While the world was focussing on the ongoing war of words between North Korea and the United States, the oil-rich Latin American nation of Venezuela — another major US-baiter — seemed to have been missing in the news. However, Venezuela hit back at US president Donald Trump on Monday, accusing him of acting like “the world’s emperor”.
Venezuela’s rebuke came after Trump took to the floor of the UN General Assembly to criticise the Latin America nation, putting it in the same league as North Korea, Syria and Iran.
“This corrupt regime destroyed a prosperous nation by imposing a failed ideology,” Trump said of the socialist country, adding that the US was “prepared to take further action if the government of Venezuela persists on its path to impose authoritarian rule.”
In August, the Trump administration had imposed sanctions and also threatened to militarily intervene in the oil-rich nation.
Trump’s decision was influenced by the three-month long standoff in Venezuela after President Nicolas Maduro announced the formation of a new National Assembly in April. The announcement triggered violent protests across the country, killing over 100 people and leading to worldwide condemnation.
However, the antagonism between the US and Venezuela has a long history to it.
The US and Venezuela established diplomatic relations in 1835, just like many other Spanish-speaking South American nations that won their freedom from the Spanish Empire.
Ties between Caracas and Washington witnessed a major turning point in the 20th Century under Theodore Roosevelt and his successor Howard Taft, who used the “big stick” policy and “dollar diplomacy” to raise US’ diplomatic profile in its backyard: Latin America and the Carribeans.
During Rooselvelt’s tenure, the German threat loomed large over Venezuela. After Caracas appealed to US for help, Roosevelt administration applied pressure on Germany, which helped alleviate a potential economic crisis.
Dollar diplomacy, which was aimed at furthering the United States’ financial interests abroad, too helped in boosting bilateral ties between the two nations.
The twin policies were followed by the discovery of oil in Venezuela, which changed the economic dynamics of the country.
Under Juan Vicente Gomez, Venezuela embarked on a programme to exploit the newly found oil reserves. As national debt was high, Gomez opened the oil sector to foreign firms, triggering a massive investment from European and in particular US companies.
According to research, the US displaced the United Kingdom as the largest foreign investor by the 1920s. In 1930, US investment in Venezuela amounted to $247 million, while the UK’s total investment stood at $124 million.
This fact is significant as oil has been the focal point of US-Venezuelan ties since the last century.
While various reports noted that ties between the two countries were smooth until the 1990s, things took a turn for the worse after the socialist leader Hugo Chavez took charge of Venezuela.
Chavez, a known US critic, took charge of the oil-rich country in 1999, won a landslide on an anti-US, pro-poor plank. Anti-Americanism is a popular ploy of socialist parties in Latin America, which has lived under the shadow of US’ alleged domestic interventions since the early 20th Century.
The death of popularly elected Chilean president Salvador Allande in an US-backed military coup is still considered a watershed event in Latin America’s Left-wing politics.
With such a background in place, Chavez’s anti-US stance seemed a well thought-out rhetoric.
A 2005 article in the Council of Foreign Relations noted, “Chavez has upped his criticisms, calling President Bush “Mr Danger” and blaming the United States for a myriad of plots against Venezuela, including assassination attempts, a campaign to sabotage Venezuela’s oil production, and plans to invade his country.”
The low point in the bilateral ties came in August 2008, when Venezuela cut diplomatic ties with the US, in solidarity with Bolivia, which had expelled the US envoy over charges of abetting violence in the country. But ties were restored in 2009, with Chavez terming the development as “a new era” in relations.
However, that did not mean bilateral ties normalised. After Chavez died in 2013, his successor, Nicolas Maduro, continued the anti-Washington diatribe and also accused the US of interefering in the presidential elections.
Despite deteriorating political ties, the economic ties have remained untouched — and it largely revolves around oil.
What may come as surprise is the fact that the United States is actually the largest trade partner of Venezuela, despite several sanctions.
“Bilateral trade in goods between both countries reached $23.9 billion in 2015. US goods exports to Venezuela totaled $8.3 billion in 2015, down 25 percent from 2014. US imports from Venezuela totaled $15.6 billion, down 48 percent from 2014, due principally to the fall in oil prices,” the US state department report noted.
However, the statistics mentioned are from the recent past. The Trump administration was always expected to be hostile to Caracas. This was partly due to Trump’s anti-immigrant stance, and partly due to an economic reason. As Exxon Mobil’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, who is now the Secretary of State, did not share a good relationship with the Venezuelean authorities. The tumultuous history between Tillerson and Venezuela was expected to spill over into the diplomatic arena.
However, economic interests can sometimes trump political tensions. As this 2017 April article in Forbes, written in the aftermath of the latest economic sanctions, noted, “Fortunately, they (US) stopped well short of real sanctions on the oil business, something which would have both crashed the Venezuelan economy entirely but also have been costly to the US itself. The point here being that the US is a major importer of that heavy Venezuelan oil.”
But will oil be the panacea for the deteriorating US-Venezuela ties? This remains to be seen.