An American missionary imprisoned for two years in Venezuela was released last week in a rare moment of seeming collaboration between Washington and Caracas. But hostilities quickly returned to normal levels when the Trump administration announced that freeing “hostages,” Utah native Jeff Holt and his Venezuelan wife, would do absolutely nothing to ease sanctions.
Those are heavy and getting heavier since the May 20 election that the U.S. called a “sham.” The poorly attended polls returned President Nicolás Maduro to office for another six-year term, an event that surprised nobody, even though many Venezuelans were left in tears. The country is in agony, and people are wondering inside and out when and how its misery might end.
Which brings us to the persistent rumors of war.
They began when President Donald Trump told reporters last August that “military options” to remove the embattled Maduro were very much on the table. Earlier this year then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) both sent clear public messages to Venezuela’s armed forces, suggesting the moment was coming for them to overthrow Maduro in the name of “democracy.” and hinting strongly that the U.S. would back such a move.
Former Exxon CEO Tillerson alluded to the many times in Latin American history when military officers realized they couldn’t “serve the citizens anymore” and would “manage a peaceful transition.” (Conveniently forgotten, the death squads and “dirty wars” that often followed.)
Rubio, always playing to the aging but angry Cuban exile community in his native Florida, actually tweeted in February, “The world would support the Armed Forces in #Venezuela if they decide to protect the people & restore democracy by removing a dictator.”
Since then, a succession of Trump foreign policy dramas have focused on Iran and North Korea, swinging the U.S. media spotlight to the other side of the world. But Maduro’s own neighborhood is getting increasingly hostile.
During the run-up to Maduro’s re-election in May, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos almost casually remarked that a major drama is imminent in next-door Venezuela. “With a regime change, which will come and will come very soon, the Venezuelan economy, with a bit of good governance, will take off very fast,” Santos told his supporters.
Even long0standing Maduro ally and fellow leftist President Evo Morales of Bolivia warned in May of a pending “invasion” of Venezuela supposed to be backed by the U.S. and the Organization of American States.
Some Venezuelan exiles are promoting coup and/or invasion scenarios, and recent op-eds in prominent American publications like The New Yorker and Foreign Policy have also ruminated on the possibility of Maduro’s removal by force.
In fact, there’s a well established playbook for this sort of thing dating back at least to the CIA-supported coup in Guatemala in the 1950s. An especially relevant example was the game the administration of U.S. President (and former CIA chief) George H.W. Bush played with Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega at the end of the 1980s. Noriega was a thug exploiting clandestine relations with Cuba, the cartels of Colombia – and the CIA, which made him think he’d be protected. But he’d become too much of an embarrassment for Washington.
Protracted U.S. pressure on Noriega to hold at least a semblance of democratic elections was met by increasing defiance and violence against his domestic opposition. The drumbeat in the American press denouncing Noriega’s crimes and paving the way for his removal grew steadily more intense—but as a second-tier story. (The Berlin Wall was about to fall; the Soviet empire collapsing.)
By October 1989 the time had come for a coup—or not. It failed miserably. But the Bush administration had to wait for a “provocation” before it could intervene directly. In December, an American soldier was shot at a traffic stop, and the invasion took place over the Christmas holidays. Since the U.S. still had troops in the Panama Canal Zone in the middle of the country, the logistics were not too challenging.
Like Noriega, Maduro has remained defiant and continually plays the nationalist card, claiming with considerable reason that the U.S. and its regional “lackeys” would like nothing better than to see him removed from office by any means necessary. He’s even claimed to have captured a “conspirator” who had been collaborating with Colombia and receiving payments from the U.S. to plot his overthrow.
“Thanks to the moral antibodies it was detected in time and all those responsible have confessed and are convicted,” he said last week at a ceremony with the leaders of the Venezuelan Armed Forces.
“The imperialists have gone crazy,” he told his followers during a rally about 10 days before the election. “They talk as if they are the owners of the world, the owners of Venezuela... North American imperialism, take your orders and go to hell!”
The relationship between Uncle Sam and the mustachioed “Chavista” has continued to deteriorate in recent days, with both countries expelling each other’s diplomats last week. So what’s next?
The U.S. State Department has said it will not recognize the results of Maduro’s re-election, which had a turnout of about 30 percent, in part due to a boycott by the opposition. (Pre-election polls suggested a higher participation rate would likely have meant a victory for chief rival Henri Falcon, indicating Maduro’s enemies might have shot themselves in the foot by pushing for abstention.)
Maduro, 55, was the hand-picked disciple of deceased former president and wildly popular folk hero Hugo Chávez, who led the nation’s oil-based socialist economic revival in the first decade of this century. Maduro’s tenure saw those gains starkly reversed, thanks to a combination of falling oil prices, mismanagement of the nation’s crude reserves (still the largest on earth), and crippling U.S. sanctions.
“Maduro does not have Chavez’s charisma or leadership,” Hernando Zuleta, director of the Center for the Study of Economic Development (CEDE) at the University of the Andes, told The Daily Beast. “He has been clumsy and ruthless in his actions. All this had led to both military and civilian Chavistas taking a stand against him.”
