Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s president, has overseen his country’s plunge into a state of disrepair and misery, and he continues to implement economic policies that lurch Venezuela into further disorder. He has tightened his grip on power and effectively replaced the country’s elected parliament, the National Assembly, with the Constituent Assembly, a rubber stamp lawmaking body filled with his supporters. The results are staggering: the economy has shrunk by 50 percent and inflation is expected to reach one million percent by the end of 2018, pushing nine out of 10 Venezuelans into poverty.
Declining government reserves have led to dire food and medicine shortages, and the country’s currency declined so dramatically that it had to be replaced. Venezuelans have been fleeing over the border to neighboring countries in response. In addition, President Maduro’s administration has been accused of being involved in the international drug trade. The Trump Administration is currently exploring the addition of Venezuela to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, a small group that includes North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Sudan. Simply put, Maduro is an international criminal whose policies are causing large-scale human suffering while destabilizing Latin America.
Approximately 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2014, and around 5,000 continue to flee every day. Colombia has received around half of the refugees, with the rest looking to settle in in Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. Unlike Europe, these migrants are culturally similar to those in their destination countries, making integration easier. However, public attitudes toward migrants have shown signs of shifting. Residents of a Brazilian border town attacked a group of Venezuelan migrants accused of theft, driving 1,200 of the migrants residing in a Brazilian refugee camp back across the Venezuelan border. Colombia, which has experienced only tepid economic growth, is estimated to spend around 0.5 percent of its gross domestic product on its share of Venezuelan immigrants.
Current U.S. policy has had no effect on changing the behaviors of those in power within Venezuela. The U.S. Treasury Department has imposed several rounds of sanctions over the past 18 months on a number of high-level officials, members of the Constituent Assembly, members of the Supreme Court of Justice, and government entities. Sanctions, however, rarely achieve their intended purpose: to change behaviors. This time has been no different. A possible next step is to sanction Venezuela’s oil exports, but the Trump administration is reluctant to do so, and its reasoning is valid. The Venezuelan economy is almost exclusively reliant upon oil and to choke off its sale would result in a complete disintegration of what is left of the country’s economy. Consequently, the Venezuelan people would suffer even further.
This combination of sanctions, humanitarian aid, and absorption of refugees has not provided a resolution. The United States offered a proposal that would have allowed Maduro to peacefully leave office. Maduro, however, is a tyrant and, no matter the intensity of international condemnation, severity of economic sanctions, or degree of human suffering, tyrants rarely relinquish power. No political solution is available; an alternative must be explored. Venezuela provides conditions that, through careful planning and coordination, may be favorable to a multilateral regime change effort.
This is not a call for military invasion by the United States or any other nation. Rather, it is a framework to facilitate the removal of Maduro and his regime from office through non-violent means, a political-military coup. It will be necessary to satisfy several interrelated conditions in order for this difficult operation to have a chance at success. First, the National Assembly will need to develop a forward-looking, plausible blueprint for Venezuela, outlining its strategy to feed and provide medical care to the Venezuelan people. This will win the National Assembly public support. Second, those in the military who are senior enough to gain the support of soldiers, yet far enough removed from Maduro, must actively participate without running the risk of a pure military takeover.
The National Assembly’s fragmented parties must unify in order to provide an alternative to Maduro and to restore the government’s legitimacy. A temporary committee consisting of politicians from all parties must be formed and should develop feasible plans to restore political, economic and social order to shore up public support. A committee composed of representatives from the United States and Latin American countries would help guide the process and mediate any areas of disagreement. Additionally, this committee will act as a liaison between the International Monetary Fund and future Venezuelan government to structure a possible economic bailout.
We know that at least some swath of the armed forces is disaffected, given recently discovered meetings with Trump administration officials regarding a coup. There is room for backchannel discussions between those members of the military that are disgruntled and disbanded members of the National Assembly. This dialogue can be facilitated and overseen by coalition intelligence operatives and military officials who would be responsible for shaping a political-military deal. A representative committee composed of leaders from each party in the National Assembly would replace the president until elections can be held.
Recent history (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) dictates that overthrowing a regime in a foreign country is an imprudent endeavor. However, Latin America is not the Middle East. Democracy and rule of law are not foreign concepts to Venezuela, which used to be a democracy. There are no simmering sectarian issues that may boil over and create an opportunity for terrorist groups to fill a political vacuum. Latin America’s days of serving as a battleground for proxy wars ended with the Cold War. There are no outside actors that would benefit from a destabilized Venezuela (i.e. there is no Iran of Latin America).
This political-military coup is not without considerable risks. The plot could be discovered by Maduro loyalists, leading the president to potentially crack down even further on political opposition and tighten his grip on power. If uncovered, the plot could also provide Maduro with fodder to blame external forces for his country’s ills, a common refrain of dictators. This could bolster his internal support (his approval ratings are around 25 percent) just enough to provide him with some political cover, though it would likely be transient.
The positives of this coup, however, outweigh the negatives. Venezuela will not improve on its own, as despots do not spontaneously develop a conscience and decide to countermand their debauched practices and policies. In fact, Maduro’s survival ultimately depends on staying in power. If he were to suddenly capitulate to economic sanctions and alter his behavior, thus clawing back the economic benefits provided to his benefactors, his presidency, along with his life, would likely be in danger. Nicolas Maduro will not give up power and Venezuela will only disintegrate further unless he and his coterie are removed from power.
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Anthony D’Ambola is a Master’s Candidate in the Security Policy Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He is currently a research intern at National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs. His research is focused on terrorism, political instability, and weak and failing states.