Even as most of the Western Hemisphere has rushed to recognize Venezuela’s interim president, Juan Guaido, a small but familiar chorus has registered its dissent. Self-proclaimed anti-imperialists, demanding that America stay out of Venezuela’s affairs, have rallied to the side of strongman President Nicolas Maduro.
Among the dissenters are apparatchiks of the Iranian regime, hosts of Russian propaganda talk shows and columnists at the Nation. There are even a few Democratic members of Congress on Team Maduro.
America does have a history of intervening in Latin America on the side of dictators, usually in the cause of countering communism or protecting the hemisphere from the influence of other foreign powers. It’s easy to see why various rogues and rubes would see this pattern repeating in Venezuela.
They are wrong, though. To support Maduro right now is not to stand against American imperialism. Rather, it is an endorsement of the imperialism of America’s adversaries.
To illustrate the point, consider a great piece of reporting from Bloomberg News in Caracas. Picking up on a tweet from a Venezuelan lawmaker, reporters confirmed that the authorities set aside 20 tons of gold, worth $840 million, for loading onto a Russian cargo plane. Of course that gold belongs to the Venezuelan people. But Maduro has signed off on debt-trap loans with China and Russia. So at a moment when his people are starving and fleeing the country in a Syrian-level refugee crisis, the dictator is paying off his patrons.
It’s a pattern for Maduro, who has put his country in hock. According to a recent estimate, China has lent the Maduro regime $70 billion with the expectation that most of it will be repaid in oil. Last year the grace period for repayment expired, squeezing the country’s mismanaged oil sector even more.
Cuba’s relationship with Venezuela is more pernicious. Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez, adored the Cuban revolution and sought to merge his revolution with the one that brought the Castro family to power six decades ago. When Chavez was dying and undergoing treatment for cancer in Cuba in 2012, he ran the Venezuelan government from Havana.
His protégé has continued Venezuela’s fealty to the island nation. Until recently, Venezuela sold its oil at a steep discount to Cuba. And Cuba has sent intelligence officers to infiltrate the country’s military and domestic security services. Maduro reportedly receives his daily intelligence briefing from Cuban intelligence officers.
Cuban security forces in Venezuela, estimated to be in the thousands, have menaced the citizenry. In 2017, the secretary general of the Organization of American States told Congress that there were an estimated 15,000 Cubans in Venezuela, making up “an occupying army” there. This contingent of Cuban advisers will make it much more difficult for Venezuela’s military to help Guaido prepare for new elections, as it is being pressured to do.
Chinese, Cuban and Russian predations in Venezuela would be bad enough on their own. They’re even worse at a moment when the last democratically legitimate arm of Venezuela’s government - the National Assembly - is asserting its constitutional prerogative to demand free and fair elections. It’s akin to Iran and Russia’s intervention to save Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria in the middle of his campaign of mass slaughter. Now the imperialist interventions are to support a man who has stacked the courts and the legislature, arrested his opposition and destroyed his economy.
Their reasons are at least understandable: Under Chavez and Maduro, China has gotten oil and infrastructure projects. Russia has been allowed to send war ships into Venezuela’s ports. And Cuba has been able to infiltrate the country’s military and intelligence services.
These nations support Maduro because they want to be able to continue to exploit their relationship with Venezuela. What is the rationale for the anti-imperialists who demand America keep its “hands off” Venezuela, while saying nothing about the Chinese, Cuban and Russian hands that are already there?
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.