Relations between the United States and Venezuela have been strained since the late Hugo Chávez rose to power two decades ago. They got worse when the Trump administration recognised opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the South American country’s president instead of Chávez successor Nicolás Maduro in January 2019.
These tensions could become a full-blown crisis, as has become clear along the Venezuela-Colombia border, where Maduro is blocking the entry of US humanitarian aid. The United States says it is sending $20 million in food and medical supplies to alleviate suffering at a time when Venezuelans are experiencing widespread malnutrition and lack access to health care. Maduro contends that these shipments are a plot to meddle in his country’s internal affairs – a Trojan horse courtesy of Uncle Sam to undermine Venezuelan democracy.
Although there is no clear evidence of an ulterior motive, history does give Maduro reasons to be skeptical of US intentions. As a political scientist who studies both the political ramifications of international assistance and Venezuela’s growing instability, I find that humanitarian aid is rarely just about saving lives. In Venezuela, I believe that US-supplied aid may have substantial political consequences.
A foreign policy tool
USAID, the primary federal aid agency in the US, officially operates independently. However, in practice it has worked closely with the State Department, and the Trump administration discussed making it part of the department when Rex Tillerson served as secretary of state.
The US government generally considers aid and development assistance as part of their broader foreign policy. The State Department officially calls USAID an “important contributor to the objectives of the National Security Strategy of the United States.” In other words, USAID’s work abroad is at least partially intended to safeguard American security and promote US interests.
President Donald Trump recently told the UN General Assembly that the US is “only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends,” a statement that appeared to be a threat to cut off American assistance to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador unless they curb the flow of US-bound asylum-seekers and other immigrants.
The US gives those three countries a total of about $450 million a year in foreign aid and the Trump administration has pledged additional funds to slow the flow of people across the border.
Using aid to advance the national interest is not new.
In 2001, when the war in Afghanistan got underway, the Bush administration used aid to complement the military effort to prevent terrorism. Because Afghanistan had harboured Osama bin Laden and others tied to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, USAID got a broad mandate and billions of dollars to help win the hearts and minds of Afghans. That policy was essentially a bet that once military intervention had defused the hostilities, Afghans would have a more favourable view of the US – reducing the risk that terrorists would use Afghanistan as a launching pad.
USAID has also played an explicit role in attempting to win hearts and minds in Iraq in the early 2000s, Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and elsewhere.
(Morten Wendelbo is Research Fellow, American University School of Public Affairs)
(This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)