Editor’s note: We at GPF are a group of (more or less) like-minded individuals writing for a common purpose – to make sense of the world. It’s a daunting job that makes it impossible for us to agree on everything, so rather than shrink from the task, we have decided to embrace the impossible by publishing the first of what we hope will be many Dissenting Opinions, a column that lays out what we disagree on and why. Your feedback, as always, is greatly appreciated.
For years, Venezuela has been the picture of protracted collapse, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that its downfall was largely unassisted. Yet talk of foreign intervention abounds. A Russian plane recently landed in Caracas, and the rumor is it’s meant to pick up a few hundred million dollars worth of Venezuelan gold. The amount of money is less meaningful than the signal its transport sends – that President Nicolas Maduro is closing up shop. And since the United States has effectively severed ties with Citgo, Venezuela’s major financial asset and a subsidiary of its state-owned oil firm PDVSA, that may well be the case.
Parsing Maduro’s intentions isn’t all that interesting, and it’s not the point. What’s interesting is that the United States has for years observed the self-imposed failure of Venezuela with uncharacteristic nonchalance. Now it has acted, so the Russians and the Chinese are reacting as well.
Yet it’s difficult to think that any of them care enough to militarily intervene in Venezuela. Even Washington’s interests there are only mildly compelling. One is oil, but the importance of Venezuelan oil has declined, partly because of the surge of global production, especially in the U.S., and partly because Venezuelan production has steadily declined. Disruptions there affect some companies but are no longer strategically significant. (The wreckage of PDVSA is a legacy of the Chavez-Maduro era.) Another is narcotics. Colombian production has been vectored through Venezuela and the rumor is that senior Venezuelan government officials are involved in the trade. But this seems a thin reason to get directly involved in regime change.
Indeed, these interests are neither new nor, where the U.S. is concerned, particularly pressing. Venezuela is simply pretty low on Washington’s list of strategic considerations. It would prefer that Venezuela and Latin America be stable, so in that sense, there are a variety of regional implications of Venezuela’s demise. The country’s economic deterioration has produced a massive outflow of migrants to other Latin American countries, which are naturally worried about the costs, real and perceived, that immigration entails. These countries would ordinarily oppose U.S. intervention – they remember Washington’s legacy in that regard, and they certainly want to avoid being Washington’s next target – but many believe that something must be done about Venezuela, hence why most of Venezuela’s neighbors support opposition leader Juan Guaido, and that the U.S. is the only one that can do it. (They will, of course, reserve the right to criticize the U.S. when it suits them.) Where stability is concerned, sanctions and speeches are low cost and high return.
But intervention is never easy, even if it’s “welcomed,” since so many outside players are involved. For one, an action against Venezuela is also an action against Cuba. The reconciliation started by President Barack Obama’s administration has gone nowhere. Powerful forces in Cuba, most notably the intelligence service, are doing extremely well under the communist government in Havana, and they have no desire to liberalize the economy. (President Donald Trump, too, is skeptical of Cuban relations and so has undone some of the progress made by his predecessor.) Cuban intelligence has, meanwhile, been a major factor in guaranteeing the survival of the government in Caracas. Hugo Chavez and Maduro got to stay in power, and Cuba got discounted oil and a foothold in South America. Allowing Maduro to fall goes against Cuba’s interests.
Then there are the Russians, who are looking for every opportunity to demonstrate their relevance to the world and to their constituents. They are not global players, so they need to make global gestures. Without the resources to stabilize the Maduro government, they’ve resolved to nibble on the edges, hinting at using Venezuela as a base for military operations and landing a cargo plane there. Flying to an embattled country to collect gold certainly sends a message of importance. Offering to broker talks between the U.S. and Venezuela does too. It may or may not be an effective message, but it does drive home the notion, in theory, that Russia is powerful.
China is playing a similar game. It is opening a door for military bases in the country, something that Maduro would welcome but is ultimately pointless considering Venezuela is on the wrong side of the Panama Canal, from a Chinese military perspective. Maintaining a substantial ground or air force at that distance requires a maritime-based logistical system, and that system would be highly vulnerable to U.S. counteraction. The Panama Canal is, by definition, a chokepoint that could easily disrupt those logistical systems. It’s understandable why China would hypothesize such a strategy; doing so would capture Washington’s attention, taking its focus off the South China Sea. But the idea falls apart as soon as it’s examined.
Venezuela, then, is a strategic crisis for no one other than Venezuela. For others, the country is a source of irritation and opportunity. The U.S. is irritated at Maduro and at the Cubans. So it takes minimal steps with maximum effect, using vague military threats that would lead to a backlash in Latin America the U.S. doesn’t need. The Russians are sending planes and diplomatic notes to irritate the United States and to try to get the U.S. to do something foolish. As part of its strategy to appear as if it is deploying to the Western Hemisphere, Beijing won’t pass up an opportunity to make a suitably meaningless gesture.
No one will take major risks for or against the Maduro government. The noise surrounding its demise is made by those who want to use Caracas as a cudgel against their adversaries. That’s not to say that escalation is impossible, or that things won’t get worse for the Venezuelan people before they get better. It’s just to say that more often than not, strategy dictates decisive action.
Jacob, I understand that you don’t fully agree with my assessment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on why that is.
