“… the present indictment represents a big improvement in the U.S. foreign policy decision-making process toward Maduro’s regime, allowing the deployment of U.S. warships in the Caribbean to stop the illegal drug market. But while this measure is a positive step forward, it does not take the matter in the quite right direction, that is, and has always been, designating the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) as FTO, as well as its most notorious members.”
n less than a decade, Venezuela went from a national crisis to a rapidly expanding geopolitical risk across the Americas. Nowadays, hyperinflation, political unrest, collapse of basic social services, and Human Rights violations have triggered massive population movements forcibly displacing migration flow that, according to the Organization of American States (OAS), may become the world’s largest in 2020. Internally, what started as a series of unattended political corruption cases—and at times conveniently dismissed rampant election frauds orchestrated by the once-official government—became a flagrant kidnapping of the national state through two simultaneous processes: the systematic politization of public institutions and the criminalization of political dissidents.
For years high crude oil prices allowed the Venezuelan regime to expand the Bolivarian Revolution across Latin America gaining allies and building an anti-American sentiment. In addition, the long-standing illicit drug economy was clearly taking place in accordance with Hugo Chavez’s agenda against the United States, bolstering drug-trafficking and terrorist funding to the latter’s enemies. This plan became instrumental after the oil-dependent and the once-mighty Venezuelan economy imploded in 2014 due to a series of external and internal factors ranging from plummeting oil revenues to mismanagement of the oil industry, high-level corruption, and embezzlement of public funds.
Facing national strife, mounting representation crisis, severe institutional disaffection, and driven by electoral compulsiveness, people of Venezuela entrusted their political future to a clumsy and compromised political class who won a key two-thirds majority in parliament in the election of 2015. Thus, the opposition coalition obtained the power to make significant changes based on their promises such as the appointment of the new National Electoral Council (CNE) —in order to avoid fraud in the next presidential election— the end of scarcity, the end of insecurity —by fighting organized crime and regime thugs—, and measures for controlling inflation.
None of these promises were kept. Instead of putting efforts into reaching these goals, this co-called opposition found ways to coexist with Maduro’s regime. This finally led to a failed state, ruled by diverse criminal and terrorist organizations, and located in an area of paramount geostrategic importance, especially for the United States.
History teaches us a lesson.
The present situation represents an enormous challenge for the U.S. in line with its goals to keep the region safe and free of communism. Regarding regional security, Jordan, Taylor, Jr., & Korb argue that the main concern for U.S. policy with respect to Latin America after the failed Bay of Pigs intervention in 1961 (…) has been to avoid a second Cuba. (1993: 447). Russia is still, without a doubt, a fundamental piece of this discussion for it continues to provide arsenal and strategic cooperation to help Maduro to stay in power. Influence operations continue to remain the cornerstone of Russia’s foreign policy.
During the Cold War, the attempts by the Soviet Union to draw many countries as possible in the Americas into its communist orbit concerned U.S. officials, and their response became adopted into regional security policy. Back in the 1960′, the assassination of Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic led to a reformist government headed by Juan Bosch, a progressive politician and close friend of Fidel Castro who founded and organized the PRD (Dominican Revolutionary Party) while in exile in Havana. Fearing a second Cuba in the hemisphere, the United States invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965.
The occupation of Grenada shared analogous characteristics. The internal division and split of the new JEWEL movement in 1983 (a Marxist-Leninist party) led to the arrest and execution of its leader Maurice Bishop, a Marxist charismatic politician -and friend of Castro’s- who seized power in 1979 by an armed coup against then-Prime Minister Eric Gairy. The resulting Revolutionary Military Council triggered the American occupation through operation Urgent Fury, aiming to neutralize the threat posed by the new Marxist regime to America while taking also into account Grenada’s geostrategic significance for maritime commerce in the Caribbean.
After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the U.S. gradually adopted a strategy focused on regional contingencies aiming to maintain regional stability as part of its foreign policy. Two years earlier, under George H. Bush’s presidency, General Noriega was indicted for charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. Following sanctions, Panama declared war on the U.S.—after Panamanian Defense Forces killed a U.S. military officer. The United States, claiming self-defense in a statement, addressed to the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of American States (OAS), invaded Panama in December 1989.
