National Security & Defense

Lessons from a Previous Venezuela Crisis

President Theodore Roosevelt, c. 1902 (Library of Congress)
A century ago, the United States managed an international crisis over Venezuela.

The Venezuelan national assembly has held that the country’s 2018 presidential election country was illegal and that Juan Guaido, not Nicolas Maduro, is the lawful president. As a result, Venezuela is undergoing an internal political crisis while also owing significant financial debts to Russia and China. To protect their interests, these rising great powers have deployed military forces to the region and are increasing the number of diplomats and intelligence operatives in Latin America. They are also directly protecting Maduro from his own government and people. As it considers how best to deal with the threat of hostile foreign governments covertly taking control in Venezuela, the Trump administration would be well advised to examine the lessons from the last great Venezuelan crisis over 100 years ago.

Venezuela sits atop the largest proven oil and natural gas reserves in the world. Yet due to the outright technical incompetence of the Maduro government, Venezuela is currently over $100 billion in debt to foreign nations, mostly Russia and China, intent on ensuring that every dollar is repaid, with interest. Additionally, these foreign powers view Venezuela as a comfortable base for military and intelligence assets in South America; Russia has recently deployed nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuelan airfields, and China has opened the path for naval warship visits to the troubled South American nation by first sending its hospital ship for a goodwill port call. Additionally, Russia has sent a contingent of security forces to Venezuela, including cyber-war experts, and Iran, which also has financial interests in Venezuela, recently initiated a regular series of commercial Mahan Air flights. Such flights have previously provided useful cover for the insertion of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps elements into foreign nations. Each of these countries can and do claim that they are simply supporting their friend, Nicolas Maduro. They also state that they are protecting their financial interests. But they of course have the ulterior motive of undermining American leadership and the current global liberal order.

Today’s Venezuelan crisis parallels the events of the winter of 1902–1903. In the late fall of 1902 the government of Venezuelan president Cipriano Castro, just recovering from an internal civil war, was unable to make payments on the debts Venezuela owed to European powers. In a reaction typical of that era, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy imposed a naval blockade on the South American nation. With three European powers strangling the Venezuelan economy and threatening to seize its customs houses (another common tactic), Castro requested that the claims against his country be settled through international arbitration.

Germany and the United Kingdom objected, despite having previously suggested the same solution. By now the European powers had come to distrust Castro’s word. However, President Theodore Roosevelt decided to step in and uphold the Monroe Doctrine, issued in 1823, which rebuked efforts by any European power to exert control over independent nations in the western hemisphere and viewed any such effort as unfriendly to the United States. Accordingly, Theodore Roosevelt ordered the U.S. fleet in the Caribbean just off Puerto Rico to assemble under the command of Admiral George Dewey, who was not known for warm feelings toward Europe, and quietly threatened to send the fleet south against the Europeans if they did not agree to arbitration within ten days.

At first the European powers were taken aback by Roosevelt’s ultimatum. Blockade and custom-house seizures were the international normative process for such matters where great powers were involved, but they didn’t want to provoke conflict with the United States. The strength of Roosevelt’s private statements (speaking softly) and the apparent readiness of his fleet to go to war (carrying a big stick) forced first England and then Germany to change course and accept arbitration as the path for resolving the crisis. This incident went a long way toward strengthening the Monroe Doctrine, establishing U.S. leadership in the western hemisphere, and introducing the Roosevelt Corollary, which reserved the “policing power” in the Americas to the United States.

Roosevelt understood that he had two advantages in the crisis. First, any military conflict in the western hemisphere was going to be a “home game” for his forces, whereas the United Kingdom and Germany would have to support their navies from across the Atlantic. Second, the U.K. and Germany had imperial interests all over the world, which allowed Roosevelt a variety of options. The United States could mass all of its power in one place, or hit the two European powers in any number of vital locations simultaneously. In the end Roosevelt chose to focus American power and threaten decisive battle on the terms and moment of his choosing. He had an innate feel for naval power and its role in coercive diplomacy.

A few years later, near the end of his term, Roosevelt would send another fleet out, the “Great White Fleet,” to circle the globe, heralding the United States’ arrival on the world stage. That fleet’s mission was two-fold: to promote the public perception of the United States as a global power and to support the burgeoning sense of the rule of law and the emergence of a liberal global order. Such concepts were new then.

It would be a mistake at this point, however, to gloss over the legacy of the United States in Latin America. Both the Monroe Doctrine and the accompanying Roosevelt Corollary gained decidedly negative reputations in the century that followed the 1902-03 crisis. Numerous armed interventions in the region, and support for various dictatorships, have created a negative opinion of the United States and its “leadership” of the western hemisphere. Latin American countries have sought to distance themselves from any perception that the U.S. exerts a role in their internal governance or security, while still seeking opportunities to cooperate with the U.S. in matters dealing with law enforcement and national security. Such dynamic tensions have become the norm. Conversations about the Monroe Doctrine faded into the background after World War II; given U.S. preponderance, such assertions were deemed unnecessary.

However, conditions in the region are rapidly changing. Today Russia, China, and their puppets in Cuba are intent on pursuing new status as rising great powers and seek to undermine the United States in its own hemisphere. It might seem wise for them to distract the United States with events in its own backyard from China or Russia’s pursuit of power elsewhere, potentially setting the stage for a future negotiated arrangement to withdraw from the western hemisphere in exchange for U.S. recognition of their own spheres of influence in Asia and Europe.

However, such moves by China and Russia ignore the fact that U.S. foreign policy is not built around a regional mindset or regional interests. The 20th century, from start to finish, was about building a liberal international order based on the rule of law that is global in scope, and the United States understands the establishment of regional spheres of influence to signal the collapse of the entire global structure. So, in the end, the U.S. will not pursue a deal so regionally limited in its focus.

And like the U.K. and Germany a century ago, China, Russia, and Cuba ignore their own dispersed global interests and forces. Should Putin press too hard in Caracas, additional men and war-making materials might quickly appear in Ukraine or Syria to begin a paper-cut campaign against his interests. For China, its billions in loans to Maduro are little compared with its investments in Africa and Central Asia. Should it try to establish too large a military or intelligence footprint in South America it may find rising disturbances amongst the Uighurs, increased arms sales to Taiwan, civil unrest by workers supporting Chinese investments in Africa, or even stronger trade tariffs. As for Cuba, well, its proximity to American shores makes it an easy target for a full spectrum of coercive activities.

To be sure, the moment of the United States’ dominance as the sole superpower has passed. It recognizes that it is entering a new era of competition between great powers, but the United States should continue to recognize that its global security depends on its foundational security arrangements in the western hemisphere. The United States cannot allow other powers to gain a solid foothold in its home hemisphere. Freedom and a liberal economic order in the western hemisphere are the anchor that allows the United States to support such freedoms elsewhere. This fact is a premise that early American foreign-policy leaders understood, it is why they laid down policies such as the Monroe Doctrine, and why more modern leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt were willing to go to war with great powers to defend those policies.

Foreign powers should take heed not to suddenly wake the sleeping giant just beginning to shrug off its post–Cold War strategic slumber. China and Russia should cut their financial and political ties with Nicolas Maduro before their broader global interests are damaged by their folly. The western hemisphere is not now, nor can it ever be, a playground for them diplomatically, militarily, or economically. They should remember the lessons of the Venezuelan crisis of 1902–03 and seek a path that does not invite their inevitable humiliation.

Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a vice president with the Telemus Group, a national-security consultancy.

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