It was almost too well-orchestrated: the president of the Venezuela National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself Provisional President to replace the besieged incumbent, Nicolás Maduro. The United States and several of its regional allies almost instantly announced that they would recognize Guaidó as the legitimate ruler of the country. After 20 years of enduring the provocations of Hugo Chávez and his chosen successor, Maduro, the hope in Washington is that maybe this time will be the charm.
This crisis provides occasion for two broader discussions, the first about the Latin American Left, the second about US policy and practice in the region.
Following closely on the wave of democratization in Latin America in the 1980s, the 1990s saw a “pink wave” of left and center-left governments across much of the region. In societies marked by extremes of inequality almost as bad as what we now see in the US, leftist candidates were able to mobilize the poor majorities from Brazil and Bolivia to Ecuador and Venezuela. In power, they pursued, with varying intensity, redistributive policies that raised living standards of the poor. These policies were, naturally, quite popular, so leftist governments often stayed in power for more than a single presidential term.
But there was also the essential task of managing their national economies, all of which are deeply dependent on exports of primary commodities. They might call themselves socialists, but the global economy still runs on capitalist rules. To pay for imports, they have to export. To get loans from international banks, they have to be creditworthy in capitalist terms. They’re not allowed to drive local capitalists into bankruptcy, however much they might think that justified.
There’s been much variation in how well leftist governments have handled this dilemma. The deeply rooted democratic left in stable democracies (Chile and Uruguay) have done best. Lula’s two terms in Brazil in the first decade of this century also showed a good grasp of how to pursue redistribution without panicking the private sector. Evo Morales in Bolivia (one of South America’s poorest countries), has managed surprisingly well. The Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (another poor country) has also managed well. Being good managers hasn’t avoided US hostility, but it’s no longer normal for the US to step in and remove Latin American rulers.
There was one recent exception to this US restraint. In 2009 (be it noted, on Barack Obama’s watch), an elected left-of-center president was removed in a military coup that could only have happened with a go-ahead from the US. Washington recognized the new government in short order.
And then there is Venezuela. A stable democracy from 1959-1989, the country has the hemisphere’s largest reserves of petroleum. But a succession of elected governments failed to use the profits from oil to build a more sustainable economy or to raise the standards of living of the poor majority of the population. The resulting political crisis of the 1990s led to the election of a former army officer, Hugo Chávez, who had served time for an attempted coup in 1991.
Previous governments nationalized the petroleum industry but left it under professional management, using the oil profits to keep themselves in power by paying off their supporters. Chávez, in contrast, seized control of the state oil company (Pedevesa) and fired the professional managers. This meant that over time oil production inevitably declined as investment in maintenance was neglected in order to pull more money out for use by the government for its political priorities.
While most leftist governments in Latin America have been competent managers of their national economies, even in the face of US hostility, Chávez and especially Maduro have been egregiously incompetent.
Chávez used profits from high global petroleum prices to finance extensive redistributive programs that substantially improved the lives of the poor majority for the first time in Venezuelan history. He was rewarded with durable loyalty from the poor — and escalating hostility from the upper and middle classes. He also used oil profits to subsidize an alliance of leftist governments that included Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador.
This all worked tolerably well, even with declining production, as long as world oil prices stayed high. But about the time the dying Chávez passed the mantle to Nicolás Maduro, global prices collapsed, and have not recovered. Maduro, though, has persisted with Chávez’ practices even though he no longer had the means to do so. The result has been an almost total collapse of the Venezuelan economy, the emigration of perhaps ten percent of the country’s population, and the current political crisis.
While most leftist governments in Latin America have been competent managers of their national economies, even in the face of US hostility, Chávez and especially Maduro have been egregiously incompetent. They thus provide the opening for what could become a new US activism in managing Latin America.
The US has been the hegemonic power in Latin America since the mid-nineteenth century. There were military interventions in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean in the early twentieth century. Hegemony was usually more subtle in the larger countries of South America. Still, from the Spanish-American War of 1898 to the end of the Cold War in 1991, only revolutionary Cuba openly and persistently defied the US — and survived.
Since the Cold War, and especially since the attacks of 9/11, successive US presidents have been focused elsewhere, far from Latin America. Still, regardless of what’s on the mind of the president, there is an informal corps of Old Latin America Hands in State, Defense and the CIA, and in various think tanks and universities. These people are by no means monolithic in their foreign policy views, but they all do tend to assume the right and obligation of the US to intervene in Latin America to maintain an order that favors US interests. They orchestrated the Honduras coup in 2009, when Obama surely had other things on his mind. They drive US hostility to Ortega in Nicaragua. And they have been watching Venezuela.
Forging an alliance with domestic dissidents, working in league with friendly Latin American governments, trying to arrange a change of government without US fingerprints being too prominent — all this is classic CIA playbook. We saw it in Guatemala in 1954, in Chile in 1973, and in Honduras in 2009. We saw it fail in Cuba in 1961. This day we witness the initial gambit in the same playbook, in Venezuela. If it works, Ortega in Nicaragua is next. Morales in Bolivia had best be on his toes.