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Back to the Monroe Doctrine: Venezuela Must Be Free

October 23, 2016
The high profile diplomats in the audience at the Organization of American States were not sure they should clap when Secretary of State John Kerry proudly announced, in November 2013, that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over”[1]. Mr. Kerry rushed to add: “That’s worth applauding. That’s not a bad thing”. Less than three years later, however, Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis should make the Department of State rethink its policy for South America.

by Gabriel de Arruda Castro, MPA’17

The Monroe Doctrine meant the United States would act to keep the independence of the nation-states of the American continent whenever those nations were under the threat of European colonialism. This it is how President James Monroe justified the new policy to Congress in December of 1823:

“It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness; nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord. It is equally impossible, therefore, that we should behold such interposition in any form with indifference.”[2]

To be fair, Kerry’s announcement only made official something that had already been put in practice. When the 9/11 attacks radically changed the United States’ foreign policy priorities, Latin America fell to the bottom of the list, close to Africa. The Obama administration went even further, deliberately moving away from everything that might look as American interventionism.

And what happened in the last decade and a half in South America? An impressive ascension of forces hostile to the U.S. and sympathetic to regimes like Russia [[3] and Iran [4]. There is no vacuum in foreign policy.

No nation represented more that shift than Venezuela and its socialist leaders Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro. Now that the country dives into a deep political and economic crisis caused by the bizarre policies of its authoritarian government, how should the U.S. act? But, before that, should the U.S. act at all?

Why Venezuela Matters

For one decade and a half, the economic policy of the Venezuelan government has been pretty simple: taking the big money from the oil and spending it in the most reckless ways – such as training urban militias to fight imaginary American invaders. Meanwhile, the government seized some of the most important factories in the country and instituted a controlled-priced policy. When that the oil prices plummeted, chaos erupted quickly.

It would be a serious mistake to treat the crisis in Venezuela as an internal issue with no consequences to the United States.

First, the humanitarian aspect of the crisis is evident, as children die in hospitals due to the lack of basic equipment and medicines [5], and thousands of people desperately cross the border to buy food in Colombia [6]. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has kept the country under his imperial powers. The leader of the opposition and the Mayor of the capital city Caracas are in jail. Property rights are easily annihilated by the government, which is one the reasons for food shortages in the country.

These abuses cannot be ignored by the American diplomacy, whose mission statement vows “to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world”[7].

The potentially grave implications of inaction should also be considered. Venezuela is the third largest exporter of oil to the United States [8]. Since the oil industry is heavily controlled by the Maduro government, that means American money is being used to fund groups hostile to American interests, such as urban militias in defense of “the revolution”, while starving people wait for hours in line hoping to buy food. Also, more instability in Venezuela means more uncertainty for the energy industry in America.

There is also abundant evidence that the Caracas government sponsors the FARC, who are on FBI’s terrorism list. This socialist guerrilla party not only tries to overthrow the democratic government of Colombia but, worse than that, makes money from drug trafficking and kidnapping while the revolution doesn’t come. Recently, two nephews of the first lady of Venezuela were arrested in the United States while transporting a huge amount of cocaine. They confessed their connections to Colombian guerrillas. [9].

From the geopolitical point of view, pulling away from influencing Venezuela and its neighbors means they will be likely be subject to another kind of colonialism – not from Spain, Portugal or France, but from Russia, Iran and China. It seems these countries didn’t renounce their versions of the Monroe Doctrine after all.

Standing for American Values

America has become a respected international actor because of the ideas it represents: freedom, equal opportunity and justice. Silently watching the implosion of human rights in Venezuela is to dishonor that tradition.

First, the United States should be part of the effort to put in practice the democratic charter of the Organization of American States, instead of the actual position of supporting infertile negotiation that would only give Nicolás Maduro time to avoid the constitutional recall advocated by the opposition – the only institutional solution to the crisis in the near horizon.

The U.S should also take a stronger position, explicitly denouncing the violations and publicly encouraging the resistance movement in Venezuela. A similar approach helped to give hope to the dissidents in the old Soviet Union and, for years, to the opposition to the Cuban dictatorship.

The United States is Venezuela’s largest economic partner, and the South American country heavily relies one American resources. This situation gives a strategic advantage to the U.S., and it should be seized in order to advance human rights and democracy in Venezuela. The United States should seek to diversify its partners in oil acquisitions. American money shouldn’t be used to fund regimes like Maduro’s when there are viable alternatives.

Finally, the Department of State also needs to consider adopting new sanctions against Venezuela. The message should be clear: authoritarianism and human right violations will not be tolerated in the American continent.

Keep Monroe Alive

The Monroe Doctrine existed for a justifiable reason. A stronger American continent is essential to the United States’ interests, especially in a world that seems to become more and more hostile.

The U.S. is still the freer, more democratic and more powerful nation in a position to repeal threats to the freedom of Latin American countries. The American diplomacy should accept the role history reserved to it.



  [1] “Remarks on U.S. Policy in the Western Hemisphere”, U.S. Department of State, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2013/11/217680.htm. [Accessed: 24- Jul- 2016]. 

  [2] “Seventh Annual Message (Monroe Doctrine) (December 2, 1823)—Miller Center”, Millercenter.org, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://millercenter.org/president/monroe/speeches/speech-3604. [Accessed: 24- Jul- 2016].

  [3] “Hugo Chavez says Russia lends Venezuela $4 billion for arms”, Reuters, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-russia-weapons-idUSTRE6AQ1VT20101127. [Accessed: 24- Jul- 2016].

  [4] J. Aires, “Argentine President Defends Her Country’s Iran Deal”, WSJ, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.wsj.com/articles/argentine-president-defends-her-countrys-iran-deal-1438299533. [Accessed: 24- Jul- 2016].

  [5] N. Casey, “Dying Infants and No Medicine: Inside Venezuela’s Failing Hospitals”, Nytimes.com, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/16/world/americas/dying-infants-and-no-medicine-inside-venezuelas-failing-hospitals.html. [Accessed: 24- Jul- 2016].

  [6] H. Dreier | AP, “100,000 Venezuelans cross border shopping for scarce food”, Washington Post, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/thousands-of-venezuelans-enter-colombia-for-food-medicine/2016/07/16/874ca938-4bc1-11e6-8dac-0c6e4accc5b1_story.html. [Accessed: 24- Jul- 2016].

  [7] 2016. “United States Department of State – Agency Financial Report 2015”. Pg 6. [Online]. Available: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/249770.pdf. [Accessed: 24- Jul- 2016].

  [8]”How much petroleum does the United States import and export? - FAQ - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)”, Eia.gov, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=727&t=6. [Accessed: 24- Jul- 2016].

  [9] J. Córdoba, “Venezuelan President’s Relatives Planned to Get Drugs From Colombian Guerrillas, Prosecutors Say”, WSJ, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.wsj.com/articles/venezuelan-presidents-relatives-planned-to-get-drugs-from-colombian-guerrillas-prosecutors-say-1469322948. [Accessed: 24- Jul- 2016].

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