It’s hard to be sure when Venezuela has or has not been overthrown; during the last big coup attempt, in 2002, the New York Times wrote up the whole thing as both inevitable and fully accomplished, only to have it turn out to be neither of those things. The more dramatic the domestic political news from Latin America gets, the more useful it is to read news reports as lobbying briefs rather than descriptions of facts.
Is president Nicolás Maduro’s government so repressive and illegitimate that the United States can no longer tolerate its presence in the community of nations? (Has he kidnapped and dismembered a dissident journalist overseas?) Does self-appointed president Juan Guaidó represent the true will of the Venezuelan people? Is our analysis of any stark political conflict between the urban middle class and the rural poor inherently obscured by our desire to reduce foreign politics to a single sovereign “will of the people,” by the relative visibility of the two different factions to our newsgathering system, and by a history of our own interventions and propaganda, by our own interpenetrated government and business and media elite, having been decidedly tilted to one side over the other?
Luckily, the closer we get to home, the more knowable things become. So it was bracing to read the Washington Post‘s account of the Trump administration’s plans for dealing with the Venezuelan crisis:
A new special envoy, retired senior diplomat Elliott Abrams, was named to lead what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “our efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela.”
Elliott Abrams! It boggled the mind and then swiftly un-boggled it. This required no educated distinction-making between the dueling presidencies of the grudgingly re-elected Maduro and the not-even-remotely-elected Guaidó: no one with any interest in democracy in this hemisphere, or even in the appearance of democracy, would let Elliott Abrams anywhere near it.
Abrams—Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of state in charge of supporting and protecting death squads, a convicted Iran-Contra conspirator, and, by extension, a longstanding Republican establishment expert and columnist on foreign relations and human rights—is as invulnerable to parody as he is to justice. No idealistic, humanitarian, or even optimistic model of American foreign policy can be bent to fit the facts of his career. His job in Venezuela is his job everywhere: to do the wrong thing and to lie about it.
The day after he was named the envoy, Abrams explained to a meeting of the United Nations Security Council what the administration’s policy was about—fairly directly, as long as the listeners remembered to delete every instance of the word “not”:
“This is not about foreign intervention in Venezuela,” he said, “It is not an attempt to impose a result on the Venezuelan people. Democracy never needs to be imposed. It is tyranny that has to be imposed.”
Abrams would know. Here was the result of the anti-anti-Trumpist fantasy that this president, through his contempt for political pieties and norms, would be the transformative figure to finally break the grip of American empire. Trump hates moralizing, but he loves power and he loves crooks. Dig a shallow grave in the tropical soil, throw in the arguments of the go-on-Fox left, and set it all on fire.