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The U.S. has quietly supported the Venezuelan opposition for years

- February 19, 2019

While Venezuela’s political crisis has sunk below most Americans’ news horizons, the Trump administration has taken several unprecedented steps during the past few weeks.

First, the administration indicated it would support a military overthrow of the socialist government headed by President Nicolás Maduro. Second, the administration, alongside two dozen other countries, recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate, interim president of Venezuela.

However unprecedented these two actions may be, the United States and Venezuela have had an acrimonious relationship for the past 20 years — in part because the United States has long supported the Venezuelan political opposition. Here’s how this past month’s actions grow from the approaches of the past four presidential administrations.

1. The United States has long been strategizing with opposition political parties

Shortly after Hugo Chávez’s initial election in 1998, the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) took the lead in training and guiding political parties on how they might best compete against him. One of the NED’s sub-agencies, the International Republican Institute (IRI), led these efforts.

The IRI sponsored such Republican politicians as Darryl Howard, the executive director of the Oregon Republican Party, and Mike Collins, the former Republican Party press secretary, to travel to Venezuela and meet individually with Venezuelan party leaders from the opposition, offering guidance on how they might electorally defeat Chávez. IRI members also ran political workshops for party members on issues such as constructing political platforms and reaching out to youth. One IRI contractor who helped facilitate some of these workshops bluntly described their objective to me: to help the opposition “get [their] s— together so they could defeat Chávez.” In 2006, the IRI brought five technical specialists to assist the campaign of Manuel Rosales, the opposition’s presidential candidate, to monitor elections on the day of the event.

U.S. diplomats, including several ambassadors, also told me how they advised the opposition. One ambassador revealed she “met with the opposition — I can’t tell you how many times. I told them they need to come up with a plan and needed to unite. There were 50 opposition parties registered!” In doing so, she urged the opposition not to splinter its vote and hand Chávez an easy victory.

2. Supporting the opposition student movement

U.S. state agencies also strategized with opposition social movements. These efforts have been led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and, in particular, its Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), a group that often works in war-ravaged countries, currently including Syria and Ukraine. When I asked a USAID representative why OTI was in Venezuela, he told me that OTI acts as “the special forces of the democracy assistance community,” and it can get aid to groups in countries much more quickly than traditional channels.

USAID/OTI, for instance, initiated a strategy to develop neutral-looking organizations in working-class neighborhoods focused on community initiatives such as participatory democracy. These groups were organized with opposition activists to put Chávez supporters in contact with opposition members to help persuade them to reduce their support for the Venezuelan government. In a U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks, now-retired U.S. ambassador William Brownfield described how USAID/OTI:

directly reached approximately 238,000 adults through over 3,000 forums, workshops and training sessions delivering alternative values and providing opportunities for opposition activists to interact with hardcore Chavistas, with the desired effect of pulling them slowly away from Chavismo.

Beginning in 2007, USAID/OTI also lent support to the recently developed anti-Chávez student movement, where Guaidó began his fight against the socialist government. In Caracas, USAID/OTI functionaries provided students with materials to amplify their message, including such basics as paper and microphones, and they organized training seminars to help the students enhance the effectiveness of their movement. In addition, U.S. diplomats regularly met with opposition student leaders who primarily operated in Caracas, discussing plans of action against the Chávez government.

Outside Caracas, USAID helped students in such regions as Maracaibo, where it funded such efforts as a conference run by students opposed to the Chávez government and paid for airfare for individuals to attend.

Over time, the U.S. government assisted the efforts of the anti-Chávez student movement significantly. Many of its members are now high-ranking opposition leaders, including Guaidó, Stalin González and Freddy Guevara.

3. The end of the socialist government?

In many ways, the socialist government appears to be dying at its own hand. Though many point out the Trump administration is intensifying the economic crisis in Venezuela with financial sanctions, the crisis long preceded these U.S. maneuvers.

In 2018, Maduro apparently orchestrated an illegitimate election victory. He surely knows the population is tired, hungry and fed up with his inability to correct the economic crisis. Knowing this, he tilted the playing field by barring several prominent opposition leaders, including Leopoldo López and Henrique Capriles, from running and by placing onerous new registration requirements on political parties to participate in the elections. The opposition fielded a candidate, Henri Falcón, but he lacked the full support of the opposition and lost.

The irony is that Maduro might have been able to defeat Capriles or López legitimately. But his unwillingness to play fair has generated an international crisis from which he may never escape.

Timothy M. Gill (@timgill924) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and editor of “The Future of U.S. Empire in the Americas: The Trump Administration and Beyond” (Routledge Press, forthcoming).

Note: Updated Oct. 5, 2023.