As President Donald Trump’s administration backed the overthrow of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Democratic senators and representatives in Congress were largely silent.
Some influential Democrats sided with Trump and expressed support for Juan Guaido, the right-wing opposition figure who declared himself interim president of Venezuela on January 23. But only three Democrats—Representative Ro Khanna, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, and Senator Bernie Sanders—spoke out against the decision by the U.S. government to give a green light to Guaido and the opposition to oust Maduro.
Representative Julian Castro, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Kamala Harris, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, all Democrats who have announced they will run for president in 2020, apparently had nothing to say about the right-wing coup attempt supported by the Trump administration.
Potential 2020 presidential candidates, like Vice President Joseph Biden, made no statements either.
In These Times journalist Marco Cartolano contacted the offices of Democratic presidential hopefuls. No campaign was willing to say anything on the record, but after ITT published a report, Gabbard and Sanders made statements.
The collective reaction was a reminder of how many establishment Democrats support regime change or look the other way when the U.S. government meddles in the politics of foreign countries. It also was an example of how progressive or left-leaning Democrats often fail or are reluctant to speak out on foreign policy matters.
On January 23, journalist Rania Khalek tweeted, “Leading Democrats are backing the Trump administration’s right-wing coup in Venezuela. Now would be a good time to hear some opposition to this blatant American meddling from progressive Democrats.” She included the handles for Khanna, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, and urged them to, “Please speak up.”
A little over an hour later, Khanna responded directly to Khalek. “Let me get this straight. The U.S. is sanctioning Venezuela for their lack of democracy but not Saudi Arabia? Such hypocrisy. Maduro’s policies are bad and not helping his people, but crippling sanctions or pushing for regime change will only make the situation worse.
Michael Weiss, a senior editor for the Daily Beast, attempted to smear Khanna as a Russian asset for opposing Trump. He compared Khanna to former Representative Dana Rohrabacher.
Khanna did not back down. “I guess McCarthyism didn’t end in 1954. The comparison to Rohrabacher—who I campaigned to defeat—is absurd,” he tweeted.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin contended Trump, the Organization Of American States (OAS), and other nations “appropriately recognized National Assembly President Juan Guaido as the constitutionally appropriate leader of Venezuela.”
Referring to a trip he made to Venezuela in 2018, he added, “I met with Guaido and many of his talented colleagues elected to the National Assembly during my visit. They are brave patriots who see a more hopeful and democratic future for the Venezuelan people.”
“I plan to speak with him in the days ahead and offer my support for his pledge to lead a thoughtful, peaceful transition to a legitimate election that meets international standards in the immediate future,” Durbin declared.
Still the only Democrat to oppose Trump, Khanna boldly responded, “With respect [to] Senator Durbin, the U.S. should not anoint the leader of the opposition in Venezuela during an internal polarized conflict. Let us support Uruguay, Mexico, and the Vatican’s efforts for a negotiated settlement and end sanctions that are making the hyperinflation worse.”
What Khanna said was retweeted by Ocasio-Cortez. An earlier statement was co-signed by Omar.
About a day later, Gabbard tweeted, “The United States needs to stay out of Venezuela. Let the Venezuelan people determine their future. We don’t want other countries to choose our leaders—so we have to stop trying to choose theirs.”
While Sanders echoed some of the right-wing critiques of Maduro, he made it clear, “We must learn the lessons of the past and not be in the business of regime change or supporting coups—as we have in Chile, Guatemala, Brazil and the [Dominican Republic]. The U.S has a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin American nations. We must not go down that road again.”
Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued no statement on Venezuela. However, Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer released a boisterous pronouncement.
“The people of Venezuela have suffered under the yoke of the Chavez-Maduro regime and yearn for a return to democracy,” Hoyer argued. “Those who have taken to the streets to protest the illegitimate re-election of Nicolas Maduro and the suspension of the legitimately constituted National Assembly are exercising their right to have their voices heard and take their country back from a tyrant.”
Hoyer urged “Venezuela’s military and security forces to play a positive role at this difficult moment and put the best interest of the Venezuelan people first,” which echoed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who encouraged the military to turn against Maduro and overthrow his government.
Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, who is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, backed Trump. “I stand with the people of Venezuela who have taken to the streets today to exercise their democratic rights and reject Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian rule.”
“The most fundamental characteristic of any democracy is allowing one’s citizens to choose their own leaders, and the Venezuelan people deserve the right to do just this,” Engel stated.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio has been the most aggressive advocate in the Senate for the right-wing coup in Venezuela. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez joined with him to issue a statement on behalf of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“On a historic day marking 61 years since the overthrow of a military dictatorship, the people of Venezuela are once again taking to the streets to defend their human rights, democracy, and fundamental freedoms. Today, Nicolas Maduro stands exposed as a dictator whose illegitimate and criminal government violates the basic interests of all Venezuelans.”
