This story originally appeared in Peoples Dispatch on July 15, 2022. It is shared here with permission under a Creative Commons license.
On July 12, former US National Security advisor John Bolton, admitted on national television that he had helped orchestrate coups in foreign countries. Bolton was speaking to CNN host Jake Tapper amid the hearings in Congress on the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, by supporters of former president Donald Trump.
During the exchange, Bolton stated his disagreement with accusations that the riot was a “coup d’etat aimed at the US constitution”, arguing that it was a “once in a lifetime occurrence.” Tapper then stated “One doesn’t have to be brilliant to attempt a coup.”
Bolton’s response, in a widely circulated clip, was “I disagree with that. As someone who has helped plan coup d’etats, not here, but you know other places, it takes a lot of work. And that’s not what he [Trump] did.” Citing his expertise “having planned coups”, in Tapper’s words, Bolton declined to go into specifics, only to say “Well I wrote about Venezuela in the book [“The Room Where It Happened”], and it [the coup] turned out not to be successful – not that we had all that much to do with it – but I saw what it took for an opposition to try and overturn an illegally elected president and they failed…”
The comments shocked people across the world. Not so much in their content given the documented history of US interference across the world – with an estimated 72 attempts to change other countries’ governments between 1947 and 1989 – but the unabashed way in which they were made. The chasm between the rhetoric the US empire has pushed abroad versus the reality of the way it has conducted itself was captured in a speech made by Vice President Kamala Harris to the Pacific Islands Forum on July 13:
“In this region and around the world the US believes it is important to strengthen the international rules-based order. To defend it, to promote it, and to build on it… Principles that importantly state that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states must be respected. Principles that allow all states big and small to conduct their affairs free from aggression and coercion.”
Meanwhile, Bolton’s comments drew widespread condemnation, with former Bolivian president and socialist leader Evo Morales stating, “It is proof that the US is the worst enemy of democracy and life.”
A career of war-mongering and destruction
Before his stint in the Trump administration, Bolton had already had a decades-long career of hardline, right-wing, and hostile politics in the White House– serving under Republican Presidents Ronald Reagen, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Under W. Bush, he served as the Under Secretary of Arms Control, and was one of the leading architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, peddling the lie that Saddam Hussein was developing chemical weapons.
Prior to that, in May 2002, Bolton delivered a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, titled “Beyond the Axis of Evil” – declaring that Cuba, Libya, and Syria were “rogue states” alongside Iran, Iraq, and North Korea on Bush’s so-called “Axis of Evil.” Bolton started claiming that Cuba was developing biological weapons, circulating a draft speech around the State Department. When an analyst disputed his claims, Bolton pushed to have him fired.
Bolton also oversaw the removal of Brazilian diplomat José Bustani as the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, after threatening his family. In his role, Bustani had been urging that Iraq join the international treaty to ban chemical weapons. In ratifying the Convention, Iraq would have been subjected to inspections which would have proved that there were no weapons of mass destruction.
Meanwhile, the War in Afghanistan was in its second year in 2002 when Bush ordered the US to withdraw from the Rome Statute, and Congress passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act. The President would work to prevent “to the maximum extent possible” any prosecution of US armed forces, and its allies, by the International Criminal Court. The legislation authorized the use of force to ensure international prosecution was not taken forward, which led to it being dubbed the “Hague Invasion Act.” Bolton was then sent to nearly 100 countries to secure bilateral agreements that would protect US citizens from prosecution.
In 2018, Bolton threatened the ICC with sanctions amid news that it was considering prosecuting US forces over allegations of abuse of detainees in Afghanistan.
Bolton was rewarded for his crimes by being appointed as the US ambassador to the UN in 2005. During his one-year tenure, he pushed his aggressive policies further, including the imposition of multilateral sanctions on North Korea.
Between leaving his UN appointment and joining the Trump administration in 2018, Bolton spent his time calling for pre-emptive attacks on Iran, especially during the negotiations around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the 2015 nuclear deal), and repeatedly advocating for a regime change in the country. He also made similar calls for the bombing of North Korea.
Once Bolton was back in the White House, provocations against Iran were ratcheted up, especially following the US’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal, and the enforcement of the “maximum pressure” campaign on Tehran.
The “Troika of Tyranny” and the plot against President Maduro
In a speech at the Miami Dade College in November 2018, Bolton, in his capacity as Trump’s National Security Advisor, declared the US foreign policy stance against Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
“This Troika of Tyranny, this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemishphere…Under President Trump, the United States is taking direct action against all three regimes to defend the rule of law, liberty, and basic human decency in our region.”
“This is not a time to back away…It is a time to increase the pressure, not reduce it,” Bolton would add later, after announcing new sanctions against the three countries. Bolton also welcomed the elections of “like-minded leaders in key countries”– referring to the election of far-right leaders Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Ivan Duque in Colombia.
In December 2018, Venezuela’s democratically-elected President Nicolás Maduro specifically accused Bolton of trying to overthrow the government – “Mr. John Bolton has been assigned, once again, as the chief of a plot to fill Venezuela with violence and to seek a foreign military intervention”. The President also accused the US of being behind the attempt on his life in August 2018.
In January 2019, the Trump administration launched the coup attempt against Maduro, declaring right-wing politician Juan Guaido as interim president. The US escalated the pressure in the following months, imposing more comprehensive sanctions, openly calling on the Venezuelan military to abandon Maduro, and threatening a US military invasion. Venezuela’s Central Bank was sanctioned, the assets of the state oil company PDVSA were frozen, and an economic embargo was enforced.
Despite these relentless, illegal, and brutal measures, the coup attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, and Bolton was removed from his position in September. In 2020, he published his book, with an entire chapter dedicated to the events since 2018 titled “Venezuela Libre” . Bolton wrote that Trump had stated that Venezuela was “really part of the United States” and that an invasion would be “cool.” The former president reportedly also pushed for control over Venezuela’s oil once Maduro was ousted.
Another major revelation was that the UK was “delighted to cooperate” on steps it could take, including freezing Venezuela’s gold deposits being held in the Bank of England. The UK continues to hold nearly $2 billion of Venezuelan gold, with the case set to return to the courts this week.
On July 14, Venezuela’s National Assembly unanimously voted to condemn Bolton’s comments, with the chamber’s president Jorge Rodriguez declaring that “Venezuela… will never surrender.” He added, “We can never tire of thanking the dignified people and the Venezuelan Armed Forces that repelled the most serious attack the republic has suffered in 150 years.”