One month after Juan Guaidó, the speaker of Venezuela’s National Assembly, said he was assuming the powers of the Venezuelan presidency, currently held by Nicolás Maduro, the country’s political crisis remains far from over. Tensions have escalated to the point that a full-blown civil war—a seemingly implausible scenario just weeks ago—is now becoming increasingly possible. At least four people died and hundreds were injured in violent clashes at Venezuela’s borders last weekend as government forces opened fire on an attempt by the opposition to bring aid convoys into the country.
The Maduro regime is authoritarian, militarized, and ready to kill civilians to maintain power. The society is bitterly divided between the revolutionaries inspired by Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor, and a large and aggrieved opposition. Each side despises the other. The question is therefore a complex and practical one: what to do to help guide Venezuela away from civil war and toward a peaceful and democratic future?
On this great challenge, US President Donald Trump’s administration has gravely miscalculated. When the United States chose to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s president – along with a group of Latin American countries – and ban oil trade with the Maduro government, it was betting that the pressure would be sufficient to topple the regime. As a former senior US official told the Wall Street Journal, “they thought it was a 24-hour operation.”
"Venezuela’s neighbors and world leaders must put aside the US military option. Venezuela needs mediation leading to new elections, not war."
This type of miscalculation predates the Trump administration. In mid-2011, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must “step aside.” Similarly, in 2003, George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” shortly after the US invasion of Iraq. All of these cases reflect the arrogance of a superpower that repeatedly overlooks local realities.
Maduro’s ability to withstand intense US pressure is not a surprise to close observers of Venezuela’s military. The centralized structures of command and control of military intelligence, as well as the personal interests of senior officers who control major chunks of the economy, make it highly unlikely that the army will turn on Maduro. US provocation might create a schism between military commanders and more junior officers, but that would only make the plunge into a bloody civil war more likely. To date, there have been no defections among high-ranking officers with direct control of troops.
Faced with the prospect that regime change will not come quickly, the Trump administration and some parts of Venezuela’s opposition have begun seriously considering military action. Echoing language recently used in a speech by Trump, Guaidó wrote on Saturday that he would formally request the international community to “keep all options open.” Similarly, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who has acted as a self-appointed guru for Trump on Venezuela, warned on Twitter that Maduro’s actions had opened the door to “multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago.”
Actually, these ideas appear to have been on Trump’s mind for some time. As former acting FBI director Andrew G. McCabe revealed recently in his book The Threat, Trump said in a 2017 meeting that he thought the US should be going to war with Venezuela. McCabe quotes Trump as sayin:: “They have all that oil and they’re right on our back door.” The comments echo Trump’s 2011 statement that Obama let himself get “ripped off” by not demanding half of Libya’s oil in exchange for US help in overthrowing dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.
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US military interventions are not driven only by economic and business interests. Being tough on Maduro is also highly popular with many Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American voters in Rubio’s home state of Florida, which will be a key battleground in the 2020 presidential election.
Advocates of US military intervention regularly cite the cases of Panama and Grenada as precedents for rapid US-led regime change. Yet, in contrast to those two countries, Venezuela has a well-armed military of more than 100,000 soldiers. Of course, the US could defeat the Venezuelan army, but one need not be blind to the atrocities of authoritarian regimes to understand that, as has happened repeatedly in US wars in the Middle East, attempts to overthrow such regimes often end in catastrophe.
Even without military intervention, US sanctions policies, if sustained, are bound to create a famine. By cutting off Venezuela’s oil trade with the US and threatening to sanction non-US firms that do business with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, the Trump administration has created one of the most punitive economic sanctions regimes in recent history. But rather than provoking a coup, economically isolating a country that essentially feeds itself with its oil export revenues could lead to mass hunger instead.
Venezuela’s neighbors and world leaders must put aside the US military option. Venezuela needs mediation leading to new elections, not war. It also needs an urgent, interim period of political truce in 2019 to end the devastating hyperinflation, restore flows of foodstuffs and medicines, and reconstitute the electoral rolls and institutions for a peaceful and credible election in 2020.
A pragmatic approach might involve the current government continuing to control the army, while technocrats backed by the opposition take control over finances, the central bank, planning, humanitarian relief, health services, and foreign affairs. Both sides would agree to a timeline for a national election in 2020, and to an internationally supervised demilitarization of daily life, with a restoration of civil and political rights and physical security in the country.
The United Nations Security Council should oversee such a solution. Chapter VII of the UN Charter gives the Security Council the mandate to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and to take actions to “restore international peace and security.” The Security Council is also the right venue pragmatically, as the US, China, and Russia all have financial and political interests in finding a peaceful solution in Venezuela. All three countries could readily agree to a path to elections in 2020. Encouragingly, Pope Francis and the governments of Mexico and Uruguay have also offered to help facilitate mediation to find a peaceful way forward.
Trump and other US leaders say that the time for negotiation has passed. They believe in a short, quick war if necessary. World leaders—and those in Latin American countries first and foremost—should open their eyes to the risks of a devastating war, one that could last for years and spread widely.