The U.S. military is quietly building up its forces around the failing state of Venezuela. Torn asunder by decades of socialist rule, the Chavismo regime led by the kleptocratic and autocratic Nicolás Maduro is collapsing. As it collapses, the Venezuelan regime starves and terrorizes its own people, supports narcoterrorism, and becomes increasingly aggressive with their American rivals to the north.
Recently, the Venezuelan Navy engaged in a cartoonish attempt to commandeer a private cruise ship in international waters. Despite the aggressive act, the ineptitude of Venezuela’s military was on display as the Venezuelan warship that attempted to ram the German civilian ship ended up sinking itself in the Caribbean Sea.
Despite Venezuela’s military incompetence, the attack represented a grave escalation at a time when a distracted United States appears weak. Justifiably, the Trump Administration surged U.S. Navy forces into the region in a display of force not seen in decades.
US troops in #Colombia, mobilising near the border with #Venezuela. #Washington has 9 military bases in Colombia, which allow the failing empire to threaten all other LatAm countries. Colombia also supplies 92% of the #cocaine used by the huge US drug market. pic.twitter.com/9GWDCiiAoR
— tim anderson (@timand2037) April 5, 2020
At the same time, in exchange for removing two blocks of onerous sanctions that the Trump Administration had imposed upon the Russian energy conglomerate, Rosneft, the Russians have abandoned their support for the Venezuelan state-owned energy conglomerate, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). This effectively cuts Venezuela’s energy sector off from its last lifeline. Energy is the basis of the Venezuelan economy, and without Russia, it will be completely strangled by U.S. sanctions.
Tell Me How This Ends
The Trump Administration has been tightening the proverbial noose around Maduro’s neck. In January, during the State of the Union Address, President Trump introduced Americans to the man Washington wants to replace Maduro: democratic resistance leader Juan Guaidó.
As head of the National Assembly, Guaidó controls the only institution that is not part of the Maduro machine (although, as I told readers last year, Guaidó may be democratic but he is not necessarily pro-capitalism). The Trump Administration wants very badly to remove Maduro from power. Yet, despite the military buildup in the region, President Trump rightly understands how foolish it would be to use force to remove Maduro the way that Trump’s predecessors used force to remove Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
That is why President Trump has a standing offer to allow Maduro to leave Venezuela safely. Until Maduro takes his offer, Trump will ratchet up pressure on the Chavismo regime.
In the words of retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Starvridis, the Trump team wants to “create a transitional government under a new five-person ‘council of state,’ four of whom would be appointed by the National Assembly and the fifth, a nominal head of state, then chosen by the first four appointees.” In this formulation, Guaidó would be excluded from the five-person transitional council. Although, once new elections could be held within the year after the five-person council took power, Guaidó could run for office (and he undoubtedly would win in a popular election).
At that point, Maduro could be moved out of Venezuela and set up in the authoritarian nation of his choice (with the stores of gold he has spent the last year shipping to friendly countries) to live out the rest of his days in comfort. Multilateral regional organizations, as Starvridis suggests, such as the Organization of American States (OAS) could be used to ease Maduro’s transition out of Venezuela bloodlessly.
Taking Sides in the Drug War
But, here’s the rub: there is no guarantee that either Russia or the Venezuelan military, which is dedicated to Maduro remaining in power (because they are corrupt and are part of the international drug trade flowing from Venezuela which Guaidó threatens), necessarily want Maduro out of power. So, even if Maduro did want to go, there is no guarantee that his military would let him leave.
If, however, Guaidó and his American backers could undermine Venezuela’s drug trade by replacing the Venezuelan military’s drug cartels with those of a rival, then the power of the generals will have been deprived. Weakening the generals’ drug trade will be key to displacing their power, and giving Maduro an easy exit.
In the last few weeks, vicious border attacks between the right-wing paramilitary drug cartel in Colombia, known as “Los Rastrojos,” and the left-wing Colombian paramilitary group, ELN, have occurred at the same time Los Rastrojos have waged a vicious war upon Venezuelan military forces just across from the Colombian border.
A strange incident occurred last year which proved that Guaidó has at least some connection with drug cartels in Colombia. The Venezuelan military leaders are part of the Cartel of the Suns, which runs cocaine from Colombia to Venezuela’s coast on the Caribbean. Now, the group that Gauidó has a nominal connection to in the drug world is the aforementioned Los Rastrojos. So, just beneath the Venezuelan civil war, is the regional drug war. And for Washington to displace Maduro and his generals, Trump will have to make an alliance with some unsavory figures, even potentially those in drug cartels rivaling the Cartel of the Suns.
Trump: The Lion and the Fox
President Trump has proven time and again that he is able to outfox the nastiest of foes without resorting to war. Trump wants Maduro gone. But he doesn’t want war to achieve this end. Trump is not George W. Bush, no matter how many Bush retreads fill his administration.
For Trump, then, there is a third way.
The Trump team already quietly offered Maduro a sweetheart deal to leave last year. According to reports, Maduro almost took it. But it is believed he was prevented from doing so by the Russians and his own generals. So Trump has been squeezing Maduro more.
The key, though, will be to weaken Venezuela’s drug-dealing generals. Trump might be able to do this if Guaidó holds some sway with groups like Los Rastrojos. But without leverage, Guaidó won’t be able to overcome Maduro’s grip on power.
In recent weeks, the Maduro regime has been shipping Venezuela’s remaining gold to Iran (while leaving some for Maduro’s allies in China and Russia). So, perhaps Maduro is slowly making plans for a quiet departure with a golden parachute somewhere. Then again, he just might be buying the time he needs to stay in power by sending that gold to Iran.
Clearly, the United States cannot leave the festering wound that is Venezuela in its own backyard—not when American rivals are attempting to weaken America’s position globally. But a war for Venezuela would be devastating. Thus, a sustained covert campaign is already underway. Let us hope Trump can combine this covert effort with sincere diplomacy to resolve the matter and restore American credibility abroad.