“Pick a side.”
It was also an echo of a previous era, when the world’s nations, split along ideological lines, regularly lined up behind competing interests to fight proxy wars or struggle for power in far-flung places.
The present emergency has been a while in the making, following as it does Nicholas Maduro’s re-election as president last May – in a vote regarded by many observers and analysts as a sham, with leading opposition parties barred from participating.
In recent months, the socioeconomic problems that have plagued Venezuela for years have worsened, as hyper-inflation erodes living standards and fuels political discontent.
Now, with Juan Guaido, the opposition leader, having denounced Maduro’s continuing grip on power and declared himself acting president, the country’s predicament has come to a head. And with the US secretary of state calling on the international community to back a horse, many of its members have done just that.
So it is that the United States has made clear its support for Guaido, the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, who appears to have been conducting quiet diplomacy for weeks, and who would offer a welcome pro-US, pro-free market voice in the region. Falling in line behind the US – and joining its demands for fresh elections – are Britain, Australia, Israel and the right-leaning governments of South America, including Brazil and Argentina.
On the other side, backing Maduro, are Russia – which has longstanding links with the country since the days of Hugo Chavez – China, Turkey and states in the region where left-wing governments are in power, such as Bolivia and Cuba (and Mexico to a slightly more ambivalent degree). They accuse the US of meddling in the country’s internal affairs and worsening the lot of ordinary Venezuelans by the sanctions it first imposed in 2015.
With the odd exception in terms of lineups, this is straight out of the Cold War playbook, with Russia and China lending support to an embattled socialist leader fighting off an internal opponent backed by the imperialist west. It’s almost as if the last 30 years hadn’t happened.
True, Russia and China are no longer wedded to socialist principles – and they are no longer the natural allies they once were (for a whole host of reasons).
What’s more, both the overarching oddness of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the ongoing suspicion about links between his campaign and the Russian state, have complicated our understanding of Washington’s relationship with Moscow.
Nevertheless, the resurgence of political nationalism in the last decade, now allied to the kind of economic protectionism promoted by Trump, has largely neutered the world’s appetite for globalisation and all that goes with it – not least, the primacy of global institutions and the preference for multilateral solutions to the world’s problems.
With strongmen to the fore and national pride to play for in every situation, the stark re-emergence of international blocs – often along lines dictated by middle-aged leaders who recall the Cold War era with a degree of fondness – almost feels inevitable.
We have seen that most strikingly in the context of Syria’s bleak war, but the old east-west divide has also been very apparent in the rumbling conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Venezuela is simply another example – the only hope being that the fight for supremacy between Guaido and Maduro (who this weekend was showing off his Russian military hardware) does not spill over into an armed confrontation between the competing factions, which is not beyond the realms of possibility.
International economic interests are now so complex that it may seem impossible to imagine a return to the kind of strictly delineated, us vs them, world of the 1950s-1980s. The split between the US and its European allies over the Iran nuclear deal is indicative of a less tribal approach to strategic affairs. Indeed, Trump’s unpredictability and sheer weirdness make America a less straightforward ally for other western nations than once it was.
If the last decade has shown us anything it is that we can take nothing for granted.
Not long ago, wise heads said the age of boom and bust was over; they were wrong. Many others thought globalisation would negate nationalistic instincts; if anything, it has encouraged them. The reckless and infamous contention that we had reached the “end of history” when the Berlin Wall fell has proved wide of the mark.
If anything, history may have taken a slight pause. Worryingly, it now appears to be making up for lost time.
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