30 January 2019

What is Next for Venezuela?

The scale of Venezuela’s economic collapse and its subsequent humanitarian crisis is well documented. Once Latin America’s wealthiest country, Venezuela has experienced a total economic, political and societal collapse almost unseen in the modern world.  Since 2014, economic output in Venezuela has fallen by nearly 60%, a greater decline in economic output than Zimbabwe experienced during its economic collapse during the mid-2000s.  Worse, the government’s misguided economic and monetary policies have fueled inflationary pressures not seen since the hyperinflation of post-war European countries in the 1920s and 1940s, with the country’s actual rate of inflation now estimated to be more than 1,300,000%.  Add to this the almost-complete lack of basic goods such as foods, medicines and household products, and it is no surprise that Venezuela’s economic collapse has led to an exodus of that country’s citizens, with more than three million Venezuelans having fled abroad over the past four years.

Few would claim that the world is currently blessed with a crop of outstanding political leaders, but no country is more cursed with their current group of leaders than Venezuela.  While much of the blame for Venezuela’s collapse goes to former President Hugo Chavez, he at least had a degree of charisma and political know-how that allowed him to remain a highly-popular leader within Venezuela, even amid a great deal of economic volatility.  Unfortunately for Venezuela, the death of Hugo Chavez resulted in his Cuban advisors placing their puppet, Nicolas Maduro, in the presidency, a move that spelled doom for Venezuela.  Not only does President Maduro lack any of his predecessor’s charisma, but he has absolutely no idea about how to rescue his country’s economy. Instead, he had focused his efforts on cracking down on Venezuela’s political opposition and strengthening his own grip on power.  After rigging last year’s presidential election, President Maduro was recently sworn in for a second term in office.  However, the increasingly desperate economic situation in Venezuela, and President Maduro’s own hapless leadership, has allowed the embattled political opposition to sense an opportunity to finally mount a serious challenge to their country’s leadership.

One of the leading reasons why the political opposition feels so empowered is the fact that the international situation has changed, with a range of new forces lined up against President Maduro.  For one, the United States, a country that has a long history of intervening in Venezuelan affairs, is once again focused on the situation there.  Not only is the US concerned about China’s and Russia’s growing presence in Venezuela, but US President Donald Trump has taken an active interest in the removal of President Maduro.  In the past, most Latin American countries would have been opposed to US calls for the ouster of one of their leaders.  However, new right-leaning governments in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and elsewhere have resulted in a major shift in opinion on Venezuela’s left-wing government.  In particular, Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly called for President Maduro’s ouster, and he is keen to win favor from President Trump.  At the same time, the refugee crisis that has seen millions of Venezuelans flood other Latin American countries has galvanized opposition to the Maduro regime.  In contrast, President Maduro’s allies in the region are all weaker states, while its overseas backers are far away, and could be cut off from Venezuela should the United States choose to do so.

In previous years, calls from the United States or other countries in the Americas for the use of military force to remove Venezuela’s government were met with both widespread opposition and a lack of credibility.  However, the United States has stepped up its calls for military intervention in Venezuela, and the US now has allies in Brazil and Colombia that are calling for the same thing.  As such, not only is a formidable international coalition lined up against President Maduro, but it also has the resources to carry out such a threat, and has strategic locations nearby to launch such an intervention.  As Venezuela’s economic collapse continues unabated, and as millions of additional potential refugees prepare to flee their homeland, the threat of military intervention will only increase.  With US firepower and Latin American manpower (and bases), President Maduro must realize that his grip on power is more tenuous than ever.

Of course, a military conflict in Venezuela would be devastating for an already-battered country.  While there is little doubt that a foreign intervention would be successful in ousting President Maduro, there are serious doubts that a prolonged conflict could be avoided.  Moreover, the post-war rebuilding of Venezuela’s economy will prove very costly and would place a great burden upon any occupying force that would be involved in the proposed regime change in Caracas.  As such, the international community should do all it can to remove President Maduro without having to resort to the use of force. This could include a blockade of Venezuela to keep its allies from reinforcing the Maduro regime, and efforts to convince the president to go into exile (likely in Cuba).  If these efforts fail, than the international community might find itself facing the difficult choice between an unprecedented refugee and economic crisis in the region, and a full-blown invasion of Venezuela. Unfortunately, it appears that the situation in Venezuela is likely to become even worse before it becomes better, to the detriment of the citizens of that country.