Alongside these and other related events, internal conflicts that befell the hemisphere during the last third of the twentieth century—along with major insurgent movements in Guatemala, Colombia, El Salvador, and Peru—led to the implementation of the U.S. assistance policy to those countries susceptible to revolutions and wars of insurgency. Despite these efforts to prevent a second Cuba in Latin America, what initially began as a coup in Venezuela in 1989 headed up by Hugo Chavez and backed by Fidel Castro, grew to a major threat to regional security following Nicolas Maduro’s rise to power in 2013.
A challenge like no other.
Maduro is a problem but not easily deposable—and he is certainly not alone—. In this time, Russia has asserted itself in the region through bilateral strategic agreements, which the country sees as an essential foreign policy aim to reduce U.S. influence in Latin America. U.S. reaction has been limited in many ways. It has been a while since the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo stated in February 2019 that, “Maduro’s days were numbered”. In fact, despite recognizing the Venezuelan regime as an imminent regional threat, the U.S. government’s efforts to keep the hemisphere secure have proven to be ineffective for several reasons.
Mainly three perspectives have arisen as solutions for this longstanding crisis. The first one is, a largely-proven ineffective and counterproductive “internal political solution” —‚based on the development of electoral processes and promoted by what seems to be a functional opposition to Maduro’s regime. It is intended to keep operating in a context where institutional guarantees are simply non-existent. The prove of it is the nearly thirty elections across a 21year period— which most of them of questionable results—have produced nothing other than conferring Chavez and Maduro the title of political opponents rather than public enemies.
The second is a diplomatic solution involving negotiations and a series of Norway-mediated dialogs between the two parties: Maduro’s regime and the opposition. This strategy intends to search for ideal conditions to install a peaceful transition whose conditions may lead to impunity for grave crimes.
The third involves the once-promising U.S. financial sanctions targeting high-ranked military officers willing to initiate an uprising against Maduro in exchange for a subsequent lifting of sanctions—an unfeasible plan due to three and equally significant aspects: time, logistics, and of course, political sabotage.
As a result, both public uncertainty and the need for urgency only gave rise to the well know statement all options are on the table. This was interpreted as a possibility for a military intervention allowing both Venezuelan politicians and the U.S. government to contain the onslaught of public opinion and to buy time—time Venezuelans do not have. For months, President Donald Trump, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, Special Representative for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, and even the U.S. Navy Admiral Craig Faller stated that all options were on the table. The question is: Are they really?
Means to an end.
Ousting Maduro is an arduous task—one that exceeds common approaches that focus on traditional political schemes. In simple terms, defeating Maduro’s regime by force means the exploitation of Venezuela’s political, economic, and military vulnerabilities—something that the U.S. cannot fully accomplish without a resistance force conducting insurgency activities within the country. The lack of such movement is a fundamental variable of this problem. Considering this, and having previous interventions as a reference, invasions and occupations seem to be unviable options.
Counterfactually, in the event of direct military intervention— the U.S. national security strategy would normally render assistance, directly or indirectly, to a resistance movement considering two equally important categories closely related to the national interest: feasibility and appropriateness. According to the Official US Army Special Forces Unconventional Warfare Handbook, Guerrilla Warfare, Resistance & Insurgency (2010), feasibility is dependent upon physical and human conditions of the environment, denoting that a weakened or unconsolidated government (…) a segmented population, and favorable terrain meet the criteria that allow for the creation and support of resistance or insurgency, whereas appropriateness, is dependent upon the characteristics of the resistance movement itself which must be cooperative with the U.S., ideologically compatible, and -of course- able to generate effective leadership. (1-5).
While we agree Maduro is leading a weakened regime, we should assume his strength resides in his ability to maintain his stranglehold on power, especially brute force on civil population and money to buy off consciences at home and abroad, as two elements that could hardly be counteracted by the rule of law. In addition, the notable absence of a resistance movement or an insurgent force capable of planning, organizing, and executing tactical strikes on Maduro’s regime seems to leave unconventional warfare out of the equation for now. Even the organization of such force, at this point, seems to be way too complex and cumbersome, considering for a moment the unreliable plan of training, arming, and sending back into the country the more of 1,400 deserters living in Colombia who were, at some point, planning to oust Maduro.
In this sense, the appropriateness dictates that the U.S. cannot afford to repeat the same failed strategy experienced during the Cuban intervention in 1961, adding to it a) the lack of trust of the military in the opposition political leadership (within Venezuela and abroad), and b) the insistence of the latest in accomplishing a “peaceful transition” searching for another electoral process facing a regime that has been antagonizing free institutions and transparency since the very beginning. Moreover, elections in Venezuela, as they currently stand, do not allow a peaceful transition leading to an eventual change of government that delivers on democratic reforms, necessary to stabilize the country.
