Thursday, March 17, 2005

You Forgot Venezuela!

It's refreshing to know that in these days of Glorious Democratic Uprising, we continue to inhabit a world in which Old Skool Imperial Skullduggery can find a festering little nook. Amid all the hub-bub about the ANWR budget provision, the Washington Post reports today that Hugo Chavez, the twice-elected Venezuelan president who speaks well of George Bush, has new cause to suspect the US of plotting to make him sleep with the fishes. Chavez, you may recall, survived a Spring 2002 coup that was quite clearly supported if not organized by the Bush Administration and most definitely celebrated by the American press, which has proven itself quite obtuse on matters of democracy and human rights. (For a good look at the NY Times on this general problem, see this book.)

Whether or not the Chavez assassination rumors prove true — they've been reported off and on since February — the plausibility of it all is hard to miss for anyone familiar with the history of US-Latin American relations, which remain premised on variations of the Monroe Doctrine (which was largely based on the thinking of that other Presidential Son of a President, John Quincy Adams). Here's the relevant passage from Monroe's annual address to Congress in 1823:
In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so. It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense. With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers. . . . We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

In other words, the corrupt, Old World nations of Europe -- mired in superstition, monarchy and sin -- must forever renounce the further colonization of the Western Hemisphere, where virtue and republicanism reign supreme. Stay, as it were, the fuck out; we, the United States, have a preponderant interest in what takes place in our backyard.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the US had stripped the carcass of the old Spanish Empire, adding (officially or unofficially) the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to its roster of possessions. With a renewed imperial confidence, Theodore Roosevelt -- hand resting as always on his gigantic ball sack -- saw fit in 1904 to amend the Monroe Doctrine (which, it should be noted, never achieved the status of anything more than the bulbous declaration of American Presidents and Secretaries of State. International law does not recognize these sorts of assertions with any kind of validity. But who cares about international law anyway?) In what became known as the Roosevelt Corollary, TR insisted that the independent nations of Latin America must abide by certain norms of "civilization," norms whose violation would invite swift response from the Yankee hegemon:
It is not true that the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere save such as are for their welfare. All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. 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 States 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.

As I frequently suggest to my students, we are living beneath the wings of an administration that has effectively globalized the Monroe Doctrine and its 1904 corollary, with consequent disregard — not to say outright disdain — for the discomforts of international law. Not all of this is Bush's doing, of course; the extension of the Monroe Doctrine into the Persian Gulf actually took place in 1980 with the Carter Doctrine, which announced that "an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." But while the Monroe Doctrine has been updated for the new millennium (and its new Middle Eastern battlegrounds), the old "sphere of influence" arguments with respect to Latin America still apply. Venezuela has enormous oil resources, upon which the US depends for 15% of its imports (about 1.5 million barrels a day), and has indicated that it would prefer to diversify its oil exports by selling more to nations like China. Chavez, to the unending irritation of the Bushies, is also on reasonably good terms with Castro.

So while the US continues to insist that it will support legal, democratic measures to dispose of Chavez, more traditional scenarios — rooted, of course, in the selfless pursuit of stability and order in Our Hemisphere — are not difficult to imagine.

For perspectives on the Venezuelan issue, see here and here.