Venezuelan crisis taking a dangerous turn


Sunday, February 17, 2019

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Hopes for a workable plan to resolve the political crisis in Venezuela faded last week when the consultations convened by Uruguay and Mexico in Montevideo failed to reach a consensus. The other participants were Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the European Union, and Caricom.

The consultations ended with two different positions. Uruguay, Mexico and Caricom signed on to the “Montevideo Mechanism” that proposes dialogue and negotiations without preconditions. The EU-led International Contact Group that includes Costa Rica, Ecuador and Uruguay issued a separate declaration that insisted on the holding of fresh elections. Uruguay found itself able to support both positions. Bolivia refused to support either.

Both groups intend to send representatives to Venezuela to pursue their separate “solutions”. Juan Guaido, the president of the National Assembly, who has declared himself to be the interim president, has rejected the Montevideo Mechanism. Nicolas Maduro has rejected the position put forward by the International Contact Group. The consultations in Montevideo appear to have achieved nothing.

The issue of humanitarian aid is now at the centre of the conflict with Maduro refusing to allow entry of relief supplies from the United States, charging that it will be used as a cover for US military intervention to topple his regime.

The US has submitted a resolution to the United Nations Security Council calling for humanitarian aid to Venezuela to be treated as international aid deliveries. This would enable the UN to authorise the use of force for “the creation of the necessary security conditions for the provision of humanitarian assistance”. Russia has made it clear that it will veto the resolution, but the US has repeatedly shown that it is prepared to act unilaterally.

Ironically, although the Venezuelan people are desperately in need of food, medicines and basic items, Maduro shipped 100 tons of relief supplies to Cuba following the deadly tornado that hit that country late last month. At a time like this, close allies have to be retained.

No peaceful resolution in sight

There is no peaceful resolution in sight to the stand-off between Maduro and Guaido. Maduro has signalled that he is open to dialogue with Guaido but that fresh elections are out of the question. Guaido has refused to participate in any dialogue, insisting that Maduro must step down and fresh elections must be held.

Maduro has good reason to fear the outcome of new elections. In the last credible presidential elections, held in April 2013, he won by a narrow margin of less than two per cent. At that time, the price of oil — on which Venezuela depends for 95 per cent of its revenues — was more than US$100 per barrel and the economic situation was nowhere as dire as it has since become.

Subsequently, the Opposition coalition won the parliamentary elections held in December 2015 by a margin of more than 15 per cent, capturing 112 of the 167 seats in the National Assembly.

It was these electoral shocks that prompted Maduro to strong-arm Venezuela's electoral, legislative and constitutional arrangements. The Supreme Court which is packed with Maduro loyalists, stripped the National Assembly of virtually all its powers and a new Constituent Assembly was established to exercise those powers.

Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in the 2013 elections, was barred from holding public office for 15 years for alleged “mishandling of donations and other administrative irregularities”. The next most prominent Opposition figure, Leopoldo Lopez, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on specious charges. The prosecutor at his trial, Franklin Nieves, who subsequently fled the country, stated that he was forced to use false evidence to secure the conviction. A previous arrest warrant had been issued charging Lopez with inciting violence at a protest rally that had not yet taken place and which he did not attend.

Two of the leading political parties in the Opposition coalition, Justice First and Popular Will, were barred from fielding candidates for the presidential elections that were held last year ahead of the scheduled time. There is hardly any doubt that the elections were brought forward because the deterioration in economic conditions had intensified. The Opposition coalition boycotted the elections, which resulted in Maduro securing 68 per cent of the votes cast.

Role of the military

Maduro's hold on power depends heavily on the support of the military that has always played a significant role in Venezuela's politics. How much longer Maduro will be able to rely on that support remains to be seen. There have been a few high-profile defections but these have not up, to now, been consequential.

Maduro must, however, be mindful that there is a limit to the extent to which soldiers will confront popular sentiment. History is replete with dictators being abandoned by their generals in the face of overwhelming popular revolt.

Guaido has stirred the pot by promising immunity to soldiers who defect. The behaviour of the military toward recent Opposition demonstrations has been surprisingly restrained, suggesting that the tipping point may not be far away.

US military intervention

President Donald Trump refuses to rule out US military intervention in Venezuela, a position echoed last week by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. His national security advisor, John Bolton, is known to be a trigger-happy hombre. Even more so is his recently appointed special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, whose involvement in the Iran-Contra affair in Nicaragua resulted in him pleading guilty to lying to Congress and receiving a pardon from President George HW Bush.

While the War Powers Act requires congressional approval for a declaration of war by the United States, it does allow the president to deploy military forces abroad for up to 60 days without congressional approval. Successive presidents including Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama have flouted this law by ordering extended military engagement in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Donald Trump is not likely to be shy of doing likewise.

Ideological shift in the region

The Venezuelan situation has also been affected by the ideological shift in recent elections in Latin America. Right-wing governments now control the major countries of the region — Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Peru and Chile. This clearly influenced the formation of the Lima Group and its opposition to the Maduro regime. They may well seek to provide a cloak of legitimacy for US military intervention in Venezuela. Brazil's newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, has openly declared his admiration for Donald Trump and has styled himself the “Trump of the Tropics”.

US military action in Venezuela is likely to trigger a response from Russia, which already has military assets on the ground there. This may deter the US from pursuing such a course, given its international implications. It may also conclude that the end result of what would likely be a prolonged engagement is not worth the exposure. The return of US soldiers in body bags does not bode well for presidents hoping for re-election. Yet, Trump's Rambo-style personality may not allow him to leave a job unfinished.

Broader political implications

What US military intervention would mean for the hemisphere would have consequences that extend far beyond Venezuela's borders. No country would be immune if the US is unhappy with its internal political situation. But the Organization of American States would be muted in confusion, even while its secretary general would most likely be an upfront cheerleader. Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba, and Nicaragua would protest vehemently, but ineffectually. Caricom would be locked in consultations trying to reach a consensus. US troops, in the meanwhile, would be carrying out the orders of their commander-in-chief.

Guaido has galvanised popular resistance to the Maduro regime in a way that none of the other leaders of the Opposition forces had done. He is young, bold and charismatic. The dilemma that confronts Venezuela — more so than him — is that his script and the actions that flow from it appear to be crafted in Washington, not Caracas, igniting fears that the Monroe Doctrine is getting a new lease on life.

— Bruce Golding is a former Prime Minister of Jamaica

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