Venezuela has been in crisis for years. Now President Donald Trump has made Venezuela’s problems America’s problems.
Two decades ago Hugo Chávez successfully challenged a collectivist, kleptocratic political system which enriched the country’s elite. But he created a quasi‐dictatorship staffed by Cuban security agents and wrecked the economy by imposing real socialism and handing control to corrupt apparatchiks. Chávez even destroyed the state petroleum company by turning it into a lucrative source of patronage.
The situation deteriorated further under Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro. Today both food and medicine are increasingly difficult to find. Even Venezuela’s poor, who propelled Chávez into power, have given up on his bungling, charisma‐challenged successor.
Last year President Trump threatened to invade Venezuela. He backed down, but recently launched a vigorous campaign for regime change through diplomatic and economic pressure. America’s great hope is in opposition leader Juan Guaidó, President of the National Assembly, who declared himself to be Venezuela’s legitimate president. If Guaidó’s campaign fails, war remains “an option,” declared the president.
That might be a bluff, intended to intimidate Maduro and his supporters. However, if President Trump is serious, the consequences could be disastrous for both Venezuela and the United States.
The former is a tragedy on multiple levels. Like many Latin American political systems, it long enshrined great economic injustice. In 1992 Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez staged a coup. Despite some popular support it failed and he was imprisoned. But he was soon pardoned and in 1998 was elected president, serving until his death in 2013.
His “Bolivarian Revolution” was authoritarian and socialist, with predictable results. Mass nationalization, uncontrolled spending, and political interference ensured long‐term economic disaster. For a time oil revenue funded social programs, sustaining popular support. He also shared his regime’s largesse overseas—providing subsidized petroleum shipments to Cuba’s Castro dictatorship, for instance. However, oil revenue declined as his maladministration hobbled PDVSA, the state‐run energy company, and petroleum prices dropped.
Vice President Maduro replaced Chávez, but the Maduro lacked any hint of charisma or competence. The economy was cut by half over his six years in power and is expected to shrink another quarter this year alone. The latest annual inflation estimate—the regime stopped releasing economic statistics—is an incredible 1.7 million percent. Nine out of ten people fall below the poverty line. Stores are empty. Every day 80,000 people cross into Colombia seeking provisions. An expectant mother turned border street vendor explained: “in Venezuela there is nothing.” Yet President Maduro rejected offers of humanitarian aid, insisting that there is no crisis and “we are not beggars.” So far some three million people, a tenth of the population, have fled, and more are leaving every day.
Four out of five Venezuelans, including even many “Chavistas” and working‐class supporters of Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” want him gone. Maduro maintains control through increasing repression and electoral manipulation. His last lines of defense are his core allies (who in recent years have looted the economy to the tune of $350 billion), his puppets in the National Assembly, and a thousand‐plus Cuban operatives, long embedded in his government.
Maduro should go. Actually, straight to jail. But the Trump administration‐led campaign seems designed to fail.
Even successful regime change won’t necessarily turn out well. By one count, Washington pursued sixty‐eight attempts at regime change in different countries since 1945. Most failed, and even successful operations often yielded dubious results.
But getting rid of Maduro won’t be easy. Washington lacks credibility as a disinterested actor dedicated to the good of the Venezuelan people. Alas, Americans well‐earned their reputation for “Yankee imperialism” through more than a century of military intervention in Latin America. Skeptics of Washington’s purported humanitarian intentions point to Venezuela’s 301 billion barrel oil reserves as a rich prize for American companies. Even many critics of Maduro do not back the U.S. campaign to oust the incumbent regime: a poll last month found 78 percent of Venezuelans opposed international intervention.
Threats of war have intensified regional skepticism. James Stavridis, the former North Atlantic Treaty Organization Supreme Allied Commander, said, “everywhere I went as a four‐star Admiral in [Latin America] while commanding U.S Southern Command, I would be reminded of America’s history of intervention.” Even Brazil and Colombia were “deeply suspicious” of the creation of the Fourth Fleet in 2008, which was seen not as a tool for use in such tasks as drug interdiction and humanitarian relief, but as “a return to gunboat diplomacy and a prelude to military action in Venezuela.”
By taking the lead, the Trump administration has become an issue. Rallying people against outside pressure is a time‐honored international tactic, especially by populist Latin American regimes. Some Venezuelans will choose local thugs over foreign meddlers. Moreover, Washington’s high‐profile effort has encouraged Russia and China to rally to Maduro’s side. Their support will be limited but could help the regime survive.
