Magann: How to Intervene?

Venezuela demands action, but it also demands caution.

by Matthew Magann | 6/21/19 2:40am

The situation in Venezuela is dire. Beset by years of mismanagement, the country now faces economic and social crisis. Over four million have fled Venezuela. Shelves are empty at grocery stores. Power outages flicker across the country as hospitals struggle to operate medical equipment — not that the hospitals have much access to basic medication anymore. 

Perpetuating this humanitarian catastrophe is Nicolás Maduro, the authoritarian ruler of Venezuela and an avowed champion of the “Bolivarian Revolution.” In practice, that revolution has combined ineffective economic and social policies with a brutal crackdown on opposition. Venezuela, once the richest nation is Latin America, is now in economic, social and political crisis.  

Amid Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency, the opposition has reasserted itself, with Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, declaring himself the interim president and challenging Maduro’s legitimacy. The U.S., along with the majority of Latin American countries, quickly took Guaidó’s side, recognizing him as president of Venezuela and calling on Maduro to step down. Over the following months, the U.S. floated the threat of military intervention against the Maduro regime. The U.S. is right to consider action in Venezuela; the Venezuelan government manipulates elections, suppresses opposition and fails to provide for its people. But direct military intervention isn’t the solution.

The U.S., in conjunction with its Latin American allies, should continue to support Guaidó’s efforts to depose Maduro, while providing humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan people. However, historical precedent in the region combined with the increasing role of sphere-of-influence politics makes military intervention a risky move, a risk too great for a humanitarian intervention not directly tied to America’s national interest.

According to a survey conducted last November, 63 percent of Venezuelans supported a negotiated settlement to remove Maduro; when asked about foreign intervention to remove the leader, however, only 35 percent voiced support. At least some of that difference likely stems from memories of past U.S. interventions in Latin America. America’s track record in the region is an unfavorable one. The U.S. has launched dozens of interventions in Latin America, some of them brutally realist Cold War moves against elected left-wing leaders in favor of right-wing dictators. The most infamous case was the U.S.-backed overthrow of Chile’s President Salvador Allende, a member of the Socialist Party, in favor of the brutal right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet, who the U.S. supported due to his pro-market, pro-American policies. 

The shadow of these interventions looms large over the Latin American consciousness. It allows Maduro to conspiratorially blame the U.S. for “trying to fabricate a crisis to justify political escalation and a military intervention in Venezuela,” and as the polling data suggest, it disincentivizes Maduro’s opponents from seeking foreign intervention.  

The optics of the U.S. forcibly overthrowing a left-wing Latin American leader are fantastically bad. So bad, in fact, that they would likely spark voter backlash from the U.S.’s Latin American partners in the pro-Guaidó coalition. If Latin American politicians cast a humanitarian military intervention as imperialism — and they likely would — then the removal of Maduro would likely face stiff resistance and threaten a protracted insurgency.

If that weren’t enough, power politics has now claimed a stake in the Venezuelan crisis. Russia supports the Venezuelan regime, providing Maduro with bomber airplanes, ground troops and political support. China too has come to the assistance of the Venezuelan government. The involvement of America’s rivals gives the U.S. a stronger strategic interest in dictating the outcome of Venezuela’s crisis, irrespective of the humanitarian situation. That fact further opens the U.S. to accusations of self-interest disguised as humanitarianism. And that makes humanitarian intervention even more infeasible.

There is a time and a place for humanitarian intervention. In select cases — say immediate prevention of a genocide — the U.S. should intervene. Ultimately though, Venezuela is not a clear-cut problem: forcibly deposing Maduro’s government is unlikely to resolve the crisis. Military intervention might eliminate the regime, but it would compromise the legitimacy of any successor government. If the U.S. wants to help Venezuela, it should avoid the kneejerk reaction of military intervention and instead focus on more effective, less-costly measures. 

We should support the Venezuelan people as they call for fair elections and an end to dictatorship. We should offer humanitarian assistance to a country wracked with shortages. But we should not use military force to depose Maduro. Tempting as it is to quickly move and eliminate the regime, military intervention would compromise the opposition’s legitimacy and threaten to turn the crisis into all-out war. Simply put, the best strategy for Venezuela is to help the Venezuelans help themselves.