Venezuela Is a Disaster. Time for a Coup?

Jorge G. Castañeda

Recently, Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, or O.A.S., made a stunning statement at a rally on the border between Colombia and Venezuela, warning that no option was off the table in Venezuela, and in particular, that a “military intervention” to “overthrow” its government, could not be discarded. Some observers interpreted this as meaning that an invasion of Venezuela by other countries was now on the agenda. Others, more intelligently, surmised that Mr. Almagro was referring to a domestic involvement by the Venezuelan armed forces: in short, a military coup d’état.

Has the Venezuelan crisis reached that stage? Maybe.

The shocking pronouncement by the head of a intergovernmental regional agency did not occur in a vacuum. Days before, The New York Times reported that senior-level officers from the Venezuelan army had approached the Trump Administration a few months ago. They announced they were plotting a coup against President Nicolás Maduro, and requested telecommunications support for that purpose. The American officials declined, and the Venezuelans were on their own.

There never was a coup, except for a botched drone attack on Mr. Maduro. He subsequently arrested and probably tortured a large number of army officers, who were accused of involvement in the plot. The Venezuelan president accused then-Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos of masterminding the entire conspiracy. Santos denied it.

Mr. Almagro subsequently “clarified” his remarks. An association of Latin American nations, known as the Lima Group, distanced themselves from his stance, declaring their opposition to any unconstitutional solution to the Venezuelan crisis. The government in Caracas denounced Mr. Almagro, the same way it used the Times story to “prove” that there were coup attempts lurking in the wings. If anything, these episodes strengthened the Maduro regime, or dictatorship, and weakened an already marginal opposition.

Unfortunately, the cacophony surrounding Mr. Almagro’s declarations and the Times article distorted an essential discussion. There are three aspects to the Venezuelan nightmare. First is the attack on democracy and respect for human rights by the Maduro regime, and before Mr. Maduro, by Hugo Chávez.

According to the 2001 inter-American Charter, signed by every country in the Western Hemisphere, except Cuba, an attack on democracy itself is justification for suspending the government from the O.A.S. Second is the humanitarian crisis. Millions of Venezuelans are hungry, ill and even dying for lack of food, medicines, basic necessities, electrical power and even a police force able to patrol Caracas, one of the world’s most violent cities. Lastly, there are the regional consequences of the humanitarian disaster: some 2.3 millionVenezuelans have left their country and two million more could leave by 2020. Hundreds of thousands are exiled in Peru, Chile, neighboring Colombia and Brazil. Tens of thousands live now in Spain, Mexico, Florida and Argentina. This is the largest migration in the history of Latin America since the slave trade.

This is no longer a domestic Venezuelan matter. The exiles place an immense strain on human services in the nations where they settle or pass through: health, education, shelter, law enforcement and the like. They have generated hateful xenophobic reactions, even lynching, in several host nations. The crisis directly affects most of the region.

In 2002 a nearly successful coup sought to overthrow Mr. Chávez. A presidential summit of the Rio Group — bringing together practically every country in Latin America — was in session in Costa Rica when it took place. With two exceptions, all members condemned the attempted ousting and the threat to constitutional rule that it represented. As President Vicente Fox’s of Mexico’s foreign minister at the time, I was especially adamant about the group not suggesting support for the coup, even if no one there held any sympathy for the Chávez regime. That was then; the situation today is radically different.

Mr. Chávez was a democratically elected head of state, who had engaged in a few damning episodes of repression, but was not yet anywhere close to being a dictator. Mr. Maduro’s election last May was dismissed by most countries in the region and by members of the European Union as fatally flawed. On Mr. Maduro’s orders, more than 100 people, mainly students, were shot in the streets last year. Nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, have denounced these egregious human rights violations. Moreover, there were few foreign implications of Mr. Chávez’ harebrained schemes or endless rhetoric.

Do these powerful differences justify a military coup in Venezuela today, as opposed to 2002? A worsening of the humanitarian crisis, particularly widespread hunger and disease? More refugees fleeing to Venezuela’s neighbors? A complete end to any vestiges of democratic rule, and the establishment of a full-fledged, unabashed dictatorship?

We are not there yet, and equating the situation in this country with genocide in Rwanda or Pol Pot’s Cambodia is exaggerated and misleading.

There is, however, a moment when the regional community will be obliged to assume the responsibility to protect — the international commitment to prevent the destruction of a people or a country. It is obvious at this stage that there is no electoral, institutional solution to the tragedy in Venezuela. Equally evident is the fact that Cuba, the only outside actor with real influence in Caracas, is unwilling to utilize it for the sake of democracy and security in the region. So when does external, overt or covert, Latin American backing for a coup become necessary and desirable?

In any case, not until all other options have been tested. One has not. More than 90 percent of Venezuela’s hard currency and government revenues proceed from oil exports, declining and compromised, as they may be in advance sales to China. Most of those exports are still destined for the United States Gulf Coast, where refineries owned by the national oil company, PDVSA, are among the few in the world that can process its heavy crude. While various sets of largely ineffective sanctions have been slapped on Venezuela in recent months by the United States, several European Union members and Latin American governments, they have not been directed at oil purchases, even though private companies have sued PDVSA for breach of contracts.

Washington, in particular, has proved reluctant to proceed, despite knowing full well that these would be the most effective sanctions. Just on Tuesday, the United States ramped up sanctions against key figures in the Maduro entourage. Oil sanctions would force Caracas to find other buyers — which it can — but only at a high cost and with multiple complications. They would deprive the regime of much of its earnings and dollars, perhaps irreparably. Regrettably, they would also hurt the Venezuelan people. The question is what causes the most damage: sanctions with real teeth, or perpetuating the current nightmare.

Long before justifying or backing a coup, if the international community is convinced that regional peace and security are in danger, and that it has a responsibility to protect Venezuela and its neighbors, it must first exhaust every other option. Oil is the remaining one. Only then — if at all — will secretary general Almagro’s outburst acquire legitimacy.

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