Venezuela’s geography and warfare arsenal constitute another set of significant variables. Leaving aside for a moment the questionable capacity for mobilization and response of the Armed Forces due to the gas shortage, as Global Fire Power states: Venezuela counts 343,000 active military personnel, 38 jet fighters, 96 helicopters, 390 tanks, 600 armored vehicles, almost 200 artillery units, 36 rocket projectors, 4 frigates, 3 corvettes, 2 submarines, and 29 patrol vessels, disseminated in an area five-times-larger than Syria 916.445 km² (353,841 mi²) plus 71.295 km² (44,300 mi²) of territorial waters. Additionally, its intricate geography distributes population settlements across the country. All this circumscribed in a schema where terrorist organizations, private rogue corporations, organized crime factions, urban guerrilla cells, and common gangs compound consecutive outer circles of this thick and complex shield becoming elements powerful enough to dismiss the idea of a direct military intervention taking into consideration the cost-benefit analysis.
Nevertheless, giving the risk Castro-Chavism represents to U.S. national security and regional stability, phenomena such as the migration crisis, drug-trafficking, terrorism-financing activities, and Cuban-Venezuelan interference in internal affairs of almost all countries in the hemisphere, the solution could make its way through a military siege involving Colombia, Brazil, and, naturally, the United States.
During his recent meeting with President Donald Trump, Colombian President Ivan Duque emphasized the need to resume the efforts for destroying coca crops that have reached the highest ever recorded figure in September 2018 according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This necessarily brings into the equation joint efforts to neutralize insurgent groups and drug cartels which are an essential part of the Castro-Chavista criminal conglomerate. However, time plays against these and other resolutions, for the results projected for the forthcoming presidential election in 2022 could change the political game for both Colombia and Venezuela.
Accordingly, the presidential meeting between Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and President Donald Trump in March 2020,—along with Bolsonaro’s visit to the U.S. Southern Command in Florida to discuss the growing defense cooperation partnership— is univocally a joint effort aiming to increase pressure on Maduro through bilateral military cooperation. This maneuver may consist of the encirclement strategy, comprehending a naval blockade in the Caribbean as well as securing the air space traffic and land borders in both Colombia and Brazil in an attempt to strangle Maduro’s illicit economy sources and cut off his political mobility.
Regarding the oil trade, considering that Venezuela has been avoiding oil sanctions by using “invisible tankers” to secretly export its crude reserves thanks to “secret deals” between Moscow and Caracas, the blockade in the Caribbean could be particularly devastating for Maduro’s regime but not quite definitive based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea specifically referring to its Articles 19 (2) (a)(c)(d), 25 (1) (3), 30 and 95, which Maduro can use to dodge sanctions. In addition, the use of foreign aircraft to avoid potential air space sanctions could, at some point buy Maduro time to wait for the upcoming electoral process orchestrated by Venezuelan opposition amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
When diplomacy fails.
In anticipation of this scenario, one of the most significant developments took place on March 26th, 2020, when the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled narco-terrorism partnership charges against Maduro and fourteen of his officials in direct connection with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Like the National Liberation Army (ELN) —also operating in Venezuela under Maduro’s umbrella—, FARC has been labeled a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the U.S. Government. This designation came in October 1997 as the preamble of the now-extinct “Plan Colombia.”
The present indictment represents a big improvement in the U.S. foreign policy decision-making process toward Maduro’s regime, allowing the deployment of U.S. warships in the Caribbean to stop the illegal drug market. But while this measure is a positive step forward, it does not take the matter in quite the right direction, that is, and has always been, designating the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) as FTO, as well as its most notorious members.
In this respect, if the evidence corroborates Maduro’s association with FARC and ELN, as wells as with Hezbollah and Iran-related terrorist groups to conspire against the United States, the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT) could proceed to identify the PSUV as an FTO by proving the party’s engagement in “terrorist activities,” as defined in Section 212 (a)(3)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) (8 U.S.C. §1182(a)(3)(B)), or simply “terrorism,” as defined in Section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (FRAA), FY-1988 and 1989 (FRAA) (22 U.S.C. §2656f(d)(2)), and even for retaining the capability and intention to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism. Thus, when assessing entities for possible designation, CT “would look not only at the actual terrorist attacks that a group has carried out but also at whether the group has engaged in planning and preparations for possible future acts of terrorism or retains the capability and intent to carry out such acts”.
