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Mercenaries Actually Have a Long History in Venezuela

(Image via NPR.org)

“As monstrous as the Blackwater plan may seem, we must not lose sight of the fact that Maduro is the only real employer of mercenaries in Venezuela, and that his 19th century heroes were doing the same thing.”

In Venezuela, there are two presidents. This is not the way it is supposed to be. And, if history is any guide, whenever there are two competing presidents in a country, things get ugly. Think of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln in the United States; Francisco Franco and Manuel Azaña in Spain; or the many African countries with various claimants to power. Massive bloodshed often follows suit. 

So far, Venezuela has not reached this stage. But there are worries it may, very well, get there, and naturally, the global community is concerned. Syria and Yemen are already bad enough; we do not want to add another name to the list of countries undergoing a major civil war. Yet, we may wonder if peace is more important than justice. Martin Luther famously believed that peace is more important, but the case of Venezuela should raise some doubts, for to privilege the status quo in the name of peace is to be complicit in a grotesque injustice. That injustice is the simple fact that Nicolás Maduro is an illegitimate usurper of power in Venezuela, and Juan Guaidó and his supporters’ attempts at regime change, are on the right side of history.

Sadly, being on the right side of history is not enough to serve justice. Even though Guaidó is constitutionally the President of Venezuela, he has no power whatsoever. For example, take his recent attempt at instigating Venezuela’s armed forces to topple Maduro. It was a complete failure, as the military remains loyal to Maduro. Given the complicity (or perhaps cowardice) of Venezuela’s armed forces, many of Guaidó’s supporters, both in Venezuela and abroad, want him to request an American military intervention. So far, Guaidó has been reluctant to do so, and the United States does not seem to have the animus for it, either.

The United States’ reluctance to get involved is understandable. Apart from the fact that President Trump ran on a isolationist platform (and that the United States does not want another fiasco after Iraq), the United States has a nasty history of imperialist interventions in Latin America, and any move in Venezuela will be easily perceived as yet another attempt by the gringos to put in play Woodrow Wilson’s infamous words: “I am going to teach the Latin republics to elect good men!”

Yet, for may reasons (not least of which is the huge oil reserves in Venezuela), the United States does not want to abandon the fight that easily, and now it seems that there may be a new option on the table: to train Latin American mercenaries to do the job and remove the dictator from power. Apparently, this plan has been pushed by Erik Prince, formerly of Blackwater (who does whisper into President Trump’s ear on occasion).

Predictably, this has set off many alarms among progressives. The hardcore Left unabashedly supports Maduro. A softer Left does not dare to approve of a dictator, but it still argues that mercenaries are a very dangerous option to settle the Venezuelan crisis.

They have a point. Blackwater’s responsibility in the Nisour Square massacre of 2007 in Iraq easily comes to mind. But, even in the absence of that particular massacre, mercenaries are always a dangerous lot. The lack of civic commitment to their actions induces in them a disregard for the rules of engagement. Furthermore, mercenaries feed the military-industrial complex, and once they finish their job they are likely to create even more chaos just to stay employed. Sean McFate provides an excellent explanation of how this works in The Modern Mercenary.

Fair enough. President Trump should disregard Erik Prince’s plans, and for once we should give Maduro a break. Yet, there is a stench of hypocrisy in all of this. The Left denounces Blackwater as an agent of rogue capitalist imperialism—and Erik Prince as a modern war lord. The Left does not seem to notice that Maduro himself is a war lord who stays in power not because the armed forces remain truly loyal to him, but rather, because over the years he has paid mercenaries to maintain his rule.

Venezuela’s army is notoriously incompetent, and Maduro has known this for years. Precisely for that reason, he has financed alternate paramilitary groups known as colectivos, who terrorize the civilian population. These groups are only loyal to mammon, and Maduro consistently delivers the scraps coming from oil revenues. More recently, Maduro has felt that these colectivos are not enough, and now he has unapologetically employed Russian mercenaries. The Left is concerned with Blackwater but cares little about these Russian private soldiers. They are worried about Putin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections but could not care less for Putin’s interference in Venezuelan affairs.

The hypocrisy is also reflected in the Left’s approach to Simón Bolívar, Venezuela’s national hero. Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, fashioned a cult surrounding Bolívar, and from then on, leftist sympathizers of both Chávez and Maduro sang praises of the so-called “Bolivarian revolution.”

Well, guess what? Bolívar also used mercenaries extensively. During the first half of his long military career, Bolívar was met with huge failures, and he had to flee Caracas twice. The Spaniards had the upper hand, and he understood that he had to raise a bigger army. At first, he had been reluctant to emancipate the slaves, but he ultimately freed them so they could join his ranks. Yet, he did not stop there. He actively recruited unemployed veterans from the Napoleonic wars. Eventually, they came to form the British Legion, and they proved to be a crucial factor in the final stages of the South American wars of independence. Some of these soldiers may have gone to Venezuela out of idealism (perhaps as Lord Byron did in Greece), but the overwhelming majority were truly after the gold. Even Bolívar’s predecessor, Francisco de Miranda (another figure deeply admired by the so-called Bolivarian revolution), tried to invade Venezuela departing from New York, using American filibusters.

This is not to say that Bolívar’s actions somehow justify Erik Prince’s plans for Venezuela. We must understand that 19th century warfare was very different from today, and there was no military-industrial complex back then. But we must strive for more consistency and less hypocrisy. As monstrous as the Blackwater plan may seem, we must not lose sight of the fact that Maduro is the only real employer of mercenaries in Venezuela, and that his 19th century heroes were doing the same thing. Unfortunately, by focusing exclusively on the Blackwater plan, the Left gives Maduro a huge free pass.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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