When I was Commander of U.S. Southern Command, I was in charge of all military-to-military operations south of the United States — from the insurgency in Colombia to disaster relief in Central America to dealing with tons of drugs flowing across the Caribbean Sea. But nothing worried me more than the direction of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. He was stocked with petrodollars, far from a fan of America and dedicated to a half-baked socialist strategy he egotistically called “Chavismo.”
He took Venezuela on a wild ride, buying weapons from Russia, funding left-wing movements all around Latin America and the Caribbean, flirting with noxious drug cartels and buying the loyalty of the poor in his nation with endless handouts and subsidies. Worst of all, he destroyed the previously solid Venezuelan oil industry and gave leadership of the national company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., to his cronies, who milked it dry. When he died in 2013, his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, took the reins of power.
If there was ever a case illustrating Karl Marx’s comment that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, it was the turnover between Chavez and Maduro. The farcical Maduro has had a hapless run, further destroying the economy (aided by the collapse of record oil prices in the middle of the decade). The West sees the latest election as ham-handed thievery. The United States and most of our allies are joining in complete condemnation of what they consider the illegal Maduro regime, supporting the presidency claim by the leader of the elected assembly, Juan Guaidó.
At U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Miami, I’d bet the midnight oil is burning and the pizza is flowing in to feed the staff, which will be working on overdrive to develop options for President Trump. These will range from increasing intelligence gathering to starting benign humanitarian operations that would help the millions of refugees flowing out of the country to building a coalition of regional forces for potential peacekeeping if a full-blown civil war breaks out. Many of these plans exist today as contingency plans; they are already robust and detailed roadmaps awaiting an execution order.
It is clearly time for Maduro to go. But America should be cautious. Even though he is repressing the population and rounding up opponents, a full-blown invasion by the U.S. would foment rage in the region and internationally.
Everywhere I went as a four-star Admiral in the region while commanding U.S. Southern Command, I would be reminded of America’s history of intervention. A good example was the reaction there when we created the Navy’s Fourth Fleet in 2008. We intended for it to focus on disaster relief, humanitarian operations, medical diplomacy and counter-narcotics. But from Brasilia to Havana, the negative responses were stunning. I remember being featured in caricature in a front-page editorial in Granma, the Cuban newspaper and party organ. The Minister of Defense of Brazil, a strong supporter of engaging with the U.S. military, was deeply suspicious. Even the Colombian Minister of Defense (and later President of Colombia) Juan Manuel Santos — my best friend and partner in the region — counseled me against the initiative. Too many people there truly felt that standing up a new fleet was a return to gunboat diplomacy and a prelude to military action in Venezuela. Good intentions do not make old ghosts disappear.
Therefore, our best set of options begin with working assiduously with our allies, partners and friends — especially those in the region — to resolve the instability and economic disaster in Venezuela peacefully. We should levy even stronger sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports (going even further than those just announced by the Administration); push every democratic nation globally to recognize Gauidó as acting president; call for new elections within 60 days; offer an amnesty deal to Maduro and his leading claque (like beautiful beachside casas in Havana or a nice finca in Nicaragua); warn the Chinese and Russians, two Maduro backers with heft at the United Nations, that we are very serious in believing it will be better for everyone if Maduro goes; and rally the Organization of American States (OAS) to support the departure of Maduro.
We could propose that all talks be held under OAS auspices — to avoid the wrong impression of unilateral American influence. These could be done outside of Venezuela, much as the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC insurgency were moved to Havana earlier this decade. While most of the nations of the region are aligning with the U.S., there are several holdouts, including Mexico. We should quietly work with the new Mexican government to shift their position and potentially invite them to participate in a significant way in the talks.
This is still a time for communiques, not carrier battle groups. The Administration thus far has handled this first significant regional crisis in the Americas with a fairly deft hand, by using economic, political and diplomatic tools. They should continue to ratchet up the pressure, gather the allies to our side, fend off the Russians and Chinese and, above all, avoid the temptation to shift to hard power solutions — something Senator Lindsey Graham has said President Trump has brought up.
There may come a time for more dramatic military activities, perhaps an international peacekeeping force. But for the moment, our efforts are best served by supporting the brave Venezuelans fighting the Maduro regime through the overall efforts of the international community. As Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Venezuela and a revered figure there, said, “When tyranny becomes law, rebellion is a right.”
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