January 25, 2019 2:35PM

Rebuke Russian Meddling in Venezuela

Venezuela’s political turmoil escalated this week when opposition leader Juan Guaido, the head of the National Assembly, declared himself acting president, displacing Nicolas Maduro.  The United States immediately recognized Guaido as the country’s interim president, as did Canada and numerous other countries in the Western Hemisphere.  Maduro responded by expelling U.S. diplomats and accusing Washington of sponsoring a coup.  Most of the Venezuelan military appears loyal to Maduro, and the country now teeters on the brink of civil war.

It is hard to have the slightest sympathy for Maduro.  He and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, have made Venezuela into a left-wing horror show.  Wholesale economic collapse has been accompanied by mounting authoritarian political rule.  Even though Maduro supposedly won re-election in the May 2018 presidential election, the balloting was considered throughout the international community as a textbook example of massive fraud.  Venezuela gradually has gone from being a socialist, illiberal democracy to a thinly disguised dictatorship. Today’s Venezuela is no more a genuine democracy than is Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey.

Nevertheless, U.S. policy is skating close to the line of improper behavior.  A decision to extend diplomatic recognition should be based on one consideration: whether that government effectively controls most of the country.  It is not clear at this point what control Guaido and his followers exercise.  Going beyond diplomatic recognition to provide covert assistance or launch a military intervention (which President Trump reportedly has considered before) would definitely cross the line and rekindle memories throughout Latin America of U.S. imperialism.  It is imperative for the Trump administration to avoid the temptation to meddle in Venezuela’s domestic affairs, despite the odious nature of Maduro’s regime.

However, it is even more inappropriate for Russia to become involved.  Yet Vladimir Putin immediately expressed his government’s support for Maduro and condemned U.S. policy.  Washington needs to send a firm message to Moscow that meddling by outside powers in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere will be considered a violation of the Monroe Doctrine and a hostile act toward the United States.  As I discuss in a recent article in the National Interest, Russia has established growing economic and military relations with Venezuela over the past decade.  Putin’s latest foray suggests that Russia’s assertive policy has not changed.

Economic ties are acceptable, but close political--and especially military--links are not.  Since the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in the 1820s, U.S. leaders have stressed that the United States will not permit other powers to establish colonies or client states in the Western Hemisphere.  The failure to enforce that doctrine effectively in the case of Moscow’s relationship with Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba unwisely weakened the policy.  It is important not to tolerate another precedent.  

However, just as Moscow needs to back off from geopolitical intrusions in the Western Hemisphere, Washington must do the same in Eastern Europe.  Barack Obama’s egregious interference in Ukraine’s internal political affairs during the 2013-2014 Maidan revolution constituted an assault on Russia’s vital security interests.  It is time to acknowledge that all major powers maintain spheres of influence, and that harmonious relations among those powers require respect for those spheres.  Washington’s clumsy, provocative behavior in Ukraine has created needless tensions and animosity.  Moscow’s meddling in Venezuela is doing the same.