One of the saddest things about running a channel focused on geopolitics is realizing just how little the US government actually knows about the world beyond our borders. It’s not just the Trump administration, this problem is universal. At the beginning of April, the Trumpsters doubled down on their Venezuela policy, taking a number of steps to intimidate the Maduro government. Many critics complained about the timing, questioning whether this was the right moment to use military resources in this way. But as far as I have seen, nobody attacked the ridiculous premise at the center of the new policy.
By indicting Maduro as a drug trafficker in the US, and then initiating military exercises focused on his country, Trump’s Venezuela guy, Elliott Abrams, and the rest are trying to draw a direct parallel with Panama, a country the US invaded successfully in 1989. What’s obvious to anybody with a map, but not to anybody discussing Venezuela policy in Washington DC, is that Panama is a very, very different country from Venezuela. Today’s video lays out the simple facts.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. Over the past few week’s the Trump administration has taken a series of steps to escalate tensions with Venezuela. On March 26th President Maduro was indicted in the United States as a drug trafficker. On March 31st the US State department issued yet another transition plan / ultimatum requiring Venezuela’s government to resign. Finally, on April 1st, against the wishes of a military leadership that is more focused on dealing with COVID-19, Trump announced a new deployment of ships to the Caribbean focusing on exactly the drug trafficking that Maduro has just been accused of.
It sure looks like the US might be about to use the pandemic to stage an invasion, and many of you have been right to be alarmed by these movements in the comments and on Twitter. I am not quite there yet. What I think is more likely is that we are seeing something we have seen a number of times before with this administration’s Venezuela policy: big intimidation moves and a lot of angry talk that eventually falls apart in a humiliating fashion. I think this is likely for one simple reason: Venezuela is not Panama.
Panama is the reason that the Geriatric cold warriors Trump employs assume that the military is a useful tool to use against Latin American governments. In two months back in 1989 and 1990, the US military invaded Panama, and quickly met all of its objectives. Manuel Noriega, Panama’s dictator at the time, spent the rest of his life in prisons in three countries, dying in 2017. By declaring Maduro a drug trafficker, the Trump administration is very consciously threatening Venezuela’s president with the Panama experience. But I think this is more about intimidation than the actual possibility of invasion. Washington DC is a very stupid town, and the Trump administration is the dumbest and most short-sighted presidential administration we have ever had, so who knows, a Venezuela invasion could be possible. But I think there are some considerations here that not even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo can miss.
Panama’s population in 1990 was around 2.5 million. Venezuela’s population today is around 32 million. Panama’s land area is a little under 30,000 square miles. Venezuela’s is over 350,000 square miles. And the territory to be conquered is a lot more complicated too. Panama exists as a country because the US wanted to build, and control a canal on what used to be Colombian territory. From 1903 to 1979, the Panama Canal zone was actually US territory, and in 1989 it was still filled with US military bases. This obviously made the Panama invasion pretty straightforward. What’s more, Panama city, the capital where Noriega was captured, was right next to all those US military bases. Honestly, California would provide a much more difficult target for invasion for the US military than Panama did.
Venezuela looks more like Vietnam. Ten times the population of Panama, and ten times the surface area. 5 cities with over a million people, no US bases, and air and sea defenses that are probably poorly run, but do exist. Venezuela’s vast country includes mountain ranges, and some tropical jungle too. From horrifying urban warfare, to the kind of terrain you can last in for decades, Venezuela is an insurgents fantasy land. The US military doesn’t want any of that.
And there absolutely would be an insurgency. Manuel Noriega was on the CIA’s payroll throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike Maduro, He was never elected. The embarrassing fact is that the US government was always Noriega’s main constituency. When we finally got sick of him, there wasn’t much to keep him going. Maduro is unpopular, but as much as we don’t want to admit it, he has a real constituency that will fight against outside invaders just as hard as any other Americans would.
The folks who think Venezuela can be invaded, or even easily intimidated are not reckoning with the fact that many of these countries have changed significantly over the past 40 years. They are richer and more economically diverse now. These countries are no longer run exclusively by white elites who are eager to play along with the US as long as it helps them lord it over impoverished peasants. Some of the new middle classes like pro-US pro-business policies. Some really really do not. Venezuela has shown repeatedly over the past three years that these countries are not as easy to coup as they used to be. And when a US-backed coup is successful, as one was in Bolivia this past fall, it tends to do more to hurt US diplomacy than help it. The Organization of American States has been revealed to be exactly the same stooge of the US’s most foolish interests that it was 40 years ago.
I have pointed out before that this sort of thing actually helps Maduro. This US President, who is so cartoonishly evil that he seems to have walked out of 1980s communist propaganda is probably the main thing keeping Venezuela’s government in power. This latest attempt to intimidate Maduro just gives him more material to distract from his own bad governance. I really don’t think this is going to change anything.
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