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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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, GunPolicy.org, 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.
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.
There seems to be something about men in uniform that populists just can’t resist. It’s impossible to miss that Mexican generals find themselves in the middle of this mess, just as U.S. generals face a similar fate: their troops deployed to the border and facing the possibility of Trump declaring a fake national emergency to divert funds and Defense Department personnel for a useless wall.… Enamored of men in fatigues, hungry for the automatic discipline of military hierarchy, they reliably break down the democratic norms needed to keep the military apolitical and under civilian control.
Every so often, I look back at a commentary I wrote for the Center for International Policy about Venezuela in September 1999, just before my 29th birthday. Today, it only exists on the Internet Archive. I made the same argument that Toro and Bosworth are making. Months into Hugo Chávez’s first year in office, I was worried about how the new populist leader was distorting the military’s role in Venezuela’s democracy.
Much has been made of Chávez’s populist politics and fiery rhetoric, with many observers speculating that the former paratrooper is leading a slow-motion coup, doing away with forty-one years of flawed democracy and ushering in a military dictatorship by popular acclaim. Actually, Chávez’s strong-armed – yet so far legal – effort to write the country’s twenty-seventh constitution poses little threat to Venezuela’s democracy, which desperately needs reform anyway.
The real threat lies in the president’s vision for the Venezuelan military. In just seven months in power, Chávez has enormously increased the armed forces’ role in government and society.
… President Chávez’s changes in the military are popular, but among all of his reform efforts they are the most likely route to dictatorship. They are the aspect of Chávez’s program that needs to be watched most closely by Venezuelans, by the media and by the international community.
I look back on that piece not only because I still agree with every word. Now that Venezuela is a full-blown dictatorship with military officers occupying many top positions, that article is also a source of anxiety for me. I wonder what would be different today if I’d stuck with this issue and made Venezuelan militarization a top priority for my work, instead of a back-burner trend on which I checkedineverysooften.
I didn’t throw myself into this issue because at that exact moment—September 1999—the Clinton and Pastrana administrations were drawing up “Plan Colombia,” the largest U.S. military aid program in the history of Latin America. Monitoring and trying to change that strategy would take up the majority of my time over the next 10 years. In September 1999, Colombia was also in the first months of a peace process with the FARC. And the funding climate for Venezuela civil-military relations work was bleak: it would have been hard to afford plane tickets to Caracas, much less devote hours per week to the issue.
But still. While I worked to limit the Bush administration’s damage in Colombia, right next door Venezuela’s regime was dismantling democracy and civil-military relations through a gradual but inexorable string of baby steps, many of them too small even to get attention in the United States. While I was consistently critical, I didn’t host events and delegations, write reports, or lobby Congress.
Now that we’ve got several authoritarians around the region pursuing similar models (including Donald Trump), I wonder what I could’ve done differently, what difference it would’ve made, and how to apply those lessons today.
Many thanks to Hernando Gómez Buendía, Daniela Garzón, and the staff at Colombia’s Razón Pública for inviting me to submit a column about last week’s meeting between Trump and Colombian President Iván Duque.
Below is the version I wrote in English before having Google Docs translate it, then fixing the translation, then sending it to Razon Pública whose staff added important improvements.
Duque’s meeting with Trump was entertaining, but achieved little
Seven weeks into his presidency, Iván Duque had his first chance to meet the United States’ flamboyant, unpredictable president, Donald Trump, outside the UN General Assembly meetings in New York. They spoke together with reporters for a while, and it was colorful.
While Duque kept his comments to policy questions, Trump let him know that if he fails to reduce cocaine supplies, he’ll be “just another president of Colombia.” He mocked Venezuela’s military for scattering after a drone-mounted bomb exploded in President Nicolas Maduro’s vicinity in August. After questions about North Korea and Iran, Trump turned to Duque and reminded him that Colombia is not a great power: “you can worry about drugs and do a great job, but you don’t have to worry about Iran and various other places.”
We know that the presidents spoke at length about drug policy and about the crisis in neighboring Venezuela. Both leaders, political conservatives, no doubt agreed on basic principles. Their governments still probably lack clarity, though, on next steps for dealing with either coca or Venezuela. Other topics, though, got little attention, including the issue that headed the agenda only a short time ago: how to consolidate peace.
A harder line on coca
In February, when Juan Manuel Santos was still in the Palace of Nariño, Trump shared his core opinion of countries, like Colombia, that produce illicit drugs that U.S. citizens consume:
[T]hese countries are not our friends. You know, we think they’re our friends and we send them massive aid. And I won’t mention names right now, but I look at these countries, I look at the numbers we send them — we send them massive aid and they’re pouring drugs into our country and they’re laughing at us. So I’m not a believer in that. I want to stop the aid.
Indeed, the White House has sought to cut aid to Colombia by about 35 percent during each of the past two years. It has failed, as the Republican-majority Congress has refused to go along with the cuts.