Facts are self-explanatory. Maduro’s motives to harm the U.S. are exponentially growing. It is enough to look into the “Libro Rojo del PSUV” (PSUV Red Book declaration of principles) to reveal the content of a section called “The Driven Forces of Bolivarian Revolution” stating that: “(…) the main enemy of the Bolivarian Revolution is the capitalist imperialism and its hegemonic power; the imperialism and the government of the United States (…)” something that should meet the criteria to determine to what degree Maduro’s regime is a threat to the U.S.
Nevertheless, designating PSUV as an FTO may raise many questions over U.S. support for Venezuelan opposition whose members, at the same time, are optimistic about establishing an emergency government composed by both the opposition and some members of the ruling party which may include Maduro himself—as denoted by deputy Jose Guerra during a recent interview with Vladimir Villegas, despite the opposition leader Juan Guaidó suggesting otherwise. This might become something like the “peace deal” with FARC forced by the former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, dismantling the U.S. efforts in combating Colombian drug cartels and left-wing insurgent groups.
Going to elections with Maduro or any other Chavista makes things much more complicated, for it is evident that, in the eyes of public opinion, it is much harder to prosecute and bring to justice a political opponent than a declared public enemy. This very inconsistency may become the centerpiece of the U.S. decision either to unilaterally implement the use of force through counter-terrorist strikes or simply to agree on Maduro’s conditions to negotiate his impunity, putting at stake the longstanding policy of not negotiating with terrorists, which has already been contested during the U.S. peace talks with the Taliban in February 2020.
It is well known these problems will go unresolved until they reach a critical point where, for lack of a better option, an unpopular decision must be made. Internally, Guaido´s popularity is dropping fast given his failure to dislodge Maduro from power through his ill-fated “cessation of usurpation,”, while all suggested institutional initiatives against Maduro have been exhausted with no visible results. The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, the R2P, the Lima Group, and others functionally limited institutions ended up proving to be blank rounds against the Venezuelan regime even taken into account the package of targeted economic and political sanctions that ultimately showed little capacity to become the essential means to an end. In light of the upcoming electoral scenario that offers no guarantees at all, the U.S. faces a dilemma about what should be done with Maduro, knowing that actions must be taken fast since all of the Regime’s weakest moments have been wasted so far.
Maduro is a ticking time bomb. Indictments against him and members of his inner circle have raised concerns among his closest allies. As might be expected the Kremlin said on March 27th (…) “narco-terrorism” charges (Against Maduro) were absurd, adding that sanctions on Caracas could become “a tool of genocide” amid COVID-19 health crisis. Russia keeps playing its card. Moscow upgraded its assistance to Maduro in September 2019 by dispatching regular troops to Venezuela aiming to secure strategic landmarks where mining and satellite communications are currently taking place, adding military force to the existing private militias such as Wagner Group (among others) and creating conditions for mutual deterrence with the United States, just like in Cuba during the missile crisis in 1962.
The termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is another variable America should consider seriously if the current administration doesn’t want to deal with the possibility of a nuclear disaster in the hemisphere that Maduro can use as a bargaining chip to get away with murder. Designating PSUV as FTO might keep Russia from providing (openly) weapons of such power to an officially recognized terrorist regime allowing at the same time to run counter-terrorist strikes on selected targets minimizing collateral damage, contrary to what Cuban dictator Miguel Diaz-Canel suggested on twitter projecting Venezuela as another Vietnam to the U.S. However, nobody wants to reach this point of no return. In short, the perils on unilateralism in an electoral year while struggling with health and economic crises may not be beneficial for the U.S. at all.
Meanwhile, Venezuela remains in a political stalemate. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Venezuelans is deciding on priorities that would benefit society as a whole. Citizens are dismayed by these sham elections that feel them worse off year after year. Facing fuel shortage (which the country experienced before at a lower level in 2002) and living in impoverished conditions, the defenseless population is facing this global pandemic while keeping an eye on the possibility of a political change at the time the special envoy to Venezuela Elliot Abrams, once again, announces that the U.S. is offering Maduro another chance, maybe the last one, to abandon the power, under conditions that remain in the dark.
Objectively, if any of the above-mentioned strategies intend to put Venezuela on a solid political footing and therefore be able to guarantee stability, the United States should prioritize National Security and commit to strengthening its position toward criminal regimes in Latin America. Along with Venezuela, both Cuba and Nicaragua are still common problems that need to be solved.