'Military option' is not a real option in Venezuela
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Until recently, the only policy I thought President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE got right was toward Venezuela. But now he’s wrong.

Venezuela’s economy is in free fall and Venezuelans are going through one of the worst man-made humanitarian crises this hemisphere has ever seen. Most Venezuelans have lost weight due to lack of enough food, and many are dying from preventable diseases given the lack of medicines and a deteriorating health system.

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Since protests on the streets erupted in early April when the nation’s highest court nullified the democratically elected and opposition-controlled National Assembly, the government responded with more repression and less democracy. Against the will of their own people, they’ve established a pseudo-elected Constituent Assembly to allow Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his inner circle to keep ruling over the people with no checks and balances to speak of.

 

The repression has gotten worse as opposition leaders (including elected officials) face persecution, and the increasing concentration of power has deepened, making it clear that the government has transitioned to a full-fledged dictatorship. 

President Trump and his administration initially responded by sanctioning government officials, banning them from accessing their assets on U.S. soil and from doing business with U.S. entities. That list has grown, and it now includes the Venezuelan president himself, as well as others in his inner circle, including Supreme Court justices, member of the Electoral Power and managers of PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company.

These individuals are not only responsible for the ongoing political and economic crisis the country is going through, but allegedly are involved in crimes that include corruption, human rights abuses and even links to drug trafficking.

But in the past few weeks, President Trump threatened with two more actions: imposing an economic embargo on Venezuela and suggesting that military intervention is on the table. By doing this, he has given Maduro and his inner circle exactly what they wanted: fuel for their propaganda that wrongly blames the U.S. for the ongoing economic crisis and that hints at the possibility of “imperialist forces” invading the country.

The countries of the region, which have come together strongly to condemn Maduro and his regime, also came out condemning Trump’s insinuation of military action. Now, no one really believes the U.S. military will act in Venezuela. After all, hours later, the Pentagon dismissed the president’s remarks.

But it has definitely given fuel to "chavistas" — followers of Hugo Chavez' left-wing ideology —  to use those remarks as a rallying point for their (very small) base and to try regaining international recognition. 

Neither of Trump's last two ideas were good ones. An economic embargo will result in a reduced inflow of cash for the Venezuelan government, and the austerity will be passed in its entirety to the already-suffering Venezuelan people. Also, an embargo will have a long-lasting impact on Venezuela’s ability to export oil to the U.S., hurting the prospects of economic recovery.

With or without an embargo, Venezuela’s economy will keep collapsing. On the other hand, a threat of military intervention will hurt the only thing that the Venezuelan opposition has achieved in these past few months of resistance: the almost universal condemnation of Maduro by the international community.

Unfortunately, the prospects of this nightmare ending anytime soon are slim. So, is there anything else the U.S. can actually do for the people of Venezuela? Here are three ideas:

First, given Maduro’s refusal to allow humanitarian aid into the country to deal with the lack of food and medicines, the U.S. could provide special status to Venezuelans that are fleeing the country. 

Second, the list of sanctioned individuals should keep growing. It should incrementally include people from Maduro’s inner circle going outward, so that it will provide the right incentives for officials in the government and the military to stop supporting the government before they are included on the list. The list should also include first-degree relatives who often are the actual owners of their assets abroad.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, to improve effectiveness, the U.S. must coordinate the personalized sanctions with other nations, most notably the European Union and other Latin American countries. It is likely that chavistas have most of their assets in Europe. Freezing those assets, banning them from doing business with European entities and stopping them from visiting the continent will really hit them hard. 

Unfortunately, when the international community deals with Venezuela, it is not facing amateurs, but a ruthless and well-counseled dictatorial regime. They have closed all doors to a peaceful resolution to this crisis. Due to this, any option taken by the U.S. and the rest of the international community is something Maduro and his inner circle brought upon themselves.

Dany Bahar, a Venezuelan economist, is a fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution as well as an associate at the Harvard Center for International Development. Follow him on Twitter at @dany_bahar.


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