Wilkerson: Trump Has No Business Threatening Venezuela

As President Trump claims he won’t rule out military force in Venezuela, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, says “we need to keep our dirty hands off Latin America”

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Story Transcript

Aaron Mate: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Venezuela is in political crisis and now President Trump has weighed in saying he’s not going to rule out a military option.

Donald Trump: We have many options for Venezuela, and by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option. We have many options for Venezuela. This is our neighbor. This is, you know, we’re all over the world, and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering and they’re dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.

Aaron Mate: Governments across Latin America have rejected Trump’s comments, even many that have been harshly critical of Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro. But the White House doesn’t appear to be backing down. Vice President Mike Pence is currently on a swing through Latin America and he said this today in Colombia.

MIke Pence: A failed state in Venezuela threatens the security and prosperity of our entire hemisphere and the people of the United States of America. The President sent me here with a message that the regime is experiencing change right now and what we’re witnessing is Venezuela is collapsing into dictatorship. The United States is going to continue to send a message of resolve and determination. We’re going to continue to bring all the resources of our nation to bear and the president said we have many options with regard to Venezuela, to ultimately make it possible for the people of Venezuela to see their democracy restored.

Aaron Mate: I’m joined now by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell. Currently a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel, welcome.

Col. Wilkerson: Good to be with you.

Aaron Mate: Your response to Trump’s comments. He says we’re all over the world and Venezuela is not that far, and so we’re not going to rule out a military option.

Col. Wilkerson: Two thoughts came to my mind when I heard him say that, not too many hours ago, coming back from Chicago actually. First that I was surprised … I wouldn’t be surprised, let me put it that way, if Donald Trump said there was a military option for Charlottesville, Virginia. That’s how absurd this man is.

Second, his comment, we have military all over the world, is really farcical because we do have military bases all over the world, but we certainly do not have substantial military forces all over the world. We don’t have substantial military forces in terms of the kind that would intervene in a place like Venezuela at all. We have very few land forces. He’s got them committed now to NATO. He’s got them committed to the South China Sea. He’s got them committed to Syria and Iraq. He’s got them committed to any number of places in the world. I beg to differ with the Commander in Chief. There aren’t that many military forces.

The last thing I would say, not related to either of those two I think very valid points is that this really rings poisonously, dangerously, ominously and even nefariously in the Western Hemisphere because leaders in the Western Hemisphere from Chile all the way up to Mexico, know that the United States policy in the past has been one of intervention. It has been one of using military forces. Smedley Butler once said he was a better criminal than Al Capone because he operated on two continents. Well, the Marine General operated mostly in the Western Hemisphere.

Some 35 different interventions in Latin America over about a century. This is disgusting that we’re going back to that. Bad enough that in 2002 I had to be a member of an administration that tried to overthrow Hugo Chavez through a coup d’etat, a very soft coup d’etat do be sure, thank God. We didn’t kill too many people in Caracas, and failed. Now here we are looking at the possibility of putting military forces into Venezuela? I have to conclude that it’s mostly because Venezuela gives us a lot of oil. It’s heavy dirty oil with high content of sulfur. We’re the only ones who can refine it on our southern coast, and so it is an important place and we don’t want it falling into chaos, but the way to stop that from happening is not to threaten military intervention. It’s to let the Venezuelans work this out. That’s the only way only solution achieved will be lasting.

Aaron Mate: You know, Colonel, when you bring up that legacy of U.S. militarism and destabilization …

Col. Wilkerson: A legacy, a legacy Aaron, let me quickly point out.

Aaron Mate: Yeah.

Col. Wilkerson: That Donald Trump has absolutely zero knowledge of because he has zero knowledge of U.S. history.

Aaron Mate: Yeah Colonel. All this reminds me of what Reagan would say about the Sandinistas in Nicaragua when he was trying to drum up support for his Contra war there. Hearing Pence talk about Venezuela being a threat possibly to the US, I mean what did Reagan say about the Sandinistas, that famous quote of his, “The Sandinistas are just two days’ drive from Harlingen, Texas.”

Col. Wilkerson: Yeah this is a, this is the kind of exaggeration that American presidents are wont to make from time to time, but Trump seems to be the absolute best at it. Venezuela is a threat to the United States only in the sense that I had mentioned before, that if all that oil were to suddenly be cut off, it would probably influence the markets dramatically.

So if we were going to intervene, we’d intervene with Exxon-Mobil or a combination of Exxon-Mobil, [inaudible], Chevron, maybe some other organizations that would take over the oil fields and pump the oil efficiently. That’s not doable, really. We should help the Venezuelans to do that, not intervene to do it ourselves, but that’s the only thing I can see that would be a national security interest with regard to Venezuela is the oil. That’s quickly remedial. I mean all you got to do is get off that oil.

Aaron Mate: I want to point out that this rhetoric we’re hearing is not just from Trump. It’s not just from Pence, but it’s also from other officials inside the US government including the director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo. I want to play for you a clip of him recently speaking at the Aspen Security Forum. He was asked about Venezuela.

Mike Pompeo: If, any time you have a country as large and with the economic capacity of a country like Venezuela, America has a deep interest in making sure it is stable and as democratic as possible. So we’re working hard to do that. I’m always careful when we talk about South and Central America and the CIA. There’s a lot of stories. I want to be careful what I say, but suffice it to say, we are very hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela. We, the CIA is doing its best to understand the dynamic there so that we can communicate to our State Department and to others.

The Colombians, I was just down in Mexico City and in Bogota, week before last, talking about this very issue, trying to help them understand the things they might do, so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world, and our part of the world.

Aaron Mate: So Colonel, that joke that Pompeo seemed to make about this, making this oblique reference to the CIA’s history in Latin America, in Central America. As you know well, that history literally has been destabilization and death for many, many, many people.

