By Jeffrey Sachs / Francisco Rodríguez (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – It has been a month since Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly of Venezuela, declared that he assumed the powers of the Venezuelan presidency – currently in the possession of Nicolás Maduro – and the political crisis in the country is far from over.
The escalation of tensions has reached a point where the possibility of a declared civil war – an apparently unlikely scenario a few weeks ago – is growing. At least four people were killed and hundreds wounded in violent clashes at the borders of Venezuela, when government forces opened fire on opponents trying to get humanitarian aid shipments into the country.
The Maduro regime is authoritarian, militarized and willing to kill civilians to maintain power. A bitter division crosses the Venezuelan society, among the revolutionaries inspired by Hugo Chavez (the predecessor of Maduro) and a numerous opposition that feels overwhelmed.
Both sides despise each other. A difficult question of a practical nature arises: what can be done to move Venezuela away from a civil war and lead it towards a peaceful and democratic future?
In connection with this important challenge, the government of US President Donald Trump committed a serious miscalculation. When the United States recognized Guaidó as president of Venezuela – along with a group of Latin American countries – and prohibited the purchase of oil from the Maduro government, he was betting that the pressure would be enough to overthrow the regime. As a former US official said to the Wall Street Journal: “They thought it would be a 24-hour operation.”
These calculation errors stem from before the Trump government. In mid-2011, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should “step aside.” And in 2003, George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” shortly after the US invasion of Iraq. They are all examples of the arrogance of a superpower that time and again underestimates local realities.
Maduro’s ability to withstand intense US pressure is not surprising to those who closely observe the Venezuelan army. The centralized command structures of military intelligence, added to the personal interests of senior officers who control important segments of the economy, make a military uprising against Maduro extremely unlikely.
A US provocation can open a rift between military commanders and lower-ranking officers, but that would only increase the likelihood that the country will sink into a bloody civil war. So far, there were no defections among high-ranking officers with direct control of troops.
[pullquote]It is true that the United States can defeat the Venezuelan army, but it is possible to be aware of the atrocities of authoritarian regimes and at the same time understand that attempts to overthrow those regimes tend to end in catastrophe, as was the case in many of the US wars in the Middle East.[/pullquote]
Faced with the prospect that the regime change will not be fast, the Trump government and some sectors of the Venezuelan opposition have begun to think seriously about a military intervention.
With a terminology similar to that of a recent speech by Trump, on Saturday Guaidó wrote that he would formally ask the international community to “have all options open.” Meanwhile, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who has served as Trump’s self-appointed guru in reference to Venezuela, warned on Twitter that Maduro’s action had opened the door to “multilateral actions that only 24 hours ago were not on the table”.
Actually, it seems that Trump already had these ideas in mind some time ago. As the former interim FBI director, Andrew G. McCabe, recently revealed in his book The Threat, Trump said at a meeting in 2017 that he thought the United States should go to war in Venezuela; his words, according to McCabe, were: “They have all that oil and they are here right next to us”.
These comments recall a statement made by Trump in 2011, according to which Obama allowed himself to be “swindled” by not demanding half of Libya’s oil in exchange for US aid to overthrow the dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The military interventions of the United States are not solely due to economic and commercial interests. An intransigent attitude towards Maduro also has broad support among many US voters of Cuban or Venezuelan origin living in Florida (Rubio’s State), which will be a key battlefield in the 2020 presidential election.
Supporters of a US military intervention insist on mentioning Panama and Grenada as precedents of a rapid regime change led by the United States. But unlike those two countries, Venezuela has a well-armed army with more than 100,000 soldiers.
It is true that the United States can defeat the Venezuelan army, but it is possible to be aware of the atrocities of authoritarian regimes and at the same time understand that attempts to overthrow those regimes tend to end in catastrophe, as was the case in many of the US wars in the Middle East.
Even without military intervention, the policy of US sanctions, if continued, will only produce a famine. By cutting off the sale of Venezuelan oil to the United States and threatening to punish non-US companies doing business with Venezuela’s state oil company, the Trump government created one of the most punitive economic sanctions in recent history.
But instead of encouraging a blow, the fact of economically isolating a country that basically feeds on its oil revenues can plunge the entire population into hunger.
The neighbors of Venezuela and the international leadership must discard the American military option. Venezuela does not need a war, but a mediation so that there are new elections. It also urgently needs an interim political truce period in 2019 to end the devastating hyperinflation, restart food and medicine flows and reconstitute payrolls and electoral institutions for a peaceful and credible election by 2020.
A pragmatic solution could be for the current government to continue controlling the army and for opposition-backed technical personnel to take control of the finances, the central bank, planning, humanitarian aid, health services and foreign relations. Both sides would agree on a timetable for a national election in 2020 and a demilitarization, with international supervision, of daily life, with restoration of civil and political rights and physical security within the country.
This solution should be monitored by the UN Security Council. Chapter VII of the UN Charter stipulates: “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to peace, breach of peace or act of aggression” and shall take measures “to maintain or restore international peace and security”.
The Security Council is also the right environment from the pragmatic point of view, since the United States, China and Russia have financial and political interests in finding a peaceful solution in Venezuela. The three countries would not find it difficult to agree on a route to elections in 2020. It is encouraging that Pope Francis and the governments of Mexico and Uruguay have also offered to collaborate in a mediation that allows finding a peaceful solution.
Trump and other US leaders say that the time to negotiate has passed, and believe in a short and rapid war, if necessary. The international leadership – and above all, that of the Latin American countries – must open its eyes to the risks of a devastating war that can last many years and affect the entire region.