Opportunities and Obstacles from Venezuela
During an event celebrating the 81st anniversary of the Guardia Nacional Bolivariana de Venezuela, two drones, each carrying 1 kilogram of C-4 explosives, descended on Caracas. One of the drones hovered over a residential apartment, collided with the building, and fell to the ground where it detonated. However, the first drone, which exploded 14 seconds prior, occurred directly above the ceremony, causing Maduro’s bodyguards to deploy protective shields. The second blast caused both the soldiers and spectators to flee. This attempted assassination, despite being claimed by the National Movement of Soldiers in T-shirts, has furthered strained the already sour relations between Caracas and Washington, as Maduro claims the United States harbors the group.
U.S. President Donald Trump spoke of Venezuela’s food shortages and the erosion of its democratic institutions at the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017. He articulated his goals towards the Venezuelan people as to “help them regain their freedom, recover their country, and restore their democracy.” Released in December 2017, Trump’s National Security Strategy further elaborated on American policy towards Venezuela’s regime. Noteworthy is the reference to China and Russia’s involvement in the Maduro government. Venezuela is Russia’s largest arms recipient in South America, receiving 30 contracts worth $11 billion from 2002 to 2013. This included Sukhoi Su-30 multirole fighters, Mi-17 helicopters, T-72 main battle tanks, and over 100,000 AK-103 rifles. The strategy argued for isolation of the regime, coupled with encouragement of other regional states to support American policy. Despite all the rhetoric, this yields a crucial question, what tangible actions should the United States take that would both serve its interests in South America and improve the lives of the people of Venezuela?
In July 2018, it was revealed that Trump had considered military intervention to overthrow Maduro and stabilize the country. Public remarks indicated this was a possibility “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.” His conviction in a military solution extended beyond public warnings, as evidenced by internal discussions among his advisors and foreign leaders. Former National Security Advisor HR McMaster and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attempted to persuade Trump against military involvement. Intervention was also proposed to Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, and a private audience of Latin American states, both of whom advocated against it.
Regardless of the economic turmoil and poor standards of living held by the majority of its citizens, Venezuela would still present a daunting military obstacle. Despite the flat plains in the country’s center, the Cordillera de Merida mountain ranges provide a formidable shield from any seaborne force. The Orinoco River and Guiana Highlands provide a defensive buffer to invasions approaching from the south. In addition, the ability of the Venezuelan military, and its determination to resist a foreign incursion should not be underestimated. Despite the corruption and illegal activity of officers and the erosion of the belief in the military as an independent guarantor of democracy, the willingness to repel a foreign invasion would persist. Many young officers have been educated and rewarded by the party, resulting in unwavering support for the Chavismo ideology among contemporary military leadership.
The most constricting factor for U.S. intervention remains its minimal domestic and diplomatic support. Lack of a substantial casus belli or imminent threat to American nationals in Venezuela makes the justification of military action problematic. The premise for Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada, was established on the executions and massacres of the October 19 Coup, the safety of American medical students on the island, and the appeals for assistance from several Caribbean states. Despite the justifications, only 53% of Americans supported the intervention. Venezuelan military operations would hold inferior favorability, based on its peripheral relation to American national security and current unpopularity of the Trump administration. Comparatively, intervention in the Syrian Civil War remains opposed by 68% of Americans, even with the conflict’s frequent appearances on nightly broadcasts, humanitarian ramifications, and the United States’ significant interests in the region.
With Grenada, the Reagan administration drafted the support of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States for the invasion. President Trump lacks this diplomatic consensus among South American nations. Without support from a plurality of Latin American countries, military engagement in Venezuela would be difficult to maintain. Both the invasion of Grenada and Panama witnessed successful votes in the United Nations General Assembly condemning the action. This indicates that Venezuelan intervention would undergo more intense opposition, given its limited rationale and lack of support from regional countries. Taking such unilateral action would further drive a wedge between the United States and Latin America, potentially harming cooperation on the issue of Venezuela and other American interests. By working in partnership and not opposition to Latin American countries, it strengthens America’s position on the continent and makes a potential diplomatic coalition against the Maduro regime more effective.
The New York Times revealed that diplomatic officials from the United States met with Venezuelan military leaders organizing coup efforts in the country. Providing direct support, through arms and capital or acting in a military advisory role would not be beneficial to the United States or Venezuela. An overthrow of the Maduro government has an indeterminate probability of success, particularly when considering the perspective of the military officials, who presumed the United States would provide instruction at the meetings. Such commitment of material, especially in a failed operation, could irreparably tarnish the already negative perception of the United States in Venezuela, agitate allies over the lack of diplomatic transparency, and entice the Maduro government into pursuing further crackdowns on opposition. Even in success, a military interim government seen propped up by the United States could lack the legitimacy to maintain domestic stability. If an overthrow of the Maduro government was to be pursued by members of the military, an organic effort would be optimal for restoring faith in the armed forces as the safeguard of democracy and allowing for a unified reconstruction effort without the political baggage of foreign involvement. However, meetings with discontent military leaders does have value. It provides vital and direct intelligence on domestic affairs in Venezuela, allowing policy makers to develop contingencies to deal with the fallout of a coup attempt.
