Few international crises have more moral clarity and left American policymakers with easier choices than the situation in Venezuela. On one hand, we can support Nicolas Maduro, an anti-American authoritarian despot whose term ended on January 10 after he usurped his country’s constitution in a fraudulent presidential election that was deemed as illegitimate by over 40 nations, including most of Latin America.
Alternatively, we can back Maduro’s democratically elected opponent, Juan Guaido, a charismatic 35-year-old progressive political activist and leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly who, pursuant to Venezuela’s constitution, is the country’s interim president. Most regional governments recognize the young engineer as the country’s true leader. Guaido is also a co-founder of the center-left Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, which helped elect Venezuela’s first-ever openly gay members of the national legislature and supports fully restoring democracy in the South American nation.
To recap, Guaido is:
Pro-Social Justice? Check.
In fact, Guaido is everything the left claims to be and support. Had he been born in the United States, he’d be a high-profile national leader and on the VP shortlist of any Democratic presidential nominee. Given Guaido’s political bona fides and Maduro’s unpopularity, you’d figure that American progressives, who like to stress they’re more democratic than socialist, would be rushing to embrace him—but they’re not.
Smear Campaign Against Guaido
Instead, within hours of the State Department announcing it would join most of the region’s governments in recognizing Guaido as Venezuela’s provisional president, a group of progressive members of Congress launched what appeared to be a coordinated effort to cast doubts on the legitimacy of the young leader.
The first strike came from the vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Ro Khanna of California who had previously co-signed a letter reprimanding the Treasury Department for specifically targeting Nicolas Maduro with financial sanctions. In response to a tweet from a journalist with close ties to Russian state media, Khanna warned the U.S. against “pushing for regime change” in Venezuela.
It’s strange enough that for American member of Congress to quote-tweet a Kremlin-connected reporter and come out strongly opposed to financial sanctions on a foreign tyrant. Later on Wednesday evening, the sophomore congressman took his Venezuela advocacy a step further by publicly rebuking a fellow Democrat. In a statement, Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois, praised the Trump administration and other regional leaders for “appropriately [recognizing] National Assembly President Juan Guaido as the constitutionally appropriate leader of Venezuela.”
Khanna pounced on Durbin’s letter by arguing that rather than “anointing” a head of state, the U.S. should push for a negotiated settlement with the Vatican and the pro-Maduro governments of Mexico and Uruguay that would only prolong the regime in Caracas. Media darling (and newly-minted representative) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who has been conspicuously silent on Venezuela, shared Khanna’s tweet to her followers, which could be interpreted as an endorsement of his position.
The next day, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (also a 2020 presidential candidate) took to Twitter to comment on the situation in Caracas. In a series of tweets, Gabbard said “the US needs to stay out of Venezuela” and “stop trying to choose” its leaders.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont made a similar point. In a tweet thread that began as critical of Maduro before it built up to an attack on Guaido’s ascension, the democratic socialist warned that the United States should “not be in the business of regime change or supporting coups” in Latin America.
Is Trump really an anti-interventionist? From "bombing the hell" out of civilians, to ramping-up brutal sanctions, to becoming Arms Salesman-In-Chief––our new @EmpireFiles series shows how he's been a gift to the war machine. https://t.co/3SmyiU9YEt
— Abby Martin (@AbbyMartin) January 11, 2019
Undoubtedly, though, the harshest attacks on the interim South American president came from Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (who shared the embedded tweet above). In addition to retweeting pro-Maduro propaganda from reporters tied to Venezuelan and Russian state media shops, the freshman representative from Minnesota echoed Khanna’s call for a negotiation with Mexico and Uruguay while accusing the United States of installing a right-wing puppet on behalf of corporate interests. “Trump’s efforts to install a far right opposition will only incite violence and further destabilize the region,” she added.
