Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.


Get a weekly update in your email


Venezuelan migration through Panama’s Darién gap

23,000 Venezuelan migrants arriving in a month at the US-Mexico border would be big news: it only happened once before, last December.

But in August, 23,632 migrants from Venezuela (green on the below chart) walked through Panama’s dangerous, ungoverned Darién Gap jungle.

8 months into 2022, Panama has exceeded 100,000 migrants through the Darién Gap, and seems certain to break its annual record. That number (133,726) seemed unimaginable last year when tens of thousands of Haitian people (blue on the below chart) came up from South America.

737 migrants per day in the Darién Gap last month

Panama’s government published data on the number of people whom its migration authorities registered coming through the dangerous Darién Gap migration route, in the country’s far east along the Colombia border.

The 22,582 migrants who came through the Darién in July (737 per day) were the fourth-largest monthly total that Panama has ever measured. The top three were in August-October 2021, when a large number of Haitian migrants took this very dangerous route.

This year, migration of Haitian citizens is reduced, but a stunning number of Venezuelans are now passing through the Darién. Three-quarters of July’s migrants in this region (16,864, or 544 per day) came from Venezuela.

In January, at strong U.S. suggestion, Mexico established a visa requirement for Venezuelan citizens arriving in the country, which sharply reduced the number of Venezuelans arriving by air, many of whom were traveling to the U.S. border to seek asylum. U.S.-bound migration of Venezuelans fell in February, but is now recovering as migrants take the far more dangerous land route.

In the first 7 months of 2021, Panama registered 45,029 migrants in the Darién. The total for the first 7 months of 2022 is 71,012.

Big increase in Venezuelans coming through Panama’s Darién Gap

The Panamanian Migration Service’s latest data show a 145 percent increase, from April to May, in migrants coming through the dangerous, ungoverned Darién Gap jungles. 13,894 people took this several-day walk in May, risking drowning, disease, and assault, theft, and rape from criminal groups that operate with total impunity.

That’s not a record—more migrants passed through the Darién in July-October of last year, a period when Haitians who had been living in South America massively migrated toward the United States.

This year, most migrants are Venezuelan: 71 percent in May, and 51 percent in January-May. Venezuelan migration through the Darién was 43 percent greater in May than in the first four months of the year combined. Migration of Colombian and Ecuadorian citizens in May was also nearly double the January-April total.

Until recently, Venezuelans seeking to migrate toward the United States would mostly arrive by air to Mexico, which did not require visas of visiting Venezuelan tourists. That route got shut down on January 21 when Mexico, at very strong U.S. suggestion, began imposing visa requirements for visiting Venezuelans.

Venezuelans are now taking to the treacherous land route. Once they make it through Panama, most are ending up in the Mexican southern-border zone city of Tapachula, where they are stranded. Venezuelans made up most of the attempted migrant “caravan” that left Tapachula a week ago. That caravan made headlines but is now mostly dispersed, as Mexican migration authorities have been providing visas allowing migrants to leave Tapachula.

The Cheetos are one of many perplexing details about yesterday’s Venezuelan military captive release

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the eight Venezuelan soldiers who got released on May 31, after 38 days as captives of an ex-FARC dissident group. The “10th Front” dissident group captured them during combat on April 23 near the Colombian border, in Venezuela’s Apure state. There, fighting between Venezuelan forces and the 10th Front, which broke out on March 21, has displaced about 7,000 Venezuelan residents.

What we don’t know, besides whether a bag of Cheetos is really a great way to welcome someone back to freedom, is laid out in a good overview by Sofía Nederr at Venezuela’s Tal Cual.

