Venezuela: No Invasion, No Sanctions

Venezuelan flag at an anti-Maduro demonstration in Plaza Altamira, Caracas.

The United States has never invaded South America. U.S. troops have landed many times in Central America, Mexico, and across the Caribbean, but not once into a nation on the continent of South America. President Donald J. Trump is now considering making Venezuela the first.

Most people are shocked at the idea of a U.S. war in Venezuela, finding nothing that would warrant such an extreme action. But even if invasion can be avoided, it does not follow that the United States should impose harsh economic sanctions on Venezuela.

Yet sanctions are the policy that the U.S. has adopted, and it is one backed by too many in the Democratic Party, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and former vice president Joe Biden. This is a mistake. The existing sanctions are cruel in their effect, bringing yet more suffering, misery, and death to the most vulnerable Venezuelans. This is not the policy we want. This is not who we are.

Nobody except Trump wants an invasion

Sending the U.S. military into Venezuela would be a mistake of historic magnitude. Fortunately, at least for the moment, an invasion looks unlikely. Even Trump’s Special Representative for Venezuela, disgraced former Reagan adviser Elliott Abrams, thinks invading Venezuela is a bad idea.

Since at least 1868, Latin America has made plain its united opposition to U.S. interventionism. The Calvo Doctrine, offered that year by Argentine diplomat Carlos Calvo, declared Latin America’s unequivocal opposition to U.S. aggression in the region. This view holds today, with even the Lima Group, the twelve Latin American nations that no longer recognize the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro, issuing a joint statement in opposition to any form of military intervention in Venezuela. Invading Venezuela would severely damage U.S. relations with Latin America, digging a deep well of ill will and assuring enduring distrust of the United States for generations to come.

Invasion and occupation would almost certainly be bloody, long, and ultimately ineffective. Venezuela could quickly send into the field a fighting force of 100,000 to 200,000 soldiers (estimates vary) and up to two million militia. Venezuelan soldiers are armed with billions of dollars in modern weapons from China and Russia. They have tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Venezuela is not Grenada.

Maduro has many domestic opponents, but the Venezuelan armed forces still enjoy broad support from the underclass. This stems from the fact that under President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), a former army lieutenant colonel, the military was used as the principal instrument for dispensing aid and funds to the Venezuelan poor, the great majority of people in the nation. Not surprisingly, the positive reputation of the military grew with every new Chávez mission to address poverty and enhance social inclusion for all.

While today the opposition to President Maduro surely numbers in the millions of people, it would be a grave error to expect that most Venezuelans would greet U.S. soldiers as liberators. Probably most Venezuelans would see the American troops as an invading and occupying army and could be counted upon to treat them as such.

In this context, U.S. soldiers would provide a handy target for the legions of unemployed and angry young men looking to vent their frustrations at their desperate economic circumstances. To them, making war on the invaders might be the only action available in an economic situation made disastrously worse by foreign invasion and war.

The results of a U.S. invasion are too easy to foresee: getting bogged down in a deeply unpopular war, looking for any excuse to get out, leaving utter chaos behind. Only the most unwise of leaders would ever contemplate such a course of action.

Too many support an economic blockade

For now, the United States has settled on a policy of economic blockade. Blockade is actually the correct word, not sanctions or embargo. Sanctions are legal obstacles set up by one nation to prevent trading with another nation. An embargo stops all trade with a nation. A blockade, the current U.S. policy, prevents any nation from trading with Venezuela. This is the same sort of policy that the United States has long had in place against Cuba.

Early this year, President Trump used emergency decrees (the same dubious approach he is using to redirect government funding to build a longer wall on the U.S. border with Mexico) to seize Venezuelan assets and begin punishing all nations that try to trade with Venezuela.

The economic situation in Venezuela in recent years has been very bad, dropping into negative GDP (gross domestic product) growth beginning in 2014. But most of the current hardships are not, as is sometimes supposed, the inevitable result of irrational socialist policies and Chávez or Maduro’s economic mismanagement.

The origins of economic collapse

Neither Chávez nor Maduro implemented anything approaching socialist economic programs. The oil industry was nationalized in 1976, decades before Chávez was elected the first time. While today some banks, media outlets, and other enterprises are government-controlled and managed, the largest share of the Venezuelan economy remains in the hands of the private sector, foreign and domestic.

