Itching to demonstrate that Washington, not Beijing or Moscow, runs the Western Hemisphere, the Trump administration has considered using military force to effect regime change in Venezuela.
National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as supporters outside the administration like Senators Rick Scott and Lindsey Graham, have expressed support for a military intervention. Donald Trump himself is reportedly skeptical, but still weighing the possibility.
We, too, would like to see a change in government. Nicolás Maduro is a brutal and corrupt leader who has inflicted tremendous suffering on his people. But the use of military force would be exceptionally costly, exacerbate Venezuela’s post-transition challenges, and undermine the long-term interests of the United States in Latin America.
A “multilateral leveraging” strategy – in other words, a commitment from the international community to provide both the opposition and the regime incentives to negotiate – offers a far better alternative. Carrots, not sticks, will provide the best chance of peaceful regime change.
U.S. Intervention (The Problem With Sticks)
No matter how Maduro falls, the road to stabilization and reconstruction will be long and marked by obstacles. The economy is in shambles, basic infrastructure has deteriorated, and thousands of talented Venezuelans abroad will need to be coaxed back home.
Yet one aspect of this challenge stands apart: The extremely high likelihood of civil conflict after a transition. Venezuela’s fragile state has lost control over large swathes of its territory, allowing armed pro-regime elements to set up operations. A bewildering panoply of actors contest authority on the ground, including state security forces, citizen militias, left-wing guerrillas from neighboring Colombia, and organized criminal gangs.
Today, some of these groups operate as shock troops for the regime. Tomorrow, many are likely to hold grievances against a post-transition government and to view insurgency as preferable to standing trial. A military intervention to oust Maduro would not only commit the United States to dealing with this potential backlash, but could also greatly exacerbate the problem itself. A clash between the U.S. military and the Fuerzas Armadas Nacionales Bolivarianas (FANB) would leave the latter badly weakened and less capable of quashing a potential insurgency on its own.
U.S. military intervention would also push recruits and support toward the insurgents. Intervention (and occupation) would be unpopular among much of the population, eroding the legitimacy of the new government, lending credence to Hugo Chávez’s longtime claim that Washington always had his Bolivarian Revolution in the crosshairs, and driving some Venezuelans and left-wing regional groups to support the insurgency.
An Alternative Approach
Options other than intervention have not yet been exhausted, and enjoy greater international support.
The Lima Group of Western Hemispheric countries, an ad-hoc organization created to address the crisis, has never supported the use of military force. Appetite for intervention is even weaker among the International Contact Group, which includes both European and Latin American countries. China, a key political and economic backer of the Maduro government, has hinted that it would support the Contact Group’s efforts.
This international coalition must find sources of leverage that could be used to change the calculus of key actors in Venezuela. The Trump administration has mainly tried to do so through economic sanctions, which are opposed by some other stakeholders and have not produced a breakthrough by themselves. What has been lacking are incentives. The U.S. did lift personal sanctions on a military official who flipped against Maduro during a recent military uprising, but much more could be done.
A multilateral coalition could offer several major incentives to facilitate a transition. First, a robust framework for transitional justice would be central. Military and intelligence officials have little reason to back a transition unless they can be confident of avoiding prosecution in international and domestic courts. A multilateral coalition could guarantee the former and push the Venezuelan opposition to commit to a clear, credible and legally binding framework for domestic transitional justice. This amnesty would be painful to opposition activists who understandably desire justice for past wrongdoing, especially human rights violations. But compromises must be made to facilitate and safeguard a peaceful and sustainable transition.
A second incentive would involve committing to a massive package of reconstruction aid. Colombian President Iván Duque has opined that Venezuela might need $40 billion in aid. We suspect that the true number is higher. Yet while the price tag might seem high, it pales in comparison to the cost of a military intervention. More importantly, a firm multilateral commitment to a massive aid package would further rally popular support in Venezuela behind a negotiated transition and increase pressure on government officials to back a settlement.
This multilateral leveraging strategy would position the new government to meet the challenges of the day after Maduro’s exit. Key segments of the military would be invested from the beginning, helping to maintain the institutional integrity necessary to fight a potential insurgency. A credible amnesty would greatly reduce the number of Bolivarian officials opting to join the insurgents. A large-scale reconstruction package would buy popular goodwill. Finally, the prospects of long-term societal reconciliation would be enhanced by a broadly supported transition that allowed Venezuelans from both sides to reach a common understanding of what happened in the latter stages of chavista leadership and during the transition itself.
Securing Long-Term Interests
There are no easy paths out of this nightmare for Venezuelans. The continuation of Maduro’s brutal reign would be awful. Yet rebuilding Venezuela out of the Bolivarian rubble will be hard enough without an Afghanistan-like “forever war” in which U.S. forces interminably battle leftist insurgents inspired by anti-imperialism. The multilateral leveraging strategy creates the least-bad long-term outcome for Venezuelans, leaving a still challenging but much more manageable set of post-transition problems.
The long-term interests of the United States would also be best preserved by a negotiated transition achieved through multilateral leveraging. The Venezuelan crisis unfolds at a time when China is challenging U.S. hegemony in Latin America in unprecedented ways and Russia is pushing back against U.S. efforts to reassert leadership. While Trump administration officials may announce a new Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. cannot forcibly prevent foreign powers from building alliances and currying influence in regional capitals. Instead, if the U.S. is to retain influence within the Western Hemisphere, we will need to pursue mutual interests, win hearts and minds, and respect the rights of Latin American countries to sovereignty and self-determination.
Handlin is assistant professor of political science at Swarthmore College. His teaching and research focuses on the politics of Latin America and authoritarian regimes, with a particular emphasis on Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter @shandlin
McCarthy is a Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University, Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Elliot School for International Affairs, and founder of Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuelan politics. Follow him on Twitter @mikecaracaswire