The world asks, what next in Venezuela?
The attempt to infuse humanitarian aid into the country over the weekend only served to escalate the crisis.
The ostensible goal of the scheme was to bring 600 tons of vital supplies to a people on the brink of starvation. In that respect, it failed completely. President Nicolas Maduro’s forces saw to that.
Almost nothing got through the border crossings with Colombia and Brazil. Two trucks from Colombia that did get through on the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge were reportedly burned, though it was not clear how that happened or who was responsible.
What it did accomplish materially was to provoke more violence: four people dead and some 300 injured, as Venezuelan security forces deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition against protesters. They even fired into Colombian territory, “gassing protesters, journalists and observers from the Organization of American States, who had thought they were safe,” according to The Economist.
“It was one of the outcomes we had imagined, but it wasn’t the one we wanted,” said Armando Armas, an opposition lawmaker, adding that another such aid attempt was not immediately planned. “We can’t expose our people any more. The entry of humanitarian aid can’t be the trigger of a wider conflict.”
One of the hoped-for outcomes had been that bringing in desperately needed food would trigger a collapse of the Maduro regime, or at least a weakening of its hold on the country, and perhaps lead to a peaceful, negotiated settlement. Evidently, the opposition underestimated Maduro and the loyalty of the police and army, at least for now.
A notable effect of the violence was a corresponding escalation in rhetoric.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido called on the international community to consider “all options” to end the standoff, implying that foreign military intervention was a more serious consideration than before.
A close Guaido ally, Julio Borges, the exiled leader of congress who is Guaido’s ambassador to the Lima Group, put it more openly. “We are going to demand an escalation of diplomatic pressure … and the use of force against Nicolas Maduro’s dictatorship,” he said Sunday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the violence, calling Maduro a “sick tyrant.”
“The U.S. condemns the attacks on civilians in Venezuela perpetrated by Maduro’s thugs. These attacks have resulted in deaths and injuries. Our deepest sympathies to the families of those who have died due to these criminal acts,” Pompeo said in a tweet.
Publicly, at least, Maduro was unfazed. “The people are united in the streets, mobilized and alert in every corner of the country,” he said on Twitter. “I call on men and women of goodwill, not to lower their guard and to stay in the fight to preserve Venezuela’s peace. Long live the Rebel homeland!”
Pompeo was purposely vague about what was to be done next.
“One of the things the Trump administration’s been very clear about is we don’t show our hand. We don’t tell others what we may do,” is how he put it in a recent interview.
Like President Donald Trump, he would not rule out military action, but when asked about it on Fox News, he would only say that the U.S. is “going to do the things that need to be done to make sure that the Venezuelan people’s voice” is heard, that “democracy reigns” in the county and that there is “a brighter future for the people of Venezuela.”
How much reality there was to Maduro’s claim that the people are united and mobilized was certainly debatable. Disgust with his brand of starvation socialism is widespread, though apparently not yet sufficient to cause a full-scale rebellion and bring down his regime. Many are surely afraid of a brutal crackdown.
Maduro was right about one thing: The aid infusion was intended to make him look bad. It did. In the 1960s, Soviet Russia built a wall in Berlin to keep people in; the Maduro dictatorship set up roadblocks on the borders to keep food and medicine out.
Such tactics will fuel more anger against him, and help to further galvanize the international community. But it’s not easy to shame a man who has shamelessly wrecked his country’s economy and driven the masses to ever-greater misery, feeding them empty promises of utopia but little in the way of jobs and food.
At this stage, military action still seems an unlikely prospect. Venezuela’s neighbors, including Colombia and Brazil, have so far been opposed to using force. Popular sentiment remains strongly against U.S. military involvement, and there have been no signs yet of mobilization, notwithstanding the threatening rhetoric.
What is more to be hoped for is that dissatisfaction and dissidence in Venezuela generally, and within the military and police forces particularly, will become so acute that Maduro will have to consider compromise or risk a collapse of his authority. Secretary Pompeo recently declared, that Maduro’s “days are numbered.” Whether this is really so remains to be seen.
In that respect, the ugly events of the weekend may have had some positive effect. Even if Nicolas Maduro has no shame, maybe his instinct for survival will work to bring him to his senses, and to spare the people of Venezuela more suffering.