Violence on the Venezuelan-Colombian Border

US policy is creating nonconstructive confrontation.

Let me start with a clear statement, which echos previous statements I have made about Venezuela: the current political and economic crisis in the country is an unnecessary, man-made tragedy started by the policies of the late Hugo Chávez and deepened by the current president, Nicolás Maduro.  My personal and professional preference would be for Maduro to leave power and for Venezuela to make its way back to democracy.  As always, however, the devil is firmly and implacably in the details.

For one, I am not sure that Juan Guaidó’s claim to the presidency is anywhere near sufficient, both in terms of the legality of the claim but more importantly in terms of the practical politics (in short:  as long as the military sides with Maduro, Guaidó can forget about it).  I discussed the basics of this about a month ago here.

Into this mix the US has decided to try and oust Maduro via international pressure (recognizing Guaidó) and seeking to deliver humanitarian aid via land-crossings from Colombia.

Here’s what happened yesterday via WaPo: Amid chaos and defiance, Venezuelan opposition faces off against security forces as Maduro digs in.

A massive effort to break President Nicolás Maduro’s blockade of humanitarian aid descended into violence and chaos Saturday across the string of border flash points — showing both the growing defiance of Juan Guaidó and the U.S.-backed opposition but also Maduro’s willingness to fight back.

In a day of fast-moving developments at various points, anti-Maduro crowds at a Colombian border town faced tear gas fired by Venezuelan units, cheered as dozens of Venezuelan security forces switched sides and tried to rescue desperately needed aid packages from burning trucks.

In all, 285 people were injured and 37 hospitalized on the Colombian side of the border, according to Colombia’s foreign minister. At least four were killed on the Venezuela-Brazil border after clashing with pro-government militias.

While I fully applaud, in the abstract, humanitarian aid being provided to the desperate people of Venezuela, and concur that the Maduro government blocking aid is a human rights abuse perpetrated against his own people, let’s be clear about the poor choices being made here by the US government.

Very specifically, the US government has made the delivery of humanitarian aid an act of political opposition to the Maduro government and an overt act of support for Guaidó. Further, the US named Elliot Abrams as the point man for the the policy, a person known to have helped to smuggle weapons to support insurgents in the past (into Nicaragua in the 1980s).  To top it all off, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), a very vocal critic of Maduro who is doing his best to sound like an old school Yankee interventionist, has been cheer-tweeting the entire event. All of this sums not to an authentic humanitarian mission, but rather is a recipe for a direct political confrontation with Maduro.  And desperate regimes have but one tool in such a confrontation:  violence.  And violence is what erupted.

The headline of this Atlantic piece hits the nail on the head:  When Humanitarian Aid Is Used as a Weapon to Bring Down Regimes.

Ostensibly aimed at alleviating Venezuela’s spiraling crises of hunger, health, and security, the humanitarian aid put forward by the United States also serves another purpose. Venezuelan opposition leaders here and the U.S. officials offering up much-needed aid posit that the mission could induce military officers to turn away from their government. Aid groups on the ground worry, however, that a political operation thinly padded with humanitarian objectives could send a precarious situation down an even worse path—disastrous American efforts to intervene in Latin America from decades past serve as a reminder of how badly things can go.

So, clearly, aid as a political tool, not aid as aid.  And everyone knows what is going on:

Venezuelan opposition leaders here say they plan to use U.S. assistance to turn this page in Venezuelan history. Guaidó has said that he asked Washington to bring the aid, and that his representatives will take it across the border on Saturday. Maduro has ordered the army not to allow in the supplies from the United States—the archenemy of the socialist revolution he inherited from Hugo Chávez—but American officials have called upon Venezuelan forces to forsake their orders.


For Ana Teresa Castillo, who runs an organization called Asociación Deredez that has for years helped hungry people at the Venezuela-Colombia border, the latest U.S. effort seems like a dangerous stunt.

And, hence, the results from yesterday.

If getting needed aid to desperate people is the goal, then the US government needs to let neutral,or at least semi-neutral, IGOs and NGOs do the work.  But, of course, the US government fears that relieving pressure on Maduro in such a way would help him stay in power (which again underscores that US aid was an anti-regime weapon, not a crisis alleviation tool).

