The George W. Bush administration had a stated policy of trying to isolate Venezuela from its neighbors, and the strategy ended up isolating Washington instead. President Obama, in his first meeting with hemispheric leaders in Trinidad in 2009, promised to turn a new page. But today, his administration finds itself even more isolated than that of his predecessor, and for much the same reasons.
Consider the lopsided vote on Venezuela at the Organization of American States earlier this month. Not only did the OAS reject Washington’s attempt to get the organization to intervene in Venezuela, but to add insult to injury, 29 countries passed a resolution expressing their solidarity with the government of President Nicolás Maduro, with only 3 against. It is hard to imagine a more resounding diplomatic defeat in a body where the US government still has a disproportionate influence.
The Obama administration seems surrealistically unaware that this is a different hemisphere than it was 15 years ago. Governments representing the majority of Latin America are now from the left, including Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Venezuela in South America and El Salvador and Nicaragua in Central America. These governments emphatically reject Washington’s depiction of the recent events in Venezuela as a government trying to “repress peaceful protesters.” Instead, they share Maduro’s view that the protests are an attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government, which has been the stated goal of the protest movement’s leadership from the beginning. Even President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, who is reluctant to criticize Washington, used the word “destabilization” to describe the protests. These governments see that Washington is using its muscle to support this effort.
They have seen this movie before. In 2002, the Bush administration “provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the military coup” that briefly overthrew then-President Hugo Chávez, according to the State Department. After the coup failed, Washington stepped up funding to opposition groups, which has continued to this day.
These leaders respect Maduro and have every reason to believe him when he says he is trying to prevent violence. The government has arrested at least 21 security officers so far. Despite crimes committed by individual security officers, there is no evidence that Maduro’s administration has intended to use violence to repress dissent. Since the protests began, most of the deaths associated with them have been at the hands of protesters, not security forces.
Ecuador and Bolivia also faced violent protests when right-wing forces similar to those leading the opposition in Venezuela tried to topple their governments in 2008 and 2010, respectively. South America, led by Brazil, rallied to their cause in these cases. They did the same for Venezuela last April when people were killed (in that case almost all Chavistas) in demonstrations against Maduro’s election victory. There, too, they saw Washington on the wrong side, pouring fuel on the flames by refusing to recognize the results of a democratic election that were completely certain. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her still well-loved predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, denounced US “interference.”
The Obama administration’s manipulation of the OAS in the aftermath of the 2009 military coup in Honduras — to help the legitimize the dictatorship — spurred the rest of the region to form a new hemispheric organization, CELAC, without the United States and Canada. True to form, it was only the United States and Canada, joined by the right-wing government of Panama, that objected to the March 7 OAS resolution.
The rest of the hemisphere will oppose any attempt by the United States to put a relatively small number of protesters led by right-wing politicians on an equal footing with a democratically elected government — which is similar to what Washington did when it arranged “mediation” between the Honduran dictatorship and the democratically elected government it overthrew in 2009. The region sees Washington as trying to delegitimize the government of Venezuela, thereby encouraging violence and destabilization.
If the Obama administration wants to improve its relations with the region, it could start by joining the rest of the hemisphere in accepting the results of democratic elections.