The U.S. Can Save Venezuela From Anarchy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Watching the current eruptions and flowing lava in Hawaii is strangely similar to observing the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.

In both cases, the situations are fiery, unpredictable and very, very dangerous. And both seem to be moving in slow motion, but manage to convey a sense of a true disaster looming ahead. 

Over the past weekend, incumbent Nicolas Maduro won an obviously rigged presidential election with a record low turnout; inflation is too high to sensibly measure; there are widespread food and medicine shortages; the oil industry is effectively out of commission; and millions of Venezuelans are fleeing the country. Violence levels are thought to be the highest in the world, surpassing those of Afghanistan, Somalia and Central America.

The U.S. Can Save Venezuela From Anarchy

In response to strong rhetoric and increased sanctions from the U.S., Venezuelan officials are lashing out at Washington, seeking, as usual, to lay blame elsewhere for a disaster that is entirely of their own making. 

Indeed, the irony of Venezuela’s plight, afflicting a nation that possesses the largest proven oil reserves in the world as well as other abundant natural resources, is striking. Disastrous governance has created a humanitarian crisis. 

The U.S. Can Save Venezuela From Anarchy

Unfortunately, the opposition is fractured and ineffective, and there seems to be no internal path to a peaceful resolution. An explosion is coming, and when it does, we should expect a great deal of violence and massive refugee flows. What is the appropriate role for the U.S. in this terrible situation?

First, Washington needs to work through its partners and allies in the region and not give the Maduro government an excuse to ratchet up the level of anti-American propaganda. This means using the Organization of American States as a primary conduit for sanctions and expressions of disapproval against the regime. 

Fortunately, the OAS has been moderately helpful in condemning the Venezuelan government, and is considering further joint action following the sham election. And, despite obvious provocation and temptation, the Trump team has managed to convey a sense of measured, steady pressure that is well within the bounds of international law and norms.

Second, Americans simply need to put more attention on this unfolding crisis in our own hemisphere. Global headlines tend to be dominated by crises around the world, including the confrontation with Iran, the upcoming summit (or not) with Kim Jong Un, and the humanitarian crisis in Syria. All of these are important, but the level of risk far closer to home is rising, and it demands more attention.

This should include a State Department-led interagency working group to craft a strategy for dealing with a possible civil war; planning by the Department of Defense for humanitarian operations and support to our allies dealing with a potential flood of refugees; and advance stationing of supplies and medicines by the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Caribbean (Guantanamo Bay, famous as a detention facility, has excellent facilities for this kind of crisis).

A third element should be even more sharply targeted sanctions against key figures in the Maduro government and the Venezuelan military. Ideally, these would be put in place with several other key Latin American partners such as Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. The Trump administration should also respond to the recent expulsions of top diplomats by responding in kind. And it should work with the interagency group to develop even more stringent options than the sanctions just enacted.

Fourth, the U.S. should be directing a higher level of intelligence-gathering assets in the region, working with Colombia and Brazil, which both operate very effective intelligence networks throughout northern South America. Combining human intelligence alongside American satellite-gathered information is critical.

There is also an important component of cyber-activity that can be employed to fully understand not only economic and military trends, but also how social networks are being manipulated by the Maduro government.

Finally, the U.S. needs to convey to other major international actors that propping up the Maduro government makes no sense. Russia and China are considering tossing a lifeline to Maduro -- we should seek to persuade them that this would be a mistake. The rationale is not a “new Monroe Doctrine,” but a pragmatic appeal to both nations that in the end Maduro will fall and supporting him will put them on the wrong side of Latin American history.

Latin America has moved through several cycles of governance over the past 70 years.  After World War II through the late 20th century, the majority of nations were military dictatorships. Gradually, democracy flowered, and by the time I became commander of U.S. Southern Command in 2006, with responsibility for all military activity in the region, only Cuba was a true dictatorship.

Unfortunately, there followed another cycle of authoritarianism personified by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, but also found in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Now, there seems to be a “revenge of democracy” at work, with civil resistance movements helping to get rid of authoritarian figures in many of the nations where such authoritarianism was building.

A moment of reckoning is coming for Nicolas Maduro as well. The sooner he realizes that turning his nation into an utterly failed state will result in his overthrow, the better the chances this dangerous situation can be resolved through negotiation and diplomacy. Balanced U.S. actions can help.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.