To Solve The Venezuela Crisis, Target Havana-Managua-Caracas

Venezuela has been in a political and economic slow boil for nearly 15 or so years and, lately, it has become a regional and, arguably, a hemispheric crisis. Many Latin America policy experts want to directly intervene in Venezuela; some policymakers have suggested U.S. military engagement. In the long run but with one exception, the United States should let the crisis run its course. The people of Venezuela need to find their own way forward.

Ruled by dictators since 1999, I recall Members of the U.S. Congress and other policymakers urging opponents of Hugo Chavez in early 2000s to take a firm hand against Cuba-inspired socialism in the oil-rich nation. With very few holdouts, most of Venezuela’s elite never believed Chavismo would take root. Not only has it taken root, but Cuban socialism is firmly entrenched. 

Venezuela’s business and political elite thought they could make deal with the tyrant. In return for generous tax payments and oil money revenues, Chavez and his crew would leave them alone. Meanwhile, they would reform their way out of tyranny using democratic institutions, the courts, and the media. Reform via election and dialogue was illusory then and a pipe dream today. Autocrats and dictators manipulate democratic institutions to stay in power. Preservation of personal wealth and power drive them, not the public good. 

As things went from bad to worse in the oil-rich nation, several U.S. policymakers in 2011 and 2012 advised the opposition and other stakeholders to unite, find allies in the Americas who could help. They were also urged, I should know I was there for many of these discussions, to work with supporters in the United States to, among other things, impose targeted but tough economic sanctions on regime officials and those who support them.

They were warned repeatedly by American and other policymakers that Cuba was not going to give up Venezuela without a fight, nor would China or the Russians. Other bad actors such as Iran, Hizballah, and many other enemies of the United States also had to be targeted via sanctions, diplomacy, and a regional approach that forced bad actors out and a new generation of leaders in Venezuela to step up. 

Attached at the end of this post is one several comprehensive proposals that were discussed. The Venezuelan opposition balked at this idea, as did many lobbyists, lawyers, and other Washington, D.C. and Miami, Florida-based advisors who made a lot of money recommending to the opposition to “stick with it” and work it out with the dictatorship. It was a dumb idea then. It is an even really dumber idea now.

Venezuela is not a democracy. It is a failed state. There is nothing to talk about because these people are not rational actors. They are anti-American, anti-capitalist tyrants hell-bent on waging a larger war against America and American interests. This is why Latin America’s left sought accommodation at the outset. They thought they could talk these people down the deep end while smothering the chances of conservatives from re-taking control of the government.

Most of the Venezuelan opposition and those who supported them opted for accommodation with Chavez, and later Maduro, and their cronies. Again, there were a few exceptions and they are still there, on the frontlines. But these people have been ignored. The rest of them opted for change via the status quo. What happened next was predictable and as expected.

The courts and rule of law, destroyed. The private sector was slowly smothered via property expropriations and confiscations, while business leaders were, literally, chased out of the country. Freedom of the press, gone. Venezuela’s leading revenue generator, the energy sector, was overrun by inept bureaucrats and foreign interests including the Russians, Chinese, among others. (the Bush and Obama administration refused to impose even minimal sanctions on the energy sector).

For some odd reason, up until very recently, most of Venezuela’s opposition stuck with the “change by-elections” and dialogue approach. Rather than heed the advice of victims of communism from places such as Cuba who from experience knew stopping Cuban socialism in Venezuela at the onset of the infection with sanctions and other measures was the only viable way forward, they resisted. So did many of the very same people today arguing that “all options are on the table” including military intervention. While the latter should not be discarded, at this juncture military intervention is also terrible idea.

The United States can deploy a variety of measures to isolate ALBA, ALBA member states, and those who support them. These measure should include, but are not limited to visa revocation or restrictions, targeted economic sanctions, and empaneling a grand jury to indict current and former government leaders for racketeering, terrorism, drug smuggling, and gross violations of fundamental rights throughout the Western Hemisphere. The ALBA is a crime syndicate and it must be dismembered. 

