Donald Trump cosies up to authoritarian leaders. So

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To hear the Americans explain it, their concern about Venezuela is about democracy, humanitarian crises and the ousting of an increasingly hard-line and ineffective leader in Nicolas Maduro.

Fair enough?

According to the United Nations, about 3.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country in the past few years, representing a 10th of the population. 

A full million have flooded into neighbouring Colombia, and the rest have been dispersed across the region, including into the US.

Of those left, 94 per cent live in poverty. Most are malnourished and face chronic shortages of food, water and medicine. 

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Years of successive governments have relied on oil revenues to fund high-spending populist policies that initially generated huge political support.

But after so much mismanagement amid falling oil prices and US sanctions on oil, the economy is in freefall

The International Monetary Fund predicts inflation will reach 10 million per cent this year. To state the obvious, the currency is worthless.

EXTERNAL LINK@alexleff The IMF forecast for Venezuela’s inflation rate

The spark that launched today’s blazing tensions can be traced back to 1999 when Mr Maduro’s predecessor, the populist Hugo Chavez, first took office.

He curried favour with voters by attacking countries like the US, saying they took advantage of Venezuela and used oil revenues to spend up big on services for the masses.

The US stands accused of backing an attempted coup against him in 2002.

Tensions only increased when Mr Maduro took over after Mr Chavez’s death in 2013, and the economy was wiped out after oil prices plummeted a year later.

An opponent to Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro returns a tear gas canister thrown from military personnel

Today, basic health care is almost non-existent. Violent crime is close to the worst in the world. Dissent is not tolerated by the Government, and people are routinely killed, beaten and jailed.

The US State Department said this week the Maduro regime, “has consistently violated the human rights and dignity of its citizens”.

It also accused the Government of plundering the country’s natural resources, and driving a once-prosperous nation into economic ruin.

“[Mr Maduro’s] thugs have engaged in extra-judicial killings and torture, taken political prisoners and severely restricted freedom of speech, all in a brutal effort to retain power.”

All of that is true. But why does the administration care so much about this authoritarian regime when it maintains close ties to others like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia? Or when it cosies up to North Korea?

And while US sanctions on Venezuelan oil have caused cash flow to plummet, it’s arguable ordinary people are being hit the hardest while the Government has fallen back on help from foreign allies.

Yep, it’s those pesky Russians again.

Was what happened this week a US-backed coup attempt?

“This is our hemisphere. It’s not where the Russians ought to be interfering,” said US National Security Adviser John Bolton. “This is a mistake on their part. It’s not going to lead to an improvement of relations.”

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Translation: This is about the Monroe Doctrine. 

Say what?

Let’s rewind shall we? It’s from… 1823. And even then, it was mostly rhetorical. 

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The policy was developed by a former president (that would be James Monroe) to ease concerns about European colonialism in South America. 

The crux of it is that Europe should stay out of the Western Hemisphere and Washington would stay out of Europe.

The policy has been enforced only a handful of times, most notably in the early 1900s by president Theodore Roosevelt to interfere in a crisis in the Dominican Republic. It also justified US intervention against left-leaning Latin American governments during the Cold War. 

Recent presidents have spoken out against the doctrine, so why in the world would the Trump administration be reviving it around now?

Like I said, it’s the Russians again.

Much as the US is undoubtedly concerned about authoritarianism and instability in Venezuela — plus, crime, gangs, drug trafficking and the mass exodus of people — there are other things driving its wholehearted support for opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Even military action remains “on the table” according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

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In a Fox News interview this week, Mr Pompeo made the administration’s most explicit comments so far on this point:

Interviewer: “Is the US support going to include troops? Are the military troops in the US going to head there and support Guaido?”

Pompeo: “The President has been crystal clear and incredibly consistent. Military action is possible. If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do.” 

Interviewer: “If that’s what’s required”? 

Pompeo: “We’d prefer a peaceful transition of government there where [Mr Maduro] leaves and a new election is held.

But the President has made clear in the event that there comes a moment — and we’ll all have to make decisions about when that moment is and the President will ultimately have to make that decision — he is prepared to do that if that’s what’s required.”

Will the US actually intervene?

Opposition leader Juan Guaido presses his hands together in thanks and gestures to a crowd of hundreds of people.

Having backed Juan Guaido in what now appears to be a failed call for a military “uprising” (as opposed to a coup because the US says sham elections mean Mr Maduro is not ‘democratically’ elected), the US is going to have to decide just what its trigger point is.

And with Russia, China and Cuba in the frame as Venezuelan allies, this is where things escalate far beyond the skirmishes that are happening on the streets of Caracas.

There’s potential for regional conflict with some very powerful, well-armed and age-old enemies getting involved.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s relationship with Cuba also stalled, meaning the end of Russia’s influence in the Western Hemisphere.

So when things got shaky in Venezuela, Moscow jumped right in.

It reportedly poured nearly $US9 billion ($12.8 billion) into the country’s oil fields, knowing full well it might not get that money back.

It’s also given Caracas a big line of credit for Russian firearms.

And, Russia deployed two planes capable of carrying nuclear warheads to the country just last month.

A Pentagon spokesman offered a sharp rebuke, characterising Russia’s approach as pouring fuel on the fire.

“The Venezuelan Government should be focusing on providing humanitarian assistance and aid to lessen the suffering of its people and not on Russian warplanes,” he said.

Supposedly, Mr Maduro was about to flee the country to Cuba on Tuesday but the Russians talked him out of it. (So says Mr Pompeo. Mr Maduro denies it outright.)

“The Cubans, we believe, have played a very significant role in propping [Mr Maduro] up today, possibly with help from the Russians. That’s the speculation,” Mr Bolton said.

The Trump administration has said “Cuban-directed thugs” and “motorcycle gangs” are supporting the regime by protecting key assets.

It’s been suggested up to 20,000 members of Cuban intelligence are inside Venezuela keeping the armed forces on Mr Maduro’s side by dobbing in “traitors”.

But for all its moral grandstanding, the US is facing questions itself over its support for Mr Guaido, whether that amounts to high-handed imperialist meddling in the affairs of a sovereign nation and, of course, its talk of military force.

Ultimately, it’s unclear if the US will follow through on its threats. The Pentagon reportedly told Congress they were not preparing for war.

Yet in the meantime, it’s been easy for the administration to say Russia is trying to upset the geopolitical balance of power and flout a policy that’s been around for 200 years