American Interventionism in Venezuela

Photo by Carlos Garcia Rawlins in Reuters via Brookings

A robust diplomatic apparatus ought to be the first, second, and third lines of defense against abuse of a people by its government. Interventionism is a last resort, and any action pursued in Venezuela by the US must be informed by history and popular will. Still, the option for American intervention is a viable one for limiting the suffering of a beleaguered people.

Writing in favor of interventionism in Venezuela means acknowledging the history of disastrous US policy in Latin America. Extra-judicial American policy has a tortured legacy in the region mostly courtesy of the cold war. Carrie Khan writes extensively and eloquently about US interventionism in an article devoted to the subject. Several portions of her work are excerpted here, though the whole piece is worth a read:

The United States participated, directly or indirectly, in Latin American regime change more than 40 times in the last century, according to historian John Coatsworth. That figure doesn’t include a number of failed missions like the 1961 Bay of Pigs assault in Cuba.
Some of the more stinging U.S. moves included the ouster of democratically elected governments in Guatemala in 1954, in Brazil a decade later and in Chile in 1973. Chilean President Salvador Allende was deposed in a violent coup by CIA-backed opponents, and the U.S. government long supported his replacement, the dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
In addition to covert support for insurgencies, the U.S. has invaded its southern neighbors numerous times. For instance, the U.S. launched invasions of the Dominican Republic (1916), Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989).
One bloody chapter that recently re-entered debate is the U.S. government’s roles in Central America’s civil wars in the 1980s, including support for death squads in El Salvador and Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua.

Our failures ought to inform any future action in our hemisphere, because vulnerable populations have a well-earned right to view American intervention with suspicion and distrust. Iraqis and Libyans can attest that despite Americans toppling the respective dictatorships of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, there is inherent danger in the subsequent power vacuum. Yet, America should dictate policy outcomes for present geopolitical crises through current information.

It has been well established that Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s disputed current president, runs a kleptocracy built on oil money. Two of Hugo Chavez’s closest advisers, Hector Navarro and Jorge Giordani, claim that the Maduro regime has stolen $300 billion in revenue. For the uninitiated, Chavez was a socialist revolutionary and Maduro’s predecessor. Katy Watson writes in BBC about another former adviser who is critical of Maduro:

According to Heinz Dieterich, a former adviser to Hugo Chávez, Mr Maduro has destroyed Mr Chávez’s legacy. Mr Dieterich advocated what is known as “21st-Century socialism”, a brand name that President Chávez adopted for his politics. So how do the two men compare?
“Maduro became Machiavellian and the only thing that matters to him is hanging on to power. He’s become a bourgeoisie usurper with a leftist discourse. Maduro doesn’t just lack Chávez’s brain, but his ethics too,” Mr Dieterich says.

It should be taken seriously that people who worked under Chavez have accused Maduro of theft and authoritarian tendencies. It implies that issues with the regime are not purely ideological.

Nicolás Maduro. Photo by Marco Bello in Reuters via CNBC.

The profiteers from Maduro’s theft are people with connections to power. Last year a Swiss banker admitted to laundering $200 million with Maduro’s step-children as coconspirators; the whole scheme was valued at $1.2 billion. Hugo Chavez’s oldest daughter is rumored to be worth $4 billion, though actual accounting is difficult. Her younger sister fled to Paris after flaunting her wealth on Instagram, and angering an increasingly impoverished public whose currency was rapidly becoming worthless because of inflation. These actions showcase a leadership which routinely enriched top government officials and their relations by skimming public money.

Perhaps the key moment from which Venezuela has never recovered is the dive in oil prices. They fell from over $100 per barrel in 2014 to under $30 in 2016, tanking the Venezuelan economy. The country’s economy has not recovered since. Gross domestic product contracted 4% in 2014 and has continued to nosedive. It’s projected to lose an additional 5% in 2019, after three straight years of double digit losses. The free fall is a devastating blow causing immense misery for Venezuelan citizens.

Yet, while other petrostates felt the shock of the collapse in oil prices, only Venezuela has become the poster child for disaster. What other factors may have played a role?

Venezuela’s economy is still set to shrink.

Some blame US sanctions. Obama enacted sanctions in 2014 on top officials following protests in Venezuela in which 43 were killed. These sanctions were limited and targeted. Trump went much further in 2017 and strengthened Obama policy through a series of executive orders and treasury sanctions, many of which focused on nationalized Venezuelan oil.

Therefore despite protestations, the limited scope of the Obama sanctions cannot be solely blamed for the Venezuelan economy’s issues. Furthermore, the Trump sanctions definitely limit present growth, but were enacted after contraction was already well under way. So they cannot be causative agents, but do certainly play a role in preventing recovery. Regardless, Venezuela must regret sending that $500 thousand to lobby Trump in the face of his current rhetoric and executive actions.