Indeed, the administration will undermine attempts to employ the rule of international law in other cases. The U.S. claim that it is justified in breaking international rules, argued Representative Ro Khanna (D‑Cal.), “is the same argument that led to U.S. blunders in Iraq, Honduras, Syria, Libya and elsewhere. Again and again, there is no respect for the United Nations Charter that makes it illegal under international law to seek regime change.”
Washington hopes to starve the Venezuelan people. The Trump administration sanctioned PDVSA to dry up oil revenues keeping the government and country afloat. (Petroleum sales provide more than 95 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings.) The Trump administration also turned Venezuelan state property over to the nascent Guaidó “government.”
Unfortunately, tougher economic controls are unlikely to force the regime to yield. Reducing the Maduro regime’s money will hurt it, but probably not enough to cripple it. Sanctions also will reduce funds available for the Venezuelan public, since the government controls most trade. However, Maduro and his allies will take care of themselves first. Complained Jose Bodas, an anti‐Maduro union leader: “The rich will not stop getting richer, it’s the workers who will shoulder the cost of these measures.”
Starving the already suffering, whose vigorous opposition so far has failed to budge the regime, in hopes of fomenting a more effective uprising is a dubious strategy on both practical and moral grounds. Luis Vicente Leon, who heads the political consulting firm Datanalisis, said: “If this strategy isn’t successful quickly, the effect on the people will be devastating.” Unsurprisingly, eight of ten Venezuelans oppose U.S. sanctions.
Washington hopes that Maduro’s backers will end his reign, but their survival is tied to his. Most importantly, the military leadership, which Chávez transformed after the short‐lived coup against him in 2002, has prospered along with the regime. Even if the Chavista elite decided to send Maduro packing, there is no reason to believe it would hand the keys to the kingdom to Guaidó or organize free elections.
Regime fractures might lead to civil war, with multiple contending factions. The outcome is impossible to predict. Although Guaidó unexpectedly unified the highly fractious opposition, he leans toward the socialist end of the economic spectrum. Some groups on the right complain that his Popular Will party is a member of the Socialist International. A bloody collapse might satisfy the Trump administration but could intensify the suffering of the Venezuelan population.
If the administration fails to oust Maduro through diplomacy and sanctions, it will suffer a major public relations embarrassment. Warned Senator Chris Murphy (D‑Conn.) and former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes: “Chest‐thumping declarations that melt away over time weaken American power and credibility.” But Washington has no apparent alternative if the Maduro regime doesn’t fold. Worried Michael Shifter of the Inter‐American Dialogue: “My concern is whether they’ve boxed themselves in.” An impasse would encourage the president to act militarily.
Yet nothing justifies war. Vice President Mike Pence recently declared that “For the sake of our vital interests, and for the sake of the Venezuelan people, America will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles.” However, what vital American interest can he identify? There is none.
Admiral Craig Faller, head of the United State Southern Command, announced that “We are prepared to protect U.S. lives and protect the diplomatic facility in Venezuela.” However, Washington is keeping American diplomats on station as an explicit provocation. The Maduro government ordered U.S. personnel home, but the administration refused to comply. Washington may hope for an incident to justify military action. There also has been talk of using American military forces to move humanitarian aid into Venezuela, daring the Maduro government to block the effort. This would constitute the foreign policy equivalent of entrapment, enticing Caracas to take a step providing a casus belli.
Moreover, Fernando Cutz, who formerly served on the staff of the National Security Council, argued: “I don’t think you can underestimate the threat of a failed state very close to our borders.” Venezuela’s crisis certainly is bad for the country’s South American neighbors. However, the United States would hardly notice. Would millions of refugees swim the Caribbean and overrun Florida? Would al‐Qaeda set up shop in anarchic Caracas? War‐happy American officials routinely claim “vital interests” where none exist.
The Venezuelan people are suffering, but so are the peoples of Eritrea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, Egypt, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and many more nations. Ironically, Washington supports, aids, and comforts the oppressor in several of these cases. In others, the Trump administration simply ignores friends acting badly. Nothing occurring in Venezuela justifies America embarking upon another war of choice.
