Week of February 2nd, 2019

Trump Intervention in Venezuela
and the Monroe Doctrine

After US orchestrated the challenge to President Maduro legitimacy in Venezuela and recognizing the leader of general assembly Guaido as an interim president, the conflicting claims of who is president had a new layer of complexity added to it. On Monday during a press briefing by National Security Advisor John Bolton he was photographed carrying a notepad which appeared to have a handwritten note saying, “5,000 troops to Columbia.”

Was this a breach of security or a deliberate psychological warfare ploy?  Bolton did tell reporters, while holding the notepad, “We also today call on the Venezuelan military and security forces to accept the peaceful, democratic and constitutional transfer of power.”

Is there a serious plan to send 5,000 troops to Columbia?

Undoubtedly, the US is making contingency plans, especially after Venezuelan President Maduro ordered all US diplomatic personal to leave the country within 72 hours – a move he has modified to show flexibility and desire for peaceful outcome.

The question asked by many is why Trump is considering military action in Venezuela, when he is actively withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan.

In addition to Trump obsession with Venezuela and its resources, the justification can be a nearly 200 years old doctrine that is one of the keystones of US diplomatic/intervention policy – the Monroe Doctrine.

The Monroe Doctrine was a policy of opposing European colonialism in the Americas beginning in 1823. It stated that further efforts by European nations to take control of any independent state in North or South America would be viewed as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” At the same time, the doctrine noted that the U.S. would recognize and not interfere with existing European colonies nor meddle in the internal concerns of European countries. The Doctrine was issued at a time when nearly all Latin American colonies of Spain and Portugal had achieved, or were at the point of gaining, independence.

The US was afraid that European countries would try to recolonize South America after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  Austrian chancellor and foreign minister Prince Metternich of Austria was angered by the statement and wrote privately that the doctrine was a “new act of revolt” by the U.S. that would grant “new strength to the apostles of sedition and reanimate the courage of every conspirator.”

It helped that Great Britain also supported the aims of the Monroe Doctrine, which added some military might to the policy of the fledgling United States.

The Monroe Doctrine has undergone many interpretations over the last two centuries and has been invoked by many presidents including presidents Grant, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan.  However, Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry told the Organization of American States in November 2013 that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”

Although the doctrine was originally seen as a warning to European powers to keep out of the Americas, it later was a statement that the Americas were part of the United States’ sphere of influence.  As a result, the opinion of South America regarding the doctrine has fluctuated from positive to negative.

However, Trump’s apparent interpretation is much in line with American past policy.  The Roosevelt Corollary asserted the right of the U.S. to intervene in Latin America in cases of “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation,” – as move that sparked outrage in South America at the time.  However, as many South American countries are now refusing to recognize the Maduro regime as legitimate, there is little criticism of the doctrine – now.

Clearly, the Monroe Doctrine is being applied as in February 2018, when former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson praised the Monroe Doctrine as “clearly … a success”, warning of “imperial” Chinese trade ambitions and touting the United States as the region’s preferred trade partner.

Since then, CIA Director in Aug 2017 Mike Pompeo declared that Venezuela’s deterioration was the result of interference from Iranian- and Russian-backed groups. “The Cubans are there; the Russians are there, the Iranians, Hezbollah are there. This is something that has a risk of getting to a very very bad place, so America needs to take this very seriously,” he said.

– a clear statement that the Monroe Doctrine can be applied.

This is not out of line with the policy of the majority of American presidents. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy justified the quarantine of Cuba by mentioning the Monroe Doctrine.  He said, “The Monroe Doctrine means what it has meant since President Monroe and John Quincy Adams enunciated it, and that is that we would oppose a foreign power extending its power to the Western Hemisphere [sic], and that is why we oppose what is happening in Cuba today. That is why we have cut off our trade. That is why we worked in the OAS (organization of American States) and in other ways to isolate the Communist menace in Cuba. That is why we will continue to give a good deal of our effort and attention to it.”

The Trump Corollary

The Monroe Doctrine has been defined by several corollaries and interpretations in the past two centuries.  Now it appears that Trump is prepared to add his own.

In fact, this is not the first time that the Monroe Doctrine has been used to interfere in Venezuela affairs.   The Olney declaration was United States Secretary of State Richard Olney’s interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine when a border dispute occurred between Britain and Venezuela governments in 1895. Olney claimed that the Monroe Doctrine gave the U.S. authority to mediate border disputes in the Western Hemisphere.

