Venezuela is on fire, and US national security will get burned
Piloting a stolen helicopter over the debris of political protests that have already left nearly 100 dead, “rogue” policeman Oscar Alberto Perez — known as the “Venezuelan James Bond” for his previous roles in action films — dropped four grenades and shot 15 rounds at Venezuela’s Supreme Court last month. What Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s administration called a “terrorist attack” was Perez’s response to Maduro’s plans to restructure the Constitution, which many fear will functionally end democracy in Venezuela.
This is taking place against a backdrop of human rights abuses and a fracturing economy that are threatening to rend Venezuela’s social fabric and plunge it into a civil war. These issues threaten U.S. national security. Sharp increases in asylum applications and ongoing complacency with drug trafficking have forced Venezuela’s problems to the U.S. Through strategic diplomacy and multilateral partnerships, the U.S. can work to restore calm to a restive country on the brink.
Since 2014, the price of Venezuela’s most important export, oil, has fallen by 70 percent. Coupled with the ruthless inefficiency of a Bolivarian populism gone mad, these pressures have led to a currency crisis, with inflation expected to rise to 720 percent this year. Economic distress has caused food shortages so severe that nearly three-quarters of Venezuelans have lost at least 19 pounds in the last year. Maduro is seeking to consolidate his power with a referendum on July 30th, stacked in his favor, that would grant him and his allies broad power to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution.
Maduro has already taken unconstitutional steps to amass power, claiming they will restore peace. In May, Maduro and a Supreme Court packed with loyalists seized power from the opposition-led National Assembly, removing its legislative powers before quickly backtracking upon international criticism. Since then, Maduro’s allies in the Supreme Court have rejected a motion that would have prohibited him from rewriting the Constitution.
Opposition leaders dominating the National Assembly have responded to this institutional breakdown with plans for an unofficial referendum on July 16th. The opposition-led referendum will be solely symbolic, giving the populace a platform to rebuke Maduro’s plans. This referendum has been planned in the face of violent attacks on opposition lawmakers.
Maduro appears to be using his predecessor’s playbook. In 1999, hours after assuming office, Hugo Chavez constructed a constitutional assembly in which 122 of the 128 seats were filled with his allies. Through ensuing constitutional changes, Chavez successfully increased the presidential term limit, allowed for immediate reelection, and tightened the president’s control over the military through direct control over promotions. With such a historical precedent set, Maduro will likely repeat this bold move, and have the upcoming changes to the Constitution tailored to his wishes.
While oil money was still propelling its economy, Venezuela created strategic and economic partnerships with countries sharing its anti-U.S. views, including Cuba, Iran, and Syria. This axis included drug and terror facilitation. Nicknamed “Aeroterror,” joint Iran Air and Conviasa flights flew regularly between Caracas, Damascus and Tehran from 2007 to 2010 carrying terrorists, weapons, drugs, and money.
Recently, a Venezuelan whistleblower accused Vice President Tarek El Aissami of having ties to Iran and Hezbollah, and of providing 173 passports to drug traffickers and terrorists, allowing them visa-free travel to more than 130 countries. These incidents are symptomatic of Venezuela’s role as a narco-state, and indicate an ongoing threat to U.S. and regional security interests.
The U.S. has responded with sanctions and the threat of more sanctions to come in the hopes of promoting stability by incentivizing Venezuela’s leadership to respect democratic values and regional security. In March, the U.S. Treasury Department designated El Aissami as a drug kingpin. In May, it sanctioned eight Supreme Court justices for their role in propagating the crisis by usurping the power of the National Assembly and “thereby restricting the rights and thwarting the will of the Venezuelan people.” At the Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in June, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan made clear that additional sanctions would be forthcoming if Maduro’s government did not change course.
In response, Venezuela’s foreign minister dared the U.S. to “send in its Marines.” After the OAS threatened to end Venezuela’s membership on the basis of Maduro’s dictatorship and its failing democracy, the minister accused the OAS secretary general of wanting to stir up a civil war in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s institutionalized corruption and its subsequent deterioration is not confined to its borders. The threat posed by the influx of migrants flowing into Colombia and Brazil affects the entire hemisphere. Thus, efforts to address its crisis should be multilateral.
To start, the U.S. should, in tandem with regional allies, pursue a more comprehensive sanctions regime on high-ranking members of Maduro’s government. These officials may be able to influence him out of a desire to continue accessing rumored wealth that has transacted with the U.S. financial system. This will provide the U.S. jurisdiction, and its counterparts leverage, in future negotiations, which should be expanded to include corruption, counterterrorism, and counternarcotics objectives.
Subsequently, the U.S. should work with a constellation of actors, including the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Bank, and possibly the Vatican, to establish groups to monitor the multi-dimensional crisis plaguing Venezuelan society. The U.S. must recognize its limitations in a country that has historically viewed the U.S. with hostility. These groups have established legitimacy with Maduro’s government, independent of U.S. involvement. The focus of this push would be to enforce, monitor, and enhance human rights and economic freedoms in a concerted effort to reinforce regional stability.
Such multilateral pressure could create a roadmap for reintegrating Venezuela into the international community through the gradual removal of sanctions and increased aid. Looming debt payments, falling credit ratings, and the Maduro government’s fear of being locked out of international credit markets if it defaults, could motivate the government to cooperate with some entities it would otherwise deem hostile.
Venezuela’s democratic and economic crises will not end soon. But the U.S. is uniquely positioned to work with these actors to ensure that Venezuela returns to upholding the values of “freedom, equality, justice and international peace” enshrined in its Constitution.
Michaela Frai is a Research Associate for the Latin America Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Alex Entz is a Research Analyst for FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.
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