Teddy Roosevelt vs. Nicolás Maduro: U.S.-backed regime change in Venezuela
Teddy Roosevelt | Public Domain; Nicolas Maduro | Ariana Cubillos / AP

That the situation in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is very dire goes without saying. On top of an economic crisis there is political instability, as the right-wing opposition exploits the crisis to attempt the removal of the left-wing government of President Nicolás Maduro.

Numerous outside forces, including Latin American and European right-wing figures, are eagerly maneuvering to help topple the beleaguered Venezuelan president. So far their efforts to use the Organization of American States (OAS) to achieve this aim have not succeeded, because the bloc of left-leaning countries plus most of the small Afro-Caribbean states have not been willing to go along with them.

But within the U.S. political leadership, Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida are spearheading efforts to achieve “regime change” in Venezuela; they are not giving up, and are getting some support from Democrats as well.

What gives the United States the right to change other countries’ governments? Nothing in international law permits this, but the essential argument by the United States is based on the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and, especially, the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904. Taken together, they can be seen as an assertion that the United States holds superior sovereign power over the nations of Latin America. Few people in the United States are aware of the implications of this assertion, but it is a constant source of worry and irritation in the rest of the hemisphere.

Every time a U.S. politician refers to Latin America as being the “back yard” of the United States, these feelings come to the fore, because after all, one’s back yard is part of one’s property, right?

Monroe Doctrine: The United States’ “back yard” 

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was urged on U.S. President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams by the British government, which was interested in keeping Spain from regaining control of its colonies. British capitalists wished to replace Spain as the dominant economic force in Latin America. Most of the Latin American countries had recently freed themselves from European colonial rule, but Spain and France took a long time to reconcile themselves to the loss of their colonies, and there was a still a danger that they might send armies to reclaim them.

The Monroe Doctrine states that any attempt by an outside, meaning European, power to establish control over any Latin American country would be seen as an action hostile to the United States.

Sounds great, but the practice has been utterly hypocritical from the start.

The Monroe Doctrine was not invoked against France and in defense of Haiti when the restored Bourbon monarchy of France forced Haiti to pay huge indemnities for the loss of French “property” – including slaves – which supposedly resulted from Haitian independence. In fact, the political establishment in the United States, highly influenced by slave-owning interests, saw Haiti as a huge threat and the United States did not even recognize Haiti’s independence until Abraham Lincoln’s administration during the Civil War, in 1862.

Nor did the Monroe Doctrine prevent the United States itself from seizing more than half of Mexico’s national territory between 1836 and 1848. After the “Spanish American War” of 1898, the United States seized Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, and came close to seizing Cuba as well.

In 1903, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt sent warships to Panama, then a part of Colombia, to prevent Colombian troops from putting down a Panamanian separatist movement. The United States had wanted to purchase land in Panama for what later became the Panama Canal, but the Colombian Senate, unsatisfied with the financial offer being made by Washington, refused to ratify the treaty, so Roosevelt took unilateral military action, the new Republic of Panama was born, and the Canal was built.

In 1904, the Dominican Republic found itself stuck with unpayable debts to European creditors. Claiming that there was a danger that European nations might intervene militarily to collect their money, Roosevelt invoked the Monroe Doctrine to prevent this, but added a twist of his own, which became known as the “Roosevelt Corollary.”

Roosevelt “Corollary”

Teddy the “Rough Rider” laid out his argument in a characteristically belligerent and racist manner:

“Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count on our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need not fear interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to exercise an international police power.”

Thus the United States established itself as the policeman whose right and responsibility was to keep in line all the other independent Republics of the Americas. The ensuing U.S. intervention to collect the debts the Dominican Republic owed to its European creditors was only the first of many incursions undertaken on the basis of the “Roosevelt Corollary.”

During the first third of the twentieth century, U.S. troops intervened in Mexico, Panama, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua based on this pretext, leading to bloody battles in several countries. Generally, the “Roosevelt Corollary” was interpreted to mean establishing and maintaining national governments that would support the interests of major U.S. corporations.

During the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Roosevelt Corollary was dropped as a guide to policy, and replaced by the “Good Neighbor” policy, which officially respected the full sovereignty of the American republics.

But after FDR’s death, the end of the Second World War, and the beginning of the Cold War, the Roosevelt Corollary was back with a vengeance. It led to a whole series of other U.S. interventions to overthrow Latin American governments which showed signs of moving to the left or challenging the hegemony of the United States and U.S. corporations.

These interventions have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in multiple countries of Latin America. A minimal list would include Guatemala in 1954, Cuba in the first years of its Revolution, the Dominican Republic in 1965, Chile in 1973, and several South American countries thereafter, under “Operation Condor.” More recently, the United States connived in the overthrow of the left-leaning government of Honduras in 2009.

In each case, the overthrown government was replaced by a regime which severely curtailed the rights of the mass of the working population, sometimes with bloody violence. And also in each case, the U.S. intervention was prettied up by rhetoric about “failed states,” “rule of law,” and “human rights,” but the results were the opposite of what was promoted.

Teddy targets Caracas 

Now we see legislation being introduced in Congress that amounts to another “regime change” effort, this time focused on Venezuela. The main instigators of this legislation are the political representatives of the right-wing Cuban-exile clique in Florida, especially Senator Marco Rubio, Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, and Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtenin, all Florida Republicans.

There is every indication that President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would favor such “regime change.” (Tillerson is the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, some of whose Venezuelan assets were nationalized by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez).

The right-wing Republicans are joined by some Democratic Party politicians from Florida and New Jersey who have long anti-communist trajectories: Senator Bob Menendez and Congressman Albio Sires of New Jersey, and Senator Bill Nelson and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida.

Venezuelan police officers hit by a fire bomb thrown by anti-government protesters get off their bike to put out the flames, Caracas, June 5. | Fernando Llano / AP

But the surprise is that some Democrats who are not generally associated with the right wing of their party have also jumped into the mix. What on earth are people like Democratic Congressman Elliot Engel of New York and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland doing sponsoring such legislation? Why are people like Senators Kaine and Durbin, Democrats of Virginia and Illinois respectively, lending their names as co-sponsors to a resolution which calls on President Trump, of all people, to be tougher on Venezuela? And why have some liberal Democrats signed on to the identical House version?

The demands on the sovereign, independent government of Venezuela from this mixed group of people are astounding. They demand that the Venezuelan Supreme Court reverse a March 28 decision which they well know it already reversed. They call for Maduro to cancel plans for a Constituent Assembly which enjoys majority support among the Venezuelan people, according to recent polls. They call for elections out of the normal Venezuelan electoral calendar. They demand the freeing of “political prisoners,” who turn out to have been jailed for instigating bloody violence.

The United States itself would never accept such demands from foreign powers, especially if the implication were that if the demands were not granted, those same foreign powers would intervene to change our government.

The fact that U.S. politicians, including people who should know better, can lend their names to such demands shows that the mentality of the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary is still present. Another thing we need to fight to change.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.