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Venezuela and the US: From friends to foes

Jenipher Camino Gonzalez
January 25, 2019

Ties between Caracas and Washington are at their lowest point, with President Nicolas Maduro breaking off diplomatic relations with the US. But bilateral relations were not always this bad. Where did it all go wrong?

USA - Venezuela flags
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Emmert

Tensions between Venezuela and the US have reached a boiling point, with US President Donald Trump formally recognizing Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president of the South American nation and declaring President Nicolas Maduro illegitimate.

The two countries have been at odds with each other since Hugo Chavez came to power nearly two decades ago, but they were not always enemies.

In fact, throughout its history, Venezuela enjoyed a relatively beneficial relationship with the US compared to its neighbors. Caracas' anti-Americanism is a relatively new phenomenon.

Linked by oil

In the early 1900s, US oil companies were granted generous concessions by then-dictator Juan Vicente Gomez and pioneered what would become Venezuela's main economic activity.

This oil link between the two countries would live on for decades, even as Venezuela established its own oil-producing company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), and future governments sought to capture a larger share of the country's resource wealth.

Read more: Venezuela's Juan Guaido: Who is he?

As a result of its friendly policy towards the US, Venezuela escaped much of the damage the US inflicted on antagonistic Latin American countries such as Chile and Guatemala.

Venezuela oil refineries PDVSA
Oil has long played a major role in relations between the two countriesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Landaeta

The opposite of Cuba

On January 23, 1958, a military coup brought the end of right-wing military dictatorships and ushered in Venezuela's nascent democratic movement.

The nation's new leaders spent time in the US while in exile and were inspired by its democratic system. They sought to build a politically-centrist government and stayed away from the Soviet Union.

For the US, Venezuela's transition from dictatorship to democracy was smooth, in particular because the oil relationship was not disturbed. Just a year later, the Cuban revolution rocked the region and ultimately drew Venezuela even closer to the US.

Read more: Mexicans battling fuel shortage afraid to 'end up like Venezuela'

As Cuba embraced the Soviet Union and rejected the US, President John F. Kennedy and subsequent administrations looked to Caracas to be the example of a place where democracy, liberty, and economic progress could flourish without socialism.

Chavez's anti-Americanism

It is in this context that Hugo Chavez transformed the relationship between the US and Venezuela. As a member of the army, Chavez was sent out to repel Cuban-backed guerrillas who sought to depose Venezuela's democratic governments.

But to Chavez, who came to admire Cuba, the rebels were liberators. Venezuela's democracy was plagued by corruption and gripped by a debt crisis in the 1980s, and when its leaders subscribed to Washington-led austerity packages that hurt the population, Chavez turned against the establishment.

His failed coup in 1992 was directed at the ruling class and struck a nerve within the population. Chavez won the 1998 presidential election with this anti-establishment message, but soon turned his eye on the US and the oil industry.

George W. Bush: 'The devil'

Chavez's close ties to Cuba sent Venezuela on a collision course with the US and relations exploded in the failed coup attempt in 2002. It is no surprise that the coup was sparked by a general strike that was opposed to Chavez's attempt to take more control over Venezuela's oil industry.

Though Chavez was briefly deposed, the coup attempt failed. Upon his return to power, the Venezuelan president accelerated his oil industry takeover and blamed the US and the CIA for being involved in the coup.

Read more: Uprising shows instability of Nicolas Maduro's Venezuela

Chavez then drove Venezuela's foreign policy of anti-Americanism into full-throttle, peaking with his UN speech where he called President George W. Bush "the devil." He became the darling of the international left and led a coalition of left-wing governments in Latin America, who were friendly to Cuba and hostile to the US.

Obama retreats

President George W. Bush responded in kind and his administration provided open and ample support to Venezuela's growing opposition movement.

But during this time, even as many worried that his government was growing more and more undemocratic, Chavez enjoyed wide support from Venezuela's masses, especially among the poor.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Washington turned away from what it saw as a failing policy of confrontation. Obama did not embrace the Chavez regime, but it stayed at arms-length from the conflict and scaled back its relationship with the opposition while remaining supportive in spirit.

Trump reignites the feud

A decade later, Venezuela's situation has changed dramatically. Chavez died and Nicolas Maduro assumed power in 2013. The country plunged into a deep economic crisis and set off one of Latin America's worst refugee crises.

Maduro could not maintain the high levels of popularity that Chavez once had and saw the region's left-wing allies fade away one by one, only to be replaced by unfriendly center-right governments.

Donald Trump's administration reignited the flame of Republican antagonism towards Venezuela, but this time, and unlike during the Bush years, Venezuela was weak and the region's leaders have requested assistance.

For a severely weakened opposition, embracing US support today is a simple decision. Juan Guaido swore himself in on the same day that Venezuela‘s first generation of democrats deposed a dictatorship, inspired by and with the backing of the United States. At least for the opposition, the ties that have historically bound these two nations still remain.

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