president for a bounded period of time and topic; the activation of the enabling law in turn requires a qualified majority in the Assembly, which for the time being Maduro can count on].
Why is Venezuela the object of so much attention from the USA at this stage? Let us think as realists do. Venezuela is undergoing important economic difficulties, with low oil prices in the international market, rampant inflation, and scarcity of certain consumption products (partly the result of hoarding, but also of unresolved problems in the national productive front and in the regulation of importations, where corruption has been widespread). In addition, National Assembly elections are due later this year. Washington might be thinking that this conjuncture is most favourable externally to stimulate a change of government in a country that: 1) has the world’s largest proven oil reserves; 2) has a strongly nationalist government with socialist-leaning policies; and 3) has led an unprecedented wave of Latin American and Caribbean regional integration that, materialising in new supranational institutions such as UNASUR, CELAC, Petrocaribe and ALBA, has removed the USA from direct participation in the political and economic games played in what used to be its ‘backyard’.
This is for short, in plain realist terms. But for more a detailed and nuanced explanation the reader might want to read the edited volume Democracy, Revolution and Geopolitics in Latin America: Venezuela and the International Politics of Discontent (Routledge, 2014), which may help in understanding the depth of the achievements of this new wave of Latin American regionalism and the reasons why Venezuela, over the past 15 years, has become for many states and social movements a world-wide referent of anti-imperialist and multipolar international politics.
Now, what is to be expected in this scenario? Of course, this is uncertain. But it is very likely that, in political terms, this will backlash against USA’s interest in eroding the popularity of Maduro’s government. In the international arena, Washington’s move might succeed in giving yet another turn to the screw in the negative international portrayal of the Venezuelan government that is principally divulged by commercial media. Yet what is already evident is that it has also immediately stimulated the solidarity of close regional allies such as Bolivia and Ecuador, as well as the activity of the new regional organisations such as UNASUR, which unambiguously rejects interferences in internal affairs of member states. Presidents such as Evo Morales immediately called for extraordinary meetings of UNASUR and CELAC to reject Washington’s Order, and in an interview to Telesur Ricardo Patiño, Ecuador’s Foreign Affairs minister, hastened to remark that Venezuela ‘has the support of all the Latin American and Caribbean countries’. Of course, some of those countries are more sympathetic to Maduro than others, but it is a fact that through its new regional institutions the region as a whole is giving firm signs of rejection of external interference and government replacements that are not the result of democratic elections.
At a national level, the situation is even less favourable for those who expect to strengthen the organisation of the opposition to Maduro. In Venezuela, where the government and the opposition rarely coincide in a political positioning, there has been over the past two days a succession of converging remarks coming from both poles of the political spectrum: Venezuela is a sovereign country and its citizens do not support any form of external interference in internal affairs. The most remarkable statements are those stemming from opposition leaders and parties, for the latter are not prodigal in comments that may provide oxygen to the government. The situation created by Obama’s announcement will add pressure to an opposition bloc in which the most radical factions and more moderate ones cohabit in a fragile alliance – their only common ground is the opposition to the government bloc. This fragile cohabiting in the opposition camp was actually at a peak of internal conflict since primary elections were called last month (February) by the Mesa de la Unidad, with the support of the National Electoral Council, in order to select candidates for the forthcoming Assembly elections. Leadership is weak in the opposition platform, and organic structures too. Candidates within the bloc started to compete in different regions, leaking declarations of complaint about the lack of transparency and internal democracy within the bloc. Against this backdrop, Obama’s Executive Order comes at an inappropriate moment for those who dreamt of a cohesive opposition bloc in this electoral year. Within that bloc, the positioning before what is considered by many an unacceptable interference is becoming a new source of tensions. Indirectly, Obama has given a favour to Maduro at a moment in which, according to different national surveys, the latter’s popularity was at a personal low. The Venezuelan president can now draw from the strong nationalist feelings that pervade Venezuelan society and close ranks with both the Bolivarian supporters and part of the opposition ones.
With the wave of new regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean and the growing detachment of the USA from it, the foreign policy moves of Washington experts are increasingly misled. For a few years they have not been able to play so easily in their ‘backyard’ and it seems that they are not familiar with the new rules of the games that are currently being played out in Latin America and the Caribbean.