The Venezuelan opposition and its backers in Washington, D.C., are beginning to realize that regime change isn’t all that easy to do. For the third time this year, the opposition tried on April 30 to oust Nicolas Maduro, the dictator who has run this once-rich South American country into the ground. The effort quickly fizzled, and Maduro remains in power, still enjoying the backing of the Venezuelan military and support of Cuba and Russia.
The repeated failures to oust Maduro from office have led both to increasing pressure to intervene militarily and to increasingly distorted thinking about the conflict itself in Washington. To some on the left and the right, the Venezuela crisis has taken on the epic proportions of a final standoff between socialism and capitalism. For others, it’s the decisive site of a great power conflict between the United States on one side and Russia, China and Iran on the other. Left-wing activists supporting Maduro are occupying the Venezuela embassy in Washington while right-wing pundits paper the town with earnest think pieces about the Monroe Doctrine. Most of this distracts from what’s actually happening on the ground in Venezuela.
For months, the Venezuelan opposition has sought to oust Maduro from power. In January, Juan Guaido, leader of the democratically elected National Assembly, proclaimed himself interim president of Venezuela, a move that received immediate international recognition from more than 50 countries, including the United States and neighboring countries. Maduro was unmoved, secure in the knowledge that he had the backing of Russia, China, Cuba and others.
Washington then imposed biting economic and financial sanctions, including an oil embargo, further crippling the Venezuelan economy, where food is scarce, inflation rampant, the health sector dilapidated and basic infrastructure has all but collapsed. An effort by the opposition to bring large amounts of humanitarian aid across the border was stymied by the military.
Next followed secret talks between opposition leaders and top regime officials on securing the bloodless ouster of Maduro. On April 30, Guaido was pictured at a military base, claiming he had the support of the armed forces and calling on people to demonstrate in the streets. But rather than siding with Guaido, the top officials who had plotted with the opposition publicly declared their loyalty and support for the regime. Maduro remained in office, and Guaido had to acknowledge that the opposition had miscalculated its support within the military.
The failure of international recognition, economic sanctions and clandestine plotting to oust Maduro leaves the opposition with precious few options. The military holds the key to Venezuela’s future. Without its backing, Maduro would not survive. Yet, the latest developments show it to be both loyal to the regime and in command of their troops. Its leaders control many lucrative aspects of Venezuela’s faltering economy — including oil, currency exchanges, smuggling and drug trafficking — and will not give this up easily.
Which is why there are an increasing number of voices pointing to military intervention as the last, best option to get rid of Maduro. In Washington, President Donald Trump long ago indicated that the U.S. military might be the answer to the situation in Venezuela, and his top aides continue to declare that all options remain on the table. Last week, the Pentagon reviewed military options with the commander of U.S. Southern Command, who was called back to Washington to lead the briefing. Importantly, in an interview with The Washington Post, Guaido welcomed the review of military options and indicated he might favor American military support.
Yet, military intervention led by the United States is not the answer. It’s unlikely to be easy, given the presence of thousands of Cuban troops and Russian advisers. Even if successful, the U.S. would be on its own, both in intervening and in the aftermath. For if one thing unites the region it is opposition to a American military action. While U.S. officials such as national security adviser John Bolton may argue that the “Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” that this is “our hemisphere,” to the people in Latin America, including the people of Venezuela, it’s their hemisphere — and its future is for them, not the American military, to decide.
Instead of intervening, the Trump administration would do better to work with Venezuela’s neighbors, all of whom support the opposition, to address the immediate needs of Venezuelans. This should include continuing efforts to get humanitarian aid into the country and increased support for the large number of refugees who continue to leave the country. It should continue coordinated sanctions and pressure on top regime officials to give them reason to abandon Maduro.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the crisis in Venezuela. But one thing is sure: Military intervention is not the solution.
Ivo Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.