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How to Avoid a War in Venezuela

by Jeffrey D. Sachs,Francisco Rodríguez

NEW YORK – One month after Juan Guaidó, the speaker of Venezuela’s National Assembly, said he was assuming the powers of the Venezuelan presidency, currently held by Nicolás Maduro, the country’s political crisis remains far from over. Tensions have escalated to the point that a full-blown civil war – a seemingly implausible scenario just weeks ago – is now becoming increasingly possible. At least four people died and hundreds were injured in violent clashes at Venezuela’s borders last weekend as government forces opened fire on an attempt by the opposition to bring aid convoys into the country.

The Maduro regime is authoritarian, militarized, and ready to kill civilians to maintain power. The society is bitterly divided between the revolutionaries inspired by Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor, and a large and aggrieved opposition. Each side despises the other. The question is therefore a complex and practical one: what to do to help guide Venezuela away from civil war and toward a peaceful and democratic future?

On this great challenge, US President Donald Trump’s administration has gravely miscalculated. When the United States chose to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s president – along with a group of Latin American countries – and ban oil trade with the Maduro government, it was betting that the pressure would be sufficient to topple the regime. As a former senior US official told the Wall Street Journal, “they thought it was a 24-hour operation.”

This type of miscalculation predates the Trump administration. In mid-2011, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must “step aside.” Similarly, in 2003, George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” shortly after the US invasion of Iraq. All of these cases reflect the arrogance of a superpower that repeatedly overlooks local realities.

Maduro’s ability to withstand intense US pressure is not a surprise to close observers of Venezuela’s military. The centralized structures of command and control of military intelligence, as well as the personal interests of senior officers who control major chunks of the economy, make it highly unlikely that the army will turn on Maduro. US provocation might create a schism between military commanders and more junior officers, but that would only make the plunge into a bloody civil war more likely. To date, there have been no defections among high-ranking officers with direct control of troops.

Faced with the prospect that regime change will not come quickly, the Trump administration and some parts of Venezuela’s opposition have begun seriously considering military action. Echoing language recently used in a speech by Trump, Guaidó wrote on Saturday that he would formally request the international community to “keep all options open.” Similarly, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who has acted as a self-appointed guru for Trump on Venezuela, warned on Twitter that Maduro’s actions had opened the door to “multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago.”

Actually, these ideas appear to have been on Trump’s mind for some time. As former acting FBI director Andrew G. McCabe revealed recently in his book The Threat, Trump said in a 2017 meeting that he thought the US should be going to war with Venezuela. McCabe quotes Trump as

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