Venezuela, A Long Slog

The Russians, Chinese, and their chief ally in the Americas, Cuba, are prepared for a long slog in Venezuela. This rally in defense of collectivism in Venezuela should surprise no one who follows Latin America politics. These folks who effectively control Caracas have a lot of money, guns, but more importantly, and for now, the political will to see through this crisis if they desire to do so.

Fidel Castro trained and supported Hugo Chavez who, in turn, prepared Nicolas Maduro. Chavez was elected in 1998 in generally free elections. Chavez’s road to victory was paved by decades of corrupt leaders, and some good ones; however, the economy was enough of a mess as there were enough disenfranchised people to propel Chavez to power via the ballot box. N.B., The poverty rate in 1998 in Venezuela was somewhere between 40% and 45%. If these numbers are correct, some experts claim effective poverty rate was higher, then it was low hanging political fruit for the collectivist wing of Venezuela’s intellectual and political class. They trounced. The nation has paid a high price.

Chavez, with the support of Cuba, Russia, and at the time, to a lesser extent China, used his perch in Caracas to expand collectivism in Venezuela and, a few years later, in the Andean region and elsewhere in the Americas. Flush with oil money from the state-owned oil company PDVSA, they created parallel structures to challenge, and some experts said, try to destroy, the inter-American system in place since the end of World War II. They almost succeeded. The inter-American system, especially the Organization of American States, is in need up and update and overhaul. So it’s a good time to make this happen.

Many U.S. policymakers in the Congress who led on Latin America urged Venezuelans to adopt a tougher approach to Chavez, and later Maduro. They refused. I should know. I heard many of the arguments about how it was better to “negotiate” than to impose targeted sanctions, for example. President Donald Trump inherited several decades of policy mush and foreign meddling in the Americas by the likes of Russia, China, Iran, Hezbollah, and others. It will take time, patience, and creative thinking to help the people of Venezuela and the region.

Yet democracies rallying to support another socialist leader, Mr. Juan Guaido, I find somewhat amusing since it is collectivism that put Venezuela in this mess in the first place. My conservative colleagues stress he is no longer firmly in that camp. Assuming that is true, then why does he, and other opposition leaders, remain members of a socialist political party created by them, that is also a member of the Socialist International? Do all Venezuelans support that approach? Not the ones I’ve talked to the last few years; most conservatives – a rarity in the political class for many years in Venezuela.

With the support of the United States and fifty other nations, Guaidó could build a powerful movement to resolve the Venezuela crisis, peacefully. Yet Guaidó and his colleagues must never lose sight of the fact that this crisis was created by collectivism they supported decades ago; not the United States. I don’t think Guaidó wants more violence. It is avoidable, so be it. Yet just this week I was sent disturbing images (and a partial autopsy report) of a leading Venezuela opposition lawyer who was clipped by Venezuela security forces. Venezuela, Cuba, and Russia are playing for keeps.

The Cubans, backed by Russia and China, are not going to walk away from Venezuela without putting up a fight. They will keep kidnapping and killing. Drug dealing, of course. Guaidó needs to accept this and work with the only power capable and able to support whatever it is he thinks will lead to an orderly transition. America has his back, for now. The Lima Group and the OAS are another matter. If Guaidó thinks the OAS and the Lima Group can help deliver a win, he is sorely mistaken and, possibly, naive.

For now, all I mostly see from Venezuela’s political class is an intramural battle within the collectivist movement of Latin America. One faction wants to continue the long slog to build a “socialist paradise” on earth. Just as Hugo Chavez outlived his usefulness, so has Nicolas Maduro. Guaidó can break this cycle if he desires to do so. The other group, they do not appear to know what they want. Guaidó appears to be straddling both sides as best he can. Guaidó needs to be bolder; he needs to break with his establishment especially folks like Leopold Lopez who demonstrated recently, it is all about him, not the nation. Guaidó must push the envelope within the Venezuela Assembly.

If Guaidó does want to, stop wasting American taxpayer’s time. There are plenty of other leaders who may be willing to step up, clearly acknowledge the problem (and that it will take time to fix), and, most importantly, propose a new way forward for their people other than collectivism. Yet I think Guaidó can make a difference and lead. Guaidó and the Trump administration should listen less to self-appointed Venezuela experts – especially in the Lima Group and the OAS. They should also shun high-priced lobbyists with close connections to the collectivist wing of the opposition. This latter group, I am told, has been an especially acute problem.

For now, Guaidó has proven he has the mettle and courage to stand up to the tyranny. Economic sanctions take time. Diplomacy takes time. Whether we like his ideas or not on tactics, Guaidó is closest to the action and he needs to be given space to lead. America has had his back and it should continue to back him so long as Guaidó believes U.S., OAS, and Lima Group involvement makes sense. From what I have read and been told by colleagues who follow these matters closer than I do, Guaidó is being bombarded with advice. If that is the case, Guaidó needs to push back. Hard.

In the meantime, the Trump administration must impose clear guidelines and conditions for U.S. support based on U.S. national interests. Guaidó can take it, leave it, or advise why another way forward makes sense. As for the Lima Group and the OAS, well, these entities lack strong leadership. They need a healthy dose of American leadership, not America in the background, but America leading the charge within those entities. The policy establishment is not going to like that, yet it is the policy establishment, too, that has been part of the problem in the last few decades. If it were up to them, U.S. troops would already be on the ground, leading an international coalition to “restore democracy,” or whatever another idea they can cook up to drag America into another conflict via the United Nations or the OAS.

President Trump should do as he has done since taking the oath of office, keep exercising restraint on the use of force or committing U.S. troops to lost causes, not in the U.S. national interest. It is time for America First in the Western Hemisphere, or not at all. This means taking our time, working harder with allies, and warning adversaries, as only America can do, that agitators are not welcome in the Americas. There are many ways to project America First in the Western Hemisphere including through trade and much more. Yet, for now, a war in Venezuela is not one of them.