For now, Trump seems to think that Colombia’s new president might be different. Unlike last year, this year’s White House memo on major drug-producing and transit countries did not threaten to “decertify” Colombia, despite U.S. estimates measuring an 11% rise, to 209,000 hectares, in Colombia’s coca crop in 2017.
We don’t know what Duque told Trump that he would do to reduce Colombia’s coca crop. The Colombian president says he favors a mix of strategies, among them aerial herbicide fumigation from drones or aircraft. Duque probably told Trump he intends to step up forced eradication, and perhaps to reinitiate the use of aircraft-sprayed glyphosate, within the restrictions laid out by Colombia’s Constitutional Court.
Next steps, though, aren’t clear. U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal in August that seven or eight of the spray planes that operated before the fumigation program’s 2015 suspension remain in Colombia, and could be made operational “in a few months.” But at a time of reduced foreign assistance budgets, there may be an expectation that Colombia pay most of the cost. At its height in the mid-2000s, the spray program cost the U.S. government US$200 million per year, making up fully one-third of all military and police assistance at the time. Today, all aid to Colombia totals US$450 million, and Trump wants to cut it. So Bogotá would probably have to find money to pay for a new spray program.
Also unclear is how Colombia might deal with the likely wave of violent confrontations that might accompany an increase in manual eradication. What is clear, though, is that President Duque seized his moment with Trump to display his credentials as a drug-policy hardliner. He praised an “amazing declaration” on drug-policy principles that the U.S. government brought with it to the General Assembly sessions, expecting other countries to sign on. Duque also touted “something very important, Mr. President”: his decree of the previous week outlawing the possession of a “personal dose” of drugs, reversing earlier governments’ tentative step toward reform.
Tough talk on Venezuela
In their public appearance, Trump had clearly been coached to avoid endorsing a military intervention in Venezuela. A year ago, Trump caused an uproar throughout the region by saying he would not “rule out a military option” for resolving the country’s political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis. During Trump’s appearance with Duque, reporters tried to goad him into saying something similar. He did not take the bait: “I don’t want to say that. I don’t like to talk about military. Why should I talk to you about military?”
He did, however, back the idea of a military coup inside Venezuela. “It’s a regime that, frankly, could be toppled very quickly by the military if the military decides to do that.”
There’s increasing support, in the United States and elsewhere, for the idea of external actors helping internal opponents unseat Maduro’s regime. But there is zero consensus on how to do that successfully, and how to avoid making things worse even if it succeeds. For his part, Duque sat quietly by while Trump and his chief of staff, John Kelly, compared the Venezuelan military unfavorably to U.S. Marines.
The Colombian president seems to prefer the route of diplomatic isolation and encouragement of opposition elements in Venezuela. He has led the effort to denounce Venezuela at the International Criminal Court. When a reporter asked about six countries’ denunciation before the Court, issued this week, Trump had no idea what the question was about.
Trump said that the United States would help defend Colombia against any possible aggression from Venezuela. This appears to be a genuine security guarantee. Similar words were uttered by Vice President Mike Pence and, in an El Tiempo interview last week, by Ambassador Kevin Whitaker.
A reporter asked the presidents, “Are you going to talk about FARC and ELN, the peace process?” A startled Trump replied, “Are you asking me that question? We’re going to be talking about everything.” He said nothing more about an issue of central importance to governance and security in Colombia, while Duque repeated his conditions for re-starting talks with the ELN.
Neither president voiced a word of concern about the wave of killings of social leaders in Colombia, even as the organization Somos Defensores issued a chilling report finding a 34 percent year-on-year increase in such murders during the first six months of 2018.
Again in two months
Trump and Duque will meet again at the end of November; the U.S. president is scheduled to spend an entire day in Colombia en route to the G-20 Summit in Argentina. Unless something unforeseen happens in Venezuela, we can expect more colorful statements, continued lack of clarity about next steps, and further endorsement of hardline policies.
One thing to keep in mind during these meetings: Donald Trump is the head of state, but Iván Duque is talking only to part of the U.S. government with responsibility for Colombia policy. Duque is also talking to the weakest U.S. president in memory.
If Trump had his way, U.S. aid to Colombia would be slashed. But congressional appropriators blocked that. If Trump had his way, Colombia would no longer be a “friend” because it produces drugs and “laughs at us.” But U.S. diplomats and military officers have maintained the relationship largely unchanged. If Trump had his way, the United States may have already knocked out the Maduro government, even without a plan for what happens next. But cooler heads everywhere have stopped that.
On many policy questions, it’s as though the White House is a far right-wing NGO lobbying the rest of the government to carry out its agenda. It often fails, because much of what this NGO proposes is manifestly against the U.S. national interest. When that NGO can act autonomously, it can cause a lot of harm and human suffering, as 3,000 Central American migrant families found a few months ago. But otherwise, the checks and controls are working: and they are very likely to be stronger if, as polls predict, the Democratic Party opposition wins a majority of at least one house of Congress in the United States’ November 6 legislative elections.