Selective Intervention: Why the U.S. presence in Venezuela, but not Nicaragua?

March 12, 2019

For the past few months, the political crisis in Venezuela has dominated headlines in international news. Since the contested re-inauguration of Nicolas Maduro and the rise of self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó in early January, the country has been suspended in a state of limbo as the country disputes over which leader is legitimate. The conflict has become even more contentious since the United States’ intentions to intervene militarily in the precarious situation have become more clear. As leaders in Colombia, Brazil, and the U.S. heighten pressure on the Maduro regime to accept foreign aid, an international debate has erupted over what the U.S.’s true intentions are, and if military intervention is an advisable option.

The United States was one of the first countries to recognize Juan Guaidó as interim president, announcing its support before he himself even declared his position on January 23. Since the U.S. lent its support to the opposition, leaders in the Organization of American States, Brazil, Canada, Spain, and Britain have followed suit, denouncing Maduro’s dictatorship and his unwillingness to address the country’s humanitarian crisis. However, despite this ever-increasing support for Guaidó, foreign leaders have been quick to criticize the United States for its enthusiastic recognition of the opposition, and for speculated plans of military intervention.

Any explicit plans by the United States to intervene in Venezuela have not yet been declared. However, there are several recent developments and public statements that suggest that the option is being heavily considered, and may even be underway. The possibility of military action became a topic of national debate in late January, just after Guaidó’s rise as an opposition leader, when National Security Advisor John Bolton was photographed accidentally revealing a notepad with the words ‘5,000 troops to Colombia’ written in bold print (Reuters). When White House officials were later questioned about the U.S.’s role in the conflict, they did not clarify the significance of the notes but vaguely stated that ‘all options are on the table’. This phrasing has been echoed by politicians including Mike Pompeo and Elliot Abrams.

Any more recent progress in the U.S.’s strategy has not been made public. However, in recent weeks, top officials ranging from Mike Pence to Marco Rubio have been in close contact with Guaidó and have been heavily involved in international efforts to force humanitarian aid into Venezuela against the wishes of Maduro.

The U.S.’s active role in the Venezuelan crisis and apparent intentions to intervene have been harshly criticized by members of the international community who view the involvement as being led by ulterior foreign policy goals. In late February, the European Union expressed its disapproval, with a spokesperson professing that any transition of power must be peaceful, democratic, and administered by the Latin American countries that will be directly affected by it (Tass). Other international organizations have reiterated this stance, arguing that U.S. intentions in Venezuela are ‘contrary to humanitarianism’ (The Atlantic). Similar criticism has come from Maduro himself, who has repeatedly affirmed the neoliberal interests behind the U.S.’s political involvement (Sputnik News).

While Maduro certainly has his own political incentives to challenge the United States’ stance, his allegations are not without their historical validity. Given the U.S.’s legacy for military intervention in Latin America, and the undemocratic outcomes that typically followed, leftist leaders in the region are right to suspect that the same interests are at play today. This is especially true considering that the White House’s Special Envoy to Venezuela is Elliot Abrams—who was heavily involved in the Iran Contra Scandal and other military interventions in Latin America under President Reagan.

Regardless of this international apprehension, the Trump Administration has maintained that all options are on the table, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declaring that the U.S. may use force against ‘those who oppose the peaceful restoration of democracy in Venezuela’ (State Department). Government officials have stood by the rhetoric that they will defend the Venezuelan people against dictatorship and malicious actors in Cuba and Russia. It is worth noting that these statements were made at the same time that President Trump was meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Hanoi.

There are a few reasons to be skeptical of this rhetoric defending the White House’s plans to ‘restore democracy’. One specific case that calls into question the U.S.’s true incentives is that of Nicaragua, which has found itself in a state of economic and political collapse reflective of that in Venezuela—yet free of the threat of U.S. military intervention.

The case of Nicaragua

The current humanitarian and political crisis in Nicaragua is closely tied to that of Venezuela. Venezuela and Nicaragua have been aligned ideologically since the early 2000s, and Nicaragua’s decline was somewhat of an aftershock of Venezuela’s own economic collapse a few years prior. When oil prices fell in 2014, Venezuela’s economy—which was almost entirely based on oil revenue—followed suit, forcing Maduro to cut off even his closest allies from the profits. This had a ripple effect in Nicaragua, which had been reliant on aid and oil subsidies from Venezuela.