The explanation posited by Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro, two prominent Venezuelan journalists who wrote in Foreign Affairs seems to be the most complete:

The short answer is Chavismo. Under the leadership of Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, the country has experienced a toxic mix of wantonly destructive policy, escalating authoritarianism, and kleptocracy, all under a level of Cuban influence that often resembles an occupation. Any one of these features would have created huge problems on its own. All of them together hatched a catastrophe. Today, Venezuela is a poor country and a failed and criminalized state run by an autocrat beholden to a foreign power. The remaining options for reversing this situation are slim; the risk now is that hopelessness will push Venezuelans to consider supporting dangerous measures, such as a U.S.-led military invasion, that could make a bad situation worse.

Notably, the excerpt from the essay argues against military invasion. The author’s full argument should be considered independently, and I encourage independent interpretation of their work. Still, it behooves the international community and America to keep options on the table because of Maduro’s specific operations.

For example, his policing strategies constitute widespread abuse. Colectivos, motorcycle gangs that roam the country, are loyal to Maduro and pretend to keep the peace. In fact, these government allies fire on civilians, rob reporters, and beat protesters. Maduro supports their tactics to suppress discontent. In addition to the paramilitary operations of the colectivos, Mary Sheridan and Mariana Zuñiga, reporters for the Washington Post write:

The government has also turned to a relatively new branch of the national police, the Special Actions Force (known by its Spanish initials, FAES) to intimidate and kill young protesters in poor neighborhoods, according to human rights groups. Some activists say the new branch works closely with colectivos. The FAES says it is only going after criminals.

In addition to supporting suppression through gangs, Maduro and his government blockaded crucial aid during a tense standoff on February 23rd of this year. The aid trucks primarily contained food donated by the US at a time when 64% of Venezuelans have lost nearly 25 pounds due to hunger. The trucks also carried medical supplies intended for Venezuelan hospitals. Initially it was assumed that the Venezuelan army had set fire to the aid, but further reporting suggests that in the midst of violent skirmishes started by the Venezuelan guard, a Molotov cocktail thrown by a protester lit the aid on fire. It goes down as another tragedy in a nation where they are seemingly endless.

Food and medical supplies being burned at the border of Columbia and Venezuela. Source.

Maduro’s power grab and authoritarian tendencies have been incredibly clear since he neutered the National Assembly. Venezuelan elections in 2015 gave the opposition party the majority for the first time since 1999 when constitutional reform changed a bicameral legislative body into a unicameral chamber. In the following lame duck session the executive branch packed the supreme court with allies; 13 judges were given positions. The court then promptly invalidated the results of four crucial seats in the Assembly, which prevented a supermajority that would have been able to legally combat Maduro.

Further delegitmization of the elected National Assembly continued as legislation to free political prisoners was ruled unconstitutional. The supreme court also ruled in favor of Maduro’s national emergency which took away the Assembly’s ability to review the budget. Finally, the entire body was functionally dissolved and its legal authority was transferred to the supreme court. The severity of this should be acknowledged. Maduro stole the voice from his people.

Jaun Guaidó. Photo by Federico Parra in Getty via CBC.

Typically the president of the National Assembly, per the Venezuelan constitution, is placed second in line for the country’s presidency. This original rule is the justification used by current opposition leader Juan Guaidó to claim that he is the rightful president of Venezuela in the face of a dictatorship. It is internationally recognized. Sometimes a country’s allies speak volumes, and liberal democracies essentially all back Guaidó. Meanwhile Maduro’s most prominent supporters are Russia and China, two countries that have their fair share of human rights violations.

Broadly speaking liberal democracies back opposition leader Guaidó. Source.

Venezuela’s 2018 elections could have gone a long way to restoring some of the country’s institutions, but international observers found many flaws. The European Council described it as such:

… presidential and regional polls went ahead without a national agreement on an electoral calendar and without complying with the minimum international standards for a credible process, not respecting political pluralism, democracy, transparency and rule of law. Major obstacles to the participation of opposition political parties and their leaders, an unbalanced composition of the National Electoral Council, biased electoral conditions, numerous reported irregularities during the Election Day, including vote buying, stood in the way of fair and equitable elections.

The largest issue with regards to the election was how it typified Maduro’s tendency to imprison political opponents or entangle them in ways preventing them from running for office. Leopoldo López, an oppositional mayor who was previously arrested for leading an anti-Maduro protest, was barred from running for president. Henrique Capriles, a former governor, who almost won the presidency from Maduro in 2013 similarly had bogus charges brought against him, and could not run. Overall the 2018 Human Rights Watch report on Venezuela says that prisons and intelligence offices held 230 political prisoners.

