Intervening in the Venezuela crisis
An imploding Venezuela is not in the interest of most countries; the conditions there must be stopped on moral grounds
The Venezuelan crisis is moving relentlessly from catastrophic to unimaginable. The level of misery, human suffering, and destruction has reached a point where the international community must rethink how it can help.
In July, I described the unprecedented nature of Venezuela’s economic calamity, documenting the collapse in output, incomes, and living and health standards. Probably the single most telling statistic I cited was that the minimum wage (the wage earned by the median worker) measured in the cheapest available calorie, had declined from 52,854 calories per day in May 2012 to just 7,005 by May 2017—not enough to feed a family of five. By last month, the minimum wage had fallen to just 2,740 calories a day. And proteins are in even shorter supply.
According to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), oil production has declined by 16% since May, down more than 350,000 barrels a day.
Rather than taking steps to end the humanitarian crisis, the government is using it to entrench its political control. Rejecting offers of assistance, it is spending its resources on Chinese-made military-grade crowd-control systems to thwart public protests.
Many outside observers believe that as the economy worsens, the government will lose power. But the organized political opposition is weaker now than it was in July, despite massive international diplomatic support. Since then, the government has installed an unconstitutional constituent assembly with full powers, deregistered the three main opposition parties, sacked elected mayors and deputies, and stolen three elections.
With all solutions either impractical, deemed infeasible, or unacceptable, most Venezuelans are wishing for some deus ex machina to save them from this tragedy. The best scenario would be free and fair elections to choose a new government. This is Plan A for the Venezuelan opposition organized around the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, and is being sought in talks taking place in the Dominican Republic.
But it defies credulity to think that a regime that is willing to starve millions to remain in power would yield that power in free elections. The fact that the Maduro government has stolen three elections in 2017 alone and has blocked the electoral participation of the parties with which it is negotiating, again despite massive international attention, suggests that success is unlikely.
A domestic military coup to restore constitutional rule is less palatable to many democratic politicians, because they fear that the soldiers may not return to their barracks afterwards. Maduro’s regime already is a military dictatorship, with officers in charge of many government agencies. The senior officers of the armed forces are corrupt to the core, having been involved for years in smuggling, currency and procurement crimes, narco-trafficking and extra-judicial killings.
Targeted sanctions, managed by the US office of foreign assets control (Ofac), are hurting many of the thugs ruling Venezuela. But, these measures are too slow at best. At worst, they will never work. After all, such sanctions have not led to regime change in Russia, North Korea or Iran.
This leaves us with an international military intervention, a solution that scares most Latin American governments because of a history of aggressive actions against their sovereign interests, especially in Mexico and Central America. But these may be the wrong historical analogies. After all, Simón Bolívar gained the title of Liberator of Venezuela thanks to an 1814 invasion organized and financed by neighbouring Nueva Granada (today’s Colombia). France, Belgium, and the Netherlands could not free themselves of an oppressive regime between 1940 and 1944 without international military action.
The implication is clear. As the Venezuelan situation becomes unimaginable, the solutions to be considered move closer to the inconceivable. The duly elected national assembly, where the opposition holds a two-thirds majority, has been unconstitutionally stripped of power by an unconstitutionally appointed supreme court. And the military has used its power to suppress protests and force into exile many leaders, including the Supreme Court justices elected by the national assembly in July.
As solutions go, why not consider the following one: the national assembly could impeach Maduro and the Ofac-sanctioned, narco-trafficking vice-president, Tareck El Aissami. The assembly could constitutionally appoint a new government, which in turn could request military assistance from a coalition of the willing, including Latin American, North American, and European countries. This force would free Venezuela, in the same way Canadians, Australians, Brits and Americans liberated Europe in 1944-1945.
According to international law, none of this would require approval by the UN Security Council (which Russia and China might veto), because the military force would be invited by a legitimate government seeking support to uphold the country’s constitution. The existence of such an option might even boost the prospects of the ongoing negotiations in the Dominican Republic.
An imploding Venezuela is not in most countries’ national interest. And conditions there constitute a crime against humanity that must be stopped on moral grounds. How many lives must be shattered before salvation comes? ©2018/Project Syndicate
Ricardo Hausmann is director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University and a professor of economics at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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