For Venezuela, the year started with a bang but half way through and things are starting to sound like a rapidly softening whimper. It was on 23 January that a hitherto little known figure called Juan Guaidó took to the streets of Caracas and declared himself the president of Venezuela. Normally such acts of delusion would not make international headlines – not least because Guaidó did not even stand in the then recently held presidential election in which incumbent Nicolas Maduro comfortably won another term.
But because US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Tweeted that the United States recognises Guaidó as Venezuela’s president, the world took notice. Soon Canada and much of the EU recognised a self-proclaimed leader as the real deal. But things did not go as planned after that point.
Donald Trump’s lack of interest (let alone enthusiasm) in Venezuela was apparent from the beginning. Whilst it seems clearer and clearer that Trump does not actually want war with Iran, he does seem to enjoy taunting the Iranian leadership in the same way that he did in respect of the DPRK prior to his unexpected but profound friendship with Kim Jong-un. But when it came to Venezuela, Trump allowed traditional neocon hawks like John Bolton and Elliott Abrams to do the talking.
When added sanctions failed to motivate a people whose dire economic situation did not inspire a mass mobilisation behind Guaidó, the coup plotters attempted to create trouble for Venezuela by arousing provocations on the Colombian border whilst months later, members of the military attempted to directly overthrow Maduro. Throughout all of this period, Maduro failed to respond with a heavy hand. Instead, the Venezuelan president more or less allowed events to unfold without taking action against provocations. Crucially, no state of emergency was declared and few prominent anti-Maduro figures were arrested let alone molested by the authorities. By taking a passive approach to the situation, Maduro took a gable but this gamble appears to have paid off.
As it turned out, convincing the military to mutiny proved to be as ineffective as trying to convince the Venezuelan masses to rebel. Whilst a small scale coup attempt did take place, it quickly collapsed on itself and its main leaders soon fled the country or took refuge inside friendly foreign embassies. As such, by allowing the coup leadership to fail on their own, Maduro proved that his softly-softly approach not only saved him from international accusations of being a “brutal dictator” but it allowed the world to see that whilst Venezuelans aren’t economically happy, they are all too aware that a lawless and possibly violent regime change would only make things go from bad to worse.
But whilst many interested observers have commented on what this says about the precarious state of Venezuela, few have made the far more pertinent observations regarding what this says about Trump’s United States.
Whilst the DPRK would be an impossible place against which to start a further war due to the fact that it is nuclear armed and so are its sympathetic neighbours China and Russia and whilst Iran would be a dangerous place to try and re-create the failed “shock and awe” of the 2003 Iraq war, Venezuela is by contrast a much softer target by any stretch of objective military strategic planning. Venezuela’s lack of South American allies and its militarily obsolete hardware would only further contribute to this reality.
Why then is Nicolas Maduro still in power? The answer is because Donald Trump was willing to let his neocon advisers have their chance to do their best/worst in Venezuela but Trump did not particularly care if they succeeded. The fact that Trump did not want expensive, deadly and infrastructurallly damaging full scale war and did not even seek to bribe members of the Venezuelan military sufficient to make such an offer one that they “could not refuse”, further speaks to the fact that Trump did not give the likes of Bolton and Abrams too much of a budget by otherwise lofty US standard.
Had Bolton and Abrams succeeded in overthrowing Maduro, Trump may well have basked in a “victory” as any US leader would have done in such a situation. However, because Bolton and Abrams have failed, Trump now has further leverage against them when it comes to their hawkish views on the DPRK, Iran and beyond – views that Donald Trump is ever more openly challenging not least because of recent remarks where he acknowledged the dangers of a very real military-industrial complex.
Taken as a whole, what matters most is that Trump did not see fit to put in much effort to overthrow a leftist government in Washington’s Latin American “backyard”. By the standards of Washington’s frequent meddling in Latin America which long predated the advent of NATO, Trump’s move is not insignificant.
An obvious question which must now be asked is: if Trump was unwilling to do anything significant in militarily weak Venezuela, what actions would he risk taking against a far more militarily capable Iran? Although the influential Israel lobby is clearly more concerned with Iran than Venezuela, there is still an element of ‘Donald Trump being Donald Trump’ when it comes to having a distaste for expensive, deadly and ultimately very non-heroic wars. Trump likes to be a winner and surely for such a man, seeing the disasters that previous US leaders got into in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria makes the prospect of war with Iran something of an unattractive one.
By no means does this discount the possibility of limited US or allied provocations against Iran, but when it comes to a full scale war, it seems highly unlikely that such a thing would be inflected against Iran. Soon, Juan Guaidó will re-enter into talks with the government which represents a major climb-down since his halcyon days of claiming to be the sole legitimate political leader of Venezuela who refused any form of mediation.
Clearly, Washington is losing interest and is now simply trying to save face after Guaidó and his comrades became involved in a scandal which allegedly saw them absconding with aid money for their personal use. “Project Venezuela coup” has failed, “project DPRK war” has turned into project peace and “project regime change Iran” may well meet a fate that’s somewhere between the previous two.