The government also threatens an atmosphere of free speech. A US journalist, Cody Weddle, was abruptly detained and deported with little explanation. Jorge Ramos, a prominent Spanish language reporter, and a team of Univision reporters had their camera equipment and phones seized. While the country struggled with widespread blackouts, local reporter Luis Carlos Díaz expressed his frustrations with the government’s excuses. He was imprisoned overnight. Although released, he now has to appear before a court every eight days. Venezuela’s national press union, SNTP, says that 40 press workers and staff have been illegally detained and questioned since the beginning of 2019.

On the playground, if an adult witnesses a bully, there’s a moral obligation to stop and educate the bully. If a bystander witnesses a thief stealing a bike, there’s a moral obligation on to stop the thief. If an individual doesn’t do anything to stop a violent crime when it’s clearly within his or her ability to do so, its understood to be a travesty. Perpetrators of criminality deserve the lion’s share of the blame, but true moral clarity requires standing up for the beleaguered and vulnerable, especially when the ability to do so is evident.

Action is hard. The hard thing to do is sometimes still unequivocally the right thing to do. In early World War II, the US’s isolationist policies became an excuse for inaction. America had the firepower to stop the suffering of millions of persecuted peoples at the hands of history’s greatest villain. Eventually, America made the right call. The country became a crucial player in eradicating Nazism and saving liberalized democracy. Interventionism ultimately reduced suffering, though contemporaneously many endured the blight of war.

In Venezuela, if Maduro continues to rob his people, to abuse them, to refuse humanitarian aid, to delegitimize elected officials, to imprison dissenters, and restrict a free press even after diplomatic outreach, then there’s a moral obligation to intervene. There will be unintended consequences. This will be hard to do correctly, but don’t take the option off the table preemptively.

How does America do this right? I have proposals that I believe allow for the most fair and just use of force. At the very top, I said that history and popular opinion must inform intervention. Let’s abide by that.

First, political ideology cannot drive any decision. That has to be clear from the forefront. The US should not be backing Guaidó because Maduro is socialist; they should back him because Maduro is authoritarian. American political leadership should take care to inform the international community of this through speeches, press releases, and consultation with Venezuela’s neighbors. Transparency is critical because, as explained, so much of past US foreign policy in Latin America has been purposefully obscured through questionable CIA missions.

Also, make it clear this is not about oil, which always becomes a sticky point for criticism. America can easily forgo Venezuelan oil. The US only gets about 7% of its imports from Venezuela, and OPEC only has power in its totality.

Furthermore, escalating from information campaigns, it’s imperative to keep sending aid in the form of food and medicine. If the Venezuelan military keeps blockading aid by truck as it did on February 23rd, drop the aid through a protected air campaign. If it still can’t reach the public to help, then it’s time to consult the American and Venezuelan public about whether they support more concrete military intervention.

On the American side, our citizens have a right to determine where the military operates; elected representatives should vote on whether to intervene or not. This congressional checkpoint is important, and the decision making should be paired with an education campaign on the issues for the public.

On the Venezuelan side, have their citizens vote on American military intervention. Verify polling through international observation, as done before. Respect the results, regardless of their outcomes. If the polling is questionable, then turn to Guaidó to pick policy and allow him, as an elected representative, to dictate the will of Venezuela.

Following confirmation of the results from those checkpoints, it’s time to put boots on the ground. This is the trickiest portion, as well as the most serious point of escalation. Any American action against Venezuelan military should be reactive, and not preemptive to reinforce moral authority. Protect against civilian casualties as much as humanly possible. Imprison rather than kill as much as humanly possible. Always have a channel for communication open for immediate surrender and ceasefire. Use America’s bite only after our barks.

Should America emerge victorious (which it would in my opinion), try Maduro in an international court, at least for his theft of public money. Have Guaidó set up elections for new representatives and a new presidency. Protect the integrity of the polling stations from threats like the colectivos. Consult continuously with the Venezuelan government for a plan which gives them control and responsibility of their own land. Withdraw troops as needed.

America’s job doesn’t end there, and while the military may be done at this point, the state department should take over. Continue to protect the newly formed democracy with aid. Create education programs and anti-poverty programs. Sponsor entrepreneurship, so that the entire nation doesn’t collapse when one revenue source falters like oil prices did. Nation building is a hard task, and it only succeeds when the people doing it feel a profound sense of ownership over the results. Give Venezuela back to Venezuelans, even if it means that America has to step up.