Sanctions have remained a common tool in America’s arsenal for dealing with oppressive regimes. They provide an inexpensive method of applying economic pressure on hostile powers. Risks to American servicemen, detrimental effects on the home front, and international backlash are all minimized or nonexistent from the use of sanctions. The U.S. has pursued sanctions on several Venezuelan military and political officials as well as various companies headquartered in country and abroad. The sanctions applied in early May 2018 were proposed based on narcotics trafficking. After the Presidential election on May 20, the Trump administration restricted the sale of debt and other economic assets. A prior executive order in March 2018 restricted the purchase of the Petro electronic currency by American citizens. Conspicuously absent is any constraint placed on Venezuelan oil exports, which account for 98% of the country’s export earnings. The unfortunate reality is that Venezuela accounts for roughly 7% of America’s petroleum imports. Imposing restrictions on the importation of Venezuelan oil to the United States would have comparable adverse economic reverberations on both nations. Despite the attractiveness of striking at Venezuela’s chief source of revenue to communicate a clear message on human rights violations and breach of democratic procedure, the reliance of the United States on oil imports forces policy makers to be content with strikes at minor sectors of the economy.
The previous policies all share the commonality of unilateralism, and do not suffice because of it. If the United States is to tackle the Maduro regime it requires working with regional partners and the international community. Skepticism of American policy, resulting from Cold War meddling in Latin America, has served as a major impediment for U.S.-South American cooperation. Opposition to Venezuela provides both the means and ends for overcoming this distrust. Collaboration and transparency with South American countries is necessary for a solution to the Venezuelan crisis and could possibly flourish into sustained partnerships. Colombia’s admittance to NATO as a partner nation offers an example towards developing these relations, as concerns over Maduro emanating from Bogotá allowed for the establishment of military cooperation between NATO and its first Latin American partner. However, other nations in South America persist in their concerns about growing too close to the U.S. led alliance. To reverse this outlook the United States should focus its resources on strengthening the Organization of American States as an alternative to the Union of South American Nations. The UNASUR was formed as a counterweight to the American-oriented OAS, but by exploiting the differences between newly elected center-right and entrenched leftist governments in several South American nations, the United States can shift opinion towards the OAS. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Paraguay suspended their membership in the UNASUR resulting from political deadlock in the organization. This coincides with the passage of an OAS resolution that could lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the group, demonstrating the U.S. taking the initiative on the issue, but not disregarding partner cooperation.
There are concrete ways that the United States can mitigate the current effects of the Venezuelan crisis and help to encourage the flow of information and democratization without military force. Most difficult to accomplish would be the resettlement and assistance to refugees fleeing from the country. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimated that 1.5 million Venezuelans have been displaced in South America, roughly 4.8% of its population. Due to the Trump administration’s policies regarding refugees and immigration, many South American countries are hesitant to work with the United States. Reversal of the announced lowered refugee ceiling and cooperation on programs to resettle refugees would help to reestablish confidence in the United States, improve the lives of displaced Venezuelans, and free domestic political capital for future actions. More conceivable would be the establishment of a broadcaster for the promotion of democracy in Venezuela, similar to Radio Free Europe and Radio y Televisión Martí. It would act to organize and assist democratization movements through the flow of information and increase trust towards United States. The Maduro government has consistently denied the admittance of medical aid or resources into Venezuela, resulting in a healthcare crisis, with a shortage of 85% of medicine. If the United States would allocate doctors and organize medical supplies along the border, along with an independent broadcaster to announce locations, ailing Venezuelans could secure proper treatment. This would secure both a humanitarian and political victory, as Venezuelans would begin to look outwards rather than towards its own government for assistance.
While the veracity of the claim that authoritarian governments are not sustainable is still questionable, few oppressive regimes persist in a climate of complete economic collapse, political upheaval, mass exodus, and lack of basic needs. It is in the interest of the United States and its regional partners to ensure that governments that violate democratic conventions and ignore the concerns of its citizen do not become firmly established. This does not require the United States act impertinently or unilaterally. It compels the United States to take action when presented with opportunity for success, or if ignoring such action would precipitate a greater calamity. Contingencies must be developed, as the domestic and diplomatic fallout from the collapse of Venezuela could herald a humanitarian crisis similar in scope to that which affected Europe as a result of the Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War. The United States must embark on a path based on mutual trust with allies, along with prudent action. Venezuela provides an opportunity for policy makers to define America’s new role in Latin America, one based on promoting democracy without secrecy or deception, human rights, economic stability, and guaranteeing that dictators do not evade justice.