The Crisis in and around Venezuela – and what might be done about it
Venezuelans cross the Simon Bolivar bridge linking San Antonio del Tachira, in Venezuela with Cucuta, Colombia, to buy basic supplies on 16 July, 2016. Photograph: George Castellanos/AFP/Getty Images
The CDA-Institute – https://cdainstitute.ca- carried a link to this piece in its newsletter of 1 November.
The burgeoning meltdown in Venezuela has several dimensions, all of them important for anyone concerned about the political health of the Americas and how this can impact on international politics more generally.
A Multi-dimensional Crisis
Venezuela, never a robust democracy, has been on a de-democratizing spiral since 1998 when Hugo Chavez took power, a process that has accelerated since his death in 2013 and his succession by Nicolas Maduro as President. Note that in an earlier life, Maduro underwent training as a political organizer and agitator in Cuba.
A second dimension is that under Chavez and Maduro, Venezuela – a country that could once boast of being one of the richest in Latin America owing to its huge oil and gas reserves – has become an economic basket case, in large part owing to colossal governmental mismanagement, inspired by a neo-Marxist approach to governance.
Thirdly, Venezuelan misgovernment has been hugely destabilizing for its region. Since 2015, some two million Venezuelans have fled their country, more than five percent of the population. Cumulatively, the numbers are greater than those of the 2015 wave of migration into the European Union. that has had huge domestic political implications, in particular sparking a rise in the fortunes of extremist parties in countries as diverse as Germany, Italy and Sweden. The capacity of such states as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil to receive, shelter and integrate these refugees is incomparably more limited than that of any European state.
And then there are the International implications. Cuban security actors are a key bastion of the Venezuelan regime. A recent article in Diario de Cuba asserts that Cuban security personnel, together with Russian and Chinese elements, have been supporting efforts on the part of the Maduro regime to stare down their regional opponents. In particular, they have been said to be involved in the maneuvers recently organized by Venezuela along its western border with Colombia. The Secretary General of the Organization of American States has gone on the record as saying that Cuba has placed 22,000 members of its own security forces in the those of the Venezuelan security sector. A number of former leading South American politicians at a conference in Miami have called Venezuela a narco-state.
What can be done?
There are several options.
The prevailing approach is to denounce the regime and call for it to return to the democratic mainstream, engaging in a political conversation with the opposition. This sends an important message, but it is unlikely in and of itself to engender any serious improvement in the situation in Venezuela. Once an authoritarian regime is ensconced, it takes a foreign policy catastrophe (France in the wake of its failed war against Algeria) or a serious challenge from outside the country (the Allied attack on the Hitler regime in World War II) to spawn a different dynamic. Countries with a terminally-ill economy such as is the case of Venezuela can hang on for decades. We know this from the sorry experiences of North Korea and Zimbabwe, just two examples among too many.
External Military Action
A second approach is to mount an external military action to overturn the Venezuelan regime. This was recently acknowledged by the chief of the Organization of American States, cited above, as something not to be excluded. President Trump has also evoked this possibility. But, this should only be envisaged as a very, very last resort. In the current situation, any external military action into Venezuela would require a leading role for US forces. Yet US-led military interventions in a range of countries in recent years – in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya- have tended to make a difficult situation worse. There is very little reason to believe that a US-led military intervention in Venezuela would end up being any different, in particular because of the American imperialist legacy in the region.
And then there is Spain that has also sought to play a leading role in the Venezuelan imbroglio. Its complicity also raises serious problems. Because of its past as a colonial power, it is loath to advocate any robust action whatsoever in the region. At the same time, Spain seems to have a stranglehold on the approach of the European Union towards Latin America, a tendency that has been accentuated under the current minority government in Madrid, supported in part by political forces ideologically allied to the Maduro regime. The latest out of Brussels is that it will maintain its regime of limited sanctions against the Maduro regime but establish a working group to explore the pros and cons of dialoguing with Caracas, a sop to the current Spanish government that will not resolve anything.
A third option is a humanitarian intervention. This is a more promising approach, but one that is checkered with a series of tough issues such as who would be involved, who would lead it and where the intervention would be centred.
A humanitarian intervention, to be effective in the Venezuelan context, would have to be multilateral with a strong regional component. The recent declarations by the five South American states and Canada that lodged a complaint with the International Criminal Court against the Venezuelan state suggest that a multilateral demarche involving these states might offer a viable path forward.
Such a multilateral intervention would have to take place outside Venezuelan territory, within Colombia, alongside its eastern border with Venezuela. The enclave thus established could provide Venezuelans with food and medicine, which are sorely lacking under current conditions in their country and provide schooling for their children. It could stem the mass exodus from Venezuela throughout the region and create a sanctuary that could provide a safe environment for opponents of the Maduro regime to assemble, organize and develop an alternative vision for their country.
The Advantages of a Humanitarian Approach
As the humanitarian action would be located in Colombia, it would not represent a direct military threat to Maduro, undercutting his oft-voiced argument that Venezuela’s problems are a result of the aggressive actions of other states.
At the same time, it would increase the capacity of neighbouring states to deal with the crisis. Co-financing and co-protecting an enclave in eastern Columbia would be less expensive and potentially more stabilizing than the prevailing individual national approaches.
Such an action could furthermore help stabilize a region of Colombia where its central government has traditionally been weak in the face of rebel factions such as the FARC and the ELN, rebel groups that since the mid-1960s have terrorized large parts of Colombia.
It would also send a message to the Cuban regime that it cannot safely continue to export its revolutionary nonsense abroad with impunity. It could help produce a situation in which the sixty-year long dictatorship on the Island would finally be confronted with a clever, multilateral riposte – i.e, unlike what has been the traditional US approach. The Cuban dictatorship of a few hundred families over Cuba’s eleven million people and its desperate efforts to extend its lifeline with foreign adventures needs to be countered for once and for all: make Venezuela to Cuba as was Afghanistan to the Soviet Union.
Such an intervention would also send a message to the Russians and Chinese to the effect that they cannot without serious cost take advantage of the situation in Latin America to their exploitive ends. These two revanchist powers have been using the crisis in Venezuela in an effort to create a security headache in America’s back yard that will decrease its ability to intervene in their respective near abroads. That said, their roles in Venezuela are that of spoilers. They will not shed blood for Maduro, at least not under prevailing strategic conditions.
Any humanitarian action such as advocated above would have to consider recent decisions on the part of the UN to bolster its efforts to address the crisis. But these efforts can only go so far in view of the veto power of Russia and China in the Security Council. Then, there would be complicated legal and financial issues for a frontline state such as Colombia in agreeing to establish a humanitarian corridor. I expect, however, that they pale in comparison with the challenges that Colombia and other regional states may have to contend with if their approach remains national.
Crucially, a humanitarian intervention would send a signal to the Venezuela opposition to Maduro that there is another way forward: namely, that there are several countries that are prepared to take concrete action to support their beleaguered people. This could be a game changer.
And Canada in all this?
Canada has played a leading role in regional efforts to organize resistance to the Venezuela dictatorship, in particular through its activities as part of the Lima Group. At the same time, Canada needs to seriously step up its efforts on behalf of the region. This is a not only a moral imperative. Canadian politicians should note that its role in the region will also determine how the country’s growing Latino community will vote in future federal elections.
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