LIMA, Peru — In the wake of last weekend’s bloodshed during the abortive attempt to deliver humanitarian aid across hunger-ravaged Venezuela’s borders, a United States-led military intervention appears increasingly possible.
On Sunday, Juan Guaidó, the man recognized as Venezuela’s interim president by Washington and most European and Latin American democracies, appeared to embrace U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated suggestion that the U.S. could send in the armed forces, tweeting that he was formally proposing to the international community that it have “all options open” – a euphemism widely understood to refer to the use of force – to help restore democracy in his homeland.
“Today’s events force me to formally propose to the international community that we need to keep all options open for liberating this country that fights and will continue to do so,” Guaidó tweeted. “Hope never dies, Venezuela.”
Yet talk of a U.S. intervention – which would face such huge geopolitical and logistical challenges that many observers regard the very notion as far-fetched – may actually risk undermining what is arguably the Trump administration’s greatest diplomatic achievement. The U.S. has forged an alliance of more than 30 countries against the self-styled “Bolívarian socialist” regime of Nicolás Maduro, who remains Venezuela’s de facto ruler, with control of the police and armed forces.
Rallying such an alliance is significant for a president with a reputation for gratuitously insulting allies and being so philosophically hostile to multilateralism that he has pulled the U.S. out of a series of international treaties and even questioned the need for NATO. Yet now the Trump administration’s saber rattling – along with events on the ground in Venezuela – could jeopardize this emergent sense of international solidarity with the Venezuelan opposition.
Speaking before the weekend’s violent confrontations, Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American dialogue, a Washington think tank, questioned Trump’s “posturing” and “trying to look tough.”
“Trump is not the best messenger to call for democracy in Venezuela, but in general the Trump administration has been on the right side of this issue, recognizing that it is the most urgent in the Western Hemisphere,” Schifter says. “My concern is that they (members of the Trump administration) aren’t really able to take advantage of this coalition because they have this over-the-top rhetoric and (issue) constant threats of invasion, and that doesn’t make our Latin American or European allies comfortable.”
Roberto Funk, a political scientist from the University of Chile, warns that Trump is unwittingly rubbing salt into historic Latin American wounds over U.S. interventionism in the region, including Washington’s past support for brutal right-wing dictators such as General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. None of the dozen or so Latin American countries calling for Maduro’s ouster advocate the use of force.
“There is no better way to concentrate minds in Latin America than with the threat of U.S. military intervention,” Funk says. “Trump has no sense of what that could mean for public opinion in Latin America or the backlash it could bring.”
Yet if the geopolitical consequences of a U.S. military adventure in the oil-rich South American nation could be problematic, they pale in significance to the challenges that any occupying force would face on the ground.
Defeating the Venezuelan military, which is widely viewed as a broken institution hopelessly compromised by nearly two decades of political interference, could be the least problematic. In a nation awash with guns and with a tradition of guerrilla warfare, the stiffer resistance could come from bands of heavily armed government supporters.
Yet the greatest challenge could come in managing Venezuela’s broken economy. A U.S. occupying force would suddenly find itself responsible for feeding 30 million Venezuelan citizens in a nation whose food supply system has collapsed, a scenario evoking the so-called Pottery Barn rule – “you break it, you own it” – once espoused by Gen. Colin Powell, the former U.S. general and secretary of state, about the consequences of invading Iraq.
There is, nevertheless, one place outside the Oval Office where the notion of a U.S. invasion is popular: Venezuela, or at least in some opposition-dominated corners of the country.
“A lot of Venezuelans want the (U.S.) Marines to invade,” says Rafael Osío Cabrices, a Venezuelan journalist who edits Caracas Chronicles. “They have this idea of Chuck Norris landing on the beach, a completely cinematographic idea of the Marines saving Venezuela. It is really very unrealistic.”
The American experience from fighting in Syria and Afghanistan is also guiding decision-making. “The Pentagon knows it is not just about bombing garrisons but about armed militants living amid the population, the ‘Talibans’ of ‘Chavismo’,” says Osío Cabrices, referring to the movement founded by Maduro’s predecessor, the late socialist leader Hugo Chávez. “You could expect asymmetric but ferocious resistance from them.”
For now the experts agree the best bet is to continue the diplomatic pressure on Maduro and his inner circle, including highly targeted economic measures and continuing the attempt to bring humanitarian aid, including food and medicines, into a country wracked by hyperinflation, widespread hunger and epidemics of preventable illnesses.
That includes the Trump administration’s decision to give Guaidó control of the income from oil exports – Venezuela’s only significant legal source of foreign currency. It also seeks to use the humanitarian aid to drive a wedge between Maduro and the Venezuelan military.
Osío Cabrices continues: “The problem is that the regime is now using the Venezuelan people as a hostage, but it’s a good strategy to try to break the chain of command within the regime. How many soldiers are willing to fire on their starving compatriots?”
Nevertheless, the clock is ticking for Guaidó and his international allies. After the failure so far to achieve a breakthrough with the humanitarian aid, and more than one month after declaring himself interim president, citing the Venezuelan Constitution and accusing Maduro of being a “usurper” for rigging his election victory, Guaidó has no concrete achievements to show to desperate Venezuelans.
At just 35, Guaidó is not viewed in his homeland as acting like a conventional Latin American “strongman.” His soft-spoken style “is an effort to remind you that a politician is a public servant, not your boss,” writes one Caracas Chronicles columnist enthusiastically.
Yet such support can only go so far. If Guaidó is to succeed, he will need the support of a sustained international effort, one in which new tactics are developed and in which the U.S. president would normally be expected to play a critical role.
Mexico, for example, in line with its historic commitment to “noninterference” in another country’s internal affairs is refusing to support Guaidó. Funk says a different U.S. president might still have been able to call on his Mexican counterpart, the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to host talks between the rival Venezuelan governments or act as a go-between. But that option may be closed to Trump given his record of harsh attacks on predominantly Mexican illegal immigrants in the United States, which have alienated Mexico’s entire political spectrum.
Whether Trump has the inclination or patience to persevere on that diplomatic front – rather than give speeches threatening military intervention – could now prove key to the success of any imminent democratic transition in Venezuela.