CARACAS, Venezuela — 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.
In an example of how the Cold War-like 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.
While the Trump administration led a chorus of some 50 nations that in January recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's rightful leader, Putin has steadfastly stood by Nicolás 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.
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.
The aquamarine-colored Russian Embassy, where Zaemskiy also lives, was a mid-century mansion purchased in the 1970s from a wealthy military colonel trained in the U.S. It lies in the shadow the hilltop U.S. Embassy, whose flagpole has been bare since the last American diplomats pulled out of the country last month amid a feud with Maduro over its recognition of Guaidó.
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.
His first tour in Venezuela as a protocol officer came from 1976 to 1979, when modern skyscrapers paid for by a flood of petrodollars transformed Caracas' skyline even as many outside the capital lived in what he described as a semi-feudal state. Zaemskiy said the legacy of Chavez's economic and political revolution — that it restored dignity to the poor — remains intact.
"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.
"The lack of confidence is a problem on both sides, which is why they should think together on some innovative ways to create reassurances in this process," he said. "To simply reject the possibility of dialogue and repeat that the only way forward is the 'end of usurpation' as the opposition says, won't lead anywhere."
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.
“The core value of Russia’s association with Chavismo is a challenge to U.S. prerogatives in its supposed backyard,” said Ivan Briscoe, the head in Latin American for the Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “That said, Russian diplomacy is nothing if not realistic. They know Venezuela is plunging into an economic abyss with tragic humanitarian consequences. When the moment comes and tensions reach a height, they are likely to help negotiate a settlement, but will aim to exact the highest price they can.”