Thoughts on Venezuela

by Mark Falcoff

Sanguinary events in Venezuela this past week — with more, surely, to come — have led to talk in Washington of some sort of sanctions. These range from denying visas to government officials who make regular trips to Miami to buy condominiums or go shopping all the way to embargoing Venezuelan oil. The logic behind the latter proposal — whether workable or not — is at least understandable. If the Venezuela economy can be pushed into crisis by losing the major market for its export, the Castro brothers in Havana will fall, since without help from Caracas their own rickety economy will collapse.

The truth is, however, this is not a formula for success in either country. An economic apocalypse in Cuba would simply lead to a new migration crisis similar to the one we experienced in 1980. And a sudden embargo on Venezuelan oil would momentarily send gas prices through the ceiling in the United States, and perhaps not just momentarily. And it might not even bring Maduro down.

Let’s look more closely at Venezuela before we try to get involved in its ongoing political imbroglio.

Fact one: Probably half of Venezuelans support the government. These are among the poorest and most illiterate members of society, but there are a lot of them. Should President Maduro be ousted from office before his term is out, he will certainly not go away, and if the government that succeeds him doesn’t do significantly better, he will either soon be back or the country will be ungovernable. Even people currently demonstrating in the streets — or trying to, if Maduro’s thugs don’t kill them first — may subsequently start to “remember” the Chávez-Maduro period as better than it really was. (Precedent: Perón in Argentina.)

Fact two: The so-called international community (the UN, the OAS, the various alphabet-soup organizations under which the Latin American countries pretend to be unified) would not recognize any successor regime and indeed tend generally to regard any anti-American government in Latin America as prima facie legitimate. Applying any kind of sanctions would simply intensify international sympathy for the Maduro regime. If you doubt this, just ask any Swede, Norwegian, Belgian or . . . well, you pick the country . . . about Cuba.

Fact three: The Venezuelan people have gotten themselves into this mess on their own. It is their job to get themselves out of it, free of outside involvement. This was no foreign plot; there was no deception involved, as in the case of Fidel Castro. It came from the almost universal illusion on the part of Venezuelans that theirs is a rich country (rich in natural resources, admittedly) and through the simple expedient of getting rid of the old, corrupt political class, money would grow on trees. Let’s not forget that Hugo Chávez was elected with a decisive majority of the vote and the election (I was an observer at the time) was free and fair. Of course, he didn’t govern like a democrat (he wasn’t one), but again, this is a problem of Venezuelan institutions and civic culture. Neither can be delivered from abroad, even indirectly.

The worst thing we could do at this point is to start handing out visas wholesale to people who dislike the Maduro government. This is what the Cuban Adjustment Act (1964) did in the case of the Castro regime, conveniently removing large chunks of a potential opposition on an annual basis. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been been this piece of legislation, more than anything else, which has prevented political change in Cuba. For once let the United States learn from the past, rather than repeat its mistakes.

— Mark Falcoff’s books include Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro’s Legacy and Small Countries, Large Issues.

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