From King George III, to Nazi Germany, to the U.S.S.R., the United States has stood in opposition to autocrats who rule their respective countries with an Iron Fist. Today, that is truer than ever before. Our chief national foes remain Russia and North Korea, both brutal regimes who have expressed their own vocal opposition to the United States in clear terms. However, there is a new force of autocracy brewing in South America that soon will require U.S. attention: Venezuela.
Venezuela’s slide towards autocracy has paralleled an economic contraction that has few historical comparisons. In 1980, Venezuela had the highest GDP per capita of any Latin American country; today, 75% of Venezuelans have involuntarily lost twenty pounds from starvation. With an annual inflation rate that fluctuates between 6,000% and 7,000%, it is no surprise that Venezuelans are struggling to feed themselves and their families.
The roots of this economic collapse can be traced back to the Chavez administration in the early 2000s. Chavez diverted much of the profits from the lucrative, nationalized oil industry towards social programs, failing to reinvest funds in a heavily capital-intensive industry, and laying the foundation for an infrastructural collapse down the line.
When Chavez passed the baton to current President Nicolas Maduro in 2013, many of the same patterns continued. In late 2017,Maduro placed Major General Manuel Quevedo at the helm of PDVSA, the state run oil firm, in an attempt to quell corruption within the institution. Lacking the experience, funding, and personnel required to do his job, and facing precipitously falling oil prices, General Quevedo has been helpless to prevent Venezuela’s oil infrastructure from falling into disrepair, gutting the country’s primary export industry.
In addition to overseeing the collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry, President Maduro has also strived to make himself the functioning dictator of his country. He has all but entirely rigged the upcoming Presidential election on April 22nd, relying on a legislative super-body and Supreme Court, both stacked with loyalists, to set the date of the election and to disqualify opposing candidates. Maduro has also cracked down dissent with military force while jailing journalists and executing opposition leaders. Both policies have drawn international condemnation and subsequent economic sanctions, only deepening the fiscal crisis.
The consequences of the Maduro regime’s profligacy now has tangible effects that the U.S. must face. Immigration into neighboring Colombia and Brazil has skyrocketed, necessitating extra border security on the part of those countries and pleas for international aid to care for the influx of refugees. Falling oil production from Venezuela has driven up global price of oil. Although, the cost of this may be delayed by increased U.S. shale production. As Venezuela slips further into decline, it’s clear the U.S. must adopt policies to face a belligerent autocratic leader just a few thousand miles to the south.
The current U.S. approach to Venezuela has been to impose economic sanctions, restrict financial freedoms of many political leaders, and block Venezuela from taking on more debt, much of which they have already defaulted on. Although an internationally symbolic gesture, the practical impact of these sanctions is the decimation of Venezuela’s economy, leaving millions of Venezuelans starving, without medical supplies, and forced to loot just to provide a little bit of food for their families.
Increasing sanctions would be a disaster, only harming those already suffering under the regime. Recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the U.S. was considering an embargo on all Venezuelan oil exports. Considering oil accounts for 95% of Venezuelan exports, this would put immense strain on a population that already cannot feed themselves while likely entrenching anti-U.S. sentiment. Rather than piling on sanctions that would pulverize poor Venezuelans, the United States should work with regional neighbors to incentivize economic development through international aid in exchange for a reinstatement of democratic institutions.
Even this option is unlikely to succeed immediately. Although Maduro has overseen economic ruin in his country, he still has a solid base of supporters, nearly 20% by some estimates. This means that even if Venezuela were to conduct free and fair elections, Maduro would likely still win by plurality. Putting pressure on Maduro to hold democratic elections will only force him to devise more repressive ways to rig them. In a situation with a clear need for regime-change, this would not solve any problems.
Another option for the United States is military intervention. This, however, would be equally disastrous for the citizens of Venezuela. Invading a country that has nearly 125,000 active military personnel as well as a contemporary air force would result in a quagmire that drives even more refugees into the neighboring countries.
Venezuela presents a unique foreign policy challenge for a litany of reasons, among them being that it is not a top priority. With nuclear threats from North Korea and the potential for Russian interference in the 2018 elections, Venezuela has taken a backseat to the more pressing issues of our time. Inarguably, however, it does pose a threat that needs to be mitigated—not to the U.S. directly, but certainly to the economic health of its region.
To maintain a consistent ideological opposition to autocrats, the United States must not let Maduro continue to starve his people. This can most effectively be done with regional cooperation, economic development, and eventually regime change. It will not be easy, nor will it be brief, but it needs to be done. The United States must continue to oppose authoritarianism wherever it springs up.
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