  • Do three soldiers remain in captivity, as the director of Venezuela’s FundaRedes, Javier Tarazona, claims? (Tarazona gets a lot right, but he also claims that the ex-FARC leaders who are committed to the peace process, like Rodrigo Londoño, are aiding the dissidents, and there’s no proof of that at all.)
  • FundaRedes says that on May 30, there may have been a “truce” during which Venezuelan forces pulled out of territory in order to make possible the captives’ release, possibly to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
  • Tarazona says the dissidents—or some Colombian armed groups, anyway—maintain five “safe houses” in four Venezuelan states.
  • Tarazona claims the Venezuelan armed forces’ leadership has ordered the ex-captives not to talk about what happened or how they were freed.
  • It’s still not clear why Venezuelan forces are fighting the 10th Front dissidents, and leaving unmolested Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and “Segunda Marquetalia” dissident group, which both operate in Apure.

The FARC dissidents, whose leadership has years of experience as guerrillas (though much of the membership is probably new recruits), has hit the Venezuelan military hard, killing at least 16 of them.

ICE’s Removals of Cubans and Venezuelans Have Spiked Under Trump

This week DHS released its latest Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, offering data through 2019. It includes a table (Table 41, use the Excel version to get all years) of how many citizens ICE sent back to each country.

Look what happened to removals of Cubans and Venezuelans since Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant administration took office in 2017. Note that this doesn’t count Venezuelans whom the administration, we’ve now learned, has been stealthily sending back to Caracas via third countries.

Recall that despite this, fuzzy initial data show Trump beating Joe Biden among Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American early voters in Miami-Dade, Florida, where much of this community lives.

Why? Because in a dirty social-media-heavy campaign reminiscent of Colombia’s 2016 peace plebiscite, the Trump campaign and its surrogates have successfully implanted the idea that Joe Biden is a communist who would support the regimes that they fled. It’s amazing that they’ve gotten away with this while spiking deportations back to those same regimes.

2 videos in which I talk about U.S. troops in Colombia

Earlier today I joined Colombian Green Party Senator Antonio Sanguino on Ariel Ávila’s El Poder program, on the YouTube channel of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. The subject was the recently announced deployment of a contingent of U.S. military trainers.

Later, I joined Daniel García Pena and Laura Gil for a discussion of the same subject hosted by the Colombian NGO Planeta Paz.

I cringe watching myself speak Spanish, but the subject matter is important. And my high-def webcam has turned out to be a good pre-quarantine investment.

WOLA Podcast on Venezuela

It’s great to have two Venezuela experts on staff to explain what’s happening there. With great nuance, rare clarity, and zero shouting.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here. The text from the WOLA landing page is below.

This podcast, WOLA’s first to focus on Venezuela since January, features Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s director for Venezuela, and David Smilde, a WOLA senior fellow specializing in Venezuela. (Dr. Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University.)

This situation report covers a lot of ground. Ramsey and Smilde explain the current humanitarian situation in Venezuela, with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic likely to come, along with the effect of sanctions. The discussion moves on to alternatives, like what it would take to bring the country’s ever-worsening crisis to a political solution. This brings up the role of external powers like Russia, China, Iran, and the United States. Ramsey and Smilde unpack the current state of U.S. policy, which at the White House level is heavily driven by Florida electoral politics. They note that the Trump administration’s mixed messages are inadvertently dividing a Venezuelan opposition that is already in a bad moment after a botched mercenary invasion at the beginning of May.

Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde co-manage WOLA’s Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog. Also mentioned in the podcast is a May 2020 paper that both co-authored in the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, which explores the recent history and theory of negotiation efforts in Venezuela, as well as prospects and necessary conditions for a negotiated solution today.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Anti-Democratic Trends, and Human Rights Concerns

Podcasts are coming back after a two-week break. There’ll be a few over the coming week.

For this one, I wrangled together four of my WOLA colleagues to take the temperature of politics and human rights in the region a month and a half into the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s really grim, and challenging to end on an optimistic note. But listen to it and you will learn a lot. Here’s the description from WOLA’s website:

COVID-19 threatens to take many lives in Latin America. It also threatens to leave behind a less democratic, less rights-respecting, more unequal, and more violent region.

