War would bring untold suffering to the country and a vanishingly small likelihood of the change Venezuela needs
By Gabriel Hetland
By declaring himself Venezuela’s president on Wednesday, Juan Guaidó has brought Venezuela to the edge of catastrophe. The hitherto unknown opposition leader’s actions, which appear to be closely coordinated with if not directed by the US, have set in motion a perilous chain of events.
The US recognized Guaidó as president minutes after his declaration. A number of Latin American nations, most with conservative governments backed by the US, have also done so. The growing list includes Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, and Paraguay. Canada and the Organization of American States have also recognized Guaidó. The European Union has reportedly considered such a step, but for now has instead issued a call for new elections.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has responded to these actions by breaking relations with the US and ordering US diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours. Guaidó, in turn, told US and other diplomats to stay, a message also put forward by Republican US senator Marco Rubio, a leading opponent of Maduro. The Trump administration is ignoring Maduro’s order, which a senior official called “meaningless.” Another senior Trump official has declared, “All options are on the table,” reiterating a message Trump himself has put forward since 2017.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. But a US invasion feels like a real possibility.
This course of action must be firmly rejected. This is not because Maduro deserves anyone’s support or sympathy. It is because of the untold suffering and damage US military intervention would bring to Venezuela and the region, and the vanishingly small likelihood such action could bring the change Venezuela needs.
Venezuela does, indeed, need change. The economic crisis ravaging the country since 2013 shows no sign of abating and has grown worse in the last 18 months. Severe shortages of food, medicine, and basic goods, alongside punishing hyperinflation, have driven an estimated three million Venezuelans to leave the country in recent years. The government has reacted by governing in an increasingly authoritarian manner.
The case against Maduro is easy to make. Yet it must be recognized that Venezuela’s crisis is not solely Maduro’s doing. The US government and opposition also share responsibility. The US has acknowledged that its sanctions could harm Venezuelans, with the following appearing in a November 2018 Congressional Research Service report:
Although stronger economic sanctions could influence the Venezuelan government’s behavior, they also could have negative effects and unintended consequences. Analysts are concerned that stronger sanctions could exacerbate Venezuela’s difficult humanitarian situation, which has been marked by shortages of food and medicines, increased poverty, and mass migration. Many Venezuelan civil society groups oppose sanctions that could worsen humanitarian conditions.
There is little doubt sanctions have worsened humanitarian conditions. The main reason is that harsher sanctions imposed in mid-2017 severely curtailed Venezuela’s ability to incur debt, and in so doing decimated Venezuelan oil production. This has lessened the public resources available to an increasingly desperate population. Far from being an accidental side effect, this seems to be one of the intents of US policy: make Venezuelans so desperate that they turn against Maduro. The inhumanity of such a policy is clear.
The opposition bears a share of responsibility for the crisis for two reasons. One is the direct and indirect damage wrought by episodes of violent protest, such as occurred in 2014 and 2017, with full-throated encouragement by the US. In addition to property damaged and lives lost, many at the hands of opposition forces (with the government also responsible for many deaths), opposition violence fed a climate of fear and polarization, inhibiting the prospects for economic reform and government-opposition dialogue.
The opposition also deserves criticism for its inability to establish more effective links to Venezuela’s working classes. While historically strongly supportive of Chavismo, the working classes – comprised largely of formal and informal workers, the unemployed or domestically employed poor – have suffered tremendously in the current crisis. This suffering has led to repeated instances of popular protest directed against the Maduro administration. The opposition has been unable to effectively connect with these protests for several reasons, foremost amongst them being its inability to articulate a positive program that effectively addresses everyday popular-sector concerns (e.g. declining livability). The working classes are also wary of the opposition’s history of violence and close ties to the US.
To overcome the severe challenges it faces Venezuela needs a broad-based, peaceful opposition that effectively welds together legitimate political demands (eg for free and fair elections and meaningful government-opposition dialogue) and pressing social and economic demands, for access to food, medicine, and basic services. Guaidó’s and the US’ reckless adventurism have made this scenario far less likely, while dramatically increasing the risk of catastrophe and civil war. Such adventurism must be rejected.
Gabriel Hetland is an assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies and Sociology at University at Albany, SUNY