The Progressives’ Attacks Don’t Hold Up To Scrutiny
To be clear, most of what Khanna, Gabbard, Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders tweeted is false and some of it would be laughable if it weren’t for the damage their attacks could cause Guaido and the Venezuelan opposition.
As Helena Poleo, a Venezuelan-American Democratic activist in Miami, explained:
“It’s ridiculous and deeply ignorant to call Guaido a member of the ‘far right’ as some have alleged. He is a leader in Voluntad Popular, which is actually a center-left party and member of the Socialist International alliance. These comments are extremely harmful to the Venezuelan cause, and makes it very difficult to be a Venezuelan Democrat.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine anywhere on the planet—outside of maybe Havana and Pyongyang—where Guaido would fall on the right side of a political spectrum, especially on the far end of one. His party’s platform calls for government-guaranteed housing, health care, and education for all citizens.
He was also elected as a Venezuelan National Assembly official in 2010, long before Trump was president. Moreover, the United States is not involved in a coup because none is taking place. We are simply working with our allies in Argentina, the Bahamas, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, and Peru, among others, and acknowledging the fact that Guaido is Venezuela’s interim president in accordance with his country’s constitution.
“It’s a bold, and clearly organized move,” said Christopher Sabatini, a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. “But something needed to be done to break the deadlock and prevent an illegitimately elected president from continuing to kick the can down the road and avoid international accountability for holding his country hostage.”
The progressives’ position is also riddled with self-contradictions. If their primary concern is undue intervention from Washington, it makes no sense for them to advocate the State Department pressuring opposition leaders to pursue a negotiation mediated by two pro-Maduro governments that are hostile to the interests and views of the vast majority of Venezuelans and the region.
Useful Idiots Or Just Leftist Idiocy?
Ultimately, the Venezuelan people and policymakers in Washington face a binary choice. Not backing Guaido means supporting Maduro, who has made it clear he has no interest in leaving office or holding free elections. That said, it’s unclear why these progressive Democrats are siding with one of the worst dictators in the world.
Their pro-Maduro advocacy is also no coincidence. There’s simply no chance that a group of members of Congress—from the same caucus, no less—independently decided to use nearly identical talking points to attack a left-leaning foreign politician without some kind of outside direction or encouragement. In fact, congressional offices routinely rely on third parties—such as lobbyists, consultants, and interests groups—for guidance on matters beyond their expertise. So, the question is: who’s advising them and their staffs?
A good place to start would be to examine who has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in Venezuela and the resources to lobby and influence members of Congress. At least one answer to this question points to Moscow, which has a record of attempting to influence American politics; military and geopolitical interests in keeping the Venezuelan regime in power; and has even dispatched mercenaries to guard Maduro.
It would not be the first time that some of these progressive Democrats peddle media narratives that advance Vladimir Putin’s interests, beyond their sharing of tweets by Russia-connected reporters. In 2017, Gabbard famously met with the Moscow-backed Assad regime in Syria. Last year, the Hawaii Free Press reported the congresswoman hired a consultant that lobbies for the Russian government and is allegedly at the center of its shadowy lobbying efforts in Washington. In addition, according to a former Defense Department official, Russia was the likely source of Khanna’s attacks on anti-Putin Ukrainian forces in a series of interviews and a tweet he later deleted.
Of course, another explanation for the progressives’ pro-Maduro PR push is that, as far left members of Congress, they have sympathy for the socialist Bolivarian Revolution. As many have pointed out before, contrary to what politicians and pundits say, democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez and Omar have more in common ideologically with Latin American leftists than the Nordic social democrats the media like to depict them as.
Regardless of whether it’s influence from foreign actors or just socialist camaraderie, Americans deserve to know why four members of Congress have decided to stand with a cruel tyrant over U.S. interests. Not only are they undermining U.S. foreign policy and hurting the cause of Venezuelan democracy, their advocacy bolsters Putin’s regional objectives—all at the expense of a young, democratically-elected leader who, if he were an American, would be caucusing alongside them.