For nearly a century, the oil industry has been the foundation of Venezuelan prosperity. In recent decades Hugo Chavez leaned heavily on oil to fund his ambitious programs for redistributing wealth. Oil production has since suffered mismanagement and neglected infrastructure as well as a fall in the price of oil. Where once there were subsidized food prices and free health care, Venezuelans now stand in lines for hours hoping maybe to find scarce groceries and toiletries. Hospitals are poorly supplied: Women suffer from a maternal mortality rate that has risen 65% in the past year.
It’s unlikely that the days of generous government spending will return. Venezuela has a foreign debt of $120 billion USD, $50 billion of which is owed to China. Two-thirds of oil revenues now go to China and other foreign creditors. China has a large portion of future oil production in Venezuela assured to them as payment for loans granted during Chavez’s government. Naturally, the Chinese have reason to be concerned for the stability of a government to whom they are a substantial creditor. It is in their interest to deepen Venezuelan dependency on their business, if their activity in other parts of the world is any indication.
In 2013, then-Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” thereby supposedly shutting the book on nearly two hundred years of paternalism toward Latin America. The U.S. government has steadily pulled away from Monroe Doctrine attitudes, and in some ways rightly so: the guarding of the Western hemisphere against European violations of Latin American sovereignties necessarily meant U.S. violations of the sovereignty of countries in Latin America.
The United States and Venezuela, particularly since Chavez’s 1998 Bolivarian Revolution, have not enjoyed a warm relationship, regular transactions of oil notwithstanding. Many Latin Americans have had direct experience of the worst of U.S. interventions in political and commercial life.. At the height of the Cold War such maneuvers were seen as wholly legitimate, since the Soviet Union sought footholds near the U.S. mainland — most famously demonstrated by the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the absence of the Soviet Union, there has been a power vacuum, of sorts, which China has been moving to fill.
We can choose to turn away from interventions, but that doesn’t mean we’ll avoid the troubles of isolationism as well. Rather than discard Monroe Doctrine as an artifact, we should reconsider its core: we have a shared colonial history and heritage with other American nations that we have a duty to honor. The crisis in Venezuela will not go away on its own. Every day it continues without a U.S. response is another mark against the credibility of the United States’ moral leadership, at a time when other governments openly push for their own influence. It is possible for states to do good.. And it is even possible for the U.S. government to do good, and even in Latin America, as we saw happen in the Haiti intervention in 1994-95, or the disaster relief in 2010, following the earthquake in Haiti.
Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, is clinging to his office with increasing paranoia. Violent clashes with protesters have been the norm since 2014. From my armchair, he seems to have demonstrated little of the initiative of Chavez; rather, only the brutality. While many internally have turned against Maduro’s administration, Venezuelans still might not appreciate U.S. meddling. The Venezuelan government has been slow to acknowledge the need for intervention. It was not until January 2016 that the National Assembly declared a state of emergency, and not until May that they passed a law allowing for acceptance of hypothetical international aid, according to The New Yorker.
Despite this, an intervention is inevitable. We should hope that it comes from the United States, and not China. A U.S. intervention must be at once a gesture of goodwill and a denial of the privilege to another interested government. The Chinese already enjoy considerable influence around the world; they don’t need an invitation to play savior of the Americas in the United Nations.
Any intervention will be regarded as meddling, but that doesn’t make it any less appropriate to undermine greater influence of the Chinese government in our own neighborhood. The United States should reach out to Venezuela in the U.N., if not to their National Assembly directly. While some aid has already been brought into the country, the U.S. government should make a point to accelerate the process, but not make any gesture too unilateral or disrespectful to sovereignty. By doing so, we can work to achieve some of the harmony among American nations that was always ostensibly our goal — and make sure no one else is doing it.