Last week, the Associated Press reported that President Trump once pressed aides on the possibility of invading Venezuela to topple the ruling Maduro regime. The move, last August, was allegedly dismissed by his then-National Security adviser H.R. McMaster as a rash idea that would undermine America’s relationship with his Latin American allies.
Yet Trump wasn’t convinced. According to Colombian officials who spoke to AP, he decided to propose the idea to a group of regional leaders at the UN General Assembly last September. The answer was an unequivocal no, and the trading bloc later declared that “the only acceptable means of promoting democracy are dialogue and diplomacy” and opposing “any option that implies the use of force.”
Despite its obvious significance, the story was drowned out by the usual and ongoing rows over everything from immigration to the Russia investigation. Venezuela’s demise in the aftermath of Hugo Chávez’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ remains a somewhat inconvenient topic for much of the media who presented Chavez as a hero of his time.
Most dismiss the Trump Venezuela story as an example of Trump’s impulsivity on a matter that he does not fully understand. That may be true, although the idea itself is not without reason or precedent. It is also increasingly discussed by the many Venezuelans living in exile or fighting the regime from the inside.
Apart from its long term ally in Cuba, Venezuela is the only country in Latin America indisputably within the grip of an authoritarian dictatorship. Since seizing power in 2013, Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver who rose the ranks of Chávez’s socialist government, has degraded the country’s democratic institutions and installed a fraudulent lawmaking body filled with government stooges. After calling a presidential election in May, he banned nearly all opposition candidates from running and succeeded in conducting a sham election. Venezuelan democracy is well and truly dead.
Political repression is also rampant. Hundreds of former political figures are locked up for having opposed the regime. The most prominent of those is the opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was imprisoned for his role in organizing mass protests against the government. According to multiple human rights groups, prisoners are regularly tortured. Through his new legislature, Maduro has begun introducing new laws designed to chip away at freedoms guaranteed in the Venezuelan constitution. An example includes the recent passing of the “Law Against Fascism and Hatred,” which effectively silences criticism of the government.
As well as his tyrannical streak, Maduro has also overseen an economic collapse that has left millions of people in dire poverty. The country’s minimum wage is equivalent to under two dollars ($2) a month and increasing numbers are suffering health problems linked to malnutrition. Countless Venezuela horror stories have emerged, including cases of child prostitution, the butchering of zoo animals, even cannibalism. Thousands of people are now fleeing the country every day to neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Colombia. Last year the U.S. received more asylum requests from Venezuela than Syria. The Council on Foreign Relations has deemed Venezuela a “humanitarian crisis,” and, as things worsen, America can only expect to see more political and economic migrants turning up on its southern border. This is all from a country that has the largest oil reserves in the world.
Yet an attempt to liberate and relieve the suffering of the Venezuelan people is only one aspect of a potential military intervention. In recent years, the State Department has acknowledged that the Maduro is allowing jihadist groups such as the Islamic State to operate freely in Venezuela. The country’s vice-president, Tareck El Aissimi, is also a designated drug ‘kingpin’ with strong links to Hezbollah. Last year, it even emerged that prominent Maduro henchman Diosdado Cabello (believed to be the head of the drug trafficking group Cartel de los Soles) ordered a failed assignation attempt on Florida Senator Marco Rubio. The Venezuelan regime is by all accounts an enemy of the United States, and will do anything within their limited power to undermine it. A Venezuelan invasion would differ from recent US-led wars, too, in that it would be an example of America interfering in its ‘near abroad’ rather than the more remote Middle East.
Removing the Maduro regime from power can be presented as a priority for U.S. national security, a concept fully in line with Trump’s policy of ‘America First.’ As with all foreign policy, there is no easy solution to reviving a failed state and removing its leaders from power, but a Venezuela intervention would not necessarily be as unpopular with Trump voters as a move to put boots on the ground in, say, Syria.
Trump has made no secret of his determination to win Venezuelans their freedom, and has refused to rule out a military solution. However, his response so far has come in the form of economic sanctions against the country’s crucial oil sector. That appears only to be hurting the Venezuelan people. To set Venezuela back on the path to recovery and to secure regional security, a more radical solution must be found.
Ben Kew is a National Security reporter for Breitbart News who has written extensively on Venezuela