On Monday, President Obama announced a "special state of emergency," saying that the situation in Venezuela is one that represents an extraordinary danger to U.S. interests and foreign policy. He also imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials, claiming that they were complicit in repressing Venezuelan civil society and freedom of the press.
Worldwide, and within the United States also, this set off an epidemic of head scratching, as people tried to figure out how internal developments in Venezuela somehow represent a danger for the United States. In Latin America, the reaction was more intense, as leaders and ordinary citizens recalled past instances in which U.S. interventions have led to "regime change" involving the deaths of thousands.
In the 19th century, the United States seized more than half of Mexico and all of Puerto Rico, plus the Guantanamo Bay area in Cuba. In the first half of the twentieth century, U.S. troops directly intervened in all of the countries of Central America, plus Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and some South American countries. In these interventions peoples' movements for democracy were crushed, dictators put in and propped up in power, and dissident leaders murdered, such as Augusto Cesar Sandino in Nicaragua and Charlemagne Peralte in Haiti.
The CIA-engineered overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, set off decades of civil war in which at least 200,000 people, mostly poor indigenous farmers, died. Multiple projects to destabilize Cuba began with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, including the disastrous Bay of Pigs adventure.
In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson ordered the invasion of the Dominican Republic to prevent a dictator from being overthrown by pro-democracy forces. In 1973 the U.S., after having done everything possible to destabilize the Chilean economy, backed a military coup against Socialist Party President Salvador Allende which led to the death of at least 3,000 and the imprisonment or exile of tens of thousands.
In the 1970s, the U.S. government collaborated in "Operation Condor" in which South American dictatorships carried out mass killings of dissidents. In the 1980s, U.S. interventions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras created more bloodbaths. The United States was complicit in coups in Venezuela (2002), Haiti (2004) and Honduras (2009).
In all of these interventions the purpose was to protect U.S. corporations' ability to exploit local populations and get hold of poor countries' national resources. But always a pretext was proclaimed that the United States was defending human rights, democracy and good government. Today it's "humanitarian intervention."
So when this past week U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki faced a press conference and claimed that the United States does not interfere in other countries' internal affairs, she was met with incredulous responses from the reporters.
Reminded of past interventions, Psaki said it would be better not to get into history. But history happened and cannot be wished away. People in the United States are often unaware of this history, while people in Latin America are very acutely aware of it.
An appeal for support from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro got an immediate positive response. Governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, all linked to Venezuela through the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) issued support statements denouncing Obama's announcement and especially the sanctions, as did Argentina and the People's Republic of China, a major rival of the United States in South American trade.
Bolivian President Evo Morales expressed the views of the region when he said "We condemn, we repudiate, in the 21st Century we will not accept this kind of intervention by the United States....All of our solidarity, all of our support goes to President Maduro, and the revolutionary Bolivarian government and people of Venezuela."
President Rafael Correa of Ecuador said, "It must be a bad joke, which reminds us of the darkest hours of our America, when we received [sic] invasions and dictatorships imposed by imperialism."
UNASUR (The Union of South American Nations), which includes every independent country in South America, had already moved to help Venezuela by organizing trade support to remedy some of the food scarcities which, along with inflation and dropping oil prices, are currently a source of disquiet. Also, UNASUR had assigned its Secretary General, former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, to talk to the Venezuelan government and its opponents for purposes of tension reduction. After Obama's action on Monday, UNASUR passed a resolution condemning any outside intervention in Venezuela's internal affairs. UNASUR will have a special emergency meeting on Mar. 14.
Protests against Obama's statement occurred in Venezuela and elsewhere, at a point at which the new U.S. approach to Cuba had created some goodwill for a change. The Venezuelan government asked for, and got, passage of an enabling law to allow it to deal with any new security threat. At least part of the opposition in Venezuela hurriedly distanced itself from Obama's proclamation. On Apr. 10 -12, Obama will have to face the hostility that this incident has created at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
Some U.S. officials are now seeming to say that they did not really mean that Venezuela represents and extraordinary threat to the United States, that this was legalistic language to make possible the imposition of sanctions on the Venezuelan officials-leading to more head scratching and quizzical looks.