After Assad's Victory, Maduro Cannot Stay in Power

If Venezuela's opposition calls for outside military force, the U.S. must respond

Anti-Maduro protester in Venezuela / Getty
February 25, 2019

A good rule of politics is that if a leader uses their power to prevent citizens from accessing food and medicine, then they are probably not fit to govern. Venezuela's embattled dictator, Nicolás Maduro, is in gross violation of this rule. Over the weekend, the Venezuelan National Guard blocked trucks carrying humanitarian aid meant for Venezuela's starving people from entering the country through the Colombian border. Forces loyal to Maduro fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and firebombs at the vehicles laden with food and medicine from the United States, and even at activists who demanded that the aid pass through. Maduro believes the aid undermines his authority and has said Venezuela does not need such assistance. For those who may believe the latter point, recall the situation in Venezuela. As I wrote last month:

The International Monetary Fund estimates that, this year, [Venezuela's] inflation rate will reach an astonishing 10 million percent, while its unemployment rate will go well above 30 percent, hitting 45 percent in 2023. It is all too common to find dying infants and helpless patients in hospitals unable to provide basic services; there is a shortage of around 85 percent of all medicines in the country. Nearly 90 percent of Venezuela's population now lives in poverty, and most Venezuelans are struggling to buy enough food to feed themselves and their families. In fact, more than half of families cannot meet basic food needs, with countless Venezuelans starving. In this environment, crime has become rampant; indeed, more than 73 Venezuelans died a violent death every day in 2017. Caracas, the capital, is consistently ranked as either the most or second most violent city in the world. It is no wonder that, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency and International Organization for Migration, more than three million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2015. Another two million could leave this year.

Amid this chaos, one constant has been President Nicolás Maduro, whose failed socialist policies and authoritarian rule have devastated Venezuela. Rather than empathize with the Venezuelan people and look for new solutions to alleviate their pain, he has cracked down on dissent, brutally torturing protesters and military personnel. He has also jailed opposition activists, and his security forces have carried out hundreds of arbitrary killings.

The chaos in Venezuela goes well beyond the country's political turmoil, which received headlines last month when Juan Guaidó, the leader of the legislature, declared himself interim president, challenging Maduro's rule. Guaidó's declaration came after Maduro was sworn in to a second term following a fraudulent reelection victory. The crises devastating Venezuela comprise the Maduro regime's complete failure to do the most basic tasks of governing. And now Maduro will not even allow in food to help malnourished citizens or medicine to save dying infants. There are no words to describe such cruelty, such moral depravity. And yet this is nothing new for the international community.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which backs Maduro, has used starvation as a weapon of war to force the Syrian people to submit to Assad's rule. Throughout Syria's conflict, now in its ninth year, Assad repeatedly blocked humanitarian aid from reaching civilians. Across the country, his forces blockaded cities, starved the inhabitants, and forced them to surrender. The regime, aided by Iran and Russia, slaughtered about 500,000 people and displaced millions more, many through siege warfare. Shamefully, the West—including the United States—did little to counter Assad, who is now consolidating control over most of Syria and will remain in power for the foreseeable future. Experts and journalists said numerous times during the conflict that Assad would inevitably fall from power—as many are saying now about Maduro. The international community, however, proved impotent in the face of evil. In other words, cruelty and savagery won in Syria.

Maduro seems to be following his Syrian counterpart's model, albeit on a much smaller scale. After Assad's victory, the United States and the rest of the civilized world cannot also allow Maduro to win. Beyond being morally abhorrent, a victory for Maduro, coupled with Assad's conquest over the same time period, would send a clear message to dictators and rogue regimes around the world: fight with as much brutality as possible and you will get your way, without having to be held accountable; the West will condemn but do nothing more. Such a world would become a playground for anti-American autocrats, and the norms that underpinned the stable world order following World War II would dissolve into nothingness.

Beyond morality, if Maduro survives, Venezuela, located only three hours from Miami by plane, would serve more than ever as a hub for America's enemies. Look at which dictatorships have backed Maduro: China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, the Palestinian Authority Russia, Syria, and Turkey. How would a victory for Maduro not be a threat to the United States?

The Trump administration has done much to pressure Maduro to step down and to support Guaidó, who Washington recognizes as Venezuela's legitimate president. The rhetoric from top officials has been great. Imposing sanctions on Maduro and meeting with Guaidó also help. But after this past weekend, it is clear that more needs to be done. Venezuela's opposition recently called for the first time on the international community to consider using military force against Maduro. The Trump administration has not ruled out military action. Such a step would risk further escalation and naturally outrage much of the political left and the isolationist-leaning right. But President Trump should ignore such criticism.

If Guaidó formally asks for military support, the United States must be ready to help. Because the United States officially recognizes Guaidó as the legitimate leader and considers Maduro a usurper, deploying soldiers to assist the Venezuela opposition would not be a violation of sovereignty. Washington would be acting on the request of Venezuela's government. Moreover, the United States is hardly alone: dozens of countries, including several in western Europe and Latin America, also deem Maduro illegitimate. This support could provide the United States an opportunity to organize an international military coalition to help Venezuela’s opposition restore democracy to the country. Trump should task the relevant members of his cabinet and Elliott Abrams, his special representative for Venezuela, with doing the diplomatic work now to form such a coalition as a contingency plan, coordinating closely with Guaidó throughout the process.

Unlike in so many Middle Eastern states, there is already a clear, democratic governing infrastructure in place to run Venezeula. But Maduro must leave for the country to thrive. The world is watching what happens in Venezuela, including the bevy of anti-American autocrats. When the presidential crisis is resolved, these dictators should feel a shiver go down their spines.