A State of Emergency

A dictator who died serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity in Argentina. The first former head of state to fall subject to the international rights mechanism of universal jurisdiction for a campaign of political terror in Chile. A fugitive of justice who died in Brazil, expelled from his homeland after the “terror and corruption” of his three and a half decades as dictator of Paraguay. What do all of these disgraced former Latin American heads of state –– Jorge Rafael Videla, Augusto Pinochet, and Alfredo Stroessner –– have in common? Their seizure of power was either abetted or effectuated by the United States.

Now, the United States is again seeking regime change in Latin America, this time in Venezuela. The cause seems worthy: the corruption and mismanagement of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime has brought about a humanitarian crisis. Dire medicine and food shortages have caused 90 per cent of the country to go hungry. The images emerging from Venezuela –– masses of anti-Maduro protesters filling the streets of Caracas, empty grocery store shelves that await lines of dozens of Venezuelans –– paint a moral imperative for international assistance. The United States has taken a clear stance: “Maduro must go,” Vice President Mike Pence declared in March. Despite the glaring need for intervention, pushing for regime change in Venezuela is not the answer. If the United States is to help ameliorate the suffering of the Venezuelan people, it must instead focus its efforts in Venezuela on apolitical humanitarian aid. 

The strategy employed by President Trump to push for regime change involves harsh sanctions designed to coerce Maduro into leaving office. Support for this approach crosses partisan lines: the frontrunner of the 2020 Democratic primary race, Joe Biden, proposes sanctions, too. These proposals come too late. Had the United States acted quickly in the face of the unfolding crisis, perhaps sanctions could have compelled regime change. Such an approach worked in 1993, when the swift threat of international economic sanctions compelled Guatemalan elites to use their social power to engineer a takedown of President Serrano, who had recently overstepped his powers by dissolving congress. A similar approach –– targeted sanctions that scare business elites into wielding their power to thwart, rather than bolster, a corrupt regime –– might have once worked in Venezuela. Wealthy Venezuelans, however, have already insulated themselves from the effects of the decimated economy that surrounds them by keeping most of their money overseas or moving abroad altogether. By the time their wealth came under the threat of sanctions, most of Venezuela’s rich had already stored it away. 

Without the possibility of a mobilized elite, there are only two outlandish paths to success for economic sanctions against Venezuela. First, the sanctions could drive desperate masses to revolution. But Venezuelans are already marching against Maduro to no effect, and it is cruel to purposefully deteriorate the humanitarian situation in Venezuela in order to mobilize popular rebellion. Second, Maduro could leave office voluntarily. Such an outcome is equally unlikely, given the threat of international prosecution that hangs in his future, a consideration that likely bears greater weight on Maduro than the present financial concerns. US sanctions on Venezuela will therefore likely fail, as they have in North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Syria, to effectuate any major reforms, yet they will continue to incur a heavy moral cost. United States sanctions have played a significant role in the country’s economic crisis: a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that United States sanctions directly caused the deaths of 40,000 Venezuelans who struggled to access food and medicine. 

" It might be impossible in practice to separate humanitarianism from politics entirely, but it is important that the United States’ approach to Venezuela shifts away from one of outright interventionism. "

If sanctions cannot work, the only option left to bring about regime change is engineering a military operation –– perhaps what President Trump was alluding to when he declared that “all options [were] on the table” for regime change in Venezuela. One of the fundamental problems with orchestrating a military coup is that a regime change strategy that relies upon a military is more likely to put into place a new dictatorship than it is to institute a democratic government. The United States has proven particularly incompetent at fulfilling its self-declared role of democracy evangelist: all over the world, from Chile to Brazil to Iran, the United States has helped put into place repressive dictatorial regimes, often in place of former democratic governments. Its intervention in Libya, though designed to save lives, ended in disaster: Libya is now a failed state, ruled by two competing governments. No matter how well-intended, the United States’ military interventionist policy tends to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, humanitarian problems. 

However, just because the United States ought to abandon a strategy of regime change in Venezuela does not mean it should discard its efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis on the ground. Instead, it ought to focus on apolitical humanitarian aid. The figures on humanitarian aid stand in stark contrast to the figures on sanctions: international aid has saved 700 million lives in the last 25 years, a number that equals twice the population of the United States. 

The United States has escalated humanitarian aid to Venezuela in the past year, recently pledging an additional $120 million. Yet this aid is compromised without the United States retiring its rhetoric of regime change in Venezuela. The basic principles of humanitarianism dictate that it ought to be administered without political motives –– as Christian Visnes, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Colombia, told The Atlantic, there are “dangers of associating political objectives with humanitarian aid,” especially when its implementation requires the cooperation of authorities on the ground. Last February, President Maduro deployed his military to block $60 million in lifesaving supplies provided by countries like the United States and Canada. His decision to block the aid was likely related to the rhetoric employed by political figures like U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who flew to bordering Colombia as the shipments of supplies arrived to declare that “freedom and democracy deserve sacrifice” and encourage the Venezuelan military to turn against its commander. 

A humanitarian approach is not without criticism: Nobel laureate Sir Angus Deaton contends that humanitarian aid protects corrupt governments from the domestic mobilization that would compel them to change their habits or drive them out of power. Yet when hundreds of millions of lives are at stake and a country has plunged into a state of emergency, these political concerns should be pushed to the back of the international community’s consciousness, not the forefront. 

It might be impossible in practice to separate humanitarianism from politics entirely, but it is important that the United States’ approach to Venezuela shifts away from one of outright interventionism. Placing our focus on apolitical humanitarian assistance ensures that we do not produce yet another failed state or endless dictatorship in the name of acting as a global policeman.

Photo: Image via Eneas De Troya (Flickr)

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