Could Venezuela be on the brink of a civil war as bloody as Syria?
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We Americans are really good at getting sucker-punched. From Pearl Harbor to Sputnik to 9/11 and the Syrian civil war, we constantly ask ourselves, “Hey, how’d that happen, and why didn’t we prepare for it?”

Well, a new fist is hurtling out of the not-too-distant future. It's the Venezuelan civil war.

Recently, a stolen police helicopter attacked the Venezuelan Supreme Court with grenades and automatic weapons. While no one was hurt, the incident should serve as a wake-up call for the entire Western Hemisphere, including the United States. The attack demonstrates a quantum escalation of the hunger-fueled conflict that has consumed the country for close to a year. Hunger is the key word. Hunger is the most basic of human suffering. Remember that rising food prices helped fuel the Arab Spring, which has left the world with a chaotic, fractured, refugee-hemorrhaging Middle East.

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Is Venezuela in danger of becoming another Syria? Maybe. The helicopter pilot, Oscar Perez, posted a bare-faced declaration online describing himself as representative of a group of “nationalists, patriots, and institutionalists." The fact that he has been allowed to slip quietly back into the shadows illustrates how much of the population is willing to hide him. Even more distressing is the fact that his group even had access to a helicopter, a fact illustrating how much support they may have within Venezuela’s government institutions.

 

If Perez is indeed part of “a coalition of military, police and civil officials,” his attack could very well be the opening round of a genuine armed uprising. This is how countries collapse. It's how civil wars start. And civil wars rarely exist in a vacuum. What about Columbia, where the new and fragile peace has left a lot of former FARC rebels with no marketable job skills except war? What about Mexico which roils in a cauldron of poverty, corruption, and the bloodbath of a narco-insurgency? What about the rest of Latin America, with its long bloody history of depredation and oppression? Like the Middle East, how many volcanic uprisings are right now simmering unseen below a seemingly serene surface?

If we don’t want a Syrian disaster on our front door, if we don’t want millions of displaced individuals flowing across the America’s, we need to take notice and action now. We need to make the Venezuelan food crisis a top priority of our foreign policy. Solving this crisis must include international organizations like the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

Both were vocally critical of the Obama administration’s sanctions of several officials within President Nicolas Maduro’s government. Contrary to President Obama, President Trump could use these sanctions as a bargaining chip for humanitarian aid. Likewise, he could leverage the reopening of relations with Cuba (after suddenly resevering them last month) as a way to bring in Raoul Castro as moderator. Venezuela and Cuba already have a history of warm relations and both are wary of being seen as American pawns.

A multilateral agreement under the umbrella of CELAC, UNASUR or even the Organization of American States would be win-win for everyone. It would allow Maduro to reform his suffocating top-down government without looking like he was caving into U.S. “imperialism.” At the same time, Trump could brag about his unrivaled deal-making prowess. And while these leaders feed their egos, the people of Venezuela could finally feed their children.

If we fail to act, if we let Venezuela slip into a spiral of violence, we may face a humanitarian crisis that extends far beyond the small, teetering Caribbean state. The initial unrest in Tunisia exposed the weakness of numerous Middle Eastern nations. Are these weaknesses simmering in other countries south of our border? Are other hungry, angry populations ready to start burning down their establishments?

We in the U.S. will not be able to wall ourselves off from this potential firestorm. No fence or travel ban will protect us. Only direct action can keep our neighbors and ourselves safe from the bloodshed of a Latin Spring. Only by addressing the legitimate suffering of the Venezuelan people can we hope to avert another regional conflagration. The choice is clear: proactive involvement, or the risk of another denial-based sucker-punch.

Max Brooks (@MaxBrooksAuthor) is a nonresident fellow at The Modern War Institute at West Point and a senior nonresident fellow at The Atlantic Council. He is also the author of the New York Times Bestseller “World War Z.”


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.