Nicaragua’s political demise came shortly after when the economic situation, coupled with a wavering commitment to socialism, caused President Daniel Ortega to establish austerity measures that involved the suspension of social security and pension benefits for much of the population. This change, combined with corruption allegations, led the population to take to the streets in massive protests in early 2018. After these protests were then met with severe repression and brutality by the military forces, the list of grievances expanded and the movement grew in both size and intensity. In recent months, however, the movement has weakened as a result of many of its members fleeing to neighboring countries, being assassinated at the hands of paramilitaries, or being imprisoned for terrorism charges.

The extent of the repression by the regime led by Daniel Ortega and his wife-turned-Vice President Rosario Murillo has been astonishing, with at least 320 killed in the protests last spring (Al Jazeera). This death toll is similar to that of Venezuela since its own political crisis began in 2014; however, given the much smaller population of Nicaragua, this number has alarmed human rights experts who have accused the Ortega government of crimes against humanity (Axios). Between May and October of 2018, over 750 people were arrested, many of whom were opposition leaders, and many of whom are expected to serve life sentences (Al Jazeera). At least 30,000 have fled across the border into Costa Rica to avoid persecution, and the number of refugees is only expected to increase in the coming years. And, like in Venezuela, Daniel Ortega has thus far maintained his power over the country’s military, making it very difficult to challenge his authority without significant bloodshed.

‘Selective Intervention’

As the Ortega regime continues to stretch its authoritative powers, and as the country slips further into political and economic turmoil, experts fear that the situation will soon mirror that of Venezuela. But, while Nicaragua is in the midst of one of the most severe human rights crises in its history, we rarely see this in the news or hear about plans to intervene by U.S. politicians.

This then raises questions about the Trump Administration’s proclaimed dedication to promoting democracy and defending human rights abroad. If the threat to democracy is the leading reason for potential intervention in Venezuela, then why are we not also invested in the equivalent political crisis in Nicaragua?

The answer lies in the logic of ‘selective intervention,’ or the tendency of the U.S. to intervene in the foreign affairs that best suit its political goals, even if the rhetoric used to defend this intervention doesn’t quite match up. Of course, this phenomenon is not new to the United States. Selective intervention was a constant theme during the Cold War, during which the U.S. would use the fear associated with the ‘Red Scare’ to justify interventions and coup d’etats in countries where there were geopolitical gains to be had. Rhetoric of democracy would be used to defend U.S. actions in select countries, even when intervention ultimately had the opposite effect of instilling authoritarians.

Such questionable historical decisions lead many to be skeptical of the U.S.’s intentions when leaders claim to be ‘promoting democracy’ abroad, as this rhetoric has acted as the face of militarism and economic pursuit in the past. What, then are the motives behind the selective intervention in Venezuela, and not Nicaragua, today?

There are many potential reasons behind the interest in intervening in Venezuela—and the promotion of democracy is likely not one of them. The first and most obvious answer lies with Venezuela’s massive crude oil reserves, which naturally make its political affairs an automatic concern of the United States. The country’s vast petroleum resources were a leading motive for U.S. intervention in the past, most notably in the case of the U.S.-backed coup of Hugo Chavez in 2002. Although Nicaragua has an abundant supply of valuable metals, it lacks the oil reserves that make Venezuela so geopolitically valuable.

Because of its oil exports, and because of its historical alignment with socialism, other major world powers including Russia also have stakes in Venezuela’s political crisis. The outcome of the crisis therefore determines much more than the fate of the Venezuelan people; the decision between Guaidó and Maduro will influence the power relationship between the world’s most powerful actors. If Guaidó is President, then the U.S. can exert its influence over Venezuela and take away from one of Russia’s most powerful economic and ideological allies.

The case of Nicaragua fails to offer the same geopolitical stakes as that of Venezuela. Though Nicaragua has also been under the rule of a socialist party since 2007, Daniel Ortega has backtracked on much of his party’s platform in favor of neoliberal reforms. Although he fought with the Sandinistas in the 1980s, Ortega’s ideology has become far less radical over the years, and his affinity for economic conservativism has grown along with his executive power.