Intervening in Venezuela’s domestic affairs is to be justified in American eyes as a preemptive measure to the increasing instability in Central America and the northern part of South America, which is creating a refugee problem on America’s southern border.  By stabilizing Venezuela, it can stabilize the region and lower the rate of illegal immigration.

Today, the US is clearly worried about the military and economic influence of Iran, Russia, and China in Venezuela.   However, despite the handwritten note on Bolton’s notepad, there are a multitude of options available.

Sending 5,000 American soldiers to Columbia is an unlikely option because aside from protecting the Columbia/Venezuela border, they can do little but provide humanitarian aid to refuges.  It’s also likely to anger Columbian and Venezuelan people.

A more likely option is to provide arms to the supporters for interim President Guaido.  This may already be taking place as it has been reported that a Venezuelan colonel living in exile was arrested as he tried to slip back into Venezuela in order to organize and arm the opposition.  How much backing the rebels have is unknown, however, it could be considerable if American intelligence services are committed to backing them.

Defectors from Venezuela’s Army are asking for arms instead of a broad military intervention.  “As Venezuelan soldiers, we are making a request to the US to support us, in logistical terms, with communication, with weapons, so we can realize Venezuelan freedom,” Guillen Martinez told CNN.

Hidalgo Azuaje said: “We’re not saying that we need only US support, but also Brazil, Colombia, Peru, all brother countries, that are against this dictatorship.”

They told CNN they flatly reject any suggestion of a broader US military intervention in support of Guaidó. “We do not want a foreign government [to] invade our country, A” Hidalgo Azuaje said. “If we need an incursion, it has to be by Venezuelan soldiers who really want to free Venezuela.”

Of course, merely arming the rebels may not be enough.  Venezuela has a large military and the loyalty of the units is currently lies with president Maduro.  If they continue to support Maduro, they can expect to remain in control of the cities.  This leaves the rebels in control of the rural areas and could mean a long civil war.

Much may depend on the intentions of Russia and Iran.  If they decide to intervene militarily, the US could face another failure like Syria.

Russia does have a significant economic interest in Venezuela.  They have invested about $6 billion in loans that are to be paid off in oil exports.  There also reports that 20 tons of Venezuelan gold is being moved to Russia.

Russia has made it clear that it intends to protect its economic investment.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Moscow will do “anything” to support Maduro.  “Russia is prepared to help resolve the political situation [in Venezuela] in any way possible, without interfering into the country’s internal affairs.”

Another tool that the US can use is economic sanctions against Chinese, Iranian, and Russian companies that are in Venezuela.  This is a tool that hasn’t been used much before in supporting the Monroe doctrine.

The economic sanctions would likely be directed towards Venezuela’s biggest asset – oil.  Unfortunately for Venezuela, its oil is a “sour” petroleum, unlike the benchmark oil that is considered “sweet.”  Consequently, it sells at a discount to premium “sweet” oil like West Texas Intermediate Crude.

Since the world is experiencing an oil surplus, especially of sweet oil (the US is now the largest oil exporter and much of its oil is sweet West Texas oil), Venezuela’s oil isn’t in great demand because it requires additional refining and many of these refineries have experienced reduced production.

Supporters of US aggressive policy in Venezuela are claiming that although Russia, Iran, and China could give active support for Maduro, all three nations must evaluate the risk and potential gain.  Is the availability of sour oil from a collapsing oil sector worth intervening in the American backyard?  If they try to keep Maduro in power, will the US try to leverage its position by intervening in the South China Sea, Syria, or Yemen and the Gulf region?

The fact is that all three nations may feel that recognizing Venezuela as part of the American backyard may make more sense than forcing the US to increase its activity in Iran, Russia, and China’s backyards.

What we may be seeing is a new corollary of the Monroe Doctrine – The Trump Corollary.  It would reaffirm the right of the US to interfere in South and Central American nations if it feels that it impacts American interests.  Unlike previous interpretations that focus more on military intervention, and despite Trump’s threats to use military option and retaining the War hawks (Bolton, Pompeo and Abrams) to deal with the crisis, the Trump Corollary looks at alternative options like support for non-conventional military forces, economic sanctions against nation and their companies, and taking a more active role in other parts of the world in order to counter a nation that is trying to increase its influence in the Americas.

No doubt, even though the Monroe Doctrine is nearly 200 years old, it remains a key tool of American foreign policy.