Venezuela: The New Old Forever War

We have always (almost) been at war with South America

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This week, amid the wreckage of what appeared to be his fizzled military coup, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó tested a dangerous idea. In interviews with U.S. media, he said his self-declared interim government might be “open” to U.S. military intervention against the sitting president, Nicolás Maduro.

Here’s how the 35-year-old speaker of Venezuela’s renegade national assembly imagined he’d respond to an offer from U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, in an interview with the Washington Post’s Anthony Faiola:

“Dear friend, ambassador John Bolton, thank you for all the help you have given to the just cause here. Thank you for the option, we will evaluate it, and will probably consider it in parliament to solve this crisis. If it’s necessary, maybe we will approve it.”

The White House is trying to signal this won’t happen. But there’s reason to think it could. Trump has threatened military force against socialist Venezuela since he came to office. After his first national security advisor pleaded guilty in the Mueller probe, and he fired his second, he hired Bolton, a hawk so notorious for disdaining diplomacy that a Bush-era Republican Senate refused to confirm him as U.N. ambassador. As Guaidó’s uprising floundered on April 30, Bolton met reporters in the West Wing driveway to reiterate, in Washington’s favorite veiled threat, that “all options are on the table.”

Guaidó’s openness to invasion will only feed a sense of dread that’s been growing on the antiwar left and isolationist right alike: That Venezuela will be the next stop in America’s forever war, adding a new continent to the litany of Middle Eastern, African, and East Asian countries on the wrong end of U.S. power since 9/11.

“Trump has pretended to wind down the wars while simultaneously escalating conflicts around the globe and threatening to suck us into new ones with Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela,” Alexander McCoy, political director for the antiwar veterans’ group Common Defense, recently told Task & Purpose.

Yet that summary leaves out something important—context that explains a much-missed part of what could propel us into war, and might help predict what happens next. The reality is that people have been predicting a U.S. war in Venezuela for years. There’s even a scene about it in 2009’s Avatar:

That’s because Venezuela—a vast country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, closer to D.C. than D.C. is to Denver—isn’t new to America’s great struggle for global power at all. In a way, it’s where we got the idea for it in the first place.

Monroe Can You Go

The Long Version™ starts a little over a century ago, when the U.S. was still a third-rate regional power, yet to fight a true overseas war against a foreign power. The world’s major superpower was still the United Kingdom, which maintained colonies on every inhabited continent. Queen Victoria’s South American colony was British Guiana, which bordered Venezuela on the east. The question was where that border should be drawn:

An unofficial stalemate reigned for decades, but when gold was discovered in the disputed area it became clear that conflict was coming. By the early 1890s, Venezuela’s government was on the brink of war with the most powerful military in the world. They needed backup.

So Venezuela’s president, Joaquín Crespo, hired a lobbyist: the former U.S. ambassador to Caracas, William Lindsay Scruggs. Crespo knew Scruggs well: as the British historian R.A. Humphrey has written, the ex-ambassador was fired by the State Department for bribing him.

Scruggs launched a U.S. publicity campaign aimed at promoting Venezuela’s side. To sell his client, he appealed to history, claiming British action in South America would violate the Monroe Doctrine, a principle that the United States would always oppose European colonialism in the Americas.

The problem with Scruggs’ argument was that the Monroe Doctrine, despite its official-sounding name, wasn’t really a thing. It wasn’t even U.S. law, just a few sentences a former secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, inserted into a State of the Union by then-President James Monroe way back in 1823. Monroe had also said nothing about what the United States would do about European colonialism in the hemisphere, much less what circumstances would compel it to act.

But the lobbyist had excellent timing. The United States had gotten rich in the decades after the Civil War, and a lot of powerful people were eager to test their newfound strength overseas. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill, authored by Scruggs and passed by Congress, demanding Britain submit to arbitration over the Venezuelan border dispute. Secretary of State Richard Olney backed up the demand with a declaration so out of nowhere that it could have come from Sarah Sanders: “Today, the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.”

The British were so shocked they didn’t respond. Then they got mad. Olney’s claim was ridiculous on its face, the British prime minister barked: It had nothing do to with “the language of President Monroe” and even if it did, it could not be “sustained by any reasoning drawn from the law of nations.” Olney responded by threatening war. The U.S. would “resist by every means in its power” any encroachment on what it considered Venezuelan territory, he said, “as a willful aggression upon its rights.”

Olney meant U.S. rights, not Venezuelan ones. But by this point, no one was asking the Venezuelans what they wanted.

