A U.S. Military Intervention in Venezuela Would Be a Disaster
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Calls for U.S. military intervention in Venezuela are growing, most recently from Senator Marco Rubio. Even Secretary General Luis Almagro of the Organization of American States has said he would not foreclose the military option. Yet as devastating as the regime of President Nicolas Maduro has been for Venezuela and its people, and as compelling the need for change, a military response – especially one led by the U.S. -- is unrealistic and would be counterproductive. Instead, Venezuela’s American neighbors and their democratic partners outside the hemisphere will have to find another way.
Venezuela’s deepening misery is captured in breathtaking statistics and heartbreaking stories. In just five years the economy has shrunk in half and inflation is nearing 1 million percent, leaving nine out of every 10 Venezuelans in poverty. The health system is in tatters, hospitals lacking medical personnel and even basic supplies.
Maduro’s response has been to double down on repression. His government now tracks citizens through the electronic “carnet de la patria” identification cards, threatening to cut access to government-controlled food and medicines to those who might dissent. The regime also has taken to arresting not just members of the political opposition but also many from within the bureaucracy and military ranks, with mounting reports of torture and death in prisons.
As the misery has deepened, so too has the exodus. The United Nations calculates that 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled the country over the last four years — roughly 7 percent of the population. Some NGOs estimate that up to 4 million have left. Venezuelans are now by far the largest group of migrants to surrounding countries, and the most prevalent asylum seekers in the United States and Spain.
These economic, political and humanitarian tragedies are all reasons to push for political change in Venezuela. But U.S. military intervention is not the way to do it.
Venezuela isn’t Grenada or Panama, the two Latin American countries invaded by the U.S. during the closing days of the Cold War. Instead, it is twice the size of Iraq with only a slightly smaller population, and teeters on the verge of chaos. Any invasion requires preparations on a similar scale, meaning a 100,000-plus force.
U.S. troops are unlikely to be welcomed. A February poll shows a majority of Venezuelans, including a plurality of those in Venezuela’s opposition, oppose an invasion. A U.S. military presence would play into, and would at least in part validate, Maduro’s loudly proclaimed imperialist conspiracies.
If they enter, U.S. troops must prepare to stay for the long haul. Venezuela’s electricity grids, sewage systems, hospitals, schools, and other basic physical and social infrastructure are decimated. Some one hundred thousand Venezuelans are armed, loosely organized into “colectivos” that are likely to go rogue if and when the government collapses. Narco-traffickers have made Venezuela a main transit point to Europe and the United States, aggravating the lawlessness. Given enduring political and economic divisions and no cohesive government in waiting, rebuilding the nation will be a prolonged process. And any failure would be pinned on the U.S.
In response to these risks, some have called for a multilateral force, which could spread the burden and mitigate charges of Yankee overreach. But Venezuela’s neighbors will not answer a military call.
Public opinion in these democracies is against intervention. Their foreign policy elites, steeped in a doctrine of non-intervention, also stand in opposition. And Latin American militaries are just not set up to invade other countries: Activity abroad has been mostly limited to a few thousand peacekeepers in Haiti and the Congo, and 400 Salvadoran soldiers that joined the Iraqi “coalition of the willing” in 2003. And the political fallout from Iraq in the United States provides a cautionary tale for any elected Latin American leader considering a kinetic response.
That doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done. The region needs to move beyond rhetoric, and follow the U.S., European Union, Canada, Switzerland and Panama in sanctioning Venezuela’s leaders and freezing their bank accounts, making life much harder for the criminals and oppressors leading the country today. Latin American nations can and should lean on their Cuban colleagues, whom the Venezuelans still trust and support, to push for change. And they should raise their concerns with China, currently the regime’s main financier.
For its part, the U.S. can step up and help those fleeing a corrupt dictatorship. So far, the Trump administration has offered less than $70 million in humanitarian aid, and it has denied nearly half of Venezuelan asylum applicants. If the U.S. government feels compelled to act, it should start here.
It should push the UN High Commissioner on Refugees to designate the Venezuelan tragedy a refugee crisis, giving legal protections to those escaping. It should then aid those in such desperation. If Syria is a benchmark, then supporting 1 million refugees will cost between $3 and $5 billion a year. A staggering amount, that is still far less than what the U.S. has invested in military interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
In addition to helping migrants in the region, the United States should provide sanctuary at home. This would mean opening its doors wider to asylees, and even extending Temporary Protected Status to allow Venezuelans to stay and work until things take a turn for the better at home.
Venezuela’s tragedy is hurting not just its own citizens but also is starting to tear at the economic, social and political fabric of many nations throughout the region. But instead of pushing for anachronistic and counterproductive military measures, Venezuela’s neighbors should take the hard but necessary diplomatic, financial and humanitarian measures needed to achieve economic and political change and an improvement in the region’s collective fortunes.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Shannon O'Neil is a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
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