Normative Narratives


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Could Venezuela Become “America’s Syria”?

Recently President Trump, seemingly out of nowhere, threatened Venezuela’s increasingly authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro with the possibility of military intervention. Where did this idea come from? How crazy is it? Lets dive in.

To answer the first question, I can just imagine at some point during a National Security Council meeting, someone mentioned the need for a military option should the situation in Venezuela continue to deteriorate. Trump, never missing an opportunity to put his foot in his mouth, turns that into his ad-libbed “military option” line.

It’s like a game of telephone that never should’ve happened between the National Security Council, Trump, and Maduro. What was supposed to be implicitly understood–that America will defend its interests and regional allies–was instead explicitly said in the worst way possible (much to the joy of Maduro, who is using Trump’s words as a rallying cry in hopes of gaining domestic and regional support).

But what about the second question, how crazy is the idea of a limited American military intervention in Venezuela? The answer: not as crazy at is sounds.

I have always said America would never let something like the Syrian Civil War happen in Latin America. For all the anti-interventionists out there, lets take stock of what European inaction in Syria has cost it–a refugee crisis and a crisis of identity: Brexit, a rise in right-wing populism, and the continued inability to address the large scale economic and social problems that have plagued the continent since the Great Recession and whose solutions require closer European integration. And that’s not even considering the suffering realized by the Syrian people.

So the next questions are obvious: is Venezuela “America’s Syria”? Could inaction in Venezuela lead to similar horrors in the United States?

Long answer short, no. There are some key differences between these two crises.

Most significantly, while there is certainly a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, the government has not been particularly violent in its crackdown on dissent (at least compared to Assad’s response to protesters in Syria). The Venezuelan military, however, is loyal to Maduro, so it’s actions are certainly something to keep a close eye on as the situation unfolds.

Latin America as a region is more stable than the Middle East. It has experience with democratic governance and resolving disputes peacefully. At this point, it still seems unlikely that full scale civil war will break out in Venezuela.

The U.S., for its part, has vastly superior military and border control capabilities compared to the EU. Venezuela is also further from the Southern U.S. than Syria is from Southern Europe; greater physical distance will help insulate America from any negative spillover effects.

There is, however, one common thorn in the side of a reasonable solution–the spoiler you love to hate, Vladimir Putin. Putin has worked out a weapons and financing for oil deal with Maduro, giving Russia a strategic partnership in the region similar to what he had with Assad in Syria.

Putin’s Puppet?

As Maduro has been ostracized by the international community and seen the value of the Bolivar deflated away due to economic mismanagement, he has increasingly relied on Russian financing to keep his regime afloat. In exchange, Maduro has offered access to Venezuela’s lucrative oil reserves on very preferential terms.

In an attempt to stop this damaging, shortsighted behavior, the Venezuelan Congress took away Maduro’s authority to make oil deals without legislative approval. Maduro responded by using the courts to circumvent the rule:

“In March, the nation’s Supreme Court – whose members are loyal to Maduro – took over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. A majority of elected Assembly members opposed any new oil deals with Russia and insisted on retaining power to veto them.

Days later – after fierce national protests against the action – the court returned most powers to the national legislature at Maduro’s public urging. But the court allowed the president to keep the legal authority to cut fresh oil deals with Russia without legislative approval.

The episode was pivotal in escalating daily street protests and clashes with authorities that have since caused more than 120 deaths.”

Of course the Venezuelan Congress has since been dissolved and replaced with a rubber stamp assembly, so at this point it doesn’t matter what the Congress had ruled.

With this entanglement of Russian and Venezuelan money, arms, and oil, you can forget about any meaningful UN Security Council action against Maduro. Russia will shield him with its veto power under the guise of “national sovereignty”, because if Maduro falls, Russia’s influence and its oil deals would likely be in jeopardy:

“The Russian strategy has its risks. Many of the world’s top energy firms took a hit when Chavez nationalized their assets, and an opposition-led government could later reverse or revise any deals Maduro cuts without their blessing.”

Funny, I thought Maduro said America was trying to steal Venezuela’s oil? It seems like he’s doing a fine job of that himself, leveraging his country’s future in a desperate and costly attempt to remain in power.

Not Syria, But a Serious Situation

So if Venezuela is not “America’s Syria”, why did I say earlier that the idea of limited American military intervention is “not as crazy as it sounds”? This is because bad situations–and the Venezuelan crisis absolutely qualifies as one–usually fester and become worse if left unaddressed.

Anti-Maduro activists are becoming fed-up with the official opposition. If the people believe the organized opposition is ineffective, it could lead to more extreme measures like guerrilla warfare, which could ultimately lead to civil war. Venezuelan’s will not sit idly by as the collapsing economy and shrinking political space encroach upon their human dignity.

The fallout from a failed Venezuelan state would not be confined to the country’s borders. It could, for instance, trigger a refugees crisis. While Latin America is more stable than the Middle East, the region is not particularly wealthy or able to absorb large numbers of refugees. There could be cascading crises as other Latin American nations struggle with such an influx, ultimately threatening America’s national security and economic interests.

