Venezuela/USA: Is it really time to pick a side?

At a UN Security Council meeting last Saturday (January 26) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was “time for every nation to pick a side” regarding Venezuela.

Over the last week, including at that meeting, many countries around the world have refused to pick the side of the USA.

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US Marines in Iraq 2004… Does the world need more of this?

It’s been widely reported that China and Russia are refusing to dance to Washington’s tune. But they’re not the only ones.

Among other nations dissenting from the US position are India, the world’s most populous democracy, which announced its position last Friday and South Africa, the country of Nelson Mandela, whose representative spoke at the Security Council Meeting; and NATO members Turkey and Greece.

In Latin America, countries not siding with Washington include Mexico, Uruguay, Bolivia, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

Even staunch US allies Britain, France and Germany have baulked at immediate recognition of Juan Guaido, the self-appointed “Transitional President” backed by the USA. Instead they threatened to recognise Guaido in a week’s time, unless Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called elections.

Pope Francis has said he fears bloodshed, and cannot side with any country or group of countries.

Countries which haven’t picked the US side have a range of positions. Many are critical of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and have called for a dialogue between government and opposition. What they have in common is respect for Venezuela’s sovereignty.

The US portrays Venezuela as a typical leftist dictatorship, with a failing economy and political repression. It champions Guaido as a hero of freedom, the legitimate leader of the people.

In short, it is throwing the book at Venezuela, accusing the country of everything except developing weapons of mass destruction and trying to conquer its neighbours.

It’s true that Venezuela’s economy is in very serious trouble. No doubt President Maduro, and his predecessor, the charismatic leftist Hugo Chavez, got a lot of things wrong.

A mixed economy cannot succeed unless the government and the private sector are able to work effectively together. This has happened in China since the late 1970s, but not in Venezuela.

The claim that Venezuela is a dictatorship is harder to justify.

In the 20 years since Hugo Chavez came to power, including the five years of Maduro’s leadership, Venezuela has had regular contested elections, an organised political opposition, and a long series of anti-government protest marches (often violent) as well as pro-government demonstrations. These are hardly the hallmarks of a one-party state.

Washington’s “Transition President” Juan Guaido is a member of the smallish Popular Will party. He has never won a presidential election or even been a candidate in one.

Guaido argues that he is constitutionally entitled to claim the presidency because he’s the chairman of the national assembly. An argument cogently refuted by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman

Today Mexico and Uruguay are calling for political dialogue in Venezuela. But the “Transitional President” is refusing to engage in dialogue with Venezuela’s actual leaders.

Instead Guaido insists that everyone much accept his transitional leadership, pending new elections, and promising an “amnesty” to those who do so. Which sounds rather like a bank robber saying no-one will get hurt…

In short, Juan Guaido is trying to dictate terms, which is exactly what a dictator does.

If his hoped-for regime change ever happens, he may indeed hold an election, but would members of the Hugo Chavez movement get a fair go in it? Or would parties of the Chavez movement be declared illegal, as has happened to the Communist Party of Ukraine?

Guaido’s fans may dream of a sudden collapse of Maduro’s authority, comparable to the fall of the economically weak communist regimes in eastern Europe 30 years ago. But those regimes fell due to a very broad political alliance, including westernisers like Boris Yeltsin, nationalist movements, and some very prominent pro-reform communists such as Dubcek in Czechoslovakia and Gorbachev in the USSR.

In Venezuela today — thanks to the blustering and bullying from the USA — nationalist sentiment favours Maduro, not Guaido. And Guaido’s rejection of dialogue makes in unlikely he will win the confidence of reformers within the Chavez movement.

To sum up, it is a situation more complex and less Washington-friendly than President Trump and his pals seem to think.

As a political gesture, US recognition of “Transitional President” Guaido seems stupid, ham-fisted. But it is also dangerous because it gives the US a ready-made excuse to use military force against Venezuela. If the US sends the marines in, it will say that it isn’t violating the territory of another state, just helping a born-again democracy to consolidate.

Countries round the world have good reason not to side with the US on this.

* The photo of US Marines In Iraq is from Wikimedia Commons, and is in the public domain.

Someone who likes sharing factual information and fragments of the big picture

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