Venezuela: Another Regime Change Disaster?

Venezuela has the potential to become a Latin American Syria unless the West, and particularly the United States, dials down the political, economic and military pressure imposed on it.  The country has seen the most transparent, aggressive attempts at regime change of any nation since Syria and the crisis is showing no signs of abating.  The level of instability and uncertainty cannot remain as high as it is without civil unrest and war ensuing.  Hawkish American neoconservatives and humanitarian neoliberals are unified in pushing a strained, counter-factual reading of the Venezuelan Constitution, with the goal of installing an American-backed, American-educated politician with very little experience and even less support from average (meaning non-wealthy and non-English speaking) Venezuelans.

With close to three hundred billion barrels of proven oil reserves and a high level of literacy, Venezuela should be a Caribbean Shangri La; instead, it more resembles a conflict-riven, third world country.  The reasons for this dichotomy are three-fold: a sharp decline in the price of oil, a corrupt, patronage system that uses graft and greed as tools of empowerment, and U.S. and Western sanctions designed to effect changes in policies that are exacerbating the very ills they are designed to allay.  

The oil price drop mainly points up the need of Venezuela to diversify its economy, not any inherent underlying deficiencies of socialism vis-a-vis capitalism.  Other countries like Norway and Russia have relatively successfully managed through the price drops with very different leaders and systems.  Rather than acting as spoilers, Americans should assist the Venezuelans in maximizing their resources’ potential and improving the lives of their citizens.  Instead, a Texan ex-oil company executive, President George Bush, chose to back an attempt at a coup d’état in 2002, rather than see a wealthy country allied with Cuba and Russia succeed in “our” hemisphere with a system that ostensibly prioritizes people over profits.

No one should deny that Venezuela has issues with corruption, ties to terrorists and illegal drugs (look where they are situated), as well as major incompetence on the part of its leaders.  Their current leader prepared for the Presidency by driving a municipal bus in Caracas. However, these are not casus belli for America.  Colombia sends us more drugs, Mexico more criminals and El Salvador and Honduras more refugees than Venezuela ever will, unless there’s a war, but we don’t sanction them to the point of starvation.  America could support economic development, transparency and good government initiatives rather than impose its preferred candidate, Juan Guiado, a solution that would respect Venezuelan sovereignty and avoid illegal interference.

America has a particular bone to pick in Venezuela owing to the aforementioned 300 billion barrels, a fact that was recently acknowledged in writing by National Security Advisor John Bolton.  Neoconservatives feel their oats enough under President Trump apparently to appoint convicted war criminals like Elliott Abrams to implement regime change policies, alongside the likes of well-intentioned, liberal billionaires like Richard Branson.  Branson’s cheap ploy to get publicity for the anti-Maduro interventionists (whose plan to invade Venezuela with a phalanx of 200 heavily-armed, treasonous soldiers was thankfully blocked by Colombia) fell flatter than an R Kelly comeback tour. 

Sanctions, begun under President Obama on the dubious grounds that Venezuela was somehow a threat to America’s national security, are causing extreme shortages of essential goods, hurting the very same people they are supposed to help.  The United States reaches for the blunt tool of sanctions almost every time it wants to punish a government that does not toe the American preferred policy line; and almost every time these financial and trade penalties have the opposite effect to the one desired. When sanctions and mis-readings of other countries’ Constitutions are not enough, Americans turn to covert intelligence assets of the kind who worked with Abrams to destabilize “enemy” regimes in Latin America in the 1980s.

The recent, fatal blackout in Venezuela follows a series of cyber attacks against Venezuelan websites and dark utterances from American officials that “all options” are on the table. Oddly, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio seemed to be aware of aspects of the blackout which were not public knowledge. One cannot help but wonder if a U.S.-backed opposition supporter or paid provocateur slipped a virus-laden USB into the SCADA for the hydroelectric plant that America helped Venezuela to build.  The Venezuelan government is certainly alleging cyber sabotage.  Was it that or just graft and incompetence and a lack of spare parts from sanctions?  We may never know the truth. 

Regardless, the crisis is becoming impossible for any government to manage, let alone one led by a breakdancing bus driver.  Maduro, for all his faults however, keeps making brilliant tactical moves such as allowing his opponent to return to Caracas against a court order and enjoy free communications and movement.  America should not underestimate Maduro.

Venezuela is on tenterhooks by day, dark in most places at night, and uncertain of its future at all times.  Its economy is in a shambles, U.S. diplomats are being called home from the country and the U.S. Southern Command is issuing Requests For Proposals for major military support activity in surrounding countries. This is how the war in Syria began; first covertly and then overtly, the United States muscled its way into a domestic situation where it thought it could overthrow an autocratic, though still elected, leader.

Will a match be lit by some party or another to set the whole country ablaze, like the Molotov cocktails thrown by Guiado’s people at trucks carrying food and medicine on the Culuca Bridge the other day?  We will have to wait and see.  And hope for patience from powerful people who are not accustomed to waiting.