Photo Jonathan Blair

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.