Three trucks loaded with food and medicine for the Venezuelan people went up in flames last week on the Colombia-Venezuela border, as the country’s military engaged with opposition forces in a burst of tear gas, rocks, handmade Molotov cocktails, and metal pellets. The spectacle of Venezuelans wiping tear gas from their eyes, 280 tons of aid mainly from the United States still blocked from entering the country, lit up international television screens and newsfeeds.
U.S. leaders were quick to denounce the violence, hinting that American intervention in Venezuela might be on the way. President Nicolás Maduro’s forces “will soon realize just how badly they overplayed their hand today,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted. National Security Advisor John Bolton said “Maduro’s actions will not go unpunished.” And Vice President Mike Pence told Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó “we are with you 100 percent.” In a meeting with other world leaders this week, he reiterated the Trump administration’s line on Venezuela—“all options are on the table”—a reference to potential military intervention, which European Union leaders have consistently rejected. “Not every option is on the table,” Spain’s foreign minister said Sunday in an explicit retort to Pence.
But what do Venezuelans and other neighboring Latin Americans think? Do they want to be rescued by the United States?
Ricar Leon, a 24-year-old migrant among thousands of displaced Venezuelans in Cúcuta, Colombia, is not sold on the idea.
“I don’t agree with some other country wanting to fix what we can try and fix in Venezuela. We can do this with our new president,” he told me earlier this week, standing with his family near the Simon Bolivar Bridge, where the Venezuelan opposition tried to pass supplies through Maduro’s military blockade on Saturday. He supports opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom American conservative politicians also back, but said he didn’t trust American politicians’ intentions. “If the United States enters Venezuela,” he said, “they’re going to try and fix it for the United States, not for us. Not for human rights.”
Those who feel as Leon does are skeptical for a reason: the United States’ long history of intervening in Latin American political struggles, often leaving a trail of bodies behind.
In 1950s, it was Guatemala. The United States sponsored a coup d’état to oust democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán because they were opposed to policies providing freedoms to communists, and land reform significantly impacting American corporation interests. The intervention ended with a decades-long civil war, a repressive dictatorship, and massacres of the country’s indigenous populations.
In the 1970s, it was Chile. The Nixon administration used economic warfare to push the Chilean economy to the brink in an attempt to oust socialist President Salvador Allende in another Cold War-fueled coup. The Chilean intervention ended with the bombing of the country’s presidential place and the installment of President Augusto Pinochet, a military strongman who constructed a reputation for human rights abuses that still haunt Chileans today.
In 1961, it was Cuba’s Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1964, it was Brazil’s regime change. In 1989, it was the Panama invasion.
“In every high school and every college in Latin America you learn about these interventions,” said Alan McPherson, a Temple University history professor who focuses on U.S. relations with Latin America. “They are fresh in the mind of the public whenever there’s any intervention of any kind or whenever a politician wants to sort of exploit this public memory.”
There’s another reason many remember prior interventions so clearly: the effects persist to this day. The 2002 coup attempt against then Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, later found to have been sanctioned by the Bush administration, is still used by Maduro in the present to discredit his opposition, accusing the Trump administration of both assassination and coup attempts. “Donald Trump gave the order to kill me,” Maduro said in January, “told the Colombian government, the Colombian mafia to kill me. If something happens to me, Donald Trump and Colombian President Iván Duque will be responsible.”
That troubled legacy of American intervention is most striking in Central America: Around 200,000 people were killed and another 45,000 forcibly disappeared during Guatemala’s armed conflict, with more than 90 percent of the genocide estimated to have been committed by the United States-backed military. In El Salvador’s “dirty war” in the 1980s, the UN now believes 85 percent of atrocities were perpetrated by U.S.-supported government forces. In both of these countries, as well as in Honduras, U.S. actions have markedly contributed to the instability migrants are now fleeing when they head to the United States border.
“The roots of what’s going on now in most countries go back to what happened at the end of the Cold War,” said Cecilia Menjívar, a UCLA researcher studying Central America and migration.
And the interventions were rarely clean and precise, said Menjívar. Rather, they had a ripple effect, each coup and cascade of violence blending into the next, with instability frequently spilling over into other countries.
That spillover potential worries Favia Noricta, a 50-year-old Colombian living on the border, a region that’s already been eclipsed by the more than three million people leaving their country, nearly half landing in Colombia.
“We want the exit of Maduro. Only that,” he said. “An intervention, that’s not something we want. It can’t happen because many people will die. More dead, more misery.”
But that isn’t to say those in the region object to the humanitarian aid. With skyrocketing hyperinflation, it’s near impossible at present to get basic food or medicine in Venezuela. Violent clashes have spurted up country-wide and millions have fled. So while Maduro and some foreign figures have accused U.S. humanitarian aid of being a deliberate provocation and pretext for intervention, those on the ground don’t necessarily agree.
“People say it’s like that, but, honestly, we believe it’s a help,” said Jordes Sira, a 39-year-old Venezuelan who traveled to the border to help pass the aid across the border. “It’s help and we’re the ones who have to live through what’s happening.”
And to some, the situation is desperate enough to outweigh the serious risks that come with U.S. involvement. Carlos Cangroiz, a Venezuelan migrant who fled to Colombia in October with his wife and children, told me he wants other countries to intervene in Venezuela. It would be a chance to end the starvation and shortages, the hyperinflation, and state violence his country has suffered from for years.
“I left the country for the situation we’re living through,” he said. “Where we don’t have medicine, where we don’t have food, where our relatives are dying for lack of nutrition or health.”
Cangroiz isn’t under any illusions about what intervention would involve.
“I have always said Venezuela is going to see blood,” Cangroiz said. “In Venezuela, it’s already beginning because he doesn’t want to let go of his power. And the guard continues to defend Maduro. The guard continues to defend this man.”