An April 13 WOLA commentary laid out many of these concerns. If anything, they’ve grown more urgent since then. Here, five WOLA program directors gather for a discussion of where things stand in several countries in the region.

  • Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson talks about El Salvador.
  • Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli discusses Colombia, Brazil, and Haiti.
  • Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey covers Venezuela.
  • Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer provides an update about Mexico and the border.
  • Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh explains drug trafficking trends and the situation in Bolivia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

At Putting U.S. Counterdrug Operations in the Caribbean in Context

Hours after Wednesday’s White House announcement of a big military deployment to Latin America, ostensibly to stop drugs, I got together (virtually) with Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde from WOLA’s Venezuela program. We came up with a list of questions, then started typing what we know, and what we need to know, into a Google Doc.

The result is a memo where we come up with some fact-filled, and pretty skeptical, answers to the following questions. Read the memo here. It’s a good read, I promise.

  • Is President Trump’s announcement of new deployments actually “new?”
  • Is this tied to the coronavirus outbreak?
  • Is this deployment linked to Venezuela’s crisis?
  • How important is Venezuela to the transnational drug trade?
  • How have other countries reacted to the news of the U.S. deployment?
  • How is geopolitics involved?
  • Is the U.S. government preparing for an invasion like in Panama 1989?
  • What are the risks associated with this policy?

WOLA Podcast: “I Wish I Did More Positive Reporting About Colombia Because I Love the Place”

I got a kick out of recording this one with John Otis, from his home outside Bogotá. Since 1997, John has been reporting from Colombia, covering the Andes, for many news outlets. You may recognize his voice as National Public Radio’s correspondent in the Andes, or seen his many recent bylines in the Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of a highly recommended book about aspects of the conflict, Law of the Jungle (2010).

Here, John talks about some of the many changes he has seen in both Colombia and Venezuela during his tenure. The conversation also covers Colombia’s peace process, the difficulty of explaining the country’s complexity, and some places and people who’ve left very strong impressions over the years.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: “Beyond the ‘Narco-State’ Narrative”

I’ll be going back to an interview format for tomorrow’s podcast (if all goes according to plan). Today’s episode, though, is the audio track of a March 20, 2020 WOLA webinar about criminality and corruption in Venezuela, and the viability of a political exit to the crisis. This event is based on a March 11 report by WOLA’s Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde, who look at U.S. data and find that drug trafficking and other criminality and corruption, while big problems, are not so severe as to rule out negotiating a political solution with the Maduro regime.

In this event audio, Ramsey and Smilde are joined by Jeremy McDermott, the co-director of InsightCrime, and investigative journalist Bram Ebus, a consultant to the International Crisis Group.

Listen above, or download the mp3 file here.

WOLA Podcast: What the State of the Union Means for Latin America

It’s great to have a new digital communications person on staff: podcasts are now starting to come out quickly, without me having to initiate and edit them. Yesterday, the morning after Trump’s State of the Union, Lizette Alvarez sat three of us down to talk about the president’s several mentions of issues we work on.

The podcast mp3 file is here. Here’s the blurb from WOLA’s page:

Our team recorded a roundtable discussion at WOLA the morning after this year’s State of the Union, focused on what the president’s words and actions mean for human rights and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.

Adam Isacson (Director for Defense Oversight), Maureen Meyer (Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights), Geoff Ramsey (Director for Venezuela) and Marguerite Rose Jiménez (Director for Cuba) discuss the appearance of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the president’s comments on Cuba, and the toxic business-as-usual attitude towards migrants and immigration policy.

WOLA Podcast on Venezuela: New Year, New Political Tumult

For Venezuela, 2020 began with new political turmoil, as the Maduro government maneuvered to take over the presidency of the opposition-majority National Assembly.

Will this backfire for Maduro? Can the opposition maintain unity? Are negotiations toward new elections feasible? Is the U.S. government sending a coherent message? What about other international actors, like the EU and Russia? Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s director for Venezuela, explains this moment and potential solutions.

