At the turn of the twentieth century, the US wanted to build a canal in Central America connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. However, Colombia, the best site for the waterway, was driving a hard bargain, so the US fomented a rebellion in the country and prized away what would become Panama. Later, in 1954, the US deposed Guatemala’s democratically elected government after it enacted land reforms that hurt the monopolistic interests of an American concern, United Fruit. “There are those who are Christian and support free enterprise, and there are the others,” said then-US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles at the time.
Colombia and Guatemala aren’t outliers. Stephen Kinzer, author of Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, counts 14 instances of US interventionism over a 110-year period rounded out by the ouster of Saddam in 2003. Although practice supposedly makes perfect, the US’ record of colonial intrigue is lousy. Typically, the scheming results in “blowback,” with the ultimate outcome undermining American interests, while also inflicting great damage on countries whose governments have run afoul of Washington. Removing Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, for example, paid short-term dividends to the US, but it eventually culminated in that country’s clerical revolution decades later, while the brutality of the American-installed puppet regime in Guatemala touched off a 30-year civil war in which hundreds of thousands died.
Yet the seductions of power are often too great, the hubris too overwhelming, to practice forbearance, so it may come as a surprise that the US hasn’t taken out its irritating blowhard to the south, Hugo Chavez. Since coming to power in 1999, the Venezuelan Caudillo has made much hay cheerfully ridiculing the US and cozying up to America’s enemies, all without reprisal from Washington. (The US’ role in a short-lived 2002 coup ousting Chavez remains murky).
The reason for such restraint has nothing to do with enlightened leadership; rather, headaches resulting from reckless regime change in the Middle East have precluded Washington from doing the same in Latin America. Only so many balls can be juggled at once. But the unusual circumstance of American inaction in the face of such eye poking from a tin pot miscreant presents a rare opportunity to gauge non-interventionism versus its oft-tried belligerent alternative. The results are promising.
Chavez’s Venezuela 13 years into his so-called Bolivarian Revolution is an unhappy place. While dramatic gains in reducing poverty and economic inequalities have been made, much of it is a result of government spending facilitated by high oil prices, which have risen during Chavez’s tenure from roughly $9 to more than $100 a barrel. But such bounty can hide a mountain of ills. It is likely that the country’s underlying and structural problems will reemerge if and when oil prices drop, especially since Venezuela, one of the world’s largest oil producers, remains heavily dependent on its fossil fuel industry.
Yet even during these flush times, the country’s problems are manifest. Corruption is rampant, as is crime, and the economy is catastrophically mismanaged. Misbegotten price controls have created shortages of basic commodities. As a recent article in the New York Times highlights, lines form at dawn at government-subsidized stores in Caracas to purchase frozen chickens (one per customer) and cooking oil. Even toilet paper is scarce. “Venezuela is too rich a country to have this,” Nery Reyes, 55, a restaurant worker, told the Times. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s inflation rate, nearly 28 percent, is one of the highest in the world, which is fast-eroding the economic progress made by the poor during Chavez’s reign.
It is unclear whether Chavez will live long enough to contest the upcoming presidential elections in October given his advancing cancer. Regardless, his record is increasingly in tatters, and this bodes well for “Gringos” and non-Gringos alike. By not resorting to regime change in Venezuela, America has allowed Chavez to defeat himself rope-a-dope style, setting the stage for a successor regime that is less malignant.
Of course, such patience has not come cost free. Chavez’s support for FARC insurgents in Colombia, his material and moral backing of Syria’s butcher, Bashar al-Assad, and his cozying up to Iran and Russia have all undermined US and global security. His strong-arm tactics at home have also severely undermined Venezuela’s democracy. But US forbearance, though the result of our preoccupation with events elsewhere, will eventually pay dividends. Venezuelans will not have reason to identify with the lament of Mexican strongman Porfirio Diaz, who famously said: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!” Given the US’ fetish with fomenting regime change, that’s progress.