The crisis in Venezuela is again accelerating, with renewed protests and ongoing opposition efforts to push Nicolás Maduro out of power. The US has also mounted a campaign to undermine his rule, including with the threat of military intervention.
MADRE calls for an escalated commitment to a negotiated settlement to end the crisis in Venezuela and for an end to the threats of US military attack. And we denounce US attempts at regime change, the latest in a long history of destabilizing interventions in the region.
Below is a Q&A to summarize the crisis, the impact on women, the US role and what an effective, just US foreign policy must look like.
How did this crisis emerge?
- Since 1999, Venezuela’s government has rejected neoliberal dogmas of austerity and privatization in favor of an unprecedented public spending program to create jobs, improve literacy and health, promote civic engagement and more, in the service of the country’s marginalized poor. These successful efforts, funded by the country’s vast oil wealth, were strongly opposed by Venezuelan elites and their allies in the region and the US.
- Women are often the first to benefit from strong, healthy publicly-funded social services, relieving their typical responsibilities as unpaid care workers for families and communities. Under Chavez, “missions” were established to meet community needs for healthcare, education, housing and other services; while funded by the state, these “missions” were largely operated by grassroots women.
- In 2014, world oil prices collapsed, triggering an economic crisis and ratcheting up the pressure against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Since then, Maduro has faced growing and coordinated opposition to his rule and a spiraling economic situation, made worse by corruption, mismanagement, and US sanctions. As a result, the country faces a humanitarian crisis affecting health, education, housing and more that has destroyed many of the country’s previous gains.
- As the economic crisis has deepened and these basic services have been eroded, women have been hard hit. Because women are primarily responsible for caring for families, they are particularly burdened by economic crisis. For example, when medicines are out of reach, women bear the disproportionate duty of caring for the sick. When facing worsening poverty, women are often forced to sacrifice their own well-being, including basic necessities such as food, to care for family needs.
- Following Maduro’s inauguration for a new six-year term in January 2019, the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself interim president of Venezuela, was immediately recognized by the US, and renewed calls for Maduro’s ouster. The months since have been marked by a growing political crisis. It is important to note that not all those who have protested Maduro’s rule have aligned themselves in support of Guaidó and other neoliberal elites, and some have been supporters of Chavez’s reforms, criticizing the Maduro government for its inability to uphold that legacy.
What has been the US role in Venezuela?
- The US has repeatedly tried to undermine the Venezuelan government since Hugo Chavez came to power. In 2002, the US endorsed a failed coup attempt to overthrow the government of Chavez. The US used sanctions to block oil revenues that sustain the country’s social services, which worsened living conditions for people in poverty.
- Today, it’s clear that the US is not merely responding to conditions on the ground but actively working to undermine the Maduro government. In the past year, the Trump Administration has sought out meetings with disaffected Venezuelan military officers, to consider a plan to depose Maduro. And before Guaidó made his move to declare himself the country’s legitimate leader, he was assured in a backchannel conversation with Vice President Mike Pence that he could count on US support.
- What’s more, the US has repeatedly raised the threat of military intervention, from National Security Advisor John Bolton’s “secret” note about deploying 5,000 troops to Colombia to Donald Trump refusing to take an armed attack off the table. Such an attack would be disastrous, plunging an already volatile situation further into violence and chaos.
- Over the past two years, the Trump administration has slapped increasingly severe sanctions on Venezuela to cripple its oil industry. In April 2019, the US announced new sanctions against Venezuela’s Central Bank. In his announcement, Bolton used his inflammatory rhetoric again, gloating that the US looks forward to watching the government fall and calling Venezuela a member of the “troika of tyranny,” also made up of Cuba and Nicaragua.
- “Troika of tyranny” echoes another label, “axis of evil,” coined during the Bush Administration to justify aggressive US actions against targeted countries and, in the case of Iraq, a full-out military invasion. By lumping these three Latin American countries together, the Trump Administration similarly signals its common and hostile intent for them all.