WOLA Podcast: What next in Venezuela?

Here’s a conversation recorded yesterday with Geoff Ramsey, who works on Venezuela full-time at WOLA. I wanted Geoff to talk about how to help restore democracy in Venezuela without a military intervention—but also without vague “dialogues” that just buy time for Maduro. He gave me a lot to work with.

We’re both fast talkers, so you don’t want to listen to this one at 1.5x speed; set your podcast-playing app to 1x.

How to Get Back to Democracy Without Military Intervention

After a failed attempt to deliver aid across borders, Venezuela’s opposition is regrouping and more outside commentators are discussing the unthinkable: military intervention. But not so fast: diplomatic efforts continue, both with and without the Trump administration. Pressure, multilateral sanctions, and dialogues specifically about the Maduro regime’s exit still offer hope of achieving a “least bad” outcome.

You may need to listen to this podcast more than once, because it covers a lot of ground. Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s assistant director for Venezuela, covers the current moment, and the existing alternatives, in a wide-ranging, fast-moving discussion.

Click here to download this podcast.

Thinking about the unthinkable: U.S. military intervention in Venezuela

Es más o menos aceptable la traducción automática de Google al español de este artículo.

Disclaimer: I’m not WOLA’s Venezuela expert. I’ve only visited the country once. Most of what I know about the country comes from press and NGO reports. The following exercise is me considering the unthinkable based on years of studying defense and security. I’ve discussed the military intervention issue only briefly with WOLA colleagues who work on Venezuela. (As a rule, nothing on this site is a WOLA document that has gone through WOLA’s editing and approval process, unless specified as such. This is me, nights and weekends, thinking things through.)

From the rundown of Venezuela’s military capabilities, in RESDAL’s 2016 Atlas of Defense in Latin America and the Caribbean.

On the evening of February 23rd, the number-one worldwide “trending topic” on Twitter was #IntervencionMilitarYA, or “military intervention NOW.”

This came after a day of frustrated attempts to deliver humanitarian supplies into Venezuela from across borders. Many Venezuelans, both inside and outside the country, appear ready to have a foreign (that is, the U.S.) military come in and get rid of the Maduro regime and its corrupt, cruel, authoritarian misrule. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who has refused to rule out a military situation in the past, tweeted that the events of the 23rd “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago.”

While it’s still unlikely—in the sense that “less than 50 percent probability” means “unlikely”—U.S. military involvement in Venezuela is a greater possibility now than it has been at any moment in this long crisis.

“Military involvement” doesn’t mean that the Trump administration is about to start firing Tomahawk missiles at the Miraflores palace in Caracas. Yes, the White House includes a vociferous proponent of the 2003 Iraq invasion (John Bolton), and has strong domestic incentives to create a distraction (Mueller investigation near conclusion). But the War Powers Act allows the president to carry out a foreign military operation for only 60 days, plus a 30-day withdrawal period, if that operation lacks explicit congressional approval (like the 2002 authorization for use of force in Iraq).

The White House would need this approval, because it’s likely that any hostilities in Venezuela would last longer than 90 days. If the White House got it—or if it chose to ignore the War Powers Act, throwing the issue to the courts—what might U.S. military intervention in Venezuela look like?

Here, I argue that it would probably last quite some time: perhaps first as intense hostilities, then as a drawn-out insurgency. It would involve Colombia—and Colombia might in fact be the initial flashpoint. Civilian casualties would probably be in the low thousands. Damage to infrastructure would total in the billions, possibly tens of billions, of dollars. Open hostilities would end quickly: the Maduro government would probably collapse under military pressure. But combat could drag on for months, perhaps years, as a well-supplied chavista insurgency digs in.

The military option would not be easy. While it wouldn’t be as much of a quagmire as the Iraq war, a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela would not be a quick in-and-out affair like Panama 1989, an analogy that Sen. Rubio is now explicitly employing.

How could a conflict start?

