by Andrés Carranza Betancourt
The situation in Venezuela has escalated to unprecedented levels in the last few months. It reached its zenith this week, when a mob loyal to the socialist Chavista president, Nicolas Maduro, stormed the National Congress building and badly injured several law makers. These despicable actions came in the midst of a heated national debate of Maduro’s call for a Constituyente: a new Cuban-style constitution that would further concentrate power in the executive. With more than 91 protestors killed since April and an ongoing attempt to oust the current Attorney General by the nation’s highest – and highly politicized – court, it is up to the United States to save the South American country from utter destruction or large scale civil war.
“The United States holds the keys to resolve the crisis in Venezuela. America’s inaction in the matter strengthens the Maduro regime, but involvement might prove decisive.”
The situation in Venezuela is not new. Since 2014, many have taken to the streets, demanding an end to government corruption, violence and the scarcity of medicines and basic goods – conditions exacerbated by the Chavista mismanagement of oil revenues and ill-conceived socialist policies. Food shortages and sky-rocketing inflation have caused Venezuelans to lose an average of 19 pounds. The Military and National Bolivarian Guard (GNB) have brutally repressed protestors. Opposition leaders have been jailed and civilians tried in military courts. On July 8th, Leopoldo Lopez, the most prominent political prisoner, was released from the Ramo Verde Military Prison and placed under house arrest. Lopez’ trial was a “farce”, according to the prosecutor of his own case. However, as Jose Miguel Vivanco, Director of Human Rights Watch for the Americas claims, it is likely that the government wants to “sell his (Lopez’) “liberation” as proof of an improving situation” in Venezuela. Nonetheless, as Vivanco points out, there are more than 400 political prisoners and human rights abuses continue on a daily basis.
Engage the Organization of American States
The first step involves using the Organization of American States (OAS) to increase pressure on Maduro, a move that has failed in the past but still has potential. In late June, at a meeting of foreign ministers in Cancun, the OAS could not meet the minimum of 23 votes to issue a formal condemnation of the situation in Venezuela. The latter was calling for a reconsideration of Maduro’s Constituteyente as well as proposing a group of OAS members to act as mediators in a new national dialogue initiative. Fourteen of the members proposing such condemnation, accounting for more than 90% of the population of the Americas, also demanded the liberation of political prisoners and a halt of government repression. The Maduro Administration sent a sharp message to the international community: it is not willing to sit down and talk.
The members who abstained from voting are mainly Caribbean and Central American beneficiaries of Venezuela’s petro diplomacy. Nonetheless, as the Spanish newspaper El Pais notices, it was not promises of cheap oil that kept these nations under the Venezuelan sphere of influence, but reminding them of the millions of dollars they owe in debt to the South American country. Antigua and Barbuda, who after promising support decided to abstain, along with the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Granada and Barbados, who also abstained, owe $2.1 million to Venezuela. El Salvador, who orchestrated Venezuela’s defense in the session, owes her $900 million USD.
Clearly, the 10% effectively defeated the intentions of the 90% and a country that is broke still manages to exert a greater influence in the region than the United States. The United States the only other country that has enough leverage to counteract Venezuela’s role in the Americas. As David McKean and Michael J. Camilleri from Foreign Policy express, Washington should “showcase” its “recently released” Caribbean Strategy. The latter strategy would encourage “private sector led-growth and job creation”, reduce energy costs through diversification, regulatory reform and public-private partnerships and maximize partnerships in health and education”. This strategy must be contingent upon Caribbean support in American efforts to condemn the situation in Venezuela. A “you are with us or against us” message would at least give Caribbean nations something to think about before they align with a regime that frequently violates human rights.
Countries like El Salvador, who not only abstained from voting but also lead the charge in favor of Venezuelan diplomatic efforts, have much to lose from an eroding relationship with the United States. Washington must make this clear. El Salvador benefits from the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, an effort to curb Central American immigration to the United States by improving local economic and social conditions with the support of American money. A few days before the Cancun OAS session, the Salvadoran delegation was smiling in the most cynical way possible at an Alliance for Prosperity meeting in Miami. Little was known of the Central American nation’s intentions in defense of Maduro.
As with the Caribbean countries, the United States must make aid conditional upon support of democracy and the strengthening of institutions in Venezuela. Likewise, and entering into the touchy subject of immigration, Washington could use the pending renewal of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS), to which tens of thousands of Salvadorans are affiliated, as an effort to make El Salvador comply, either as a carrot or as a stick. With Maduro using his bargaining chips to maintain his perverse regime intact, the United States could do the same in the name of democracy and the rule of law. It already has the support of important allies like Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, amongst others.
“Everything is up to Washington’s will power.”
The State Department has a lot on its plate at the moment – an existential threat from North Korea and an escalating Gulf Crisis, to name a few. It is totally comprehensible that it might choose to leave the Venezuelan matter for another day. However, the Trump Administration is in need of a decisive victory, and the Venezuelan crisis can be addressed with less diplomatic capital than the Gulf Crisis. The presence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is imperative to resolve the crisis. His failure to attend the Cancun meeting sent a message to the Venezuelan proxies of the level of American commitment to the situation. Likewise, Washington faces a unique opportunity to assert dominance after years of declining influence in its own backyard. With more American-friendly governments in Argentina, Brazil and Peru, it will be relatively easier for Washington to make a diplomatic comeback.
