Last week, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration had held a series of meetings with elements of the Venezuelan military who are considering an attempt to depose President Nicolas Maduro. These revelations have intensified the debate over whether the United States should intervene militarily in Venezuela. Most analysts covering the country have come out strongly against a U.S.-backed coup, arguing that an American intervention would be unpopular in the region, undermine U.S. interests, violate international law, and exacerbate Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.
I, too, am slightly opposed to a U.S.-backed coup, but I think the case in favor of one is far stronger than the anti-interventionists concede.
The first reason to favor overthrowing Maduro is that his government has effectively destroyed Venezuelan democracy. Despite his pathetically low approval rating (23 percent), there currently exists no way for the opposition to legally take power. Maduro’s party controls the presidency, the Supreme Court, the legislature, and the CNE (the body that oversees elections). In one form or another these institutions have all been packed with Chavista loyalists; as a result, Venezuelan elections have become increasingly farcical. And by manipulating the country’s foreign-exchange regime and controlling its massive oil reserves, Maduro’s government can leverage its economic power to hold on to its political power. In short, the odds of a legal, orderly transition of power are nonexistent.
The second reason to favor a coup is humanitarian. The Venezuelan people have suffered tremendously due to the astonishing absurdity of their rulers’ economic policies. Here is the Times’ concise description of their plight:
[Venezuela’s] health care system is in such dire straits that malaria, once almost wiped out, is soaring; about three quarters of the population has involuntarily lost nearly 20 pounds of weight and people scrounging for food in garbage has become, according to the Brookings Institution, the new normal.
Overthrowing an unpopular and irresponsible government might allow an opening for proper economic management.
The final reason to consider a coup is strategic. A million Venezuelans have fled their rapidly deteriorating nation, mainly to Colombia. Massive refugee flows could well threaten regional stability. And given that the Venezuelan kleptocracy controls the world’s largest oil reserves, has abetted terrorist and drug-trafficking activity, and espouses a rabid form of anti-Americanism, the case for overthrowing it starts to sound rather appealing after all.
Yet there remain solid reasons to oppose a U.S.-backed coup against Maduro, and I find them more compelling.
To begin with, most regional governments have stated that they would be vehemently opposed to an American-backed coup. South American governments that have been fiercely critical of Maduro, including those of Peru, Brazil, and Colombia, have said unequivocally that the Venezuelan crisis must be resolved without bloodshed. Even if there is good reason to believe that overthrowing Maduro would require violence, these governments are opposed to American meddling and will not cooperate if a coup is instigated by the United States. Attempting to impose the will of the United States on Venezuela in the absence of Brazilian and Colombian collaboration would be folly.
Moreover, it is hard to trust the Trump administration’s ability to 1) competently see through a successful transition of power, and 2) empower the sorts of constitutionally minded liberal-democrats we would like to see rule Venezuela. However one feels about Trump, it is indisputable that his administration is in disarray: A recent op-ed in the Times suggests that the president struggles even to command the respect of the officials who work under him. Sponsoring regime change in Venezuela would require a focused commitment that Trump is almost certainly incapable of mustering.
Indeed, American officials have already been placed in rather awkward positions while speaking with the coup plotters. As the Times reports, “one of the military commanders involved in the [U.S.-Venezuelan coup talks] was hardly an ideal figure to help restore democracy: He is on the American government’s own sanctions list of corrupt officials in Venezuela.”
The Washington Post also reports that American officials have had severe difficulties obtaining basic information about dissidents in the Venezuelan military. As one official put it to the Post, “[We U.S. agents] had very little confidence in the ability of these [coup plotters] to do anything, no idea at all about who they represented, and to what extent they had not exposed themselves already.”
Supporting a coup in the face of such a scarcity of reliable intelligence would be reckless and dangerous.
Venezuela, we cannot forget, has already experienced an unpopular coup, and there are useful historical lessons we can draw from it. In April 2002, Hugo Chavez was overthrown by military rebels. He was replaced by Pedro Carmona, a rich businessman without much popular support. Carmona unilaterally rolled back all the reforms Chavez had democratically passed during the preceding three years and in so doing provoked a furious reaction that ended his brief rule. Chavez was returned to power in two days.
Of course, the country’s circumstances today are different than they were in 2002. Chavez was intelligent and well-liked by the masses; Maduro is foolish and detested by them. Nevertheless, it would be ill-advised for the U.S. to try to violently impose an unknown leader on the Venezuelan people. The risk of retaliatory slaughters or civil war would increase dramatically, and the humanitarian crisis might therefore be made worse rather than better.
Despite the undeniably wretched nature of the government in Caracas, then, there are still persuasive reasons to oppose what would be a unilateral U.S. intervention. (I take the objection that a U.S.-sponsored coup would be a violation of international law seriously as well, but exploring that topic would require an essay of its own.) If Maduro launches widespread massacres of the opposition, or if regional governments decide to change their posture, then the scales might be tipped in favor of intervention; currently they are not.
In the meantime, there remain constructive steps the U.S. can take short of inciting a coup. Daniel Larison, an anti-interventionist at The American Conservative, lists a few: “maintaining a united regional diplomatic front, providing assistance to Venezuela’s neighbors to cope with the influx of refugees, providing humanitarian relief for the civilian population, documenting abuses by Venezuela’s political leaders and their allies.” To this list I would add that the U.S. should ramp up its intelligence-gathering capacities so as to give material aid to democrats in the opposition. The sooner constitutional order can be restored in Venezuela, the better.