“The Venezuelan National Assembly remains the country’s one remaining democratic institution,” the two senators added. “We stand in solidarity with Juan Guaido as the provisional president of Venezuela and his National Assembly colleagues as they advance a constitutional transition that includes new elections and the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.”
Rubio and Menendez further declared, “The international community must expand coordinated efforts to combat Maduro’s networks of kleptocracy and money laundering. And we must support initiatives to hold Maduro and his cronies accountable under the rule of law for their ongoing abuses against the Venezuelan people.”
This amounted to support for additional economic sanctions, which have already inflicted suffering on Venezuelans and exacerbated an intensifying humanitarian crisis.
Three Democratic Representatives in Florida—Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Donna Shalala, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former head of the Democratic National Committee—came together to issue a joint statement in support of the right-wing opposition.
“I am hopeful that this step of invoking the country’s constitution to declare Maduro an illegitimate president and have interim President Juan Guaido legitimately fill the vacancy will bring Venezuela closer to restoring stability and democracy to their country,” Mucarsel-Powell stated.
Wasserman Schultz suggested, “Invoking the national Constitution, and recognizing Juan Guaidó as interim president, can move Venezuela toward a more peaceful, stable, and democratic government.”
“Along with my South Florida colleagues in the House of Representatives, we will continue to stand with you and call out Maduro and his dictatorial, mafia state. His authoritarian rule has made people poorer, hungrier, sicker, and less free,” Shalala proclaimed.
Democratic Representative Ted Deutch, a progressive known to challenge Trump, stood with his administration. “Venezuelans have long suffered under Maduro’s ruthless control that has devastated their economy, used deadly violence against civilians, and sent millions fleeing. Congress stands firmly with the Venezuelan people.”
Many Democrats, like Republican politicians, reflexively oppose governments that embrace socialist democracy. They back the right-wing political agenda of a faction of elected representatives, who aggressively back opponents of left-leaning or left-wing governments in Latin America.
The suffering that has wracked Venezuela is exacerbated by acts of neoliberal warfare, such as sanctions, which have been imposed on the country. Sanctions are intended to push the country to the brink so a government that allows unfettered capitalist influence and power may take over.
As journalist Gregory Shupak highlighted, “When Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in November 2017 proposed a meeting with creditors to discuss a restructuring of the country’s public debt, the Trump administration warned U.S. bondholders that attending this meeting could put them in violation of U.S. economic sanctions against Venezuela, which can be punished with 30 years in jail and as much as $10 million dollars in fines for businesses.”
“That same month, the U.S. government added further sanctions that prevent Venezuela from doing what governments routinely do with much of their debt, which is ‘roll it over’ by borrowing again when a bond matures. The sanctions also made it difficult if not impossible for Venezuela to undertake debt restructuring, a process wherein interest and principal payments are postponed and creditors receive new bonds, which the sanctions explicitly prohibit,” Shupak additionally noted.
Journalist Mark Weisbrot has pointed out that sanctions are tied to election results. When the results do not match the outcome desired by the U.S. government (in this case, the Trump administration), agencies de-legitimize the outcome by suggesting fraud. More sanctions may follow. (This is what happened last year when Maduro was re-elected on May 20.)
“Trump and his allies in the [European Union] and the right-wing governments in Argentina and Brazil, as well as the fanatical Secretary General of the OAS, want to make sure that a recovery never happens,” Weisbrot contended. “And despite all their blather about human rights and democracy, it is not a peaceful strategy they are promoting as they take measures to increase Venezuelans’ suffering in the hopes of provoking the overthrow of the government.”
“This is not ‘democracy promotion.’ It is regime change, by any means necessary—as Trump, in his usual blustery way, made clear when he threatened military action against Venezuela,” Weisbrot concluded.
Through either support or silence, Democrats show they will uphold the legacy of U.S. regime change efforts in Latin America, including dirty wars that involved the massacres of tens of thousands of people by right-wing dictatorships.
The indifference from many progressive Democrats—several who will be presidential candidates in 2020—represents a dismal reality. Far too many are afraid to take positions on U.S. foreign policy and oppose imperialism, which is defined as the policy of extending a country’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force.
Democrats may be quick to protest Trump’s destructive domestic agenda, but they have little appetite for protesting Trump’s foreign policy. In fact, several Democrats have cheered Trump when he engages in U.S. imperialism. That gives Trump and Republicans a lot of freedom to advance a global agenda, which is capable of inflicting as much pain and suffering as a domestic agenda that Democrats claim to oppose.