The administration of US President Donald Trump is not popular in Latin America. In both rhetoric and policy, it has – repeatedly – been more destructive than constructive. The slurs against Mexicans. Trump’s wall to fence out more Latinos. Pulling out of a Trans-Pacific Partnership that included Mexico, Peru and Chile. Attacking countries in the region for closer commercial relations with China. The unforgivable abandonment of the 800,000 mostly-Mexican young people – Dreamers – for the crime of having been brought to America by undocumented parents. It is rumored that Trump will not attend the April’s Summit of the Americas, a first-ever absence by a US president.
But there is a single, constructive exception to Trump’s negative slights towards Latin America. Venezuela. Convinced of the need for a new, more muscular policy towards Caracas, the administration imposed a combination of political pressures, financial sanctions and targeted penalties on key Venezuelan government officials and its closest collaborators. These are painful; US sanctions effectively prevent banks in many countries from dealing with key regime collaborators. Most importantly, the sanctions also emboldened other Latin America nations – acting as the Group of Lima – to issue some of the most strongly worded statements ever against a fellow Latin country.
The big question now is where to go from here? Trump’s national security advisors clearly have questions about next steps in pressuring Venezuela, even though few doubt the attractiveness of pushing harder.
Venezuela has become a narco-state, a full-fledged criminal enterprise. Never has so much richness been stolen so fast. Government’s factions are involved in deep corruption and illegal activities ranging from drug and human trafficking to illegal agriculture, mining and logging. These sparring blocs are unified by one thing: avoiding any negotiated settlement that removes them from power because this would make extradition of former government officials to the United States – the single most feared item – more likely.
Venezuela is also crumbling fast. As it spins out of control, the government is sliding into full-fledged authoritarian rule, relying on the help of outside actors, almost all of them US adversaries. Its freefalling economy depends every day more on China for billions to prop up the regime. Cuban intelligence still runs the security services. Russians and Iranians are discussing arms deals.
Politically, Maduro has moved to shut down all criticism. The government has legislated the opposition-controlled congress into oblivion through the illegal creation of a sham constituent assembly. Elections are now scheduled for the Spring, but most major parties are not participating. A highly criticized mediation effort by former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has failed abysmally after the government again spurned any effort to reform the electoral system. Zapatero has turned mediation into a bad word.
Last, Venezuela is a humanitarian catastrophe. Venezuelans spend hours every day in line at grocery shops with empty shelves and pharmacies bereft of medicines. Malnutrition is rampant. The humanitarian catastrophe comes in the context of the world’s highest crime rate and the world’s highest inflation rate. There is no end in sight to the misery.
So, what’s next? A lot has happened already. Most countries in the Lima Group have said they would not recognize the results of a new presidential election. The EU and Canada have issued strong sanctions against the Chavista government. The Trump administration’s sanctions help remind people of Venezuela’s injustices.
But, sadly, none of this will be enough to either sway the regime toward a new direction or to topple the government. Just when you think it cannot get worse, it seems that more misery is always possible in Venezuela. Elections will plow forward ending in a virtual coronation for Maduro, with a rump group of the already weak and divided opposition agreeing to participate in an electoral charade.
And, so, in April, with the presidential elections completed and Maduro reconfirmed, the international community will reach a key fork in the Venezuelan road. Will countries be willing to move to a higher level of confrontation? There are four scenarios – in ascending order of tension - of what heightened confrontation could look like:
1) The international community coordinates sanctions, seizures and suits; call this the ‘Triple S’ strategy. Global powers – meaning US, Canada, EU and Group of Lima – begin coordinating financial sanctions against key individuals, agreeing on seizing bank accounts, property and holdings of government leaders and collaborators and jointly bring suits against Venezuelan government officials and its enablers before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
2) The Group of Lima, the US and Canada push the OAS to invoke the democratic charter on Venezuela. Up to now, Venezuela’s petroleum assistance program functioned as a protective shield against diplomatic punishment. A coalition of leftist regimes and Caribbean island nations were enough to thwart OAS sanctions. Secretary General Almagro’s admirable criticisms of Maduro and the Chavista government never amounted to more than statements of opinion because they were not backed up by the organization’s Permanent Council. Today, Venezuela is such an embarrassment that a Permanent Council vote to invoke the Charter just might pass.
3) The United States takes far stronger action in the form of either of freezing the assets of CITGO, a Venezuelan owned US gas distributor or of a blanket prohibition on the importation of Venezuelan petroleum products. Either of these would no doubt rock the government to its core. But, oil sector sanctions would also utterly cripple the country, worsening the already grave humanitarian conditions. Any actions – whether prohibiting Venezuelan oil imports or freezing the assets of CITGO gas stations – would ratchet up the suffering in the country.
4) The United States begins preparations for an armed invasion of Venezuela. As farfetched as this sounds, it is not impossible. Trump is on the defensive as the investigation of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller moves forward. Losing the Republican majority in one or both Congressional houses in November’s election is possible. As a result, a military conflict with an easier opponent than North Korea may look appealing, notwithstanding Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s warning that a US intervention in Venezuela would be “catastrophic”.
The first and second choices build on expanding Venezuela’s isolation. The third and fourth options open dangerous new ground.
An economic attack against Venezuela’s oil industry means America would likely have to accompany sanctions with a humanitarian intervention. After bringing the country to its economic knees, the US would be now have to assume responsibility for putting it back together. Paraphrasing New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: “If you break it; you own it”. Of course, with two volatile leaders in Washington and Caracas, oil sector sanctions could lead to a tit-for-tat ratcheting in tensions that could lead to military confrontation.
Finally, President Trump needs to be careful if he thinks a military incursion is a cakewalk. From a military angle, Venezuela is a solidly armed state, with Cuban trained paramilitary militia hidden in population centers. Importantly, few of Venezuela’s feckless opposition leaders would support a US intervention.
Further, the US administration should not misunderstand a deep Venezuela fatigue amongst the continent’s democratic leaders for a green light. Faced with the choice of supporting either Venezuela’s government or unilateral action by Trump, huge swaths of Latin Americans will side with Venezuela. US-Latin American relations would go into a tailspin, nowhere more than in pre-election Mexico.
All this presages a sad year for Venezuela. US officials are likely to conclude that there are good reasons to do more and even better reasons to do nothing drastic. The United States will not opt for an all-out confrontation with Caracas. Sadly, this means little will change for the poor citizens of Venezuela.