Photo Jonathan Blair

Thursday, February 28, 2019

A military intervention in Venezuela?

February 23 marked the failure of two gambles against the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

First, the opposition bet that Venezuela’s military would abandon Maduro and let a peaceful caravan of food and medicine cross the country’s borders from neighbouring countries; instead, it ended in tear gas, fire and death. Second, the Lima Group and most European countries bet that the recognition of Juan Guaido as interim president would lead to a peaceful collapse of the regime; instead, it ended in the embarrassed denunciation of violence that was always highly probable.

Dreams of a tropical Berlin Wall bash were replaced by opposition demands for military action.

The Lima Group is desperately looking for another path and is having a hard time finding one. At its meeting in Bogota on Monday, the alliance took a firm stand against military action, denounced Maduro’s use of violence to prevent the entry of humanitarian aid and reaffirmed its support for Guaido. It repeated its call for the military, and now the judiciary, to recognizeGuaido as interim president. The group also announced a series of diplomatic initiatives already under way at the International Criminal Court, the UN Human Rights Council and Human Rights Commission, and the OAS Permanent Council – in particular the recognition of Guaido’s envoys as legitimate representatives of Venezuela.

Broad smiles and hugging aside, this is unlikely to satisfy Guaido. On Sunday, he echoed an earlier statement of U.S. President Donald Trump. He called on the international community to "consider every option to free this homeland.” Guaido is almost certainly worried that the current mobilization, already more than a month long, could lose its momentum – as has happened repeatedly in the past. Worse still, cracks have appeared in his ranks, and the familiar spectre of disarray again threatens the opposition.

In this new phase, the United States takes centre stage, because from the beginning, Mr. Trump was adamant not to exclude the use of military force. The legality of foreign military interference in Venezuela would be on shaky grounds, but an “invitation” by Guaido – recognized broadly as the legitimate interim president of the country – could probably give the intervention some legal cover.

Ultimately, the success or failure of such a move will rest on the nature and scale of the endeavour. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Francisco Toro examines the challenges of such an intervention, noting the collateral dangers of a large operation and the difficulty of dealing with the criminal organizations – including Colombian National Liberation Army guerrillas – that control much of the country’s territory. He argues that Venezuela’s generals would quickly fold in the face of a credible threat and that its army should be spared to give the new regime a tool to reassert control over the country. Doing otherwise would turn it into a “Libya of the Caribbean.” His analysis looks sound, though the “credible threat” he favours looks a bit like another gamble. At a minimum, limited commando operations or targeted missile attacks may be needed to do the trick, while avoiding large-scale loss of life and the complete dismantling of the army. History reminds us, however, that such “surgical” operations can quickly get out of hand.

Unsurprisingly, Europe, Canada and the Lima Group will have none of this. Even Brazil, whose President is openly nostalgic of the old days of his country’s military regime, has made it clear that it would not join a military operation against Venezuela or even let U.S. troops on its territory. Given the opposition’s growing desperation, however, this unfolding scenario risks leaving Canada and its allies on the sideline.

Their bet on hardball diplomacy is coming back to haunt them: recognizing governments that enjoy no territorial or administrative control, and letting their leaders blatantly politicize humanitarian aid leads one down a slippery slope. Here, it could end up opening the way to an aggressive U.S. foreign policy that cares little for democracy but, if successful, will nonetheless reap much of the credit for toppling a heartless dictatorship. Were a Libya scenario to develop, Canada and its allies would find themselves forced to choose between owning something they didn’t break, or washing their hands and watching the disaster unfold from the outside. Whatever the outcome, I am not sure it shores up Canada’s claim to represent a bulwark of the global liberal order or a shield for the international rule of law.

[Originally published on February 26 in The Globe and Mail, under the title "Why U.S. military intervention in Venezuela would be a risky gamble"]

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Who has skin in the Venezuela game?

[Originally published by Open Canada on February 11]

The crisis in Venezuela obviously matters most for Venezuelans. On top of years of economic crisis, political repression, decaying infrastructure, withering education and social services, hollowed-out administrative capabilities, revolting corruption and stratospheric levels of criminality, they now confront the possibility of chaos and violence in an uncertain and likely drawn-out process of regime transition. At the same time, this very uncertainty holds the promise of a new economic beginning, with the prospect, dim but genuine, of a broadly legitimate political regime and of a rational economic policy.