Fear that the administration is inclined toward war caused Senate Democrats to insist that any resolution backing Guaidó include explicit disapproval of U.S. military action. Senator Marco Rubio (R‑Fl.) refused the accept the measure with such a prohibition. “The U.S. always reserves the right on use force and protect its own national security interest and the interest of its personnel. So anything that would run counter to that would be problematic.” But he is being disingenuous since he routinely treats military action as a first resort.
Venezuela’s Guaidó suggested that he might come to welcome, even “authorize,” U.S. military action, though that “is not the form we hope for and believe in.” He also suggested that all options are on the table, the standard mantra of American officials who threaten war, and later argued that if the Maduro government blocked delivery of outside aid, that military intervention would be warranted under the UN “responsibility to protect” doctrine. However, as Representative Ro Khanna (D‑Ca.) responded: “Mr. Guaidó, you can proclaim yourself leader of Venezuela but you don’t get to authorize U.S. military interventions. Only the U.S. Congress can do that. We will not.” And it should not.
Initiating another war of choice simply because the United States could do so would further unbalance American foreign policy. These days policymakers find it difficult to resist the temptation to use America’s overwhelming military power even though consequences are routinely ill. War should be a genuine last resort.
Secretary of State and later President John Quincy Adams appeared to foresee our world when he warned Americans not to go “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy” lest they risk their nation’s soul. The U.S. “might become the dictatress of the world” and “be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” Which would be too high a price to pay.
The president appears to believe that an invasion would be easy, last year arguing that “It’s a regime that frankly could be toppled very quickly by the military, if the military decides to do that.” But believing the next war to be a cakewalk is a far too common mistake made by overly‐optimistic political leaders. Most wars turn out far different and more costly than expected. For instance, in 1812 House Speaker Henry Clay declared that conquering Canada would be “a mere matter of marching.” More than two centuries later, of course, America’s northern neighbor remains free.
The only recent Latin American precedent was the 1989 invasion of Panama. However, circumstances were significantly different: a much smaller nation, ruled by a dictator with little popular backing, containing the U.S.-constructed canal long controlled by Washington. American troops already were stationed there, and the local government had killed several U.S. civilians.
The Maduro regime obviously would lose any conflict. Its armed services have suffered from years of economic crisis. Chávez purged potentially dissident officers in order to coup‐proof the military, meaning trustworthiness trumped competence. Moreover, the army became a source of patronage and bulges with useless generals.
Nevertheless, there are capable units—special forces, airborne, and counter‐insurgency, for instance. Admiral Faller told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Venezuelan military, though a “degraded force,” nevertheless “remains loyal to Maduro—and that makes it dangerous.” Moreover, the civil militia has an official membership of 1.6 million. Just last month 86 percent of Venezuelans said they opposed foreign military action. Invaders might not find themselves hailed as liberators even by those hoping for an end to Maduro’s misrule.
Urban resistance could prove difficult to quell, especially by soldiers dispersed into guerrilla units. Resistance also could turn into a civil war, further inflaming social divisions which would make fixing Venezuela even tougher. Having broken Venezuela with an invasion, America would feel great pressure to occupy and rebuild it.
Through this process, the Chavistas might shift blame for their misrule onto their new occupiers. Washington would own the results of its war. American support would undermine the new government’s legitimacy. And ousting Maduro would not resolve the underlying political conflicts which triggered Chávez’s rise. Overall, the costs of exercising the military option are obvious; the benefits less so.
Unfortunately, as time passes Washington appears to have another potential foreign policy debacle in the making. Guaidó’s announcement led to expectations of a speedy denouement: sanctions would crush the regime, military elites would defect and defenestrate Maduro, Chavista elites would accept the offer of amnesty and depart, and a new regime would emerge, fulfilling American objectives. Increasingly a peaceful U.S. victory appears unlikely.
Alas, no one, it seems, has an alternative approach. Reported Bloomberg: “U.S. policymakers and those around Guaidó—as well as leaders in Brazil and Colombia—are eying one another and worrying about failure. Officials in each camp have said privately they assumed the others had a more developed strategy.”
Evidently not. The situation would have the makings of comedy sitcom if the stakes weren’t so high. So now what?
Washington should lower its expectations and step back, leaving regime transformation to Venezuelans and their neighbors. Most important, President Trump should keep the troops at home. Simón Bolívar, the heroic revolutionary who liberated Venezuela from Spain, long ago intoned: “when tyranny becomes law, rebellion is a right.” But in this case, that right should be exercised by Venezuelans, not Americans.