George Friedman, founder and CEO
It’s clear we agree that the White House’s stated reason for involving itself in Venezuela – the restoration of democracy – is not the real U.S. interest here. That is the kind of argument made by Trump administration officials who believe that a vibrant democracy in Venezuela is a matter of U.S. national interest. (Some of them are the same decision-makers who guided U.S. foreign policy through the invasion of Iraq in 2003.) But I differ with you, George, on what the United States’ primary interests are in Venezuela. I don’t think they are oil and drugs. The U.S. interest in Venezuela is maintaining the U.S. position as the strongest power in the Americas and preventing foreign powers from intervening in their affairs. Venezuela’s slow decline creates opportunities, even if they are remote ones, for others to challenge the U.S. in a sphere of influence it claimed for itself as early as 1823.
My biggest disagreement is that the U.S. has already shown that it’s interested enough in Venezuela to intervene there in every possible way except militarily. Last Tuesday, the vice president of the United States called Juan Guaido, head of the National Assembly, and told him that the U.S. government would support him if he took over the Venezuelan government. The next day, Guaido declared himself interim president, and Washington immediately recognized him as leader of Venezuela. In other words, Guaido is the United States’ handpicked choice as Venezuela’s next leader. Then on Monday, the United States imposed sanctions against state-owned oil company PDVSA to cut off the Maduro government’s primary source of revenue and redirect it to Guaido. The U.S. also wants to give Guaido control over some Venezuelan assets held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other U.S.-insured banks. This harkens back to the heavy-handed U.S. intervention in Central and South America throughout the 20th century, and it confirms one of our key forecasts for the region in 2019.
We both know that most sanctions deliver more bark than bite, but the ones the U.S. imposed this week are going to hurt. Nearly half of the Venezuelan government’s revenue, and practically all of its export earnings, comes from oil. U.S. crude oil imports from Venezuela have declined by almost 40 percent in the past two years, but even so, the U.S. consumed almost half of Venezuela’s total oil output before the sanctions were put in place. With a glut of oil already on the market, and with U.S. production increasing, the U.S. can use these sanctions as Teddy Roosevelt’s proverbial “big stick.” Soon after the sanctions were announced, Guaido said he was beginning the “progressive and ordered takeover” of Venezuelan state assets abroad, in addition to naming new boards of directors for PDVSA and its U.S. subsidiary, Citgo. Guaido has not yet been able to secure the support of the Venezuelan military, but the U.S. is doing everything it can to ensure that the buck (or the bolivar) no longer stops at Maduro.
The U.S. is doing all this not simply because it’s irritated but because it can’t afford to manage all the foreign policy issues it needs to manage globally if Venezuela is a glaring vulnerability.
The proof is in the breakdown of which countries support Guaido and which do not. Russia and China continue to recognize Maduro and are the likeliest countries to use Venezuela as a pawn against the United States. To your point, George, neither China nor Russia can sustain military forces in the Atlantic Ocean, so neither is able to use Venezuela the way, say, the Soviet Union used Cuba in the 1960s. For Moscow and Beijing, the important thing is to distract Washington with Caracas, not to co-opt it completely. If the U.S. overreacts by deploying its military, even that could play to their advantage as it would bog down the U.S. in yet another conflict. China is playing a long game, and from its perspective, the more hostility generated between the U.S. and Venezuela, the better the prospects for a strong relationship between Caracas and Beijing.
Iran and North Korea have also announced their support for Maduro. This is hardly surprising, but you can start to see the faint lines of what could become an unintentional yet potent axis of significant anti-U.S. powers. The responses of two other countries – Turkey and Mexico – are more surprising and thus more interesting. Turkey has grown closer to Venezuela in recent years, a small facet of its overall attempt to reposition itself as a regional power instead of as a U.S. lackey in the Middle East. Mexico, though, is the stunner to me. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador didn’t criticize Venezuela during his presidential campaign, but I didn’t think that meant he would break with the U.S. on an issue this serious. Under the administration of former President Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico joined the U.S. and most South American countries in opposing Maduro, but under Lopez Obrador, Mexico is now advocating a policy of non-interference and refusing to recognize Guaido. Put simply, Mexico is opposing the United States’ most serious attempt at regime change in South America since the 1970s, and in so doing, it’s aligned with U.S. strategic competitors. These are the sorts of unintended consequences that could become a much bigger problem than the fate of Maduro.
I agree that Venezuela’s internal crisis is not a strategic problem for the United States. But I also think the deterioration of the Venezuelan economy and political structure presented a strategic opportunity for U.S. adversaries, who already had a foot in the door after Chavez’s rise to power in the early 2000s, to sink their claws in deeper. The United States has decided to intervene, with a combination of political and economic measures, to achieve regime change and install a friendlier government while the cost is still low. The question now is whether Washington’s cure is worse than Venezuela’s disease. Previous U.S. interventions in Latin America created brittle pro-U.S. regimes that often turned the hearts and minds of the people against the U.S. – and in other cases simply caused chaos. They may have had some short-term benefits, but over the long term, these interventions caused as many problems as they solved. It’s hard to see how Venezuela will be any different.
I do not agree that Venezuela is so unimportant that no country would be willing to take major risks on its behalf. The U.S. just took a major risk by committing political and economic resources to remove Maduro from power. It’s doing so because it has the opportunity to oust a regime hostile to the United States at a time when Venezuela’s boisterous allies are incapable of coming to its aid. Tellingly, the U.S. has had a hard time articulating its interests in these stark terms, so it has resorted to the justification of advancing democracy. The last time the U.S. tried to advanced democracy in a foreign country – Iraq – it set off a chain of events that Washington is still dealing with today. The challenge going forward will be ensuring that this intervention does not precipitate the very strategic crisis it is meant to prevent.
Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis