Nothing Changed: Why US Coups in Latin America in 20th Century Resemble Recent Events in Venezuela

Latin America

The Venezuelan military recently thwarted another attempt to topple President Nicolas Maduro. A group of around 40 fighters arrived in the country on speed boats on 3 May planning to disembark in the city of La Guaira, 30 kilometres from Caracas. The group, which reportedly consisted mostly of Colombians, wanted to take control over Caracas Airport and hold it until the president had been captured and taken to the US by plane.

The plan, however, failed to materialise, as most of the fighters were either captured or killed by the military. Venezuelan authorities also issued arrest warrants for other plotters, such as an ally of self-proclaimed interim President Juan Guaido, Sergio Vergara, and a political consultant from Miami, Juan Jose Rendon.

Alleged US Involvement

Two of the fighters captured during the Venezuelan military operation turned out to be members of an American private military company, Silvercorp. Its founder, Jordan Goudreau, confessed that the firm had been hired to kidnap the Venezuelan president. According to The Washington Post, citing obtained documents, Silvercorp was hired for $213 million by Juan Guaido, who has long enjoyed the support of the American government.

© REUTERS / Miraflores Palace/ Handout
Personal documents are shown by Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro (not pictured) during a meeting with the Bolivarian armed forces a day after Venezuela’s government said it foiled an attempted incursion by “terrorist mercenaries” from Colombia, at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela May 4, 2020. Picture taken May 4, 2020.

Washington, in turn, has been trying to topple Maduro for years, intensifying its attempts recently by introducing harsh sanctions against Venezuela’s crisis-stricken economy. The White House is accusing the country’s president of rigging his last election, but recently added drug trafficking to the list of charges against him. These efforts against Maduro emerged as the country has actively been developing relations with countries that the US has increasingly been viewing as potential adversaries – China, Iran, and Russia.

In light of these facts, Washington’s confrontation with Venezuela has started to reek of the types of US operations – or rather coups – that were carried out in Latin America throughout the 20th century.

‘Routine Operations’

The US has meddled in the domestic affairs and even invaded Latin American states on multiple occasions during the last century. While the character of these operations has differed, most of them have some things in common: they all started after the head of a Latin American country started to pursue domestic and foreign policies independent from Washington, and they bear a resemblance to some of the measures utilised by Washington against Venezuela so far.

Namely, the botched kidnapping of Maduro by a group of Colombian nationals organised by American instructors resembles Operation PBFORTUNE, which started in 1952 and led to the toppling of Guatemala’s President Jacobo Arbenz. As part of the operation, the CIA supplied the plotters, the National Liberation Movement (NLM) led by Guatemalan Army Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, with arms, money, and training. The NLM eventually seized power, but the country descended into a civil war that lasted for 36 years.

Control Over Resources and America’s ‘Backyard’

The coup in Guatemala received support from the US after the government of Arbenz started to implement a programme focusing on improving the lives of the middle class, workers, and – among other things – on redistributing large land estates, thus threatening an American corporate giant with connections in the Eisenhower administration – the United Fruit Company.

Venezuelan lawmaker Angel Luis Rodriguez Gamboa indicates that economic interest, especially when it comes to resources, is one of the two key reasons that the US has to keep interfering in the affairs of Latin American countries. The other reason is that Washington considers Latin America to be its “backyard” – a strategically important area crucial for US national security.

“American invasions were a routine operation for them in the last century. If a force, seen as unfavourable in the White House, comes to power in a state in this region, there may be no doubts: the northern neighbour will meddle”, Gamboa said.

The US invasion of Panama in 1989 serves as a vivid example. Despite actively working with the US, then-President Manuel Noriega started to conduct independent domestic and foreign policies that potentially threatened US control over a crucial waterway – the Panama Canal. The US then accused Noriega of racketeering and drug trafficking, charges similar to those issued against Maduro, and used them as a pretext to launch a military invasion of the country – not sanctioned by the UN – and replace Noriega with someone more loyal, Guillermo Endara. The UN later condemned the act as a “flagrant violation of international law”.

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