As the year 2018 begins, turmoil in Venezuela continues. However, this has not been the result of organized protest, as the opposition is falling further into disarray, but rather the spontaneous action of desperate individuals who have looted grocery stores and even stoned cows to death in order to eat.
The riots have destroyed businesses, leaving their owners in the streets and their workers unemployed. Widespread hunger has exacerbated the violence and anarchy that has resulted from the Venezuelan regime’s many years of impunity. In the last two years, the average Venezuelan has lost 19 pounds. Children are dying of malnutrition. People lack basic medicines. Diseases eradicated many years ago, such as diphtheria, malaria, and measles, have returned. As a Venezuelan political scientist has pointed out, the opposition has been crushed and the people are “too hungry, or too disheartened, to protest”.
Nobody can blame the people of Venezuela for not protesting or risking their lives for their freedom. Indeed, Venezuelans have held numerous protests and 135 people have died just in the last wave of demonstrations. The government crushed the opposition, eliminating and outlawing it altogether. Most recently, the Maduro regime decided that only those parties which took part in the December 10 mayoral elections will be able to nominate candidates for the presidency, disqualifying the major Venezuelan parties that boycotted the mayoral elections following suspicions of fraud in last October’s gubernatorial elections, in which the Maduro regime won the overwhelming majority of the states at a time when their actions had been responsible for the state of despair and economic collapse.
In addition, close to 900 people have been imprisoned for political reasons and more than 5,000 have been arrested. The regime continues to impose totalitarian domination, most recently demonstrated by the massacre ordered by the government of Nicolas Maduro against Oscar Perez and six of his associates. Perez, a courageous pilot who rebelled against the regime, offered his surrender to the authorities, but instead Maduro instructed his repressors “not to leave anyone alive.”
The Perez episode represents the tragedy of Venezuela. Perez was a rebel who fought heroically like the millions of Venezuelans who took to the streets.
The strategies used against the Maduro regime were well-intended but far from sufficient. The opposition, although acting cohesively during elections, failed to send a clear national program of reconstruction to the Venezuelan population. Likewise, internal rivalries undermined the opposition and prevented it from its goal of securing a transition. Personal egos and interests led to divisions and weakness.
Episodes such as the decision of sectors of the opposition to participate in the elections for governor also played into the hands of Mr. Maduro. The purpose of creating a Constituent Assembly by referendum was to weaken the existing National Assembly, the Venezuelan legislature, which was controlled by the opposition. After opposition candidates won a few governorships through clear fraud, Henry Ramos Allup, former speaker of the National Assembly, urged elected governors from the opposition to take the oath at the Constituent Assembly, considered to be illegitimate by the entire opposition. Worse, it seems that Ramos Allup expected to be a candidate in the presidential elections, though it is not clear what leads him to believe Maduro will let him become president.
These tactics of negotiating with the government or trying to play by its rules were futile and led to Maduro’s manipulation of the opposition.
Though the opposition’s flaws have had a demoralizing effect, this had little to do with Maduro’s ability to keep his position secured. Maduro is in power because he has set the foundations of his regime on the military; he controls the means of violence. Since Hugo Chavez’s rise to power, the regime has established an alliance with the armed forces, who have been used to provide coercive power to the revolution. Indeed, through Venezuela’s riches, the army was successfully coopted. The regime purged officers deemed disloyal to the revolution and replaced them with new ones. The loyal Venezuelan Armed Forces now control not only the weapons of the nation but also parts of the Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), the Venezuelan state oil company, the mining industry and the food distribution business. The military also has control of parts of the banking, transportation, and drinking water sectors. Of course, high-ranking military and security officers are involved in drug trafficking with the approval and complicity of the government.
It is for this reason that so many voices, that include intellectuals and activists, today are pondering a foreign military intervention to depose the regime. One example is Venezuelan Harvard Professor of Economics Ricardo Hausmann who suggested this kind of solution, citing the impossibility of solving the problem through negotiations or elections. Hausmann is absolutely correct to believe that the Venezuelan government will never agree to relinquish power. However, that proposal has some shortcomings as well. Hausmann proposes a military intervention by Latin American, North American and Europeans with U.N. Security Council approval. Militarily speaking, Hausmann takes inspiration from the relatively uneventful U.S invasion of Panama and deposition of its ruler Manuel Noriega almost three decades ago. However, there is no point of comparison between the two. In Panama, the operation was quick and offered minimal resistance. In Venezuela, a military intervention would generate resistance among the well-armed Venezuelan army. Such confrontation would cause casualties on both sides, a development that will bring back the ghost of Iraq and most likely generate mass protests in the United States. Therefore, I would suggest an alternative.
The international community by and large has been hesitant to impose heavy sanctions on Venezuela. International sanctions so far have been imposed on a handful of individual military officers at the initiative of the Trump Administration, followed most recently by the Europeans. However, this is not enough. It is crucial that sanctions be reinforced and imposed on the entire military and security apparatus regardless of rank or measure of individual responsibility. Furthermore, such an embargo should also be imposed on the entire Venezuelan oil industry and on everything that is state-owned.
As starvation spreads in Venezuela, it will most likely eventually begin to affect the lower sectors of the army or family members and friends of military officers. In fact, despite the increases in salaries the military receives, soldiers were recently photographed digging through garbage in search of food. A unit posted in Caracas complained of hunger through social media.
These measures should be intended to encourage rebellion and dissent among the armed forces, the key institution that sustains the regime. If this option does not work, it would be possible to resort to a semi-military operation. In that case, international forces would impose a siege on Venezuela through a naval blockade. Such blockade would prevent Venezuela from selling its oil to other countries. However, international forces should not land in Venezuela or even sacrifice one single soldier. Instead, they should provide incentives to the Venezuelan armed forces to dessert the Maduro regime and rebel against it.
The operation proposed would require support from Latin American presidents, who have been mostly hesitant to take serious measures against the Venezuelan regime. Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro stands alone as the only moral voice in the region while Latin American leaders hide behind empty words and futile calls for government-opposition negotiations, such as the ones currently taking place in the Dominican Republic. The ultimate removal of the Maduro regime is not just a humanitarian duty; it is matter of regional security.