The worst economic misstep of Chávez, one continued under Maduro, was a policy of government currency controls that came in the wake of the attempted right-wing coup in 2002.

The coup was a failed effort by some in Venezuela’s military leadership to remove Chávez by force and kill him. The Venezuelan business élite was the driving force behind the violence; after Chávez was captured, the head of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce, Pedro Carmona, declared himself president, closing all other branches of government and announcing that he would be ruling by decree. U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro met at once with Carmona, providing de facto recognition to the coup government. As reported in the New York Times, the U.S. government knew about the coup in advance and had channeled funding to the opposition groups.

In the event, Venezuelan troops loyal to the elected government reversed the coup within 47 hours, saving Chávez’s life and restoring him to office. But Chávez, needing to secure his base and assure the loyalty of at least some portion of the business élite, adopted a currency control program designed to win wider support for his administration. Chávez’s monetary policy—manipulating the value of the nation’s currency to greatly overvalue it—made imports vastly less expensive than they would have been otherwise.

This monetary policy made the import of food and basic necessities much cheaper, filling the government-run grocery stores with low-cost products to help Venezuelans living in the poorest neighborhoods. At the same time, Chávez rewarded the businesses that had not backed the coup, especially small and medium-sized ones, by granting them preferential access to low-cost U.S. dollars. This program worked to bring Chávez some support with segments of the middle class and business, providing breathing space for his government in the wake of the coup.

Maduro, unwisely, continued this foreign exchange policy even as the economic distortions it engendered–shortages, out-of-control inflation–became manifest.

The other key economic issue over the past several years has been the drop in the price of oil. Venezuela has long been dependent on oil to provide the vast majority of its export earnings and government revenue. Beginning in the 1920s, and with gathering speed by the decade of the 1950s, Venezuela became wholly reliant upon its export earnings from oil, a level of dependence unbroken down to the present. In 2011 the price for a barrel of oil was at $97 USD, but by 2016 it had fallen to $35 USD.  More than any other factor, the drop in oil prices most explained the economic slide that began in 2014.

Humanitarian crisis

However, the deepening of the economic disaster of Venezuela today is not chiefly due to the fall in oil prices or the currency manipulation policies of Chávez and then Maduro. The current economic free fall is being caused by the U.S. economic blockade.

Venezuela is now frozen out from international lending. This means Venezuela cannot refinance its debt nor can it borrow against future oil earnings to stabilize its currency. This makes it impossible for Venezuela to reboot its currency by floating it against the dollar. An inflation rate of over 1 million percent is expected this year. The U.S.-imposed credit freeze has made it impossible for Venezuela to take steps to address this situation. 

Worst of all, as a result of the U.S. economic blockade, Venezuela cannot purchase the basic foodstuffs and medicines that it, like nearly all developing world countries, can obtain only via imports. Likewise, Venezuela cannot buy parts to maintain the nation’s power grid, water lines, or sanitation services.

The U.S. policy is deadly. According to the annual social conditions survey conducted by three Venezuelan universities, Venezuela suffered an added 40,000 deaths this past year due to the shortages caused by the U.S. economic blockade. As the policy continues, among the dead will be those needing dialysis, medicines for high blood pressure, and AIDS retroviral drugs.

What to do?

A new U.S. administration beginning January 2021 should act immediately to save human lives in Venezuela. The trade and credit blockade must end at once.

Venezuela needs aid, and it is obvious that the Maduro administration should already have been accepting assistance from any nation that would offer it. But he won’t.

He might, however, take it if it came from Cuba, a Venezuelan ally.

One potential option would be to ship relief supplies, food and medicine, through Cuba. Cuba is at present also facing severe food shortages and has long been denied U.S. pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. Cuba would be willing to accept U.S. aid. At the same time, Cuba has expressed a strong sense of solidarity with the Venezuelan people. Cuba would help Venezuela.

Helping desperate people is all that matters. What does not matter is what route the aid might take or who gets credit for it. For U.S. policy, saving lives should be the goal. This is who we are. 

Offering a truly selfless and humanitarian U.S. policy for Venezuela might well be a first for the U.S. government, and it would certainly be far better than the one Trump has in mind.