As Venezuela’s reliance on Russia grows amid the country’s unfolding crisis, Vladimir Putin’s point man in Caracas is pushing back on the U.S. revival of a doctrine used for generations to justify military interventions in the region.
In a rare interview, Russian Ambassador Vladimir Zaemskiy rejected an assertion this week by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton that the 1823 Monroe Doctrine is “alive and well.”
The policy, originally aimed at opposing any European meddling in the hemisphere, was used to justify U.S. military interventions in countries including Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Grenada, but had been left for dead by recent U.S. administrations trying to turn the page on a dark past.
“It’s hard to believe that the U.S. administration have invented a time machine that not only allows them to turn back the clock but also the direction of the universe,” the 66-year-old diplomat told The Associated Press this week.
Comparison to 9/11
In an example of how the Cold Warlike rhetoric on all sides of Venezuela’s crisis has quickly escalated, the ambassador compared hostile comments by Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to those of the al-Qaida leaders behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Their obsession in imposing their will, in this case on Venezuela’s internal affairs, reminds me of the declarations of the leaders of al-Qaida, who in carrying out the attack on the Twin Towers also tried to position themselves as the only bearers of the truth,” said Zaemskiy, who was senior counselor at Russia’s mission to the United Nations on 9/11. “The history of humanity has shown that none of us are.”
Those specific, written remarks were prepared ahead of the interview.
Steadfast to Maduro
While the Trump administration led a chorus of some 50 nations that in January recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader, Putin has steadfastly stood by Nicolas Maduro, sending planeloads of military personnel and blocking condemnation of his government at the U.N. Security Council.
In a speech this week commemorating the anniversary of the disastrous CIA-organized invasion of Cuba in 1961 by exiles opposed to Fidel Castro’s revolution, Bolton warned Russia against deploying military assets to “prop up” Maduro, considering such actions a violation of the Monroe Doctrine.
What the U.S. considers Russia’s destabilizing support for Maduro hit a high point in December when two Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons touched down in Caracas. Then, last month, dozens of uniformed personnel arrived to service Sukhoi fighter jets and an S-300 missile system.
Zaemskiy said such military cooperation is perfectly legal and has been taking place for years, ever since the U.S. in 2006 banned all arms sales to the South American country. But he said the alliance has taken on added importance as the Trump administration repeatedly insists that a “military option” to remove Maduro remains on the table.
He was unwilling to say how far Russia would go to thwart an eventual U.S. attack, saying that as a diplomat he’s an optimist.
“I firmly believe that in the end reason will prevail and no tragedy will take place,” he said.
History with Latin America
The soft-spoken, bookish Zaemskiy has specialized in Latin America since his days working for the Soviet Union and was posted to Washington for the first of two U.S. tours when the Cold War ended.
Because of his strong Spanish and English, he was a note-taker at the U.N. in September 2000 when Maduro’s mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez met Putin for the first time. He said he recalls Chavez complaining to the newly elected Putin about the need to raise oil prices, then near three-decade low. The two petroleum powers gradually cemented a political, military and economic alliance over the next few years as oil prices surged to an all-time high, bringing riches to both.
Western diplomats describe Zaemskiy as an astute and affable interlocutor who even U.S. diplomats and leaders of the opposition are known to consult. He’s also the dean of foreign diplomats in Caracas’ dwindling diplomatic community, having presented his credentials in September 2009, a few weeks before another staunch government ally, Cuban Ambassador Rogelio Polanco.
‘Very difficult’ economy
He acknowledged that with hyperinflation raging and many goods in short supply, Venezuela is in a “very difficult” situation. Echoing Maduro, he blamed U.S. sanctions, as well as the stifling of private investment.
“It’s perfectly clear to me that the economic situation of the country has deteriorated a great deal,” he said. “The way forward is to open more opportunities for the private sector, which still has a big role to play in the country and should be allowed to demonstrate that” — seemingly a veiled criticism of Maduro’s constant squeeze on private businesses.
To break the current stalemate, he urged something the government’s foes have so far rejected: burying the past and starting negotiations, perhaps with the mediation of the Vatican or U.N.
The U.S. and opposition insist that past attempts at dialogue have only served to give Maduro badly needed political oxygen while producing no progress.
Depth of Russia support
Despite such outward care for Maduro, some have questioned the depth of Russia’s support.
Russia is major investor in Venezuela’s oil industry, but those interests have been jeopardized since the Trump administration in January imposed sanctions on state-run oil giant PDVSA and even went after a Moscow-based bank for facilitating its transactions. At the same time PDVSA last month moved its European headquarters to Moscow from Lisbon, Gazprombank said it was pulling out of a joint venture with the company, Russian state media reported.