The war never happened. When push came to shove, the U.S. wasn’t ready to battle the British Empire in foreign waters, much less across Venezuela’s vast territory, and the British public didn’t care enough about South America to start one. Britain submitted to arbitration in France, where they got more or less the border they’d wanted. Venezuela howled, but the United States no longer cared. They’d gotten what they wanted, too: In 1903, the British government recognized the Monroe Doctrine on the floor of parliament, saying the principle had always had their “unwavering support.”

Never Enough, So Far

Emboldened by its power grab in the Venezuela crisis, the United States set out on its own road to empire, starting by invading of Spanish Cuba in 1898. (That’s where my new book will pick up the action, so stay tuned.) By the end of that war, the U.S. had colonies of its own, including Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines.

Many expected the U.S. to finally intervene in Venezuela in 1902, when the British, Germans, and Italians launched a joint blockade over a financial dispute. But by then, President Theodore Roosevelt had his hands full with a Philippine insurgency and the prospect of new wars in Central America. A war in Venezuela did not seem like any better of an idea than it had a few years earlier. The fallout helped convince Roosevelt and his successors to turn to economic pressure when military force was too complicated or expensive, especially in the Americas, in a strategy called “dollar diplomacy.”

After World War II, Washington supported Venezuelan governments, as long as they would grant U.S. access to the country’s valuable oil fields. That included the murderous dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez who had taken power in a coup d’état and banished the Communist Party in the 1950s. (When Pérez was overthrown, he fled to Miami.)

Even the often-fierce relationship between George W. Bush and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavéz was never enough to trigger an invasion. Chavéz accused the U.S. of being behind the 2002 coup attempt that briefly deposed him. Documents uncovered by freelance journalist Jeremy Bigwood showed the CIA knew about the coup in advance and withheld key information from Chavéz. But whatever the U.S. role had been, Chavéz returned to power after forty-seven hours.

Bush, the U.S. government, and the American people’s foreign policy attentions were soon too consumed with quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, and other matters at home intervene in Venezuela. Chavéz remained in power for another decade, warning until the end of his life of U.S. plots. Maduro, his vice president, succeeded him after his death from cancer in 2013.

¿Y Ahora?

The current crisis stems from a 2018 election, which Maduro held four months early without the participation of major opposition parties. The country is wracked by political violence, and its economy is a catastrophic mess.

Like everything else in his situational politics, Trump pretends not to like regime change when it suits him, but is a big fan when it does. Despite convincing credulous pundits that he was some kind of “non-interventionist” during his campaign, he backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and promised to commit war crimes as a candidate. In office, he has continued or accelerated interventions in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Niger, and Somalia, among other places. Last month, Trump vetoed a congressional resolution aimed at ending his support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

Trump was one of the first to recognize Guaidó after he declared himself president with the backing of the Venezuelan legislature. In February, Trump headlined a regime-change rally in Miami, where he warned Maduro: “You cannot hide from the choice that now confronts you.

The same impediments that stood in the way of past U.S. interventions are still there: Venezuela remains vast—bigger than Texas and Oklahoma combined, with towering mountains and dense cities. Once again, European powers (this time, Russia) could make war there extremely costly.

But if Trump does pull the trigger, the groundwork laid by William Scruggs and Richard Olney back in 1895 will have made it possible. When Dexter Filkins asked Bolton about invading Venezuela for the New Yorker, the mustachioed advisor said it was a question of sovereignty.

“The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” Bolton replied. “It’s our hemisphere.”

Top photo: Caracas protester in 2015. Her headband says “Forgetting is Forbidden.” By Carlos Díaz, Creative Commons license.

More on Venezuela

A frustrated Trump questions his administration’s Venezuela strategy (WaPo)

A breakdown of what happened on April 30 from Spain’s El Pais (in Spanish)

British historian R.A. Humphrey’s account of the 1895 Venezuela crisis (JSTOR account required):

What else I’ve been reading

Sean Illing took up Ben Shapiro on his standing request to be debated, and promptly tore him to shreds (Vox)

Nate Powell has a great cartoon essay on militarism, fascism, police, and Marvel comics (Popula)

Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is as good as everyone says

Gangsters of Capitalism

I’m planning to use this newsletter for periodic updates on my upcoming book, Gangsters of Capitalism: On the Trail of Smedley Butler and the Marines who Made America’s Empire, to be published by St. Martin’s Press.

Today’s update is ………….. I’m still writing it. Just back from Nicaragua and Panama on book research, though! It’s gonna be good.

That’s it for now! Thanks for reading. Sign up for more at or using the button below. Let me know what you’d like to see in future editions. And again, feel free to share this one around. Hasta la próxima.