But the U.S. record fomenting coups and directly intervening in Latin America, which goes back to the middle of the 19th century, has not been a happy one. Pretending to defend democracy, Washington all too often has fomented dictatorships.
“Historically the U.S. has often acted as a kind of global judge, using its army to change the political balance of other nations,” Zuleta said. And in the case of Venezuela, calls to defend human rights could “facilitate the narrative to justify a coup.”
Armed action—either in the form of outside intervention or a military putsch—could exacerbate existing political tensions and economic suffering in the country. Venezuela is not little Panama; in terms of population, strategic depth, and economic stakes, it’s more like Iraq, and an attempt to force regime change courts a similar disaster.
“I think there may be a civil war,” Zuleta said. “A large part of the civilian population received weapons to defend the Chavez regime and they may use them when they see that the regime is threatened.”
The military is key, and there are growing signs its commanders are divided. Maduro’s cronyism has led to direct military control over about a third of all government ministries—meaning much of the top brass see their own interests as aligned with the administration’s. But Maduro is getting nervous.
Seven generals who commanded about 60 percent of the nation’s troops were arrested on anti-government conspiracy charges back in March, just a few weeks after the overt pleas for a coup were put forth by Rubio and Tillerson. And whether that will act as a deterrent to other dissident officers, or an incentive to move against Maduro before their own heads roll, is an open question.
Very little is known about intra-military loyalties, says Alexander Main, a senior analyst with the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), in Washington D.C. But the military does not have a monopoly on coercive violence.
“What we know is that the Maduro government does continue to have a significant base, situated almost entirely in poor communities that have been the greatest beneficiaries of social programs in recent years and that continue to receive direct food aid,” says Main.
During an attempted right-wing putsch against Chávez in 2002, that demographic turned out in droves, braving a harsh crackdown by military and police to eventually force the plotters to reverse course.
“If a coup should occur in Venezuela we can expect a similar phenomenon, with potentially very bloody consequences,” Main said.
Such violence would increase the already rising tide of refugees flooding into neighboring countries. More than half-a-million displaced Venezuelans sought asylum in Colombia in 2017, with an estimated 800 per day entering Brazil so far this year.
Both of those nations have mobilized troops along their respective borders with Venezuela, according to Main, who describes those governments as “extremely hostile” to the Maduro regime.
CEDE’s Zuleta said a regime imposed from without would have trouble ruling and lack legitimacy:
“It is clear that there is discontent [with Maduro], but a foreign invasion would be seen as an intrusion and the new government as a puppet of the U.S.,” he said.
The last time Washington backed a hostile overthrow south of the border was in Honduras, in 2009. The Obama administration granted its tacit approval for the army to kidnap and replace center-left president Manuel Zelaya, touching off historic levels of violence and systemic corruption that persist almost a decade later.
A similar blunder in resource-rich Venezuela could be far more harmful to American interests. Sanctions begun under President George W. Bush, continued by Obama, and tightened by Trump have already forced Caracas into relationships of convenience with Russia and China, which are now their leading suppliers of arms and materiel.
Meanwhile, most of the training and technical assistance for Venezuelan security forces comes from Cuba.
“In the event of a coup, these existing ties mean that the priorities of Moscow, Beijing, and Havana will likely prevail over Washington’s in managing a military transition,” wrote columnist Brian Fonseca, in a May 2018 op-ed for Foreign Policy.
CEPR’s Main suggests that the new policies put forth by POTUS already are pushing Venezuela’s tremendous oil wealth into the hands of Washington’s economic rivals, and giving them a perch to exert influence in America’s own backyard:
“Trump’s financial sanctions will undoubtedly lead Venezuela to seek further credit lines from China and Russia,” said Main, who recently authored a report on the impact of U.S. influence in Venezuela.
Instead of fomenting violent regime change, which he calls morally and politically “unacceptable,” Main suggests President Trump pursue a strategy “involving moderate sectors from both the pro-government and opposition camps.”
For almost two decades, the desire to unseat the Chavistas has led successive U.S. administrations to align themselves with “the most hardline opposition sectors who share this goal, even when these sectors have sought to remove the government via extra-constitutional means,” such as during the coup in 2002.
That fundamentalist approach, combined with increasingly harsh sanctions, will do little or nothing to solve the problems faced by ordinary people.
“Venezuela has the germ of an internal conflict and the big question is how to prevent this risk from materializing,” Zuleta said. One first step toward a solution, he explained, is to focus on welcoming the refugees fleeing into other countries.
“Migration is an escape valve that can improve the conditions of many Venezuelans and reduce pressure on the labor market in Venezuela,” he said. The next step might be for outside parties or nations to help “facilitate dialogue between the parties” that have largely stopped communicating.
CEPR’s Main agreed that the benefits of such arbitration would far outweigh those of armed insurrection or invasion:
“If the U.S. government really wants to see Venezuela become more stable and functional,” he said, it should “support multilateral efforts to establish sustainable dialogue.”
Unfortunately, nothing that we know about Trump suggests that’s likely.