Venezuela’s current troubles also have significant ripple effects. Canada’s media and commentators have mostly focused on the wisdom and implications of Ottawa’s recognition of Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as interim president of the country, and of its call, along with Lima Group allies, for the Venezuelan military to switch allegiance and abandon the current head of state, Nicolás Maduro.

The reality, however, is that Canada has very little at stake in this crisis. It could enjoy a moment of glory at the vanguard of global democracy promotion, if Maduro resigns. But whether he does or not, Canada’s long-standing reputation as a diplomatic honest broker will suffer from its quick siding with Guaidó. The Trudeau government will also have to face an inevitable reckoning when it becomes clear that consistently applying this new “Freeland Doctrine” of forceful democracy promotion, in a world where dubious electoral processes and broad-based challenges of the governments they produce are common, is simply not possible (think of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just last December). For Canada’s diplomacy and the credibility of its foreign policy, this is far from irrelevant, but a number of other countries have much more at stake than mere reputation or self-image.

Colombia has suffered the brunt of the crisis, absorbing most of the three million or so refugees that have fled Venezuela’s economic and political collapse. The massive inflow of refugees has hit Colombia as it confronts a tricky stage of its peace process, with millions of internally displaced people to resettle, tens of thousands of coca farmers to bring back into the legal economy and thousands of former guerrillas to reintegrate into civilian life. While public opinion and the government have proven to be admirably open and generous towards Venezuelans, uncertainty and discontent are growing as the country continues to face severe public security challenges and still partial and unequal social service provisions.

The flip side is that regime change in Caracas could both stem the flow of refugees and restart an economy that has long been a natural partner of Colombia’s. In the short-term, the fall of Maduro would put an end to the use of Venezuela’s territory by the National Liberation Army, significantly weakening the last guerrilla group that still refuses to demobilize and that has claimed the recent bombing that killed 20 people in Bogotá. For Colombia’s president, Ivan Duque, Maduro’s fall would be a great help.

Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s former president, saw himself as an heir to Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and relations between the two countries have remained extremely close since Chávez’s death in 2013. Cuban advisors surround Maduro, as they did Chávez, Cuban doctors staff many of the regime’s “missions” among Venezuela’s poor, and Cuban military personnel support Venezuela’s security and intelligence apparatus.

In exchange, Venezuela took over from Russia the transfer to Cuba of large amounts of heavily subsidized oil, which helped Havana keep its economy afloat.

Crucially, in the face of the Trump administration’s aggressive stance towards the remaining “Leftist” governments of the Americas (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela), and of the right turn of several previously sympathetic countries (Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador), Venezuela gave “strategic depth” to Cuba’s diplomatic and military defence arrangement. Losing both the oil — which admittedly had been diminishing quickly — and a key buffer would represent a major strategic setback for Havana. For Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and the still-influential Raul Castro, Maduro’s fall would be a costly loss.

Until now, China has refused to recognize Guaidó and made it clear that it would block any US attempt to use the United Nations Security Council to pressure Venezuela, for instance by suspending its membership in the multilateral body. Beyond that, however, the Chinese government has remained largely quiet, its media defending a peaceful political settlement and giving pride of place to negotiation efforts by the UN Secretary-General. That moderation could well be related to the Venezuelan government’s debt to China, estimated at $13 billion. The idea has been floated that China — and Russia — could decide to jump in to defend Maduro and take control of what many refer to as the largest oil reserves in the world. Notwithstanding the fact that much of that oil is probably not recoverable, the global oil glut, the sorry state of Venezuela’s production infrastructure and the poor quality of its heavy, sour crude oil, such a bet would make little economic and even strategic sense. China has a lot of money currently sunk in what looks like a bottomless pit and internationally-supported guarantees of repayment by Guaidó could perhaps make Beijing reconsider its current position. Keeping a hard line, by contrast, could put its sizable investment in jeopardy.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has also lent money to Venezuela, and Russia’s Rosneft oil company has a collateral claim to half of Venezuela’s US-based refinery, Citgo (the US government is now preventing Citgo from remitting its revenues to Maduro’s government). The amounts involved — $2 billion to $3 billion — are relatively small, but Russia does not have the financial leeway of China. Venezuela has also bought sizable amounts of weapons from Russia, though the extent to which they have already been paid for is unclear. Altogether, Moscow’s economic stakes nonetheless appear to be relatively limited. Venezuela probably matters more to Putin as a piece of the chicken game he is playing with at least part of the Trump administration. Maduro’s fall would be a loss, but Venezuela is not equal to Syria or Ukraine on Moscow’s strategic board, and the shock would have little strategic impact on Russia’s position.

