Should the United States Attack Venezuela?

President Nicolás Maduro speaking at a meeting with government ministers in Caracas, Venezuela. Credit Reuters
President Nicolás Maduro speaking at a meeting with government ministers in Caracas, Venezuela. Credit Reuters

I was interviewing participants at a 2003 antigovernment protest in Caracas, Venezuela, when a woman approached me and put a United States-Venezuela crossed-flag “friendship pin” on my lapel. She then took a step back and, only half in jest, shook her finger at me, demanding to know why the United States had not invaded Venezuela to get rid of President Hugo Chávez as it had done with Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1989.

Indeed, the idea that the United States or some other foreign military force should come in and save Venezuela has been openly discussed since Mr. Chávez took power in 1999. But it has gained momentum in recent months as the government of President Nicolás Maduro has consolidated control and the toll of his dictatorial policies on average Venezuelans has become ever worse.

After the exiled opposition leader, Antonio Ledezma, escaped house arrest and fled Venezuela in November, he began calling not for “humanitarian aid” for the country but for “humanitarian intervention.”

And this month, Ricardo Hausmann, a Venezuelan economist at Harvard University, argued in an essay that the opposition-controlled National Assembly should impeach Mr. Maduro and pave the way for foreign military action to remove him. He also made parallels to the 1989 invasion of Panama and the relative success that country has had since Mr. Noriega was ousted.

These calls for military intervention were also given a boost by President Trump’s statement in August that the United States had a “military option” in Venezuela.

A military strike against Venezuela would be folly. Countries throughout the region and the United States still have significant leverage over the country — and they should use it. They should continue to pressure Mr. Maduro by deepening the current sanctions regime and by pushing for a diplomatic solution that will lead to legitimate elections.

Venezuela in 2018 is not 1989 Panama, and an invasion would not be a surgical strike. Mr. Noriega’s Panama had only 15,000 troops, and the United States had military bases all around the capital. And Panama, a country with fewer than three million people at that time, had a legitimate, already elected president waiting in the wings.

Venezuela has 115,000 troops, in addition to tanks and fighter jets. It is a country of 30 million people, about 20 percent of whom still support the Maduro government. These supporters have an ideology — anti-imperialist socialism — which serves to coordinate their efforts and helps to explain Mr. Maduro’s resilience.

Venezuelan leaders have also been preparing for “asymmetrical” warfare for more than a decade. And there is no chance that countries in the region would participate in an effort to topple Mr. Maduro — Brazil has already stated as much.

There are few good options for addressing the crisis. But while the Maduro government has the upper hand inside Venezuela, two external forces are putting pressure on the regime.

First, the most significant countries in the Western Hemisphere — like Brazil, Colombia, the United States and most of the European Union — do not recognize the National Constituent Assembly, a body created by Mr. Maduro to rewrite the Constitution and tailor the government to fit his needs. Members of the body were elected in July, despite a boycott by the opposition, but the lack of international recognition has weakened it, and little has been accomplished in the past five months.

Second, the “debt sanctions” levied by the Trump administration that prohibit United States citizens or institutions from buying or issuing new Venezuelan debt have hamstrung the Maduro government’s ability to raise new funds.

These factors are bringing the Maduro government to the negotiation table in the Dominican Republic, where the government and opposition met last week after meeting twice in December. The government wants the opposition to facilitate the lifting of sanctions and enable international recognition — this gives the opposition significant leverage.

In addition to the recent debt sanctions, for almost three years the United States has had targeted sanctions on Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses or corruption. Versions of this sanctions regime have been adopted by Canada, Mexico and the European Union. The increasingly multilateral character of sanctions makes them more effective.

The United States and its partners need to avoid the temptation to broaden the scope of the sanctions. Widening economic sanctions to an oil embargo, for example, would further harm a population that is barely hanging on. And such a broadening of targeted sanctions, which are supposed to drive a wedge between those who are sanctioned and those who are not, would dull their effect: If almost everyone is sanctioned, the unity of the Maduro government would be reinforced.

Instead, the American government and its allies should deepen the current sanctions. Tightening the screws on officials who are already sanctioned would be more effective than putting more officials on the list. Getting even more countries on board with existing sanctions would also sharpen their effect.

The sanctioning countries also need a more effective communications campaign. The United States should make clear that the Maduro government could issue new debt if it fully recognizes Venezuela’s democratically elected National Assembly and allows it to exercise its constitutional duties. Venezuelan officials need to know exactly how and when they could get out from under sanctions.

And perhaps most important, the United States, the European Union and the “Lima Group” — an association of 12 countries in the region led by Peru and Canada that are concerned with Venezuela’s slide into dictatorship — need to make clear they will not recognize a presidential election in 2018 without a new Electoral Council (the body that governs Venezuela’s elections) and without independent international observation.

Regime officials need to be held accountable for their crimes. But they are never going to let go of power if they think they will be thrown to angry mobs or extradited. There should be support for a program of transitional justice that addresses the victims’ needs while facilitating change.

The United States, the European Union and the Lima Group have an important role to play in addressing the Venezuelan crisis. But that does not mean they need to seek military solutions. Strategic politics and painstaking diplomacy provide the only constructive means of turning Venezuela’s dire situation around.

David Smilde is a professor of sociology at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

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