Unless U.S. national security interests are threatened, the future of Venezuela rests with the people of Venezuela, not a U.S. or multilateral military intervention, especially if the reason for military intervention has anything remotely to do with nation-building or human rights. What Venezuela and the Andean region needs is a clear policy and a firm hand, not putting Americans in harm’s way in a place where the post-Maduro/Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah leadership options remain unclear.

America and other responsible stakeholders should not, however, sit back and do nothing or focus only on economic sanctions. Sanctions are tools, not a policy. The United States should also not resort to the usual default position when it comes to the region, punting to the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS needs an audit, not a mandate to do more in Venezuela or anywhere else for that matter. 

A more effective way forward includes adopting a whole hemisphere approach targeting the principal troublemakers including the head of the octopus, Havana, and its tentacles in Manuaga, Caracas, and a few other places in the region. If the Trump administration has not already done so, Russia, China, and Iran must be put on notice to cease meddling in the Americas. Those warnings should be backed by ultimatums the administration is willing to follow through on.

If this is still happening, American companies should cease refining or otherwise do any business with PDVSA and Citgo. U.S. Attorneys should impanel grand juries and indict corrupt Venezuelan officials and those who support them for criminal racketeering, terrorism, drug trafficking, and other crimes including hostage-taking of American citizens (Venezuela must also release five Americans being held hostage, all of them former Citgo employees).

The Treasury Department should freeze all assets within U.S. jurisdiction pursuant to Global Magnitsky and other U.S. sanctions laws. Senior Venezuelan regime officials and family members should be blocked from entering the United States and, those here should have their cases reviewed. Anyone caught lying on a visa application should be put on a plane to Caracas and blocked from re-entry for an indeterminate amount of time or until there is a democratically-elected government in Venezuela.

A well-respected civil society leader told me recently the United States and Latin American nations should also impose the equivalent of a “no fly zone” in the Andean region for all commercial air traffic to and from Venezuela. This will be difficult to implement, but it should be explored.

The Trump administration should press the European Union, the U.K. and other allies with economic interests in the Americas to support U.S. efforts to expand liberty for oppressed peoples in the region. They should all cooperate in the dismantling of the ALBA crime syndicate. America needs to work even closer with Latin allies such as Colombia, Brazil after the election, Guatemala, Honduras, and a few others to advance a liberty agenda for the Americas that includes dealing once for all with the Cuba-Venezuela-Nicaragua problem and dismembering the ALBA crime syndicate.

In addition to tougher sanctions and multilateral cooperation with allies, the Trump administration should also look beyond Venezuela and target fellow travelers who help the regime remain in power. For example, Cuba needs to be clearly told: withdraw all military and intelligence advisors from Venezuela. If it refuses to do so, President Trump should reimpose comprehensive sanctions on Cuba. 

Cuba has yet to be held to account for the acoustic attacks or negligent listening operations that harmed Americans stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. According to experts in the counterintelligence space retired from government service, there is no way Cuba carried out this operation on its own. Cuba must be held to account for what it has done and so should the foreign actor who helped Cuba carry out these attacks, especially if it is Russia or China.

The other key target in Western Hemisphere triangle of mischief is Nicaragua. Another friend of Russia, China, and Iran, Daniel Ortega has successfully passed himself off as a sort of ‘kindler and gentler’ left-wing autocrat, but he just as much a war criminal as Raul Castro or Nicolas Maduro, among others. Ortega and the oligarchs who support him have been exposed by a new generation of political leaders and activists. American can support these new leaders by being tough on gross violators of human rights such as the Ortega regime and those who support them.

No doubt the people of Venezuela have suffered and will continue to suffer so long as the government of Venezuela remains under the thumb of hardline socialists who are supported by Cuba, Russia, China, and malign actors such as Iran and non-state actors such as Hizballah. But if we democracy to flourish, America needs to do a better job backing the brave opposition leaders who have stayed behind and despite the odds against them, still, have the political will to find a new forward for their people. Those are the people who have earned America’s backing. Those are the people who have bene clamorning for a tougher stance for many years.