Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro addressed 4,000 troops in a televised message on Thursday, saying that they must be prepared to fight the “traitors” supporting opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s failed attempt to take power this week.
“How many dead would there be if a civil war started here because of the foolishness of coup mongers and traitors? And how long would the war last if there was an invasion? Because we would never surrender,” said Maduro, who has been accused of fraud and corruption by his critics.
It’s been three days since clashes erupted between Venezuelan security forces and protesters supporting opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the United States and over 50 other countries recognize as the country’s interim president.
Despite assurances from Guaidó and the Trump administration that it was over for Maduro, however, it’s clear that’s not the case. Maduro still maintains the office of the presidency, and he has called Guaidó’s attempt a “failed coup.”
On Thursday, Maduro tweeted an image of himself marching with military commanders to signal his resolve:
— Prensa Presidencial (@PresidencialVen) May 2, 2019
So what can the United States do now?
President Donald Trump, along with high-ranking members of his administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, have maintained a hard line on Venezuela.
Both Pompeo and Bolton say a military option is on the table, pointing not only to Maduo’s refusal to step down but also to Russian and Cuban support for his regime as justification. Trump also threatened to apply maximum sanctions — a “full and complete embargo,” he tweeted Tuesday — unless Cuba immediately ceases its support of Maduro.
Reuters also reported that Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of the infamous military contractor Blackwater, was pitching a plan to trigger regime change in Venezuela.
The Pentagon has been cautious about any plan for military intervention in the country of roughly 33 million, with U.S. Southern Command chief Navy Adm. Craig Faller telling the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that any transition “should be a democratic transition.” A spokesperson for Faller later issued a statement saying, “Our leadership has been very clear that all options are on the table, although a peaceful transition to democracy in Venezuela is preferred.”
As of now, the situation remains extremely volatile, with Guaidó calling for a mass strike as at least one person was shot dead in clashes between protesters and security forces.
Venezuela as the next Iraq
There is pretty much no chance at all that things will end well in the case of a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela, said Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
When asked about worst and best case scenarios for such a move, Isacson said there really is no best case scenario, and that the worst case scenario would start with days of bloodshed and end with the Venezuelan military putting down their arms.
And then the real trouble would start — think, Iraq, after the 2003 U.S. invasion created a power vacuum and the mass instability and insecurity that persist.
“At that point, you would have a large number of people participating in the colectivos [irregular paramilitary groups supporting Maduro], and the militia, which supposedly has like 500,000 members,” Isacson said. “But hell, even if 10% of them shows up, you have the ELN in Colombia [Ejército de Liberación Nacional, a guerrilla group], you’d have organized crime groups, you’d have retrograde elements of the military — you’d have probably several dozen thousand people with at least some training in arms acting as a guerrilla or terrorist resistance, knowing that the United States would not want a long-term presence, which would be disastrous on so many levels.”
Two former deputy assistant secretaries for defense in Latin America, Frank Mora and Rebecca Chavez, have said that military intervention in Venezuela would require between 100,000 and 150,000 U.S. troops for a significant period of time, dealing with asymmetrical war.
And this doesn’t take into account the spillover into neighboring Colombia, because a conflict of that size would be hard to contain and there is no precedent for a U.S. military intervention on that scale.
“It would freak out the region, the entire hemisphere, in ways we haven’t even thought about — the whole order that we’ve had of free trade agreements and the OAS [Organization of American States], and good diplomatic relations, very few interstate conflicts or border disputes — all of that would just go out the window,” said Isacson.
Benjamin Gedan, senior adviser at the Wilson Center’s Latin American program, said over email that even in a best-case scenario, what the United States would be looking at is inheriting “a failed state unable to provide food, medical care and basic services, such as water and electricity.”
The country’s infrastructure is in “shambles,” with a U.S. invasion or strike only carrying with it the promise of more destruction.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find any security experts, including at the Pentagon, eager to invade Venezuela,” said Gedan, who was also the National Security Council’s South America director under the Obama administration.
Sanctions that cut the wrong way
In a war, Isacson points out, one side is defeated, but there will be a lot of folks who still reject the military outcome who will still have guns, ammunition, and funding.
So absent war, what other instruments is the Trump administration using?
Right now, U.S. sanctions aren’t explicitly asking for regime change, although they do demand new elections. Isacson said that “implies regime change, because it’s based on the illegitimacy of last year’s elections.”
That could mean Maduro’s supporters might fall away as they are targeted by individual sanctions — although this strategy has not yet yielded results. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s sanctions hitting the country’s oil company are expected largely to hurt ordinary Venezuelans and cause massive hardship for people who have no power in the present situation.
The only way out, Isacson offered, is a negotiation, not war.
“In a negotiation, you get almost everybody to buy in. And everybody has to give something, but ultimately, everyone has attached themselves to a solution in some way,” he said.
The best solution, he said, would be a non-military one, one in which “all sides realize that they don’t hold a strong hand, and get serious about negotiations that lead to free-and-fair elections — and there’s some transitional justice scheme and they manage to thread this very difficult needle without any more bloodshed or insecurity.”
Venezuela has plunged into chaos as protests against Maduro have intensified over the past two years. With the currency in freefall and hyperinflation at play, millions of people have fled the country, which has been facing major food and medical shortages.
“It is possible the White House understands these risks, and merely threatens an invasion to scare Venezuela’s generals and provoke a mutiny against Nicolás Maduro,” said Gedan. “But this psychological warfare is not without costs. The Latin American coalition opposed to the Venezuelan regime steadfastly opposes U.S. military action, and the Trump administration’s rhetoric alienates critical allies.”