Meanwhile, Senator Rubio is dangerously sounding escalation alarms with tweets like the following:

The logic is clear:  Venezuela has attacked the sovereign territory of Colombia, and hence a response is warranted and acceptable (if not a moral imperative).

And also from the interventionist’s playbook he is suggesting a direct threat to the US. This would suggest, again, that a military response from the US is necessary and justifiable:

And lest we be unclear on what he wants, he tweeted this:

This is Manuel Ortega, who was ousted by a the US invasion of Panama in 1989. The implication of the tweet is clear.

None of  this is new–the US has almost always cited US national security concerns (as well as claims of simply wanting to protect democracy) when it has intervened in the region (via WaPo):

A 2005 Harvard University study lists 41 examples of U.S. intervention in Latin America over a century.

“In nearly every case, U.S. officials cited U.S. security interests, either as determinative or as a principal motivation,” historian John H. Coatsworth wrote in that study. “With hindsight, it is now possible to dismiss most [of] these claims as implausible.”

There is no easy solution to the problems in Venezuela.  But the US inserting itself into the equation is not going to make things better.  Indeed, it would have been smarter to allow internal pressure to build against Maduro.  Now, instead of being his own worst enemy, he has imperialismo yanqui to rally political support and to rally the military to protect la patria.  Any actions that motivate the military to stick with Maduro is counterproductive to the goal of seeing Maduro gone,

Having Trump sound like an old school Cold Warrior supports the imperialism/interventionist narrative:

“All the nations in our hemisphere have the shared interest in preventing the spread of socialist tyranny,” Trump said Monday. “Socialism, by its very nature, does not respect borders. It does not respect boundaries or the sovereign rights of its citizens or its neighbors. It’s always seeking to expand, to encroach and to subjugate others to its will.”

Having Rubio tweet a stream of anti-Maduro, pro-interventionist rhetoric supports this narrative.  And placing Elliot Abrams in charge of the policy supports this narrative in spades.

Yes, the people of Venezuela are suffering, but the actions of the US are not going to alleviate that suffering, and indeed are likely making things worse as they are helping Maduro to entrench himself as least for the moment. Worse, reliance on the old playbooks (and my Latin Americanist colleagues can back me up on the blast from the past on display here) does not inspire confidence.  And, really, beyond looking at the history of US-Latin American relations, when has John Boltonesque interventions actually worked out as advertised.  Surely our experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya should also be cautionary tales, yes?

FILED UNDER: Latin America, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. mattbernius says:

    Also add to the mix reports that opposition politician Freddy Superlano was poisoned in Colombia:

    (I have not seen a lot of independent confirmation of this yet, so it shouldn’t be taken as fact.)

  2. An Interested Party says:

    Funny how Rubio would try to link the current mess in Venezuela with Manuel Noriega, someone who, when he was useful to American interests, had a blind eye turned towards him and his various shady activities…perhaps if Maduro was more chummy with the CIA, Rubio would leave him alone…

  3. Teve says:

    From a friend on FB:

    Maduro is obviously a thug, but it looks like the US is trying to orchestrate a coup in Venezuela. One difference between the Trump admin and previous regimes is that Trump people suck at their jobs & so they are more obvious and hamhanded at the orchestrated coup thing. On the other hand I don’t know if there’s a good option.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ve been saying we should butt out of this situation for longer than there has been this situation. The very worst outcome would be if the Venezuelan people to rally around Maduro and that is not an unlikely outcome of a U. S. intervention.

  5. @Dave Schuler: Indeed. A major reason why Venezuela is where it is has been that there has not been an alternative to chavismo that the poor masses could rally around. That still is true, I think. The main hope, therefore, was that they would abandon Maduro due to his obvious mismanagement of the situation–letting the situation run its course would have been the more likely pathway to that outcome.

  6. @Teve: There is clearly no good option. The best of the worst was leaving things to run their course. Getting involved was a bad option, and one that could be made worse if the administration follows the Rubio line of thinking.

  7. Mikey says:

    If you thought Rubio’s Noriega tweet was bad, this morning he tweeted a picture of Moammar Ghaddafi’s bloody face as Ghaddafi was being beaten to death.

    So it appears he’s either pushing for U. S. to intervene and remove Maduro, or he’s pushing for civil war in Venezuela.

  8. Mike says:

    Seems like great situation for UN or someone other than US to deal. Best way to keep nuclear superpowers out of situation