Col. Wilkerson: First thing Mr. Pompeo needs to know is it’s Bogota, accent on the last syllable, not Bogota. The second thing he needs to know is CIA directors need to keep their traps shut, their mouths shut. They don’t talk about policy. They don’t even intimate about policy. They should not even be on camera. He needs to shut up and go back to his hole at Langley.

The third thing is that the last thing we need is somebody from the Central Intelligence Agency talking about Venezuelan policy period, or any Latin American policy. This is a region where the United States ought to issue apologies, not threats. We have done so much to damage Latin America. If we’re talking about a relationship, as Mr. Pompeo was just doing, the relationship has always been, and I would submit we want it to be again, a relationship between American business and American leaders and oligarchs.

Oligarchs is whom we have liked and loved from Brazil to Santiago. From Argentina to Peru. That’s whom we like and love because they’re conducive to American commercial interests and ultimately conducive to American security interests. It’s time we fell out of love with oligarchs and started liking others who represent the people and true and real democracy. That’s what Mr. Pompeo ought to know, but of course like most of the Trump administration, he’s ignorant as hell.

Aaron Mate: Right, Colonel. So let me ask you about what you mentioned earlier. You were in the Bush administration back when it supported that 2002 coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. That coup attempt was successful for a short while. He was forced to flee the presidential palace. There was a new government installed, but then the army and citizens mobilized against that and Chavez was returned. But as you noted, the Bush administration supported that. I should say too, it wasn’t just the Bush administration. I remember the New York Times published an editorial saying that Venezuela now has a chance to return to democracy, something along those lines. But can you talk about what happened back then in 2002?

Col. Wilkerson: I think what we had then was a genuine populist leader, not in the sense that Trump’s a populist leader. I find that a joke, and I think Charlottesville proved that. If populism means Nazis in America, I don’t want anything to do with populism. Populism was surrounding Bernie Sanders for example, not Donald Trump.

That not withstanding, it was in Venezuela I think, Hugo Chavez who overstepped himself a bit and so tainted his own success in the end, but nonetheless was a positive force for bringing more Venezuela, much more of Venezuela, the barrios, the ghettos, the mountainsides and so forth, into power, into some sort of political power in Venezuela for one of the first times since Simon Bolivar. I mean Hugo Chavez should get some credit for that.

I’m really, I’m really sorry and I’m sad that Nicholas Maduro does not seem to know how to continue that tradition. Truly, Chavez was getting too authoritarian towards the end, too. It seems to happen to people who get in power and who nonetheless bring a wider political participation to their countries. It’s the [inaudible] aspect. It’s the dictator aspect. It’s the lust for someone to control circumstances and events, even your life, that seems to exist in some of the cultures of the world, not least of which might be our own right now.

A liberal democracy, after all, is on the march all across the globe, but it is a shame that Chavez’s heritage is being, I think, tainted somewhat by Maduro. That said, it was clear to me at the time with Roger Noreiga, Otto Reich and others and Karl Rove, running U.S.-Latin American policy rather than the president or others who might have been better at it like Colin Powell, it was clear to me that what we were looking for was this restored relationship with the oligarchs.

We’re very comfortable with the 5% of the people in Latin America who own all the money and all the business and everything else. We’re very comfortable with them. We recognize them because they look a lot like our people, our oligarchs, our plutocrats. It’s time that changed. I mean, Dwight Eisenhower talked about this at the end of the age of colonialism. It’s why Dwight Eisenhower would not give the French substantial help at Dien Bien Phu and why the French lost Vietnam. Too bad Eisenhower didn’t stick around for another term because he was one of the people who understood what was happening post-World War II, that this colonial atmosphere had to be dissipated, destroyed and disappear from the face of the earth. Now we have people who want to bring it back and Trump looks like one of the strongest advocates of that.

Aaron Mate: You know Colonel, I have not followed Venezuela very closely, but I do feel compelled to point out in discussions of it that Chavez and Maduro have faced a series of elections, including many referendums and also just general votes. Chavez won several elections. Maduro has won elections. He did lose, or his party did lose, the last major elections in 2015 with the national assembly, but he did … It’s obvious to me that there is a strong base of support for him there and there will be elections or there’s supposed to be elections at least in Venezuela in 2018. The issue of democracy there, it still seems that despite the accusations against them that there still is popular votes and a chance for people to express their will at the ballot box.

Col. Wilkerson: I agree 100%. We’re seeing some of the same thing in other countries in this world, not least of which is our own, that we have two dramatically opposed power groups in the United States right now, what I would call the people and oligarchs or the plutocrats. A lot of the people, sad to say, are arrayed on the side of the plutocrats, on the side of the oligarchs, because they think that’s where their bread’s buttered or they mistakenly think that those oligarchs, those plutocrats, support them on religious and social issues that have really nothing to do with their lives materially.

We’ve got the same problem in this country. I would predict, and you watch this, Aaron, you watch this, we’re going to have more blood on the streets in this country. Charlottesville is just the beginning. Venezuela is having the same problem. As you point out, there are probably more people in Venezuela by a factor of probably two to one, even now today with all the mess there, that support the Chavez experiment, the Maduro continuation of it, than there are who don’t support it. And yet, look what’s happening and look how our news handles it. Look how our media handles it. Look how the New York Times handles it. We don’t ever tell the truth anymore. I’m not sure we ever did, really, but we certainly don’t today. We need to keep our dirty hands, our guilty hands off Latin America. I don’t care what the national security interests are because nowhere in the Western Hemisphere, really, other than perhaps Mexico, are those national interests so significant that they call for military intervention.

Aaron Mate: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel, always a pleasure.

Col. Wilkerson: Thanks for having me Aaron.

Aaron Mate: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.