But most importantly, making sure Maduro does not turn Venezuela into a fully failed state (like Syria) is the right thing to do for the Venezuelan people. Sometimes the right thing to do aligns with short term national security and economic interests (they always align in the long run). When they do align, taking action suddenly seems less crazy, and inaction seems less defensible.

If the situation deteriorates further, America must be ready to commit resources to its Latin American and Venezuelan allies to remove Maduro. This would enable an interim government to restore Venezuelan democracy. Only then can the hard work of rebuilding Venezuela’s economy begin.

Trump wasn’t wrong that a military plan should be in place in case the situation in Venezuela further deteriorates–being prepared is a good thing. What he was wrong for doing, as usually, was not fully comprehending the situation and opening his big fat mouth. The “military option” should be a contingency plan, not a threat. Trump’s inability to say nothing, to not be the tough guy, has made a bad situation worse.

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Conflict Watch: The Determinative Role of Armed Forces In Regime Change (A Comparative Analysis)

Police leave their position around the Ukrainian p[arliament in Kiev on Friday after the country’s deputy army chief resigned in protest over government attempts to involve the army to put down the unrest rocking Ukraine. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Disgraced ex-Ukranian President Yanukovych (is it too soon to call him ex-President?) signed an agreement with the opposition for early elections and a new government, pulling Ukraine back from the brink of catastrophe. Do not confuse Yanukovych’s decision for altruism; rather it was a last resort after it became clear the Ukrainian army would not intervene on his behalf.

Today, the Ukrainian Armed Forces reiterated its commitment to neutrality. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel commended the move, and his support is well founded. A comparative analysis of recent protest movements shows the determinative role Armed Forces play in domestic political conflicts:

Egypt: In modern Egyptian history, the Army has been the strongest and least unaccountable force in domestic politics. It is therefore unsurprising those in control of the Army are determined to ensure their spot at the top of the pyramid (no pun intended) is preserved. The Egyptian military has a vested interest in a protracted civil conflict; by creating an adversary in the Muslim Brotherhood, it has secured an important role in Egyptian life and public support. Indeed, military supremacy was enshrined in a recently passed constitutional referendum.

The Egyptian military determined the outcome of Egyptian politics by removing democratically elected President Morsi by a coup (as opposed to allowing a political process of impeachment and new elections to decide who leads). The army has restricted media independence and cracked-down on all dissenters (including many who were instrumental in removing previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and the ineffectual President Morsi). Now General Sisi–the very man who organized the coup–is poised to take over as Egypt’s next “democratically elected” president.

Syria: In Syria’s dynastic authoritarian regime, the armed forces are controlled exclusively by President Assad; the military cannot be expected to support the will of the people. Assad ordered a military response to peaceful protests, resulting in a protracted civil war with no end in sight.

Thailand:  The Thai army is committed to remaining neutral in anti-government protests (which was not a given; Thailand has a long history of military intervention in politics), allowing the political process to play itself out (the army has positioned itself near protest sight for security purposes, but hasn’t taken a side).

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has proposed early elections; her opposition wants an appointed caretaker government to implement reforms before elections are held. In a recent development, Yingluck has been called in to answer for corruption charges related to a rice subsidy (a policy symbolic of her Pheu Parties popularity with Thailand’s poor), which could result in her impeachment.

Venezuela: Paratroopers we’re called in to “maintain the peace”, which is allegedly a cover for a brutal crackdown of the anti-Maduro opposition. The future remains uncertain in Venezuela; if reports of a bloody crackdown are true, a protracted civil conflict is likely.

When it comes to regime change, the means are just as important as the endsThe extent to which Armed Forces remain neutral / indiscriminately uphold security (in order to give the political process time to run it’s course) is a good indication of both how “ugly” protests will become, and the direction a country will move ex post facto.

In Egypt the military could have remained neutral, allowing the Egyptian people to impeach Morsi and setup elections. Instead, the military decided to intervene, securing it’s own interests. Morsi had to go, but the way he was removed has set the country on a path divergent from pluralistic democracy. In a similar vein, Sisi may indeed be the President Egyptians want. If so, why the need to crackdown on dissenters?

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck may indeed be a corrupt ruler unworthy of her office. If this is the case, allow the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to conduct an impartial investigation. If she is found guilty, there may be grounds for impeachment. If not, the vocal minority opposition will have to rethink it’s position.

Notably, the Thai Military is allowing the political process to determine the countries political future (as in Ukraine), increasing the likelihood that a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Thailand can emerge from this current bout of unrest (Unlike Egypt, Syria, and likely Venezuela).

If a countries Armed Forces are committed to the goal of pluralistic democracy, the best thing they can do is remain neutral and allow domestic political conflicts to be resolved politically. Democratic governance is derived from “soft power“–inclusive politics, non-violent protest, self-determination. The need to resort to force against non-violent protests is proof in and of itself that human rights rhetoric is being used to human rights violations.

When the global champions of human rights (U.S., E.U., U.N. etc) urge deescalation and dialogue, these are not empty words (as Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay has urged in Venezuela). Over the past few decades, “soft power” has played an increasingly important role in both domestic and international affairs. Governments that embrace this shift will ultimately be the most successful.