Mike Carvelli, Tanner Garrett, Jason Phillips, Eric Ringelstetter, and Colin Sattler
It appears Venezuela is heading towards a political and economic collapse. President Nicolas Maduro’s United Socialist Party lost its majority in the National Assembly during the 2015 parliamentary election. In March of this year, Venezuela’s Supreme Court announced that it was taking over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Maduro’s party is continuing to consolidate its domestic power. Meanwhile, the country is running out of food, hospitals are overcrowded, and electricity is not guaranteed. The results of this political and economic turmoil could plausibly create a destabilizing situation in the Western Hemisphere.
The history of Venezuela’s recent turn to turmoil is not a short tale. President Hugo Chavez’s election in 1999 marked the beginning of deep changes in the country’s ideology. His ideology, and that of his successor, President Maduro, have shifted the country’s government towards socialism, further fracturing the domestic balance of power. As perhaps the most unstable government in South America a collapse of the Venezuelan government, and the resulting uncertainty could draw the U.S. and its competitors into the crisis. The U.S. would face a complex situation if a collapse materializes.
Why a Collapse Might Materialize
Under President Chavez, Venezuela changed its political ideology, as reflected in its renaming in the early 2000s as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Bolivarianism focuses on economic and political sovereignty, grassroots participation, economic self-sufficiency (i.e. oil), nationalism, and fair distribution of natural resources. This rebranding was part of Chavez’s attempt to break Venezuela away from the perception of long-standing U.S. imperialism that existed in South America for decades. Instead, Venezuela chose to move towards regional independence void of U.S. power. This ideology has set the tone for the country’s foreign and domestic policies since its inception.
Relations between the United States and Venezuela steadily deteriorated in the early 2000s as the Venezuelan government increased its repressive practices. In 2002, the Venezuelan military staged a failed coup d'état to remove President Chavez. Chavez blamed the attempt, in part, on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Although the link to the CIA has not been clearly established, the coup attempt was purportedly traced back to President George W. Bush’s administration. Domestically, Chavez silenced opposition groups, suppressed the media, and used military force to suppress protests. This fueled a distrust of the United States and its policies that endures to today. After Chavez’s death in 2013, President Nicolas Maduro rose to power and continues to arrest protestors and political opponents. As a result, the U.S. enacted sanctions against individuals it believed responsible for human right abuses to “support the people of Venezuela in their aspiration to live under peace and representative democracy.” Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have yet to recover.
Despite their mutual distrust and cooling relations, Venezuela's largest economic trade partner is the United States. Venezuela exports crude oil with a high sulfur content that requires special processing equipment. Accordingly, the United States owns the most extensive sour crude refining capacity in the world, thus making the two nations a natural match for oil trade. However, as relations have strained, Venezuela began to look toward Asia, instead of the United States, for increased economic support. Since 2007, Venezuela has received $50 billion in loans from China meant to help “Caracas reduce reliance on U.S. energy markets.” Venezuela continues to separate itself from the United States’ economic interests.
A Venezuelan political and economic collapse in South America presents a risk to the U.S. and an opportunity to its competitors.
While the Venezuelan government passed along oil revenue to its populace in the windfall of a booming global market, its policies have proven to be short-sighted. Subsequent drops in oil prices during President Maduro’s tenure placed the country’s economy in a severe recession resulting in hyperinflation of its currency. The dire economic situation has prevented over ninety percent of the population from buying enough food, exacerbating malnutrition and resulting in national protests. The results of Maduro’s short-sighted policies have also created a refugee crisis, forcing over one million Venezuelans to flee the country, with neighboring Colombia receiving the largest number.
Domestically, President Maduro continues to concentrate his authoritarian rule over Venezuela. Although the opposition party gained a parliamentary majority in 2015, he has made other moves to thwart their power. In 2017, Maduro created the Constituent National Assembly charged with rewriting the constitution to restrict the opposition’s power and solidify his grip on the government. His political maneuvering continues to consolidate power within the United Socialist Party as the country prepares for another national election this year.
The effects of government corruption and decreasing oil prices have worsened the Venezuelan economic and humanitarian crises. Insufficient food and medical supplies continually force hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee into neighboring countries creating an ideal environment for human traffickers to exploit. Although Venezuela has been South America’s economic leader for decades due to its massive oil reserves and access to the maritime commons, it is now on the brink of a breakdown. The result of these political and economic factors, along with Venezuela’s distrust of American intervention, is that the United States has few options should the country’s political and economic institutions fail.