The United States
The Trump administration was the first to recognize Guaidó. It has also undercut attempts by the Lima Group — and now Europe — to frame the international pressure as a peaceful initiative by insisting that military intervention remain an option. The fall of Maduro’s fragile regime would be a boon to an administration that boasts of machismo but has in fact been retreating globally in the face of Russia’s and China’s increasingly assertive policies beyond the Americas. Another easy win could be in the offing in Nicaragua — another member, along with Cuba, of what John Bolton has called Latin America’s “Troika of Tyranny” — where President Daniel Ortega also confronts massive popular opposition. The first domino, however, absolutely has to fall, and Washington really can’t afford to lose such an easy play.

Many other countries have dipped into the Venezuela stew: Brazil, most members of the EU, Mexico, Norway and Bolivia, among others. Like Canada, however, they have little at stake: they are to a large extent “disinterested.” This gives them freedom but also makes them less likely to remain engaged or to throw in significant political or economic capital. Hopefully, it should also make them wary of pushing for “solutions” whose consequences are immaterial for them but all too concrete for Venezuelans.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Venezuela: The opposition's dangerous "humanitarian" gamble

An aid caravan organized by the opposition and supported mainly by the United States and Colombia will try to cross the border against the will of the Maduro government. Military and largely criminalized militia units have been massed at the border to prevent them from doing so.

In the words of Francisco Toro, one of the keenest observer of Venezuela and a critic of Maduro: "It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool – one aimed squarely at Venezuela’s military establishment for the purpose of getting them to turn on President Nicolás Maduro’s government."

In an interview with PBS,  Guaidó himself sees the humanitarian caravan as a political endeavour and the possibility of violence as a risk worth taking:

"Nadja Drost: If the military doesn't allow the aid to cross over the border, there is a possibility of a violent confrontation. Is that cost worth it in order to be able to bring some temporary relief to a small number of Venezuelans in proportion to how many Venezuelans need long-term humanitarian aid? Are you willing to take that risk in order to bring humanitarian aid across the border?

Juan Guaido: It is worth it. It's good for millions of children who are in need. Besides, we need to muster the strength for this situation to stop. This has been years in the making, years of mobilizations of political persecution of more than 1,000 political prisoners. Persecutions and asylees and the exiled, ask them if their sacrifice has been worth it. It has been worth it."

Clearly, he sees the caravans less as a way to address short-term humanitarian needs and as a tactic meant to further corner the regime.

So, what is likely to happen tomorrow?

Assuming there is no support for the caravan from Brazilian, Colombian or American military personnel (I will go back to this later) I see three main possible scenarios:

1) The caravan's participants chicken out in the face of the government's military units and retreat in clouds of tear gas but without victims. We are back to square one from their standpoint and both the opposition and its international ally have to look for a new plan while the economic and humanitarian situation of the country continues to deteriorate.

2) The military chickens out and let the caravan in. Fraternization scenes take place, relayed all over the world, other demonstrations follow in Caracas and Maracaibo, and Maduro and his clique rush to the airport with as much gold and cash as they can carry. This is what the opposition hopes and what the regime fears the most. Indeed, this is probably why Maduro did NOT send military units to prevent the public demonstration of January 23rd, where Juan Guaido took oath as interim president: he feared fraternization. This is also probably why he is likely to do his best to prevent it from happening, in particular, bringing in his most radical militia followers, as well as the foreign fighters (Colombian ELN guerrillas who have everything at stake here, along with Cuban and possibly Nicaraguan "volunteers"). 

3) The military (or whoever "mans" the border for Maduro) fires on the caravan and people are killed possibly a large number. This meets with international condemnation and opens the door to the explicit threat of a Colombia-US intervention. The corrupt and disorganized Venezuelan military partly liquefies in the face of such a challenge, with top officers running away. Militias and foreign fighters resist but the some hold firm, and while they leave major cities, they take refuge in South and West of the country and live out of drug trafficking and smuggling for a long while. This is the bloodiest scenario.

The possibility of military support to the caravan by Brazil and Colombia was mentioned by Jorge Castaneda, Mexico’s former foreign minister, in a recent op-ed in the New York Times.  While the Brazilian government said clearly that it would make the aid available at the frontier, its military leaders oppose the use of force to deliver it,  leaving Colombia and the US as the only two possible countries to support that option. Such support will embolden the opposition and make scenario 1 unlikely.

