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Latin America

What is likelihood of a military intervention in Venezuela?

For now, a military strategy to solve the Venezuelan crisis does not seem to be on the cards, although some radical voices in Washington, and many exasperated Venezuelans, support the idea. But it's a risky bet, many analysts say.
26 Feb 2019 – 10:55 AM EST

The frustration felt by some Venezuelans after the failed border plan last weekend to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela has ignited calls for a military intervention to topple Nicolás Maduro.

That appetite was nourish by interim president Juan Guaidó himself, and his representative in Bogotá, exiled congressman Julio Borges, who have openly raised the military option with foreign governments meeting under the banner of the so-called Lima Group.

Maduro got a tongue-lashing at the Bogotá meeting, which he did not attend since Venezuela's seat at the table is now occupied by Guaidó. Maduro was called “Dictator” and “usurper.” Despite that, the speakers were careful to stress the need to find a peaceful way out of the crisis, and rejected any military option.

To be sure, it remains unclear how a military operation might be undertaken. Could a multilateral force be assembled? Would the U.S. consider unilateral action? Or could the situation simply degenerate into a civil war? Nobody seems to know.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has put the full weight of the U.S. government behind Guaidó in what U.S. officials call a "whole-of-government" policy. Trump, and Colombian president Iván Duque, continue to state that “all options are on the table”, a traditionally oblique formula in political rhetoric to keep your opponent guessing.

But beyond that, during the Lima Group meeting there was no direct refernence to military action in Venezuela. Even U.S. vice-president Mike Pence highlighted the necessity of doubling down on the diplomatic and economic strategy to isolate Maduro and reestablish democracy in Venezuela.

Pence sounded a little more belligerent when warned that “Colombia is our most important regional ally and any threat against its sovereign will meet the determination of the United States”, in an apparent reference to Maduro.

A dangerous strategy

“It is very hard for the Lima Group to approve entering into a military coalition with the United States to apply force in Venezuela. That possibility for the moment is non-existent," said Ramón Muchacho, former mayor of a Caracas municipality who is exiled in Miami.

For Muchacho “the only way to get rid of Maduro is by force. And the two only elements who could do it are, the Venezuelan Armed Forces, which is unlikely, and the other is an international coalition”, he added.

“I don’t favor a military option against any country, less so against my own. It is an option that nobody wants. It is costly, people would die. But we have reached a point in which two options remain: the use of force or living with Maduro forever, as happened with Fidel Castro in Cuba”, said Muchacho.

That second option would mean the continuance of the current Venezuelan government, risking the deaths of more citizens due to the mounting humanitarian crisis, including lack of food or proper medical attention.

John Feeley, a former U.S. ambassador and Univision political analyst, believes that Washington will never act militarily in Venezuela, unless Maduro theatens the lives of U.S. citizens, given the politiical and logistical complexities of an operation of this kind in the South American country.

While Feeley understands the frustration of many Venezuelans, and considers that power must be “wrested from those who use it to subjugate and abuse a population”, he suggests those stirring the pot from Washington study the recent history of U.S. interventions in other parts of the world.

“These cries for a U.S. invasion force are completely understandable. They are also completely wrong. They have not learned from previous U.S invasions what happens the day after … Will a small American invasion force be able to feed the hungry, heal the sick, bury the dead and assume the reigns of local government, while a proper crisis stabilization and response force is ramped up over months?”

Nonetheless, some, mainly in Washington, are pushing for a harder line that would lead to a military option.

Last month, Trump's national security adviser John Bolton dropped a seemingly deliberate hint during a press conference at the White House when he held up a notepad bearing the handwritten words, "5,000 troops to Colombia." He later sought to downplay the incident.

Before and after

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (Rep-Fl) posted messages on his Twitter account, showing the “before and after” photos of fallen strongmen like Manuel Noriega in Panama, or the fatal finale of Muammar Gadaffi in Libya or Nicholas Ceausescu and his wife in Romania.

Rubio was heavily criticized by many Democrats for what former White House National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes called his “juvenile chest thumping.”

This sense of the inevitability of the military option is in large part due to the way Guaidó, and the international community backing him, has presented the demise of Maduro as inevitable, relying on the notion that his government would collapse in the face of U.S. might. However, it hasn't turned out that way, except for few low-ranking defectors.

"If pressure doesn't work and if the humanitarian situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate, the refugee situation will get far worse. So we could find ourselves weeks or months from now with a country facing a much more dramatic situation and Maduro still in power” said Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group, a private, non-profit organization that seeks to prevent or resolve conflict.

“And then what? Does the U.S. lift sanctions and backtrack, handing Maduro a huge victory? Does the US double down on pressure and prompt even greater misery and refugee flows? Or does it consider a military options that would be extremely dangerous and unwise?"

Regardless of the wisdom or viability of the military option, many inside or outside Venezuela have placed their last hopes in such a move. If it doesn't happen they may begin to doubt the international community's resolve creating even greater frustration and demoralization in opposition ranks.

And that only benefits Maduro in the short term.

(Additonal reporting by David Adams)

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