Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
How did it come to pass that President Donald Trump – who insults Latin American migrants, vows to build a wall to keep them out, embraces authoritarian leaders around the world and undermines democracy at home – is suddenly backing a pro-democracy uprising in Venezuela, recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, and doing it with the support of most Latin American nations, along with the world’s leading liberal democracies?
If you are skeptical about Trump’s claim that he cares about democracy in Venezuela, I’m right there with you. Trump has made it inescapably clear he has a soft spot for dictators and no great passion for liberal democracy, with its pesky separation of powers, independent rule of law, free press and protection of minorities.
That, however, doesn’t mean he is wrong in backing the opposition against President Nicolas Maduro. Trump is supporting Venezuelans’ legitimate demands for genuine democracy in a contest that, as I have written, is not a Cold war-era battle between left and right, but a 21st-century one that pits Maduro, a populist authoritarian, against Guaido, who is backed by democracies such as Canada, the European Union and most Latin American nations.
The US position is one that many of us, including Trump critics, believe is justified – as long as the President and his top aides continue to work alongside other democracies to back the opposition and manage to refrain from intervening militarily or significantly worsening the hardships of the Venezuelan people.
To understand better how and why the United States decided to get involved, we need to look at what is happening in Venezuela, Latin America and beyond.
The history of US policy in the region is a winding landscape of neglect, missteps and a few good ideas. Critics of the US decision to back Guaido are both skeptical of Trump and wary that Washington will repeat its mistakes.
In 1823, President James Monroe announced what later became known as the Monroe Doctrine, which warned the colonial powers in Europe to stay away from the Americas. But the United States went on to exert its own power over Latin America. At the turn of the century, Teddy Roosevelt helped orchestrate Panama’s secession from Colombia to secure US control over the Panama Canal.
And during the Cold War, Washington sowed resentment in Latin America by supporting several right-wing coups. In Chile, the United States backed the uprising against President Salvador Allende, which led to Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
But not every US policy promoted tyranny; some recognized why an impoverished region might consider radical alternatives and sought to address the causes.
President John F. Kennedy, who was determined to improve US relations in Latin America, tried to use economic development as a way to stem the spread of communism. In his inaugural address in 1961, Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress and told “our sister republics south of our border” that the United States would help in “casting off the chains of poverty.” He called the plan “a vast cooperative effort … to satisfy the basic needs of the (Latin) American people for homes, work and land, health and schools.”
Under President Bill Clinton, the United States partnered with Bogota on Plan Colombia – a successful, multipronged policy initiated in 2000 that helped the Colombian government retake the country from guerrilla groups and drug traffickers, while aiming to strengthen economic development and democratic institutions.
Colombia was still in the midst of a longstanding conflict between the government, Marxist guerrilla militias and paramilitary groups years after the Soviet Union collapsed. In addition to military assistance, Plan Colombia focused on improving the rule of law, social and economic development, and human rights.
Despite some unintended consequences, the policy pulled the country back from the brink of collapse, and ultimately led to both a peace deal and a Nobel Peace Prize – for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. With Washington’s help, a more peaceful Colombia was able to make a dramatic transition from iron fist to velvet glove and turn a near-failed state into a success story.
In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, with the promise of fighting corruption and poverty and writing a new socialist constitution. His ascent sparked the so-called “pink tide,” which saw socialist leaders rising to power across the continent.
But the price of export commodities that had bankrolled leftist governments such as Venezuela’s eventually collapsed. Economies that had been growing started to shrink, and corruption scandals exploded across the region.
Chavez’s handpicked successor, Maduro, was elected in 2013, and Venezuela fell into a recession the following year as a result of the drop in oil prices, catastrophic economic mismanagement and rampant corruption. This has caused unspeakable human suffering, hunger and inflation, which is expected to hit 10 million% this year.
As Maduro accelerated the drift toward dictatorship, millions of desperate, fleeing Venezuelans poured across the region, straining the resources of neighboring countries with close ties to the United States. These countries looked for support from Washington, where the Trump administration is staffed with hard-liners whose views are favorable to intervention.
Latin American leaders plainly said they want a peaceful resolution that is achieved through diplomacy and carefully targeted pressure – not a US military intervention, which Trump has previously discussed.
Adding to the geopolitical incentives for Washington to take the crisis seriously, Russia and China have made deep inroads in Latin America. China has replaced the United States as a top trading partner in many Latin American countries, and Russia has pursued a concerted plan to challenge US political, economic and military dominance. It already has a satellite-tracking facility in Nicaragua, and in December, Russia showed off its military ties to Venezuela by flying supersonic jets across the Caribbean from Venezuela. The show of force was reportedly part of a plan to establish a long-term military presence on a Venezuelan island in the Caribbean Sea, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
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With Russia and China making moves, the Trump administration may have found a more compelling reason for action in Latin America. As the conflict intensifies, the United States and other democracies are right to continue supporting the opposition. Washington should help facilitate diplomatic negotiations that lead to new, fair and free elections, and coordinate international sanctions calibrated to pressure the regime without worsening the humanitarian crisis. The task is to find a path toward the peaceful restoration of democracy.
Like much of the world, Latin Americans are leery of Trump, the man who first appeared on their screens insulting Latin migrants. But people in the region tell me they are electrified at the prospect that Maduro’s repressive regime could finally fall and the suffering of the Venezuelan people could end. This conflict, they remind me, is not about the United States. It is about Venezuela. Washington should learn from its mistakes and remember that while it has the power to help the opposition succeed in its risky bid, it can also make matters much worse by overplaying its hand.