  • I wouldn’t expect the Trump administration to launch an Iraq-style invasion without some pretext or provocation involving non-Venezuelans. There would have to be an initial spark, a “Gulf of Tonkin” moment, that makes the Maduro government appear to be the aggressor.
  • A likely scenario here would be an incident on a border involving loss of life. The more populated Colombian border most lends itself to this scenario. In December, a high-ranking Colombian military officer told me that “shots had been fired” along the Colombia-Venezuela border 147 times over the previous two years. While most of those incidents were between non-state actors, like organized crime, this shows how volatile the border region already is.
  • Hawks are thinking about this too. “#MaduroRegime has fired into territory of #Colombia,” Sen. Rubio tweeted on the afternoon of the 23rd. “Receiving reports of injuries after this attack on sovereign Colombian territory. The United States WILL help Colombia confront any aggression against them.”
  • A serious border incident could escalate quickly. There are almost no diplomatic or military contacts between Colombia and the Maduro regime right now. That regime has all but pulled out of the OAS, complicating dispute resolution. The UN is playing a minimal role, and with Russia and China supportive of Maduro, the Security Council is hamstrung. There are almost no guardrails in place to prevent a border incident from escalating into full-on fighting between Colombia and Venezuela. Latin America would see its first major inter-state war since the 1930s conflict between Colombia and Peru.
  • Vice President Pence, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, and probably then-Defense Secretary James Mattis have offered security guarantees to Colombia if it suffers aggression from Venezuela. So if Colombian President Iván Duque were to request it, the Trump administration would jump in.

So there would probably be a period of fighting between Colombia and Venezuela before U.S. forces got involved. What might that look like?

  • We could expect only limited combat in the Colombia-Venezuela border zone, which is sparsely populated, with national capitals far away. Border zones might see some effort to damage larger cities and to control cross-border supply routes (which, ironically, could cripple the cocaine trade). Much of both countries’ oil infrastructure is also near the border—but attacks on oil facilities would be nationwide and aerial.
  • A ground push to take the other’s capital would be a latter phase, probably well after the United States got involved.
  • Within each country’s interior, aerial bombardments would be likely and widespread. Both countries’ air forces are among Latin America’s best-equipped. Venezuela’s is probably superior to Colombia’s, though not overwhelmingly so. Caracas has a fleet of Russian-made Sukhoi combat aircraft, which are probably in good condition, and some U.S-made F-16s, which probably aren’t. Bogotá has Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets and slower attack aircraft like A-10s and Super Tucanos. Aerial attacks would target infrastructure essential for transportation and economic activity. A longtime chavista official and politician speculated in July about using Sukhois to take out the seven bridges over the Magdalena river that traverses Colombia, “dividing it in two.”(Note added 2/24 2:15PM: Víctor Mijares at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes told El Espectador last year that only 4 of Venezuela’s 24 Sukhois are operational. That seems low to me, but even if true, a lot of damage could be done with 10-12 sorties each.)
  • Expect even limited aerial attacks to do significant damage, with civilian loss of life, in large cities and at refineries and other economic targets.
  • Naval blockades of major ports, at least on the Caribbean, would be more damaging to Venezuela than Colombia, which has ports on two oceans.
  • Colombia’s ground forces are larger and have more combat experience, and would likely give Colombia the overall military advantage despite Venezuela having some air superiority. Venezuela’s forces are of uncertain loyalty, probably far more corrupt and indisciplined, weakened by years of promotions based more on political criteria than merit, and less funded. I suspect that much of Venezuela’s military equipment is precariously maintained and semi-functional. Colombia’s forces aren’t corruption-free, but have undergone reforms over the past 15 years that have somewhat improved discipline and professionalism, and its equipment is in better shape. Colombia would also benefit from imagery, intercepts, and other intelligence and advice from the United States. While conflict would be hugely costly for both countries, Colombia would probably be the eventual victor, if it came to that.
  • A giant wild card, both at this phase and especially after a formal military defeat, is the chavista capacity for guerrilla-style fighting. The Venezuelan government has armed hundreds of thousands as “colectivos” and “Bolivarian Militias.” These, along with renegade Chavista elements of the security forces, intelligence agents, a small leftist insurgency called the FPL, and perhaps even members of Colombia’s ELN, could be factors in the fighting. However, these would probably play a larger role after the Maduro government is forced out, and I’ll discuss them more below.
  • Another wild card is Russia. Don’t expect a commitment of Russian troops, but we’ve seen Moscow’s capacity for cheaper forms of intervention: cyber-attacks; targeted assassinations of leaders, often through poisoning; and spreading false information. Russia can also ensure that Venezuelan personnel have enough fuel and ammunition. China, which has loaned massive amounts to Venezuela to be repaid in oil, would probably stay on the sidelines.

