On Latin American History and War in Venezuela

On Latin American History and War in Venezuela

The last time Venezuela faced the plight of war, almost 120 years ago, German and British gunboats deployed outside its ports, blockading them. After turbulent times, Venezuela had run out of money and was unable to pay its debts. In a classic display of pre-UN-Charter jus ad bellum, both the German Empire and the United Kingdom felt fully within their right to exact payment by force. There was, however, a small hiccup to tend to first: American opposition.

During the first half of the 19th century, only a few years after the young (Latin) American republics had declared their independence, European powers were very much invested in reasserting dominance over the vast still unexplored territories of the former Spanish Empire. In a spirit of solidarity with its vulnerable “southern neighbours”, US President James Monroe issued a peculiar proclamation: an attack against any of these American republics would be considered by the US as an attack on itself. “America” – the Continent – “for the Americans!”, became the country’s rallying cry.

Monroe’s now famous doctrine proved quite useless for the better part of the century. In 1833, the United Kingdom occupied the Argentinean Malvinas islands. In 1838, France blockaded the Mexican port of Veracruz, ultimately replacing the Mexican government with a puppet king, Maximilian I, in 1862. Four years later, in 1866, Spain bombarded the Chilean port of Valparaíso. And so on and so forth.

By the 1890s however, America – the country – was on the rise, and began flexing its own imperial muscles in what remained of the Spanish American Empire: Cuba and Puerto Rico. At the time of the German-British Blockade of Venezuela, the US was already a rising super power, under the command of an ambitious leader, Theodore Roosevelt. Monroe’s doctrine was no longer a mere statement, but a warning that other Western powers would do well to abide by, lest they enrage the American giant.

In 1901, a few months before launching its blockade, the German Reich sent a diplomatic note to Washington, making its case for intervention and reassuring its diplomats that their plans were in full compliance with the Monroe Doctrine.

“[W]e consider it of importance to let first of all the Government of the United States know about our purposes so that we can prove that we have nothing else in view than to help those of our citizens who have suffered damages [and] that under no circumstances do we consider in our proceedings the acquisition or the permanent occupation of Venezuelan territory [but rather] the blockade of the more important Venezuelan harbours”.

The former colony, now aspiring world power, agreed. According to the Roosevelt administration:

“This doctrine has nothing to do with the commercial relations of any American power, save that it in truth allows each of them to form such as it desires. * * * We do not guarantee any State against punishment if it misconducts itself, provided that punishment does not take the form of the acquisition of territory by any non-American power.”

This exchange would mark the beginning of the end for American solidarity against imperialism. America – the Continent – was slowly becoming America – the country – with its own schemes and plans for a now distinct Latin America, the “Backyard”.

Roosevelt’s position on Venezuela was anathema for the vast majority of Latin American jurists and diplomats of that time. Opposition to forceful collection of debts was at the very core of Latin American concerns in the early 20th century and Argentina, one of the region’s rising stars, was determined to let Roosevelt know it. In 1902, Luis María Drago, Argentinean Minister of Foreign Affairs, sent a note to his Washington Ambassador with strict instructions on how to brief the Roosevelt Administration regarding the Venezuela crisis:

“The collection of loans by military means implies territorial occupation to make them effective, and territorial occupation signifies the suppression or subordination of the governments of the countries on which it is imposed (…) this manner of collection would compromise its very existence and cause the independence and freedom of action of the respective government to disappear”.

Roosevelt and Drago never quite managed to see eye to eye. While the US ultimately did mediate in the Venezuela crisis, directing Germany and Britain to accept to resolve the dispute through arbitration, the US never did share Latin America’s disgust for forceful collection entirely. In 1904, during his State of the Union Address, Roosevelt amended the Monroe Doctrine with his famous Corollary:

“Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United Sates to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power”.

Monroe had changed, abandoning its anti-colonialist beginnings, becoming the theoretical basis from which to sustain America’s own imperialistic desires. Save for a small hiatus during the 1930s, US-Latin American relations would never again be the same. The 1901 Platt Amendment gave the US a unilateral right to intervene in Cuban affairs for, among others, the “the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life”. In 1903, it supported the uprising of Panamanian rebels seeking to secede from Colombia in order to gain favour for the construction of the Panama Canal. In 1912, it occupied Nicaragua. In 1914, Veracruz. In 1916, the Dominican Republic. Imperialism and interventionism were here to stay. In the unforgettable words of Woodrow Wilson, the United States was going to teach Latin Americans how to elect good men.


So, why is it important today to recall this history? Because like in 1901, war again loomed its ugly face in Venezuela, threatening the peace that has reigned among Latin American states in the post-Cold-War era. It’s been 24 years since the last time two Latin American states went to war – a month-old skirmish between Peru and Ecuador, two countries that currently boast one of the closest friendships in the Americas – and 30 years since the last time the United States used force against a Latin American state (Panama, in 1989). The unusual island of inter-state peace that is Latin America is sustained by common underlying values devised more than a century ago, during the times of blockades and forceful collections, premised on the idea that all states are equal and that no state has the right to unilaterally use force against another, because, in the ground-breaking words of the 1933 Montevideo Convention: “The rights of each [State] do not depend upon the power which it possesses to assure its exercise, but upon the simple fact of its existence as a person under international law.”

There currently is no legal theory that would allow a military intervention to take place in Venezuela – at least, in the best case, not without the highest of controversies. Even more so, if the precedents of Iraq, Syria, and others can serve as an example, such an intervention would likely not achieve the desired results of alleviating the suffering of the Venezuelan people, but rather create vacuums of power that incentivise insurgency and rebellion.

Moreover, the United States, especially under the Trump Administration, is manifestly unsuited to lead any forceful course of action in Latin America. The legacy of American interventionism in the region speaks for itself. So do Trump’s own words. It has been a long, turbulent effort to reach to a point where this does not happen anymore. Acquiescence of – or worse, participation in – an American-led military intervention in Venezuela would betray the region’s proud history of non-interventionism and return it to an era it long thought gone.

Today, now that the Lima Group – composed, among others, of such hard-line right-wingers as Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Duque’s Colombia and Piñera’s Chile – has affirmed its steadfast opposition to the use of force in Venezuela, many non-traditional observers will surely wonder why. The answer lies in this shared history. In José María Drago’s letter and Germany’s blockade. In the Montevideo Convention and the idea that all states are equal, and that Latin America is a land of peace.

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Latin & South America, Use of Force
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