Date on Senior Honors Thesis


Document Type

Senior Honors Thesis

Degree Name



Political Science

Degree Program

College of Arts and Sciences

Author's Keywords

Venezuela; Las Casas; sovereignty; responsibility to protect; just war; interventions


This thesis analyzes the current Venezuelan crisis and the international legal questions it has posed concerning sovereignty, the responsibility to protect, and international efforts to influence a state’s internal politics. In particular, the thesis expounds the historical and theoretical context behind international legal principles that governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have invoked in favor of Juan Guaidó or Nicolás Maduro. The thesis’s analysis centers around its examination of the parallels between the international legal principles that relate to the Venezuelan crisis and the political and ethical arguments of the sixteenth-century Spanish social reformer Bartolomé de las Casas and his contemporaries Francisco de Vitoria and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who also addressed legal and ethical questions surrounding Spanish colonization. Although Vitoria has left a greater impact on international legal theory than the other two Spaniards, this thesis focuses greater attention on Las Casas to direct more scholarly attention to his political views’ applicability to the international legal controversies surrounding the Venezuelan crisis. Moreover, the themes from Las Casas’s, Vitoria, and Sepúlveda’s writings provide precedents for twenty-first-century ideas about the responsibility to protect as a contested international norm.

Las Casas’s arguments condemning Spanish treatment of Native Americans during sixteenth-century colonization efforts serve as precedents for present-day notions of independent states’ sovereignty and autonomy from other states. Moreover, Las Casas’s writings display parallels to the concepts that governments have a duty to protect their populations from injustices. This thesis asserts that Las Casas’s political thought parallels the key themes from present-day arguments that governments and international organizations have used to criticize the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro’s regime. However, the value that Las Casas placed on the papal authorization for Spanish colonization and his writings on the legitimate authority of Native American rulers shows he did not approve of unilateral international interventions that sought to interfere with other societies’ politics. Therefore, Las Casas’s political thought does not align well with present-day governments’ strategies to influence Venezuela’s political crisis without approval from a higher international authoritative body. Vitoria’s viewpoint that it would be acceptable for countries to intervene politically or militarily in another country’s political affairs lends itself to international efforts to address the Venezuelan crisis. Las Casas argued that international interventions needed to be proportional to the crises they addressed and would be illegitimate if they caused more suffering than whatever wrongs that they sought to alleviate. The thesis concludes that a combination of these principles from Vitoria and Las Casas’s writings offer more morally and practically applicable insights for the international community to address the Venezuelan turmoil than their other principles and the views of Sepúlveda.

Lay Summary

The ongoing political and military crisis in Venezuela has spurred competing arguments from governments and international organizations about the legitimacy of Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro. The analysis of the political and ethical arguments of the sixteenth-century Spanish writers Bartolomé de las Casas, Francisco de Vitoria, and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda provides helpful parallels for understanding how international legal principles relate to Venezuela’s political turmoil. Las Casas’s writings demonstrate he believed the Spanish did not have the right to influence Native American societies’ politics without approval from the papacy. His political and ethical thought parallels central principles and legal themes from the arguments of governments and organizations that oppose Maduro. However, Las Casas’s thought contradicts the strategies governments have employed to undermine Maduro’s authority on their own initiative. In contrast, Vitoria’s political thought provides a justification for political and military interventions that Las Casas would have opposed, and while Sepúlveda espoused wide-ranging justifications, it is unclear that a military intervention would face a realistic chance of success in Venezuela and would lighten, rather than worsen, Venezuelans’ suffering. Thus, the thesis argues for Vitoria’s views regarding limited justifications for interventions, while also promoting Las Casas’s call for interventions to remain proportionate to the suffering they intend to relieve.