Venezuela’s Cold War
Recently, Russia has been flexing its foreign policy prowess around the world. A rise in political extremism has given the country ample opportunity to sow divisions within foreign countries for its own gain. The United States has traditionally risen to the challenge of combating Russia on the global stage, but a wave of wariness to get involved internationally has led Washington to pick and choose its battles more sparingly. Recently, both Russia and the U.S. set their sights on the presidency of one country: Venezuela.
Political instability came to a head in May 2018 when Nicolás Maduro was reelected in a highly controversial election. Many opposition candidates had been jailed or barred from running, calls of an unfair and unfree election were rampant, and the results were ultimately not recognized by the country’s National Assembly. Because of the lack of fairness in the election, President of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó invoked articles in the Venezuelan Constitution in order to declare himself President instead of Mr. Maduro. Over fifty countries have recognized Mr. Guaidó as President, while others recognize Mr. Maduro.
The problems in Venezuela started before 2018. One early indicator of the direction the country was heading was the “Freedom in the World” report for 1999-2000 during Hugo Chávez’s first year in office. This report, which measures political civil rights and liberties within a country, dropped Venezuela’s ranking from “Free” to “Partly Free.” Those rights and liberties only became worse under Mr. Maduro, who came to power in 2013. Now, his country ranks last in freedom in South America.
The Venezuelan government under both Mr. Chávez and Mr. Maduro made an effort to obscure economic and business deals from the Venezuelan people in order to avoid public scrutiny. This strategy led the country to seek out deals with non-democracies, such as China, Iran, Syria, and Russia. These countries all have strong authoritarian leaders who support other authoritarian leaders around the globe. As China and Russia’s influence grew on a global stage, so too did their influence over Venezuelan politics.
Russia has been a particularly outspoken proponent of Mr. Maduro’s administration’s claim to power. Russia has been complementing its political support of Mr. Maduro’s administration with military exercises, arms sales, and oil investments. Venezuela accounts for three-quarters of Russian profit from arms sales in Latin America. Rosneft, a state-owned Russian oil company, has an estimated $20 billion worth of assets in Venezuela. In the international community, rumors have been circulating that Mr. Maduro was planning to flee his own country, but Russia convinced him to stay. In conjunction with political and economic influence, Russia has also made efforts to influence Venezuelan media. Telesur, a state-owned television network in Caracas, has information sharing agreements with RT, a Russian state-owned television network.
These efforts are being watched with a wary eye from Washington. The U.S. has criticized Russia for trying to prop up the Maduro administration. The U.S. was the first, and has continued to be one of the most vocal, proponents of Mr. Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. In order to pressure the Maduro administration to relinquish power, Washington has imposed sanctions against Venezuela and countries who do not recognize Mr. Gaudió’s claim to the presidency. Part of the reason the U.S. has a special interest in the outcome of Venezuela is because of Venezuela’s ties with Cuba, an island notorious for defying the U.S. during the Cold War with the help of the Soviet Union. After American President Donald Trump rolled back President Barack Obama’s plans to open relations with Cuba, Cuba turned right back to their partnership with Russia. The U.S. does not want situation to happen again in Venezuela.
This is not the first country in which the U.S. and Russia have been diametrically at odds. Afghanistan, Cuba, Libya, and most recently Syria are but a few examples of proxy-conflict sites between the two global superpowers. The situation in Libya taught Russia that when the West gets involved in foreign conflicts, that country’s leader often ends up dead. The situation in Syria demonstrated to Moscow that “with a relatively small military commitment and some agile diplomacy,” Russia can prevent the death of foreign leaders friendly to Russia and “secure enormous enduring leverage over the local government,” says Matthew Rojansky, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.
The U.S. has failed to adequately address the situations on the ground in these countries. In Syria, President Obama famously drew his “red line,” threatening dire consequences if the Syrian government utilized chemical weapons on its own citizens. Just as famously, the Syrian government employed these weapons on Syrian citizens with no significant response from the United States. The refugee exodus from Syria continues to flow through the Middle East and Europe, extremism still flourishes within Syrian borders, and infrastructure continues to crumble.
The situation in Venezuela seems to have similarities to these historical conflicts. Russia wants the current administration to stay in power, while the U.S. hopes to unseat Mr. Maduro in favor of a change in administration. This particular case is important because it is in the U.S.’s own hemisphere, indicating a renewed level of boldness on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite a thawing in relations between the U.S. and Russia, largely because of the partnership between President Trump and President Putin, members of the presidents’ administrations have publicly exchanged heated words over the conflict in Venezuela. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that any “aggressive steps” in Venezuela would be met with severe repercussions. American National Security Adviser John Bolton addressed Russian actions in Venezuela with a clear warning: “This is our hemisphere.”
The cost of this conflict should not be understated. While the war for the presidency is waged on an international stage, the people of Venezuela are experiencing extreme hyperinflation, rolling blackouts, and in some cases, violence. Over three million Venezuelans have fled the country. Criminal activity is flourishing in the collapse of the economy while political violence and repression are on the rise.
President Trump was swept into office on the same wave of isolationism that is reverberating across world. In the past decade, American administrations have stepped back from the country’s traditional role of global police. This retreat from its historical position leaves a wide-open space on the global stage into which Russia has eagerly stepped. Although it is up for debate whether an American retreat from international intervention is beneficial, the U.S. undoubtedly causes harm when it approves half-hearted attempts to combat a global super power that is equipped and ready to challenge the traditional hegemony.
Russia may be squeezing into the Western hemisphere as payback for Washington’s consistent interference in its Eastern one. But this tit-for-tat game that Russia and the U.S. are playing has serious consequences on the people inside the countries they choose. Currently, the two countries are in a unique position that could alleviate suffering for millions of Venezuelans. The unprecedentedly positive relationship between President Trump and President Putin could be employed to cut short the suffering in Venezuela. The Trump administration could meet with its Russian counterpart in order to come to an agreement that would allow the Venezuelan people to decide their next President in a truly free and fair election. Additionally, a figurative ceasefire between the two countries would allow for aid to be delivered to the Venezuelan people, who are bearing the brunt of this conflict.
It is not the U.S.’s role to topple regimes unfavorable to its agenda, just as it is not Russia’s responsibility to keep in power an unpopular President favorable to its agenda. Both nations have tremendous power over the world and have historically wielded it irresponsibly and to the detriment of countries with less power and fewer resources. Russia’s recent boldness in extending into the Western hemisphere, coupled with its successful attempts to influence elections in Eastern Europe, has demonstrated to the world that it will quietly pick up the opportunities for influence that the United States dropped upon the election of President Trump. Venezuela, and the other countries made proxies for American-Russian conflict, deserve to hold that power themselves.
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