U.S. Interests in Venezuela
A Venezuelan political and economic collapse in South America presents a risk to the U.S. and an opportunity to its competitors. American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere has been a mainstay for decades. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a vow of keeping the U.S. as the region’s “steadiest, strongest, and most enduring partner.” To do this, the U.S. needs to keep its competitors at bay while finding a pragmatic path to intervene in a plausible Venezuelan collapse. Venezuela also represents a chance for the U.S. to act as a responsible partner and perhaps begin to repudiate some of history of poor U.S.-Venezuela relations. On the other hand, Russia, China, and Iran could use such a scenario to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its historic relations within the hemisphere. To be sure, it will cost the U.S. more to keep its hegemonic stance in South America than it could cost its competitors to upend the status quo.
A legitimate Venezuelan government capable of securing the country and its populace, both physically and economically, aligns with U.S. regional interests. For decades, stability in South America has been a mainstay, allowing the U.S. to focus its diplomatic and economic activity elsewhere. Friendly political and economic relations underwrite U.S. domestic prosperity and regional security. This includes the security of Colombia, the U.S.’s closest partner in the region. The reestablishment of a legitimate government in Caracas could become the U.S.’s main political goal if a crisis were to materialize.
Any U.S. response to a breakdown of Venezuela’s government will require not only a whole of government but also a multinational approach to solve this plausibly complex scenario.
The challenges the U.S. would need to navigate in the potential application of military force in response to a Venezuelan government failure are manifold. Venezuela’s historical distrust of the United States, a range of economic stakeholders capable of inflaming corruption, transnational and transregional threat networks, and the existing large-scale humanitarian crisis all present significant complexities in the region. Additionally, Venezuela’s geography—a vast coastline, multiple dense urban environments, and a heavily forested border—complicates any application of military power. Most importantly, any U.S. intervention in Venezuela could incite regional Bolivarian sentiment in South and Central America, worsening the effects of the collapse. To be sure, this plausible future presents a challenging environment for any use of military force as a means to ensure U.S. political goals can be achieved.
Deploying the U.S. military to Venezuela could be a likely scenario depending on the administration's view of Venezuela as a vital or important national security interest. As President Donald Trump tweeted in September 2017, “We call for the full restoration of democracy and political freedoms in Venezuela.” Further, President Trump also said that he will not rule out a military option. Any military option would likely involve not only U.S. forces, but also those of other nations.
The U.S. military could help to reestablish a legitimate Venezuelan government after a collapse depending on how the situation materializes. A few options include: securing the country and provision of humanitarian aid. Securing the country could provide the time and space for a new, democratically elected, government to develop into a stable political order. Furthermore, foreign humanitarian aid could ease the proximate human suffering resultant from any collapse. To be sure, both of these tasks would not independently recreate the government. However, each task can help create the conditions that would lead to the reestablishment of a legitimate government dedicated to the wellbeing of its people and thus in closer alignment with the broader values of both Latin America and the United States.
In order for any possible military intervention to be considered legitimate, an international mandate and/or an invitation from the Venezuelan government would be necessary. A coalition or multinational effort, especially one entailing South American governments, would ensure that the international community does not see the U.S. acting as an imperial power attempting to recreate Venezuela in its own image. External legitimacy in the form of a mandate for a multinational effort would also gain the U.S. broad international support. Finally, domestic legitimacy would be increased if remnant Venezuela authorities were to request, with the broad support of the Venezuelan populace, U.S. assistance. This predicates that the Venezuelan government is acting on behalf of the people’s immediate interests.
A stable Latin America is not only well and good for U.S. political and economic interests in the Western Hemisphere, but also for Latin America itself. The deteriorating situation in Venezuela provides U.S. competitors with an opportunity to exploit the country’s mounting political, economic, and humanitarian troubles. Political and economic turmoil in the Western Hemisphere offers an added dilemma for the U.S. to face on top of its present global engagements. Military force might help achieve stability if Venezuela’s government were to collapse. However, a wide array of complex challenges will inevitably challenge any application of force in Venezuela that goes well beyond the capability and capacity of the U.S. military. As a result, any U.S. response to a breakdown of Venezuela’s government will require not only a whole of government but also a multinational approach to solve this plausibly complex scenario.
A collapse of the Venezuelan government would draw the U.S. and its competitors into the emerging crisis because of various national interests in the country and the region. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio recently stated, “[Venezuela’s] socialist government has become a danger to its neighbors and [U.S.] national security.” This suggests U.S. legislators see Venezuela as a challenge to its regional security and South American interests. To be sure, a dialogue between the U.S. and its regional partners, as well as within the U.S. government itself, must continue even as the situation evolves. Further, these discussions must include options that consider even military force should Venezuela continue down the path to political and economic collapse. Through this continual dialogue, the U.S. can make prudent and informed choices about any potential Venezuelan collapse to avert disaster within its own hemisphere.
Mike Carvelli, Tanner Garrett, Jason Phillips, and Colin Sattler are officers in the U.S. Army. Eric Ringelstetter is an officer in the U.S. Air Force. The views expressed in this article are the authors' alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Opposition activists protest against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on May 8, 2017. (Photo by Federico Parra, AFP via Getty Images)
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