At this point, I think that scenarios 2 and 3 are most probable, with scenario 2 obviously the most preferable.

For the international community, though, even such a "success" would come at a heavy cost, as the episode would represent a most blatant case of aid politicization. Francisco Toro puts it best: "[T]he humanitarian community can never be seen to violate its principle of political neutrality: even if the opposition tactic does prove effective (which is a long way from a given), for the aid sector to back it would set a precedent that stores up any amount of trouble for the future." This is highly problematic for a country like Canada, particularly given the Trudeau-Freeland loud proclamations in favour of the international rule of law.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Check what Guatemala is doing at home while denouncing Venezuela in Ottawa...

Well, apparently, not all eyes are on Guatemala these days...

From The Americas Quarterly and worth reading in full.

All Eyes on Guatemala as Crisis Brews Ahead of Elections

President Jimmy Morales' maneuvering against Guatemala's institutions could give the U.S. a chance to recalibrate its policy.

It’s not every day that a purportedly friendly foreign nation tries to intimidate the United States by dispatching a fleet of military vehicles to the U.S. Embassy. It is rarer still for the vehicles in question to have been donated by the United States itself and diverted from their intended mission of combatting crime and narcotics trafficking. And it is perhaps unprecedented that such a turn of events would elicit only a tepid response from the U.S. government, followed a short while later by the transfer of additional military jeeps to the foreign government in question.

Camilleri is director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. Ziff is a program assistant with the Peter D. Bell Program.

Venezuela: Norway looks a lot like the honest broker that Canada could have been

While Canada is calling for the Venezuelan military to change side and support Juan Guaido, Norway takes an "intriguing" position: at some point, it may be useful to have someone between the two sides and their respective allies.

Below, the Google translation of an article published yesterday in Verdens Gang (VG):

Norway does not recognize Juan Guaidó as temporary president of Venezuela

Unlike the United States and several European countries, the Norwegian government does not recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as temporary president of Venezuela.

- Norway has the tradition of recognizing states, not governments. We have always expressed our support for Juan Guaidó as the elected and legitimate president of the National Assembly, says Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide (H).

Guaidó, head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, proclaimed himself president two weeks ago, but still has little real power and seemingly little support from the country's armed forces.

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide (H) says that Norway maintains the requirement for respect for democratic rights and new elections. She also reiterates previous statements that Norway encourages the parties to dialogue that may lead to new elections. - We maintain the demand for respect for democratic rights and new elections. The situation in Venezuela is acute and we urge the parties to establish an inclusive political process that can lead to new elections. Norway has a dialogue with both parties and has offered them assistance to such a process if and when they wish, ”she says.

Professor Benedicte Bull, a researcher at Latin America at the University of Oslo, follows developments in Venezuela. Photo: The University of OsloLes all of Norway can try to become facilitator - I look at this as stepping slightly gently. One does not necessarily disagree, but that it is okay to have players with a slightly different position for the government to withdraw. If they are pushed up in a corner, it can be difficult to accomplish something, says political scientist Benedicte Bull, who researches Latin America at the University of Oslo, to VG. She thinks there are two things one is now trying to achieve in Venezuela. One is a government change in new elections. The second is a good process that allows a government change to create a long-term peaceful solution. In this process, Norway may try to be a facilitator.

- There is no doubt that the government is giving clear support to Guaidó, but there is some cautious play, which may not be so stupid in this situation.

- Is there a solution in Venezuela? - I think things happen every day now. I think we're going to see a change in the situation. However, she says that a solution is far ahead.

- A solution had to be a transitional government, peace and a solution to the economic problems.

After President Nicolás Maduro on Monday refused to follow up the demand from seven EU countries to light new elections by Sunday, France, Spain, the UK and Sweden went Monday to announce the public announcement that they recognize Guaidó as Venezuela's acting president. Shortly after, Denmark, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Germany and Austria joined.

The countries urge Guaidó to light new elections as quickly as possible.

"We are working to bring democracy back to Venezuela, with human rights, elections and no more political prisoners," said Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in a television talk, according to the AP. Maduro, who has a background as union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, blames the United States for conducting economic warfare against Venezuela and raising coups hoping to gain control over the country's oil resources, Reuters writes.