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"]