Is Venezuela’s President-in-Waiting a True Friend of the U.S.?
Leftist DNA runs deep in Venezuela's political culture.
The Trump administration has implicitly acknowledged that its Venezuela policy has a major problem: Juan Guaidó. Venezuela's beleaguered president-in-waiting, a leftist at heart, has received considerable support from the Trump administration to achieve a major U.S. policy goal: ease out Venezuela's socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro, a stooge of Cuba and Russia. Guaidó would then serve as interim president in a democratic Venezuela.
The 36-year-old Guaidó, a professional politician backed by Venezuela's democratically elected National Assembly, has nevertheless let down the Trump administration, and he may even be playing the president for a chump if recent comments by his ad hoc adviser are anything to go by. Maduro, meanwhile, has doubled down on the late President Hugo Chávez's socialist policies, ensuring that oil-rich yet impoverished Venezuela remains an economic basket case and authoritarian hell-hole.
Political allies, of course, are expected to behave in a certain way: friendship is a two-way street. Trump, for his part, has bent over backwards to support Guaidó, a self-declared political independent who previously was a member of Popular Will, a left-wing political party with socialist ties. Guaidó's fruitless quest to assume Venezuela's presidency also has gotten steadfast support from some 60 countries. But Maduro hasn't budged.
Now that the Trump administration has wised up to Guaidó, it has asked him to renounce his claim to Venezuela's presidency while nevertheless continuing to support him. Under this plan, Maduro and Guaidó would establish an interim government and agree to elections in six to 12 months. In exchange, Washington would ease up on sanctions against Maduro's regime. Guaidó is seen as a shoo-in over Maduro in a general election. Not surprisingly, Maduro has rejected the plan, for now, while using the cornonavirus pandemic as an excuse to crack down on political opponents.
Though Guaidó has proven ineffectual, the U.S. nevertheless sees him as the best hope for Venezuela – a perhaps risky strategy, to be sure, because it's impossible to know if Guaidó would (or could) govern in line with the Trump administration's expectations and interests – and that's despite President Trump having been a true friend to Guaidó. Indeed, Trump honored Guaidó as a special guest at last February's State of the Union Address, and he has warned the Maduro regime that it would pay a heavy price for harming Guaidó, who has waged a sometimes precarious battle against Maduro's unconstitutional rule. Indeed, during one rally not long ago, a pro-government thug aimed a handgun at Guaidó.
Trump, on another front, has aided Guaidó by ratcheting up pressure on Maduro. Recently, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Maduro and other high-ranking officials for drug trafficking, charging that for 20 years they had facilitated the shipment of tons of cocaine into the U.S. The State Department offered $15 million for Maduro’s arrest and conviction and put bounties of $5 to $10 million on other co-conspirators. Over the years, numerous corrupt Venezuelans have gotten rich from Venezuelan-style socialism, and many have subsequently moved to South Florida to live the good life – until falling into the Trump administration's crosshairs.
Leftist Political Culture
Clearly, Guaidó owes much to Trump. Yet you have to wonder whether Guaidó is a true friend of the U.S. or merely an opportunist who neither respects Trump nor shares any ideological kinship with him. No, it's not about anything Guaidó has said or done. Rather, it's the company he keeps. For one thing, there's Guaidó's one-time membership in the left-wing political party Popular Will, which he left to become an independent. Founded by Guaidó's mentor and presidential wannabe Leopoldo López, Popular Will is a member of Socialist International, an organization of political parties promoting “democratic socialism.” In other words: democratic socialism versus the Stalinist variety embraced by Nicolás Maduro. Venezuela, to be sure, is a country whose political parties and culture are infected with leftist DNA – so membership in Popular Will would not raise eyebrows among the vast majority of Venezuelans.
Equally troubling is the man whom Guaidó has for an ad hoc adviser – a Trump-hating Venezuelan economist named Ricardo Hausmann who teaches at Harvard University. No long ago, Hausmann wrote an essay for Project Syndicate, a media site featuring opinion pieces, that advised Democrats on how to defeat Trump. In "The Venezuelan Card in the U.S. Election," Hausmann likened Trump to Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. Pontificating like a guest on MSNBC, he claimed that Trump had "politicized law enforcement and the judiciary, trampled on the free press, treated political opponents as traitors and mortal enemies, and meddled with the fairness of elections."
Well, how ironic that Hausmann is a Trump hater despite Trump's considerable efforts to save Venezuela; and while "informally advising" Guaidó, Hausmann's political sympathies have apparently been with the Democratic Party's far-left presidential candidates, which include one who recently dropped out of the race, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who calls himself a socialist. Hausmann, incidentally, is a frequent contributor to Prague-based Project Syndicate, which receives funding from the Open Society Foundation whose founder and chairman is billionaire and leftist globalist George Soros.
There are lots of lefty Venezuelans like Hausmann now crawling around the U.S. But despite suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome, Hausmann at least understands what Venezuela needs – a market-oriented economy to replace a socialist one. Unfortunately, that has been tried before in Venezuela, including when Hausmann was a planning minister in Venezuela under President Carlos Andrés Pérez, a leftist, in the early 1990s. Venezuelans, however, overwhelmingly rejected various market-oriented prescriptions for economic progress over the years, preferring paternalistic left-leaning policies that, not surprisingly, ended with Hugo Chávez. Hausmann himself chronicles the slippery slope Venezuela was on in his book Venezuela before Chávez: Anatomy of an Economic Collapse.
Interestingly, another prominent Venezuelan Trump hater in the U.S. is Moisés Naím, a political pundit and former editor at Foreign Policy magazine, who regularly publishes rabidly anti-Trump tweets and essays and is a fan of George Soros. He has called Trump a charlatan and Russian stooge, and even implied he is a gangster. The charge of gangsterism is particularly interesting given that Naím, as Venezuela's development minister during the early part of President Pérez's administration, was behind austerity measures and market-oriented reforms that Venezuela badly needed – but that were clumsily implemented. They took ordinary Venezuelans by surprise, setting off bloody price riots on February 27, 1989, during which security forces killed 2,000 or more Venezuelans according to some estimates. Now, Naím enjoys the good life in Washington, D.C. while taking potshots at President Trump.
Interestingly, the news media and political pundits together with many Venezuela expatriates in the U.S. have portrayed Venezuela's downfall as being all about Nicolás Maduro. To them, the Guaidó-versus-Maduro battle is a case of liberty-versus-tyranny. In fact, Venezuela's downfall has been a long process, happening over decades of left-leaning political culture and rampant corruption, putting Venezuela on a slippery slope to Hugo Chávez. He took Venezuela's many pathologies to shocking new lows, and his early popular support was financed by high oil-prices. This allowed him to shower the country with petrodollars, bolstering his popularity while masking his economic illiteracy and misrule.
The exodus to the U.S. of left-leaning Venezuelans like Hausmann and Naím (who are among some 400,000 Venezuelans now here) is yet another example of the left eating its own. The best the Trump administration can hope for in Venezuela is to see the worst of its leftist political leaders defanged and to see their sponsors, Cuba and Russia, expelled. Guaidó is the best hope for now.
Closer to home, the Trump administration has another vexing Venezuela problem: Venezuelan expatriates who are ready-made Democrats – and who can vote. Unfortunately, Venezuela's mess won't end anytime soon – not with the amount of leftist DNA running through Venezuela's political culture.
David Paulin, an Austin, TX-based freelance journalist, covered Hugo Chávez’s rise to power while based in Caracas as a foreign correspondent. He also reported from the Caribbean while based in Kingston, Jamaica.