Welcome to Occupation: Bolton, Abrams, Rubio, and War in Venezuela
U.S. senators and international actors are banging the drums of war once again. This time, they are the tamboras of Venezuela. Concerns about American access to Venezuelan oil and outcry against the crumbling state and its repressive president Nicolas Maduro have energized and whipped hardliners like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and National Security Adviser John Bolton into a frenzy. Even Luis Almagro, the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), an organization with a history of non-intervention, has not ruled out military action against the Maduro regime.
Put simply, Venezuela is a humanitarian disaster. The economy has shrunk by half in just half a decade and inflation has climbed as unfathomably high as 2.6 million percent. Despite sitting above the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela is home to some of the most crippling poverty in the Global South with nine in ten citizens living in poverty. Shortages leave the shelves of stores vacant, hospitals without personnel, and everyone from top to bottom without basic necessities.
The Bolivarian Republic also ceases to be a republic in anything but name. The Maduro and Hugo Chavez regimes decimated all of the previously existing checks on executive power, stacking the courts with sympathetic judges and stripping the powers of the legislature and its opposition majority. As the nation has become more and more economically unstable, Maduro has cracked down on dissent, tracking citizens through electronic ID cards and arresting—and torturing—perceived opponents of the regime in the bureaucracy and the military. Furthermore, a refugee crisis has sprung from the instability. The UN estimates that 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled the country in just the last four years. However, some NGOs place that figure closer to 4 million. That is equivalent to ten percent of the Venezuelan population.
All of this has shifted world focus to Venezuela, where a crisis of leadership continues to transpire. As the Maduro regime blocked humanitarian aid from coming into the country in February, millions of students flooded the streets and opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself president. More than 50 countries, including the U.S. and the majority of Latin America and Europe have recognized Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, while the country’s military continues to stand behind Maduro.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., Rubio, Bolton, and the rest of the Trump Administration are increasingly speaking about regime change in Venezuela. That should scare us all.
The debate over Venezuela and unilateral American interventions like Iraq has been hijacked by neocons like Bolton. It now goes something like this: if you don’t think America can bring Venezuelans democracy and freedom at the barrel of a gun, you are supporting the authoritarian regime and exacerbating its economic woes. The problem with this logic is that one can simultaneously disapprove of Maduro or Saddam Hussein and still believe that a costly and lengthy intervention and peacebuilding operation against the will of the international community is a phenomenally bad idea. It is this inability to comprehend that one can be both anti-authoritarian and anti-intervention at the same time that has resulted in some of the worst blunders in the history of American foreign policy. One need not stand on a tank to stand up to Maduro. There are important steps that can be taken to rebuild Venezuela that recognize the need to enact political change but also would keep the struggle from becoming more bloody and the rebuilding more arduous. Steps that recognize that American intervention can be counterproductive would be more prudent for Venezuela’s future. But as long as the debate is framed in the context of whether the United States stands against evil, instead of whether an intervention would actually enact political and economic change, these solutions will be neglected.
Naturally, policymakers tasked with making a decision on Venezuela will seek to draw parallels to previous American interventions in the region and the characteristics of the countries in which they took place. But Venezuela is a unique case, not resembling in the slightest either of the two Latin American countries invaded by the U.S. at the close of the Cold War.
Venezuela is twice the size of Iraq in terms of physical geography and has roughly the same population. In fact, Venezuela even has more oil than Iraq does. Even if one does not at all account for the need to resolve the great infrastructural and governance issues in Venezuela, it becomes quite clear that the vast size and physical characteristics of the country would make an intervention all the more difficult, lengthy, and costly.
However, the reality on the ground is that Venezuela is, for all intents and purposes, a failed state. Whereas Panama and Grenada were able to address the basic needs of their populations, Venezuela’s schools, electricity grids, sewage systems, and hospitals are in disrepair if they are lucky enough to exist at all. For its citizens, finding a single roll of toilet paper can be nearly impossible. But rebuilding the economy and the bureaucracy is only part of the task. Without serious, likely impossible improvements in governance, Venezuela will continue to descend deeper down the sewer of failing as a hundred thousand armed colectivos and even more narco-traffickers run rampant and threaten stability and order. At the same time, all of the blame for a failure to rebuild would be put on the shoulders of the U.S. Believing that the U.S. can somehow install a functioning government and good governance without incurring massive costs and being stuck in Venezuela for a decade is simply refusing to acknowledge the obvious.
Secondly, Venezuela’s neighbors in the region would not be helpful in the event of an intervention. Wary of American imperialism and the cost of rebuilding the failed state and schooled in the doctrine of non-intervention, few Latin American governments wish to use force to unseat Maduro. The Lima Group, a coalition IGO of North and Latin American states set up in 2017 to resolve the Venezuelan issue, and its members have reiterated their commitment to a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Member states as Peru and Canada have specifically, in their own capacity, denounced the prospect of the use of force in Venezuela, calling it “unacceptable,” “not a solution,” and even illegal. When even the countries most affected by the resulting refugee crisis and capable of alleviating the political baggage of a U.S.-led operation want no part of an intervention, it says a great deal about the prospect of success.