If this happens, the United States would almost certainly get involved militarily. What would that look like?

  • To envision this, we have to borrow from the U.S. performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. The early phases of a direct U.S. intervention would probably be marked by a “shock and awe” campaign of targeted bombardments, intended to force Maduro and his circle to leave power quickly.
  • One hopes that this phase would be surgical, limited to military targets. One hopes, too, that U.S. forces would take better care this time not to destroy infrastructure on which the civilian population depends, and that it will be essential to rebuild quickly: the electrical grid, clean water, transportation, medical facilities.
  • Still, it is hard to be surgical in a city of 3 million like Caracas. There will be collateral damage. U.S. bombs, missiles, and drones will kill civilians.
  • If aerial bombardments don’t succeed in dislodging the regime, then expect a commitment of land forces. That could mean urban warfare and house-to-house fighting. This is the worst-case scenario, as it would mean being bogged down with far higher U.S. casualties than anticipated.
  • A wild card here are the Venezuelan people themselves. About two-thirds to three-quarters of them oppose Maduro, but how many will welcome foreign occupiers? Will U.S. personnel be “greeted as liberators?” Will local leaders be able to overlook Donald Trump reviving U.S. gunboat diplomacy on a scale not seen in generations? And even if the Venezuelan people do welcome the foreign occupiers, can the chavistas’ irregular forces terrorize them from actively collaborating?

Between a U.S. invasion and multilateral efforts to silence the weapons, open hostilities would probably end quickly. As happened in Iraq, the Maduro government would almost certainly be pushed out. Top regime officials would either be killed or forced into exile. What would happen then?

  • The good news is that Juan Guaidó would become the interim president for real, with actual executive power. As foreseen in the constitution, Venezuela would have to schedule free and fair elections as quickly as logistically possible. And these elections would have to happen super-quickly because, coming after a military defeat and amid a U.S. intervention or occupation, Venezuela’s next government would need a clear claim to legitimacy.
  • A big question for this new government is how much latitude the Trump administration would allow it to have in making decisions about the future. What bureaucrats and officials get purged? Would Washington have veto power over which officials get put in charge of key aspects of government? In rebuilding its economy and energy sector, could the next government stray at all from free-market orthodoxy, or will it be compelled to construct a Milton Friedman utopia?
  • The Venezuelan military would likely be purged of the most radical chavistas, but we would probably not see a repeat of the abolition of the Iraqi military, which made it very hard to keep order after the invasion, and fed the ranks of the insurgency. Still, some purged officers could go fugitive and become leaders of a violent “resistance.”
  • Imposing order on what is already the most violent non-war country in the world will be a huge and expensive task. Preventing looting and generalized disorder—something the “Coalition Provisional Authority” failed miserably to do after the fall of Saddam Hussein—will require a big commitment. There will be much infrastructure to rebuild, too, so that people see quick improvements in their lives. Rebuilding will also have to happen in Colombia, if hostilities do indeed occur there. Billions, if not tens of billions, in foreign assistance will be needed.

