On March 26, U.S. attorney general William Barr announced new “narco-terorrism” charges against president Nicolás Maduro and more than a dozen other high-ranking Venezuelan officials. The episode yet again demonstrated that America’s long-running War on Drugs is not actually about targeting illicit drugs. Instead, drugs represent important tools in cementing and perpetuating US systems of imperial control—what the historian Suzanne Reiss refers to as an “alchemy of empire.”
The thinly-evidenced charges form part of a broader, hamfisted, bipartisan U.S. effort to delegitimize the current Venezuelan government and force regime change—an effort that includes devastating economic sanctions that have caused mass suffering and death in the country. Venezuela officially joined the list of convenient enemy states deemed “narco-states” for having directly challenged or impeded U.S. international designs: 1950s China, 1960s Cuba and Vietnam, and 1980s Sandinista Nicaragua.
U.S. drug interdiction campaigns, which have been global in scope since World War II, function as broader counterinsurgencies that have sought to pacify recalcitrant states and prop up pliant allies. As Reiss argues in We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire, “Drug control became a mechanism for extending US influence into the domestic and international life of its enemies’’—and, I would add, its friends.
The irony, perhaps expressed as an act of imperial psychological projection, is that the very revanchist forces that the U.S. covertly allied with to destabilize revolutionary regimes were intimately involved in the drug game. The specific experiences and words of Colonel Roger Trinquier—a French military officer on the losing side at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and later a feted counterinsurgency theorist—can serve as a dictum for this broader history: “To have the [Hmong], one must buy their opium.”
Nationalist Chinese forces (KMT), right-wing Cuban exiles, military officers within the south Vietnamese government, and Nicaraguan Contras form part of a longer list of inconvenient—and at times unpredictable—allies that U.S. military and intelligence agencies historically collaborated with in the attempt to assert and expand control and influence in Southeast Asia and Latin America.