In the late 19th century, modern methods of transport including rail, steamers and ultimately the internal combustion engine automobile, made it so that parts of Africa once remote to European imperialists became far more physically accessible. This resulted in the so-called scramble for Africa that ushered in a period of competition between the powerful states of Europe over which African resources belonged to which European power. Of course, the resources in question belonged to indigenous African peoples and not to those from another continent, but since this ethical reality was always disregarded by imperial powers, Africa was certainly no exception to this long standing “rule”.
However, by the 1880s it was becoming clear that eventually, rival European empires would come into conflict with one another on African soil unless there was some sort of rule-book to determine and hence forth clearly define which African resources belonged to which European empire. It was these matters that were discussed at the 1884 Berlin Conference. In Berlin, representatives of the major European powers congregated in order to determine which parts of Africa would be the colonial mandate of which European powers. The conference also discussed shared rights to certain waterways including the River Congo.
Crucially, just as most forms of neo-imperialism portray the conquest and exploitation of foreign nations as exercises in “protecting people” or “promoting human rights”, as early as 1884, the liberal imperialist mindset was at play. The Berlin Conference of 1884 stated that its goal was to end the slave trade throughout various parts of Africa. This is how for example, the Congo Free State (owned personally by the King of Belgium) got its name. Incidentally, the Congo Free State, later to be more accurately called the Belgian Congo, was the location of one of the worst sustained genocides in human history.
The Berlin Conference of 1884 was a watershed moment when European leaders briefly put aside their own disputes in order to placidly carve up the political map of Africa without a single African being in the room. Today’s events in Venezuela are scarcely more sophisticated.
Last week, the United States decided to unilaterally recognise a little known Venezuelan figure as the President of Venezuela after the man known as Juan Guaido swore himself into power during a pantomime inauguration which took place in the middle of a Caracas street. The idea that leaders of wealthy and powerful nations can simply decide who rules which piece of foreign territory is the idea which ultimately underpinned the rationale and outcome of the Berlin Conference of 1884.
Likewise, just as the Berlin Conference of 1884 was presented to the world as an anti-slavery summit rather than a full-scale imperialist endeavour, so too are the nations recognising Guaido as the leader of Venezuela, disguising their attempt at regime change by decree as some sort of attempt to help the Venezuelan people. Frankly, if the US and others wanted to help Venezuela, they could simply airlift bags of cash or gold to the people. Instead they have opted to provoke the country to the brink of war.
The fact of the matter is that the neo-imperial powers of the 21st century are scarcely different in their behaviour vis-a-vis the imperial powers of the 19th century. In terms of their aims, they are in fact identical whilst the behaviour of Europeans at the 1884 Berlin Conference demonstrates that even in respect to methodology, not a great deal has changed over the last 135 years.