Last and certainly not least, American intervention in the crisis could be a matter of national security. Various Venezuelan high-ranking officials, including former President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello, are suspected of being involved in drug smuggling and currently being investigated. Vice-President Tarek El Aissami has been accused of playing mayor roles in international drug trafficking and the Trump Administration has imposed sanctions on him. Hence, it is the United States interest, as with Panamanian leader and drug-trafficker Noriega, to bring these individuals to justice.
Leverage the United Nations
The United States could simultaneously and/or alternatively pursue action vis-à-vis the United Nations. This would require a stronger diplomatic effort. First, Washington would need to make clear that the crisis is a matter of both security and human rights. It should encourage a UN Peace Keeping mission that would open a humanitarian channel and enable the flow of goods into the Venezuela. Such channel should be monitored and administered by the United Nations, eliminating any chance of government and military corruption. The Peace Keeping mission should also work with both government and opposition leaders to establish a dialogue, assuring the safety and participation of members of the opposition in particular, who as we have seen, are vulnerable to life-threatening violence. A United Nations team should also lead an investigation into the regime’s human rights abuses, as if it were preparing for an international tribunal or truth and reconciliation commission. The establishment of the latter, I believe, should be a matter of discussion for the parties involved in the negotiations. However, possessing the findings of such investigation can increase the opposition’s leverage when discussing with a government that has complete control of the nation’s security forces.
Additionally, the American delegation, under the strong leadership of Ambassador Nikki Haley, should propose an arms embargo to Venezuela until violent repression ceases to force Maduro into negotiations. Such proposal however is likely to face initial opposition from both Russia and China on the Security Council. Venezuela is a powerful ally for both countries in the region – an ally who owes both a significant amount of money. In February, Reuters reported that Venezuela had fallen behind on oil-for-loans deals with both Russia and China, who together have extended at least $55 billion in credit to Venezuela. As the famous J. Paul Getty quote goes “owe the bank $100 that’s your problem. Owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.”
“Venezuela’s failing economy, combined with falling oil prices, makes debt payment even more unlikely and has echoes of past Latin American debt crises.”
The situation in Venezuela is in no way similar to that of Bosnia in the 1990’s. Protests are peaceful and there is neither civil war nor ethnic cleansing. Nonetheless citizens are running out of patience. A couple of weeks ago, a stolen helicopter piloted by dissident police officer Oscar Perez attacked the Supreme Court building with grenades in a clearly defiant action against Maduro. Tensions are starting to boil. Unlike Bosnia, the UN has the opportunity to intervene in a crisis and actually maintain peace before both sides start shooting at each other.
Strengthen sanctions and consider unilateral intervention
The United States can also choose to act alone. If that is the case, it could impose sanctions against the Venezuelan oil sector. As Reuters reported, Washington is ready to do so in case the situation “escalates”. How to measure a crisis’ escalation however, remains unknown. Sanctions on the oil sector could range from banning Venezuelan oil imports to preventing PDVSA – Venezuela’s state-owned oil and natural gas company – from trading and doing business. Such measures would attempt to suffocate the regime’s main revenue source and thus force Maduro into the negotiation table. The effectiveness of such a measure, however, is unclear. Sanctions would twist the knife on the Venezuelan economy, the burden falling on the Venezuelan people and not the regime. Moreover, such a move would give credence to Maduro’s anti-imperialistic rhetoric, turning him into some sort of patriot amongst his supporters and legitimizing his actions.
But Maduro would be wrong. Since 2014 Venezuelans have been facing massive shortages that have been created and exacerbated by Maduro’s disastrous policies, such as price controls and constantly playing with the exchange rate. The regime nonetheless has been enjoying a quality of life far superior to the average Venezuelan. According to the newspaper ABC, Maduro and Chavez’ two daughters spend a combined 2.6 million Euros on a daily basis, money that comes from the State’s checkbook. Hence, Maduro’s lavish lifestyle comes directly from oil revenues, as the latter account for 95% of export revenues. Sanctions on these revenues will have a direct impact on the President’s personal finances and not on the Venezuelan people, since their situation has reached rock bottom.
The American response should always seek dialogue, negotiations and the ultimate goal of re-establishing free and fair elections – under international monitoring – in Venezuela. Any form of military intervention should be avoided unless there is substantial incriminating information against President Maduro himself, such as there was against President Noriega of Panama. What is certain though, is that the United States has the power to solve the Venezuelan crisis, this time intervening in the name of democracy and human rights.
Andrés Carranza Betancourt is a passionate learner in an exuberant world. He was born and raised in El Salvador and attends Bates College where he Double Majors in Politics and Economics and is part of the institution’s debate team. He has written various political articles in his home country for nationally-acclaimed newspapers and is an avid football fan (and refuses to call the sport soccer). Andrés enjoys a good time with family and friends and is committed to his country’s progress.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.
The cover photo was taken by María Alejandra Mora in 2014 of protests in Venezuela and is under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. The photo of Nicolás Maduro was taken by Hugoshi in 2015 and is under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. The photo of Nikki Haley at the HRC was taken by the UN Mission in Geneva and is under a CC BY-ND 2.0. The photo of empty shelves in Venezuela is in the public domain.