Therefore, while U.S. leaders still associate Nicaragua with socialism, Ortega’s more recent move towards neoliberalism has made him less of an ideological threat, and more of an economic ally, than Venezuela.

It is worth noting that Nicaragua did recently come up in U.S. political discourse, with John Bolton including Nicaragua in what he called a ‘troika of tyranny’ along with Venezuela and Cuba in November 2018 (Sputnik News). Other White House officials have implied that Nicaragua might be among the next countries to see a military intervention after Venezuela. This rhetoric, however, has been sporadic, and it appears unlikely that the Trump Administration will actually invest in the resources to take military action in either Cuba or Nicaragua.

For clear reasons, a positive outcome in Venezuela would serve many of the U.S.’s most fundamental interests. It would bring a possible end to a decades-long ideological rivalry, it would add to the U.S.’s foreign policy influence in the hemisphere, it would add to the U.S.’s power by proxy over Russia, and it would foster a new economic alliance between the U.S. and one of the hemisphere’s largest oil producers. Nicaragua, though in the midst of a relatively similar political crisis, does not offer the same geopolitical advantages. When examining the ideological, economic, and political reasons behind the attention awarded to the Venezuela crisis, it makes perfect sense.

The problem arises in the adamant denials by White House officials that these interests are at play. According to Secretary Pompeo, any action taken in Venezuela is completely guided by ‘ensuring democracy,’ and ‘defending human rights’ (State Department). But if this were truly the case, then why are there possible plans to send troops to Colombia, but not to Costa Rica? If the United States’ guiding intentions are democracy and human rights, then why are they only interested in protecting Venezuelan victims, but not Nicaraguan victims?

Democracy is failing and authoritarianism rising in both countries. Some even argue that Nicaragua has become more autocratic and militaristic than Venezuela, as Venezuela still has a legitimate democratic body in the National Assembly. Repression and human rights violations have been just as severe in Nicaragua, and perhaps even worse, than in Venezuela.

Foreign leaders have been reluctant to support the U.S.’s plans to intervene in Venezuela because they fear that such an intervention would be led by ulterior political motives—and, given the evidence between the cases of Nicaragua and Venezuela, this appears to be exactly the case. Rather than hide behind a façade of democracy-promotion and humanitarianism, it would serve leaders in the White House to either avoid military intervention entirely, or to admit the true incentives behind their foreign policy.


  1. Susan Heavey. (2019 Jan 29). "Bolton's notes raise questions on U.S. military plans amid Venezuela tensions". Reuters. Retrieved Wednesday, February 20, 2019.
  2. N/A. (2019 Feb 25). "EU calls for peaceful resolution of Venezuelan crisis". Tass. Retrieved Thursday, February 28, 2019.
  3. Dylan Baddour. (2019 Feb 21). "When Humanitarian Aid Is Used as a Weapon to Bring Down Regimes". The Atlantic. Retrieved Thursday, February 28, 2019.
  4. N/A. (2019 Feb 23). "Op 'Troika of Tyranny'? Pompeo Warns of More Regime Changes in Latin America". Sputnik International. Retrieved Friday, March 1, 2019.
  5. N/A. (2019 Feb 24). "Interview With Jake Tapper of CNN State of the Union". State Department. Retrieved Thursday, February 28, 2019.
  6. Mateo Jarquin. (2019 Feb 20). "As Venezuela grabs headlines, Nicaragua sinks further into dictatorship". Axios. Retrieved Tuesday, February 26, 2019.
  7. N/A. (2019 Feb 27). "Nicaragua frees prisoners before talks with opposition: CPDH". Al Jazeera. Retrieved Saturday, March 2, 2019.

About Author(s)

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Kristen Martinez-Gugerli
Kristen Gugerli is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science, pursuing a BPhil in International and Area Studies, minoring in Religious Studies, Spanish, and Quechua, and earning a certificate in Latin American Studies. She studied abroad in the summer of 2017 in Cusco, Peru, and then conducted research abroad in Valladolid, Mexico in the summer of 2018 through the Center for Latin American Studies' Seminar and Field Trip program. She is particularly interested in issues involving indigenous and women's human rights in Latin America, and has tried to incorporate these interests into her studies. She is currently writing her senior thesis about existing trends in the political participation of indigenous peoples in Mexico.