On May 4th, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced that his government had stopped an attempted amphibious invasion near the capital of Caracas. In total, with several dead, 13 of the conspirators were captured by Venezuelan security forces, two of which have been identified as U.S. citizens, Airan Berry and Luke Denman, according to documentation provided by Maduro in a televised address. Jordan Goudreau, an American veteran and leader of the Florida-based private security company Silvercorp USA, claimed responsibility for the invasion and admitted to Reuters that Berry and Denman had been working under his orders. In a video broadcast on state television, Denman claimed that the security firm had been contracted by the opposition government under Juan Guaidó to overthrow Maduro. Goudreau, in a statement to Bloomberg, alleged that, though the “main mission” has failed, the “secondary mission” to “set up insurgency camps against Maduro” is already in full swing despite offering no evidence to back up these claims.
Guaidó himself has denied that his government has had anything to do with the alleged plot, claiming that Maduro is using it to distract from a violent prison riot over food shortages that had occurred only days earlier. Both Goudreau and members of Guaidó’s own government seem to contradict this. JJ Rendón, a Venezuelan political strategist, detailed to the Washington Post the October meeting in Miami that allegedly bore the agreement for the attempted invasion. Hernán Alemán, a Venezuelan legislator, provided a similar story to the New York Times, even admitting that he had help raise money for the plot. Prominent Venezuelan journalists such as Luz Mely Reyes have strongly questioned Guaidó’s denial. Delcy Rodriguez, Vice President to Maduro, even claims to have evidence linking both the U.S. and Colombia to the conspiracy, though both governments have denied any involvement.
Many have already drawn clear comparisons between this failed invasion and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, in which Cuban-American exiles backed by the United States sought to overthrow the Castro government. Brett McGurk, a diplomat under the Obama and Trump Administrations, even called the plot a “Keystone Cops Bay of Pigs,” and questioned the quality of American intelligence on Venezuela. Both incidents are reflective of an ugly leftover of Cold War-era foreign policy: the U.S. response to nations it considers as ideological enemies is to consistently demand nothing less than total regime change. If need be – and, historically, American officials always insist the need – that regime change may not only be advocated for through diplomacy and public declaration, but may also be enforced through instances of violent intervention.
Even though forced intervention is illegal under international law (except in the invocation of Responsibility to Protect, which only came into existence in 2005), regime change interventionism is still a pillar of American foreign policy when it comes to its socialist enemies, particularly in Latin America. The history of this policy is littered with failures, with the Bay of Pigs invasion ending in the most significant victory of Castro’s military career. The 1973 CIA-backed coup of President Salvador Allende ended with the establishment of a junta that would brutalize Chile for nearly two decades. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger allegedly encouraged the 1976 coup against Argentine President Isabel Perón, installing a military government that would torture, murder, and disappear as many as 30,000 people.
Even outside of Latin America, the policy remains a failure. In 1953, the CIA deposed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq after he nationalized the country’s oil industry, reinstalling Mohammad Reza Shah as Iran’s sole ruler. After decades of corruption and repression under the Shah’s government, Iran would have a revolution in 1979 and install Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader of the new Islamic Republic. With the installation of Khomeini, a direct result of public anger over American interventionism, the United States would gain one of its defining contemporary enemies, an enemy that it helped create.
Of all the examples listed previously, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion proves regime change policy does not work. It is a notorious stain on U.S.-Cuban relations, and provided Fidel Castro the confidence to send anti-imperialist military aid throughout Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The coups in Chile and Argentina prove that, even if the policy is successful in the short-run, it can permanently cripple these countries in the near future.
Even though the military governments have been out of power for approximately thirty and forty years respectively, neither country has fully recovered. Chile still grapples with a constitution implemented by the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet, and thousands of Argentines continue to mourn for forced disappearances the government has yet to rectify. Even the coup in Iran, which for many years appeared to be a great success, turned out to be one of America’s greatest failures, one which may turn out to be irreversible with the total lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
While regime change policy clearly does not work, it is especially a failure in Venezuela. Venezuela is not Cuba. Maduro, even with his authoritarian leanings, is not, has never been, and will never be Fidel Castro. The thorough and effective ways the Castro government has been able to selectively restrict their population are too detailed and multitudinous to explain here, but it is safe to say that Castro provided the image to unite Cubans and the structural force to keep them that way or face exile. Even Hugo Chávez, Castro’s strongest admirer, did not preside over a united Venezuela, and Maduro surely did not inherit one, either. To compare Venezuela to the imperfect but functioning democracies of Mossadeq’s Iran, Allende’s Chile, and Perón’s Argentina would be inappropriate, but to compare it in any way to Fidel’s Cuba, a totalitarian state in most senses, would be just as incorrect.
Unlike Cuba, where maintaining any sort of organized opposition is both incredibly dangerous and functionally impossible, Venezuela has a present and politically active opposition who control a fair portion of the Venezuelan government. Even with Guaidó’s gradually fading spotlight, the opposition still controls the legislature through their majority in the National Assembly. Additionally, with the two dueling governments, as well as plenty others who do not support Maduro but reject Guaidó’s claim to the presidency, Venezuela’s governmental powers are extremely decentralized, much more than Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, or current President Miguel Díaz-Canel would ever allow.
Independent of the formal government, Venezuela has a devastating and pervasive issue with drug trafficking and organized crime, a nonexistent issue in Cuba. As such, using a kingpin strategy-style attack – one that failed to depose the most highly-centralized regime in the Americas, no less – on a country as decentralized, confounded, and varied in its struggles as Venezuela, from its very inception, simply would not work.
Much like many of the other historical examples of regime change interventionism, even if the alleged invasion had been successful and Guaidó had taken his place as President of Venezuela, the crisis would not be over. The country would still face a constitutional conflict between his faction, angry Maduro supporters, and those who support neither president. The issue of organized crime would remain untouched, perhaps even worsen depending on the reaction of Venezuela’s pro-Maduro military. Venezuelan citizens would still face unlivable levels of inflation, as well as food and medicine shortages, a situation that grows even more dire with the coronavirus pandemic. While many variables make speculation difficult, a coup against the Maduro government would likely only further the irreparable damage caused by the current crisis in the short-run, even if it would appease U.S. interests in the region.
With the vibrant opposition, as well as an active Venezuelan-American community, the United States should seek diplomatic engagement with the Maduro government to encourage gradual opening in favor of humanitarian relief and democratic transition. In March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the “Democratic Framework for Venezuela,” which outlined the process of forming a transition government made up of both Maduro supporters and the opposition. Elected members of the National Assembly from all represented sides would, together, elect members of a so-called “Council of States,” that would elect a transition president and organize elections in which they would be barred from running.
While it was rejected by Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and criticized for coming many months too late, this is the kind of plan that Venezuela needs. They could offer the loosening of sanctions, even aid considering the undeniable damage the coronavirus is causing, and suggest that the transition process be monitored jointly by both the Organization of American States and the Bolivarian Alliance. It is vital that the United States take care to reduce its hostile language toward the Maduro regime and its allies and begin to engage in confidence-building measures, even if they are small, in order to facilitate eventual peaceful transition in Venezuela – with or without Guaidó.
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