- The US has a long and bloody history of violent regime change, in Latin America and around the world. And that past is still present: Trump named Elliott Abrams the new Special Envoy for Venezuela, a man responsible for policies like fueling genocidal attacks against Mayan Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala, funding the Contra militias who terrorized communities in Nicaragua and importing those tactics to train death squads in the war on Iraq. For decades, MADRE has worked in Central America, Iraq and in other places impacted by these US “dirty wars,” to help people heal from those traumas. Abrams was also implicated in the 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez. His appointment pushes us further away from the possibility of a peaceful resolution to this crisis.
What should US progressives do? What should US policy look like?
Support a diplomatic solution and oppose military intervention
- The most secure path to a peaceful, viable resolution is through a negotiated settlement. Instead of fomenting violence and threatening military intervention, the international community must escalate its commitment to talks between the government and opposition – and the US must remove any obstacles to ease the way for such talks.
- Most Venezuelans oppose the prospect of foreign military intervention, including those who oppose Maduro. Meanwhile, 63% would support a negotiated settlement to remove Maduro from power.
- Too many are gripped in the sway of the myth of “American exceptionalism” that suggests that the US is a country uniquely suited and even compelled to intervene in crises around the world, unilaterally and often using the military. We must recognize that the US is not a credible broker of peace and stability in Venezuela and has no exceptional right or responsibility to decide that country’s future.
- We can support policy actions by progressive representatives, like pending legislation in the House of Representatives to prohibit unauthorized US military intervention in Venezuela.
- Opposing US military intervention and attempts at regime change does not require supporting the Maduro government. It only requires ensuring the Venezuelan people’s ability to choose their leader via peaceful, democratic means and without foreign intervention.
- Further, anti-government protests do not necessarily indicate widespread support for the opposition. The reality is that due to Maduro’s repression of political challengers, there are few viable alternatives for the public to choose from.
- This crisis has been made worse by US sanctions on oil exports, which have a devastating impact on the Venezuelan economy, highly dependent on oil for almost all of its foreign exchange. The sanctions have heightened shortages of vital food and medicine, inflicting further suffering on the Venezuelan people. Sanctions are pushing the health care system into collapse.
Support US measures to offer temporary status to Venezuelans
- We can support efforts, such as the bipartisan bill by Senators Menendez and Rubio, to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans who are already in the US, allowing them to stay in the country. We can do this, even as we recognize that the Trump Administration has recently moved to end TPS for people from Haiti, Sudan, and Nicaragua, as well as Honduras and Nepal. In this way, TPS has been used as a political tool to keep out “undesirable” people, and we fight this harmful dynamic and push for these protections to be extended to all who need them.
Support effective aid delivery
- The US has turned aid delivery into a high-stakes, political stunt. In recent attempts to send aid convoys to force a showdown with the Venezuelan military, the US sought to ratchet up pressure on the Maduro government. This was not a humanitarian mission. It was a political confrontation, which came at the expense of struggling Venezuelan families caught in the midst of this crisis. The International Committee of the Red Cross warned the US about the risks of delivering humanitarian aid in such a politicized manner. Ultimately, the attempt to deliver aid across the Colombia-Venezuela border escalated on February 23, 2019 into clashes that left several people dead and hundreds injured.
- Even after this incident in February, aid has continued to be manipulated. Numerous US news outlets and officials – including Marco Rubio, John Bolton, and Mike Pompeo – spread a narrative that Maduro’s forces purposefully set trucks carrying aid on fire. Later, the New York Times debunked this narrative.
- Aid is urgently needed, including for the refugees who have fled the crisis. Migrant Venezuelans often arrive in neighboring countries with next to nothing and are living on the edges of communities overwhelmed by the needs of newly arrived migrants. Women migrants face rampant levels of sexual violence and exploitation, forced to trade sex for food or faced with sexual harassment and assault in the insecure, informal jobs they find. In other cases, armed groups that control border crossings demand sex as payment. That’s why MADRE has supported to Creciendo Unidos, a Colombian grassroots organization working on the border with Venezuelan migrants, to provide urgently needed health care and humanitarian supplies, hygiene kits to keep people healthy and safe from the spread of illness, and counseling and care to help women and children overcome trauma.