Trump administration officials and their hawkish domestic allies sound increasingly strident alarm bells about foreign meddling in Venezuela’s internal political turmoil. They contend that Russia, China, Cuba, and Hezbollah are especially active in supporting leftist president Nicolas Maduro’s beleaguered government. Indeed, some U.S. analysts insist that without outside backing, especially by Russia and Cuba, pro-democracy opposition forces likely would have forced him to relinquish power already. When anti-government demonstrations erupted in Caracas on April 30, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that Maduro had been ready to board a plane to fly to exile in Havana but changed his mind at Russia’s urging.
U.S. leaders appear to exaggerate the extent of Moscow’s meddling. Given Maduro’s uncompromising behavior throughout the most recent demonstrations, the notion that he was ready to flee the country absent Russian intervention seems far-fetched. The loyalty of Venezuela’s military has not yet wavered, and he continues to draw support from left-wing citizens’ militias. Those factors have been more relevant to his continued grip on power than Russian (or any other foreign) support.
Nevertheless, Russia definitely has meddled in Venezuela’s political turbulence. Moscow is a major financial prop for Maduro’s government, and the Kremlin has provided tangible military backing as well. In December 2018, Russia deployed two nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela, and in March 2019, it sent some 200 military personnel to help Caracas refurbish its air defense system. Several hundred Russian mercenaries also appear to be operating in the country to assist Maduro’s security forces deal with regime opponents. Maduro’s foreign minister fanned the flames of Washington’s worry and anger by stating that Russia’s military involvement in his country might even increase.
The United States has insisted on maintaining a sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere since the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in the 1820s. Russia’s policy in Venezuela represents a direct challenge to that doctrine, and U.S. leaders should make it clear that a continuation of such behavior will have a markedly negative effect on bilateral relations. Cuba has been a foreign political and military client in the hemisphere for decades, precisely the situation the Monroe Doctrine aimed to prevent. The United States has no right or justification to dictate Venezuela’s internal governance, but it would be unwise to tolerate the establishment of a second hostile foreign client state.
The Trump administration should insist that Russia respect the Monroe Doctrine and confine its Venezuelan ties to normal diplomatic and economic relations. At the same time, it is essential for U.S. officials to acknowledge that the United States and its NATO allies have shown contempt for Russia’s sphere of influence—and even its core security zone—in Eastern Europe.