It’s at this phase where the “Venezuelan insurgency” question moves to the forefront. How likely is this, and how large a challenge would it be?

  • While I dislike recurring so often to the Iraq analogy (“fighting the last war”), it’s pretty likely that a post-conflict Venezuela would, as in Iraq, be challenged by insurgents committing acts of asymmetrical warfare. I have no idea whether the colectivos, Bolivarian Militias, expelled officers, renegade security forces, intelligence services, ELN, FPL, and others would collapse or persist. But it’s very plausible that many would persist, even without a unified leadership structure. They’d have illicit revenue streams, like cocaine, extortion, and fuel piracy, to sustain themselves. They could also be supplied by Russia.
  • Look at the “Bolivarian militias” alone. They have between 500,000 and 2 million members. Many are poorly trained, and probably undisciplined. Still, if even 10 percent of the low estimate opt for clandestine warfare, that’s 50,000 fighters from this force alone. At its height, Colombia’s FARC had half that.
  • And again, add to them the armed thugs in the “colectivos,” the FAES and other police units, the SEBIN, the FPL, the ELN, and any other radical elements who opt for violence.
  • Already,, an international firearms observatory, estimates there are 2.7 million illicit firearms in Venezuela. That’s the highest estimate in South America after Brazil.
  • This “insurgency” could make governance impossible in several regions and urban neighborhoods, perhaps for years. It could develop a big capacity to carry out terrorist attacks.
  • Under this scenario, U.S. forces could find themselves in Venezuela for many months, or even a few years—perhaps even propping up the Venezuelan government with “hearts and minds” counter-insurgency campaigns. Even if it is only a tiny fraction of the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, it would cost many billions of dollars.
  • The long-term presence of U.S. combat troops in a major Latin American country would be unpopular throughout the region, even among centrists. That would fundamentally remake the U.S. relationship with the Western Hemisphere, erasing goodwill efforts going back to FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy.

Do other options still exist?

Yes. Here, I’m just summarizing the work of my WOLA colleagues who focus on Venezuela full time, David Smilde and Geoff Ramsey. Read their Venezuela blog, if you’re not doing so already.

  • Negotiations for their own sake are no longer an option. The Maduro government has used them to buy time, and they’ve gone nowhere.
  • Negotiations about the terms of the Maduro government’s exit still make lots of sense. They offer hope of a soft landing. That means negotiating how to hold internationally certified, free and fair elections as soon as possible. That has to be the central topic of any future dialogues.
  • This may include transitional justice for Maduro government and military officials, who are unlikely to exit peacefully if they believe they’ll be hanging from lampposts. Those who committed human rights abuses or gross corruption would have to be held accountable for what they did and make reparations to victims, but reduced sentences would be likely.
  • A negotiated arrangement may even include allowing Maduro or other regime officials to run in elections—though they’d likely lose a free and fair election by a landslide.
  • An International Contact Group, formed in early February, calls for dialogue aimed at organizing elections and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid. It specifically avoids dialogues that the Maduro government could use to delay action further. The Contact Group involves the EU (European Commission), eight European governments, and four Latin American nations. As David Smilde and Geoff Ramsey explain, this mechanism is hopeful and deserves serious consideration.
  • Even negotiations about elections will require consistent, external, multilateral pressure. Efforts that lay bare the Maduro government’s moral bankruptcy, like yesterday’s attempt to bring humanitarian aid, can help to apply that pressure. So do sanctions, as long as they affect the powerful inside Venezuela and don’t compound the suffering of the majority. And the Trump administration must avoid being perceived as getting out ahead of the rest of the region, which plays right into the Maduro regime’s narrative of resistance to a long history of U.S. bullying.

The status quo in Venezuela is tragic and untenable. I argue here that a military intervention could inflict serious harm, drag on at length, and compound the tragedy. Options still exist to thread the needle between these two extremes. Multilateral action and non-military pressure can still force the scheduling of free and fair elections. We must exhaust those options first.

Older Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.