THE first time I was ever shot at was in the Central American country of Nicaragua. Before that, my only ever experience of a gun being fired around me was when I had been on my way to school one morning as an 11-year-old, walking through the Lanarkshire housing scheme where I grew up. Let’s just say it was a place that on occasion had its moments and could be fairly uncompromising.

The gun back then, however, was in fact little more than an air rifle – dangerous nonetheless – and the “shooter” an irate man who decided to take a pot shot at the postman whom he deemed “responsible” for the failure of his benefit cheque to arrive that morning.

For me it was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, given that I happened to be walking alongside the postman. No-one was hurt, I’m pleased to say, which was more than could be said for that day in Nicaragua many years later in the 1980s.

I was by then travelling as a journalist on my first-ever war-reporting assignment with a convoy of Nicaraguan Sandinista soldiers when we came under fire in an ambush by the US/CIA-backed Contra rebels.

Sadly on that occasion there were casualties and fatalities, an experience that fully opened up my eyes to the murky and bloody war going on in what the US at the time arrogantly referred to as its “backyard”.

I couldn’t help being reminded of that experience the other day as I listened to US vice-president Mike Pence, below, reiterate Washington’s position that “all options” to remove Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro from power were still on the table. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Maduro regime leaves a lot to be desired and the suffering of many in Venezuela right now is proof of that.

But I know from experience that US meddling in Latin America has a long and bitter history out of which, in places like Nicaragua during the Contra war, nothing remotely good came.

The National:

Writing in Harvard University’s review of Latin America (ReVista) the renowned historian John H Coatsworth has pointed out that the US has participated, directly or indirectly, in Latin American regime change more than 40 times in the past century.

In 17 of these 41 cases, direct intervention occurred involving the use of US military forces, intelligence agents or local citizens employed by the US government. Sometimes over the decades it was simply a case of the US wading into its “backyard”, from its invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1916 to Grenada and Panama in 1983 and 1989.

But as history has shown, being that upfront is not the usual US way, given that in 24 of the 41 cases documented, Washington preferred to play an indirect role enabling local actors to perform the principle parts.

Which brings me back to Venezuela and in particular US president Donald Trump’s recent appointment of Elliott Abrams as US special envoy for the country. On reading one morning in January that Abrams had been tasked with co-ordinating Washington’s response to the political crisis in Venezuela, I almost choked on my breakfast. Those of us who spent time in Central America in the 1980s are all too familiar with this arch neoconservative who some allege is nothing more than a war criminal.

It was Abrams, after all, who tried to whitewash a massacre of a thousand men, women and children by US-funded death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s when he was assistant secretary of state for human rights. I was to visit those death squad dumping grounds back then and I will never forget it. It was Abrams, too, who helped organise the covert financing of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua behind the back of Congress, which had cut off funding.

He then lied to Congress about his role, twice, pleading guilty to both counts in 1991 before being pardoned by that nice old fella George HW Bush.

Yes, folks, this is the man now handling much of the Trump administration’s strategy for the ousting of Maduro in Venezuela and making sure that a Washington point man replaces him.

With Abrams calling the shots, it’s a pretty sure bet that “all options” will indeed be on the table, which also raises the questions of Washington’s motives in all of this.

Over the years, in nearly every case of US interference in Latin America officials have cited security interests. With hindsight, says Coatsworth, it’s now possible to dismiss most of these claims as implausible.

Then there is the economic motive, one citing corruption and the other blaming capitalism. The corruption hypothesis contends that US officials order interventions to protect US corporations. The capitalism hypothesis maintains that the US intervened not to save individual companies but to save the private enterprise system, thus benefiting all US companies with a stake in the region.

WITH Venezuela home to the world’s greatest oil reserves, you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out what might be driving US policy there again right now.

What else can it be, given Abrams’s involvement? This, after all, is definitely no altruist or someone on a mission to advance democracy in the region.

That Washington has chosen this precise moment, too, to turn the screw on Venezuela is no coincidence. For a long time before the current crisis, the US has been quietly chipping away at the regime in Caracas and now is the perfect moment to up the ante.

In neighbouring Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere in the region, right-leaning governments have taken root whose leaders have the ear of the Trump administration.

It’s precisely for this reason that Latin America right now is an easier option for US foreign policy priorities than the complexities of the oil-rich Middle East where, frankly, the Kremlin has already often outmanoeuvred the Trump administration.

I can’t help feeling all of this US back-to-the-future strategy,bodes ill for Venezuela and Latin America as a whole. I sincerely hope not, but bullets rather than the ballot box might yet decide the outcome in Venezuela just as it did in Nicaragua and elsewhere all those years ago.

That, of course, will be of little concern to the likes of Elliott Abrams, so long as Trump and his cohorts get their way.