An enormous crisis is brewing just a few hundred miles south of Miami: Venezuela, a nation of more than 30 million people, with the largest oil reserves in the world, is on the brink of collapse and civil war. The implications for the Americas are profound and dangerous. What should the U.S. be doing while Caracas sinks into anarchy?
The crisis can be traced to the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez to the presidency. A self-proclaimed socialist in the vein of Simón Bolívar, who led the nation to independence in the early 19th century and sparked its proud history of autonomy, Chávez concocted a political system that used often high oil prices to essentially bribe the masses into supporting him. Yet his successor, Nicolás Maduro, lacks his charisma and capacity for scheming, and oil prices remain too low to give Maduro any financial leverage. Now his opposition has managed to coalesce around stopping his attempt to rewrite the constitution to give him final control over the courts and the legislature–his attempt to effectively make himself President for life.
Over the past five months, more than 100 protesters have been killed, and hundreds of thousands of people have marched in the streets. An opposition pilot dive-bombed the supreme court, and the Organization of American States (OAS) has condemned the regime. Even before the crisis, Venezuela was already one of the most violent countries in the Americas–on par with Mexico and El Salvador, which are in the midst of drug wars.
This is a potential disaster for the region because of the possibility of massive numbers of refugees (both at sea and especially to neighboring Colombia, which is just emerging from its own insurgency). It could constitute a drain on resources for other nations (including the U.S.), which would be forced to help a displaced and at-risk population. The havoc could also open up opportunities for drug smugglers.
Cue U.S. President Donald Trump, who recently commented that “a military option” is on the table (something no one else in the U.S. government has suggested), and the mixture is beyond flammable–it is explosive.
The realistic choices for the U.S. are limited. First, we ought to focus on what we should not do, and that is intervene militarily. Any domineering pressure we place through sanctions or, certainly, our military will be seized upon by Maduro to rally his followers against the yanquis.
Second, we need to use strategic communication to prevent this from becoming a “U.S. vs. Venezuela” conversation. Instead, we should seek condemnation from organizations like the OAS and sanction the Venezuelan leadership in concert with others. We can work toward U.N. sanctions as well, depending on the actions that Maduro takes–though this will be difficult, since China and Russia have a cozy relationship with Venezuela.
Third, we should use our intelligence assets–satellite and unmanned aircraft sensors as well as cybersurveillance, especially of social networks–to observe the internal trends. We need to avoid being tactically surprised by either a massive refugee flow or a sudden descent into full-blown war.
Fourth, we should prepare to render humanitarian assistance and deal with a maritime flow of refugees. Guantánamo Bay has a well-resourced mission to undertake such responses. Coordination with potential target nations in the Caribbean and South America should begin now.
Finally, we should be in constant contact bilaterally with our key allies and friends in the region to defuse the crisis and also help create a true democracy in this important country.
Every nation in the Americas has an interest in a peaceful settlement in Venezuela. U.S. leadership should be subtle and restrained, while not going missing altogether. The end of the republic is close. Let’s be ready for what comes next.
Stavridis is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO
This appears in the September 18, 2017 issue of TIME.