Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2019

Venezuela has been a challenge to U.S. foreign policy for more than a hundred years. President Theodore Roosevelt sent the Navy there in 1903 to warn Britain and Germany against attempting to settle a debt crisis by blockading Venezuelan ports after a German gunboat bombarded a coastal city. Roosevelt also announced a new U.S. policy: the U.S. would intervene to prevent outside powers to enforce economic claims against Caribbean countries. This reinforced the 1823 Monroe Doctrine.

U.S. presidents intervened regularly in Caribbean countries in the 1910s and 1920s, resulting in charges of US "imperialism" in Congress and Latin America. After World War II, the policy continued but as anti-communist measures during the Cold War. Leftist governments suspected of pro-Moscow leanings were overthrown with U.S. help in Guatemala in 1953, in the Dominican Republican in 1965, in Chile in 1974, and Grenada in 1983, and Panama in 1989.  A similar effort to topple a leftist government in Cuba failed in 1961. Both Republican and Democratic presidents had sponsored these interventions.

Political stakes

Venezuela's current political and economic crisis constitutes a major test for U.S. foreign policy, and for Donald Trump's presidency. The reasons are clear: Russia's Vladimir Putin hopes to establish another client state in the Caribbean. It supplements Russia's strong influence over Cuba another client whose security was guaranteed when the U.S. pledged not to invade the island, following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  Venezuela's socialist regime, headed by Nicolas Maduro, is dependent on Russian and Chinese political and economic support and on Cuba's influence over his military.

Vladimir. Putin's game plan in Venezuela seems clear.  He assumes Washington is reluctant to send forces to support the designated new president, Juan Guaido, because most Venezuelans and those across Latin America would deplore American "imperialism". It would give Maduro a rallying call to Venezuelans to resist, There's a resemblance here to how Putin managed to cement his hold on another client state, Syria, in 2014 after President Barack Obama failed to follow through threats to use force in Syria if President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons. Putin sent his military forces to subdue the opposition and keep Assad in power and, in return, acquired a new airbase on the Mediterranean.

Policy options

Here are three courses of action the Trump administration could adopt to deal with unfolding chaos in Venezuela.

The least confrontational policy would be: Wait for Venezuela's population and military to conclude their economic situation is desperate and Maduro must be ousted. That's the preferred policy of those who believe time is on the side of Juan Guaido and his democratic supporters. It's also the preference of those who think any form of military intervention by the U.S. would give Maduro and his military a reason to stay in power and resist the American imperialists.

A second option would be more confrontational: Send U.S. cargo ships loaded with food and medicines and escorted by the Navy to stand off Venezuela's ports and offer to deliver large quantities of necessities when the population ousts Maduro. This course is favored by those who say U.S. policy should emphasize humanitarian help, not military power, but would also signal Moscow and Havana that the U.S. is prepared to use force to aid a popular uprising.

The third option would be military intervention that could be triggered by: Cuban or Russian actions designed to turn Venezuela into a protectorate under Havana's and Moscow's control.  President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo reportedly warned Russian leaders last week that the U.S. would respond militarily to their intervention. This message seems to have registered in Moscow and a military action is not contemplated. But it leaves open how long Mr. Maduro can remain if his military decides time is running out and they need to abandon him.

Congress and the U.S. public show little interest in a confrontation over Venezuela, as their energies are absorbed with the 2020 presidential election.  Americans seem complacent these days and not interested in foreign policy. It's a troubling mood for those who view international politics as a dangerous game in which the U.S. must defend its vital interests.

File last modified on Tuesday, 14-MAY-2019 10:05 AM EST

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