Military action in Venezuela unacceptable

Over the weekend I had the troubling experience of reading an article by Ricardo Hausmann entitled “D-Day Venezuela” in which he argues that the situation in Venezuela has grown so dire that it is time to seriously consider a military intervention by regional forces as the best possible solution (Project Syndicate, “D-Day Venezuela,” 01.02.2018). This is a rash and destructive idea, and it is deeply unsettling to hear it coming from a highly respected former Venezuelan minister and a current professor of economics at Harvard. Although I certainly cannot claim to have the same level of expertise as Professor Hausmann, I hope I can offer a few critiques of the article in question.

Hausmann does accurately detail the tragic extent of the devastation Venezuela has endured under the weight of economic crisis and authoritarian repression. Between May 2012 and May 2017, “the minimum wage…measured in the cheapest available calorie, had declined from 52,854 calories per day in May 2012 to just 7,005” (Project Syndicate). Venezuelans are frequently malnourished, and this has combined with the government’s inability to provide basic medical services, such as basic vaccinations, to produce atrocious health outcomes. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans are pouring across the country’s border seeking security in neighboring countries, including Colombia and Brazil. Meanwhile, oil production, the centerpiece of the Venezuelan economy, is in decline.

The precipitous drop in Venezuelan living standards created a massive opposition movement that called for an end to the incompetent and kleptocratic government of Nicolás Maduro and the United Socialist Party, but instead of responding to the legitimate grievances of millions of his fellow citizens and reaching some form of compromise with the opposition, Maduro and his inner circle jailed their political opponents and spent limited resources on “Chinese-made military-grade crowd-control systems to thwart public protests” (Project Syndicate). The United Socialist Party–aligned military has gained ever more control over daily life and is now in charge of food distribution and rebooting the national oil company.

While Hausmann is mostly correct in his analysis of the conditions in Venezuela, the solution he prescribes would only lead to more suffering. The ideology propagated by the ruling party since the days of Hugo Chávez is that Venezuela is a heroic revolutionary socialist country under siege by reactionary forces in the world led by the United States. A military invasion by regional forces, which would unofficially require the approval and support of the United States, would reinforce this narrative and could make many Venezuelans convert to the side of their government. Warfare in the urban centers of Caracas and Maracaibo would result in civilian casualties and provide further fodder for Venezuelan government propaganda. It is also highly likely that the Venezuelan government and the military would seize the opportunity presented by an invasion to stamp about the little independent civil society that remains and fully consolidate an authoritarian system of rule.

Hausmann seems to assume that an intervention would be carried out with minimal expenditure and loss of life because the great mass of Venezuelans would welcome them as liberators. However, he underestimates the extent of support the socialists continue to have, even if it is not enthusiastically given. Millions of Venezuelans owe their jobs to networks of government party patronage and many would probably decide to stick with the devil they know, especially because they can expect retribution from Venezuelans who were not incorporated into patronage networks and all the benefits they provided. One must remember the plight of average members of the Ba’ath Party in Iraq who were barred from many avenues of employment after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Furthermore, there remains a dedicated core of people who truly believe in the revolutionary ideology of Hugo Chávez and would be willing to fight to continue his Bolivarian Socialist project. Although pro-regime Venezuelans probably do not constitute any significant majority of the population—accurate statistics on the matter are hard to come by—they are a large enough segment of the population to indicate that any war would be a protracted and bloody struggle that would leave very little of Venezuela left to save.

There is also no desire on the part of Latin American countries to take part in any military action against Venezuela. Many are still struggling with the legacies of U.S.-backed coups, and the most powerful South American country, Brazil, is preoccupied with a long and convoluted domestic political crisis. When Trump broached the topic of intervention in August 2017, numerous Latin American countries swiftly repudiated his statements (Reuters, “Latin America rejects Trump’s military threat against Venezuela,” 08.11.2017). The possibility of intervention must be decisively taken off the table, and thought-leaders such as Ricardo Hausmann should redirect their ample energies away from warmongering and towards consideration of more peaceful options. For example, finding a way, perhaps through the pressure of sanctions, to make the Venezuelan government accept a greater degree of humanitarian assistance, or perhaps inducing China to exert its leverage as one of Venezuela’s biggest creditors to push for reforms. There are numerous ways to approach Venezuela. We need not take the warpath.

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