Even if the neighboring states wished to intervene, they are not equipped to effectively do so. The only real recent tests these militaries have faced were a few thousand peacekeepers in Haiti and the Congo, as well as the 400 Salvadoran soldiers who joined the ill-fated U.S. led coalition in Iraq in 2003. Make no mistake, an intervention in Venezuela would be an American-headed endeavor and the amount of rebuilding that the superpower would need to do even if it were to somehow topple Maduro all on its own is not worth the return of Guaido in power of what would likely be a decimated country.
Then there’s the idea of trust. For good reason, the United States does not have the trust of its allies in Central and South America. The legacy of centuries of intervention in Guatemala, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American countries, as well as the stubborn and “coalition of the willing” intervention in Iraq live on in the minds of a people who have seen their democracies destroyed, their children tortured, and their peace disturbed for American profit by American interventions and the governments the U.S. put in power. These people see through the facades of humanitarian intervention when it is regime change in disguise.
That is not to say that nothing can be done about Venezuela. Venezuela’s neighbors should join the U.S. and others in freezing the bank accounts of Venezuela’s leaders, making the criminals running the country feel the heat and pressure. For the U.S.’s part, it can and should pressure China, the main financier of the regime to cease abetting what is both a failed state and investment and an illegitimate regime. Crippling Maduro financially and geopolitically would force him to choose between isolation from even his few allies or resigning to give way to internationally supervise, independent and democratic elections.
But Guaidó is not the only Venezuelan in need of help. The millions of refugees fleeing the corrupt dictatorship deserve better than the inaction of the international community. Thus, the U.S. and its allies should urge the UN High Commissioner on Refugees to officially call a refugee crisis, which would provide legal protections to those attempting to escape. Then the U.S. should agree to take in many of these refugees to provide them protection from the regime and a chance to make something of themselves. For Venezuelans already in the U.S., Temporary Protected Status ought to be an option as it was for Nicaraguans and Salvadorans. TPS protects its recipients from deportation to a home country that is the site of an armed conflict or environmental disaster. This would save Venezuelan lives and would be an easy way to protect those fleeing the human rights abuses without further destabilizing the country.
Unfortunately, thus far the Trump Administration has veered in the opposite direction, rejecting about half of all Venezuelan asylum seekers and opposing extension of TPS for enrollees from similar South and Central American countries. This is hypocritical and short-sighted. While there are concerns about the high cost of taking in refugees, it is chump change compared to the cost of a military intervention.
Furthermore, the appointment of Elliott Abrams as Special Representative for Venezuela by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should give anyone who opposes destabilizing and long regime change wars pause. Abrams’s record in Latin America is truly unparalleled and not in a good way. First, there is his zealousness for regime change in Venezuela. In 2002, Abrams supported a coup against the Chavez regime that failed and eviscerated any small hope of the second Bush administration working with the new government. This could be chalked up to bad judgment and glossed over were it not for the most unforgivable sin of his career: that he is committed actual war crimes in Latin America during the Reagan Administration (in addition to being convicted in the Iran Contra scandal).
As Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt committed mass killings against indigenous people in the Ixil region, Abrams fought for more military aid to be sent to his regime. Abrams claimed that the Montt regime had made progress on “human rights issues” and that they needed to be rewarded for that progress with more arms. As we know now, those weapons were used to kill more indigenous people. After being promoted to Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Abrams continued to support the Montt regime and the equally repressive Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo regime. To get a sense of the lengths that Abrams has been willing to go to to push an interventionist and interest-driven foreign policy, take his response to a particular massacre of the Arévalo government. According to observers, “the army herded the entire [village] population into the courthouse, raped the women, beheaded the men, and took the children outside to smash them to death against rocks.” Abrams refused to accept this, even after investigations found it to be the truth, instead calling it leftist propaganda. The legally binding, UN-backed Guatemalan Commision for Historical Clarification saw it quite differently, assessing Abrams the damning designation of abettor of “acts of genocide.”
Appointing an actual war criminal and neocon in the mold of Bolton to such a momentous position could not be a more obvious sign of the Trump Administration’s desire for war in Venezuela, no matter the cost, no matter the pretext. But the problems Venezuela suffers from will not be resolved in a day, in a week, in a month, in a year, or in a decade. They are apolitical, social, and economic challenges that must be resolved not at the barrel of a gun but rather by diplomatic and humanitarian efforts. The Maduro regime is illegitimate and brutal, but war is not the only way to counter it and protect its people, nor is it the most efficient and successful way of doing so. But until the U.S. foreign policy establishment learns its long overdue lesson about regime change wars in the region, it will continue falling into the same trap, wondering how it got stuck in another decade-long war it stood no chance of winning in a country the U.S. military alone stood no chance of rebuilding.