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Supporting a Venezuelan Insurgency
Venezuela is on the brink of an insurgency. The insurgents are not currently violent, but that could change immediately if the Maduro regime attempts to use force to suppress the opposition. To date, the United States has supported the opposition led by Juan Guaido with diplomacy, sanctions, and humanitarian aid. The question now is what we should do if the insurgency turns violent.
Types of Insurgencies
A free democratic election is a legal form of insurgency, but that not likely to happen in the immediate future in Venezuela as the Maduro regime seems determined to hold onto power. There are three types of coercive insurgencies, and any could happen overnight depending on conditions.
Coup. A coup happens when one group of elites deposes the ruling elite group. Some form of violence is implied, but they are seldom very bloody. Coups have a long history in Latin America. A true Venezuelan coup would occur if powerful elements of the security forces turn against Maduro and members of the army and police loyal to Maduro fail to use force to stop the rebels. I have suggested in this journal that the United States supply funding to the reformist faction which we have now recognized in an attempt to buy the loyalty of rank and file as well as the senior security force leadership. It remains to be seen if this will be attempted and if it will work if it is tried.
Popular Uprising. The People Power uprising in the Philippines that ousted the Marcos regime and the various colored revolutions in the nations that comprised the old Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact are examples of popular uprisings - as was the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This could still happen in Venezuela, but one thing mitigates against it. A majority of the population now appears opposed to the socialist PUSV Party of Maduro, but the “free stuff” attitude of the Chavez era still has a strong hold on a large segment of the poorest elements of the population. They would turn out as large counter-crowds against an attempt at a popular uprising. This would likely devolve into a civil war.
Civil War. A coup or popular uprising that is met with significant opposition will likely devolve into civil war which can take two forms. If large numbers of the security forces split to support both sides, a conventional civil war will occur such as the one that we Americans fought from 1861-65; however, a civil conflict in Venezuela would probably more resemble the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. If the majority of the security forces back the existing regime, the conflict would then morph into popular insurgency (a people’s war as Mao would call it). This is a distinct possibility in Venezuela if the Maduro regime cracks down hard, arresting Guaido and his supporters and/or assassinating them. If outside powers intervene, particularly with mercenaries or special forces, it could turn into a Syria-like hybrid conflict.
How Could We Support the Rebels in a Venezuelan Civil War?
The best outcome in Venezuela would be a provisional coalition government leading up to a speedy internationally monitored election. That would be unlikely given the fact that the Maduro regime knows it would lose power completely. If a crackdown occurs and the opposition is forced into a guerrilla war situation, the US will have to decide how best to support the rebellion. Before making any decisions as to how to go about this, we should probably reflect on the lessons of the past.
We Americans have a rich history of both supporting and fighting against insurgencies whether they be coups, popular uprisings, or armed popular insurgencies. Much of the experience has been negative, but we have had some successes. Perhaps the main lesson is that it is far easier to overthrow a government than it is to replace it with a viable alternative.
Most true popular uprisings have occurred without much American support. The People Power uprising in the Philippines has been the most long-term success by far, but many of the colored revolutions in Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union have also led to democratic governance although some have slipped back into authoritarianism.
Coup Support. We have had much less success with coups. Although the CIA-staged Iranian coup of 1950 appeared to have a positive outcome in the short-run, but we now know that we probably fatally undermined the rule of the Shah as both the communists and the conservative Persian clergy successfully portrayed the Shah and his regime as American imperialist puppets. Likewise, our failure to find a suitable alternative to the Diem brothers in Vietnam following an American instigated coup helped to further undermine South Vietnam’s international legitimacy.
The attempts by the Kennedy administration to oust the Castro bothers in Cuba (Operation Mongoose) resulted in a comedy of errors that actually strengthened the communist regime. Fortunately for the Kennedy administration the full story of the debacle did not surface for years.
If there is a real lesson in supporting a coup, it is not how to do one; rather it is in picking the right side to support. The Venezuelan reformers appear to be set on democracy and free elections, but if a coup occurs and Mr. Guaido is seen as an American lackey, it might well be worse than doing nothing to support him. This is why providing money to properly pay the rank and file of the security services (to support the opposition) could be a risky proposition and should only be considered if the Maduro government appears to be preparing to use the armed forces to totally suppress dissent. A measured long-term approach to regime change should be the preferred course of action, and that appears to be the Trump Administration’s strategy.
Support to an Armed Insurgency. If the Maduro regime cracks down on the opposition with the army and police and forces the reformers into the hills, we would be on much firmer ground in lending our support if we keep it indirect. This would be particularly true if the Russians and Cubans actively support the Maduro regime and attempt to turn the conflict into a Syria style hybrid war.
None-the-less, we should approach support to any insurgency very carefully in order to avoid the unintended consequences that we experienced in supporting the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan. If anti-Maduro forces are to be successful in the event of a civil war, they will require several things from us; and direct American intervention is not one of them. First, and most important, the insurgency must be isolated from other outside interference. There are already rumors of Russian contract mercenaries and Cuban special forces in Venezuela, but further outside military assistance should be blocked. There is precedent for this in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when the US Navy enforced a quarantine against Soviet ships carrying missiles. We cannot allow outside aid to the Maduro regime in the manner that the Assad government in Syria has received from Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Most successful armed insurgencies require a sanctuary. China and North Vietnam provided one for the South Vietnamese Viet Cong during the portion of the Vietnam War that was primarily a guerrilla insurgency. Pakistan provided sanctuary during the war between the Mujahedeen and the Soviet Union and Pakistan’s ungoverned regions now provide sanctuary for the Taliban. Ironically, the United States provided sanctuary for Castro’s rebels when they were still portraying themselves as freedom fighters against the corrupt Batista regime in Cuba.
Three nations border Venezuela that might provide sanctuaries (Columbia, Brazil, and Guyana). If one or more would provide sanctuary for the Venezuelan insurgents, US logistics support and training would allow the insurgency to maintain itself as a viable threat to the illegitimate Maduro regime.
Information operations, diplomatic engagement, and continued sanction actions- the non-military aspects of national power- should be employed to isolate the Maduro regime and render it untenable on the world stage. This would weaken the regime internally by undermining its support - both among the security forces and - more importantly - the population as a whole.
There is No Guarantee of a Happy Ending
For a decade after the end of the Cold War, it appeared that democracy was in total ascendancy throughout the world and that communism and autocratic socialism were on the run everywhere. The sad fact is that not every country is ready for democracy, or even wants it. Russians appear to want a strong autocratic hand as do several Republics of the old Soviet Union. Democracy self-destructed in Egypt and Libya following their Arab Spring revolutions. The US successfully supported the Contra movement that overthrew the far-left Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but the conservative regime did not fare well, and the Sandinistas returned in a democratic election. The Nicaraguans are now out in the streets again, protesting Sandinista rule. If the Venezuelans return to free market democracy and then reject it, that will be their decision - however unwise. No matter how the current crisis ends; the final outcome should be decided by Venezuelans and not by Russians, Cubans, or Americans. The days of Americans dictating events in Latin America should be long over.