An American Intervention in Venezuela?

James Slate
17 min readOct 29, 2018

President Trump’s remark about using a “military option” in Venezuela to dislodge the Cuba-backed regime of President Nicolás Maduro has whipped up an anti-American frenzy in Venezuela and the region. In off-the-cuff remarks at his golf resort in New Jersey, Trump called the situation in Venezuela a “dangerous mess,” and he declared: “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”

The prudence of Trump’s remark is debatable. What’s not debatable, however, is the outright hypocrisy demonstrated by Latin American leaders who seized upon the president’s remarks as an example of Yankee imperialism and saber-rattling — all while conveniently ignoring Cuba’s veritable colonization of oil-rich yet impoverished Venezuela, where a Cuban-sponsored socialist nightmare has created a humanitarian crisis and incipient dictatorship.

Cuba — not Trump — is the real trouble maker in Venezuela. Yet Latin American leaders turn a blind eye to Cuba’s meddling.

Some history is worth recalling. After coming to power in 1959, Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro saw Venezuela as a prize in his quest to spread a communist revolution throughout the region. Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s firebrand president, made that dream possible. Thanks to sweetheart oil deals brokered by Chávez, Cuba’s economy got a vital lifeline — and Cuba in return provided behind-the-scenes advice to Chávez and successor Nicolás Maduro, a bus driver-turned politician. Early during his first term, in 1999, Chávez declared that Venezuela would sail toward the same “sea of happiness’ as communist Cuba.

Since Chávez’s first term, Cuban intelligence agents have operated at the highest levels in Venezuela. “Cuban agents train Venezuelans in both Cuba and Venezuela, providing both political indoctrination and operational instruction,” U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield, based in Caracas during the Chávez years, wrote in a memo released by WikiLeaks. Yet Latin leaders turn a blind eye to it all while disparaging Trump as the real danger to their sovereignty.

All of which underscores that Washington’s “imperialism” and intervention must be viewed within the context of Cuba’s wide-ranging subversion in Latin America and Caribbean — subversion described in a declassified CIA report. “As soon as Castro assumed power in Cuba in January 1959, Havana became the center for subversive operations against other Latin American countries,” observed the report. Among the countries Cuba targeted: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela, Columbia, Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina. Central America and the English-speaking Caribbean also were targets.

As for oil-rich Venezuela, 50 years ago it fended off a Cuban-sponsored invasion — the so-called “Machurucuto Incident.” On May 10, 1967, a dozen guerrillas were discovered on the beach of Machurucuto, a coastal town 70 miles east of Caracas, the capital. Fresh from paramilitary training in Cuba, the group consisted of Cubans and Venezuelans. Their goal was to train Venezuelan guerrillas in Venezuela’s Andes to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Raul Leoni.

The plot was foiled when a Venezuelan fisherman noticed an overturned raft and contacted authorities. Troops from the Venezuelan Army and National Guard arrived, and during the ensuing battle ten guerrillas were killed and two captured. Venezuela subsequently broke relations with Cuba for the next seven years.

While Latin elites deplored Trump’s saber-rattling, his remarks no doubt gave hope to ordinary Venezuelans who no longer believe that calls for “dialogue” will reverse Venezuela’s slide into a dictatorship, now that President Maduro has used a sham referendum to convene a national assembly to rewrite the constitution.

While the news media spun Trump’s remarks as reckless and played up criticism from Latin leaders — from Columbia to Peru to Uruguay — the president nevertheless got a boost from CIA Director Mike Pompeo. During an interview on Fox News Sunday, he said that Trump was merely trying “to give the Venezuelan people hope and opportunity to create a situation where democracy can be restored.”

He explained, “The intelligence makes very clear the Maduro regime continues to put snipers in towers and do things that are horrible, repressive, and the American policy is to work with our Latin American partners to try and restore democracy.”

The CIA director also warned that Venezuela’s could “very much” become a risk to the U.S. “The Cubans are there; the Russians are there, the Iranians, Hezbollah are there. This is something that has a risk of getting to a very very bad place, so America needs to take this very seriously.”

Trump also won praise from an exiled Venezuelan admiral, Carlos Molina Tamayo, who observed: “I applaud and welcome with satisfaction President Donald Trump’s statements about a possible military intervention in order to dislodge…the Castro puppets of the narco-Venezuelan regime, thus allowing the return of democracy to our country.”

Venezuela’s shady cast of characters will assume an ever larger role as the South American nation slides into complete failed-state status — a kleptocracy and narco-state where a handful of well-connected Venezuelans are getting rich from oil revenues and drug trafficking facilitated by military officials and political leaders. For them, promoting socialism and playing the anti-American card has been very profitable.

One of Venezuela’s drug kingpins is none other than Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s executive vice president, who was recently hit with financial sanctions along with a number of other top Venezuelan officials. “He facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base, as well as control of drug routes through the ports in Venezuela,” noted the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. His assets include properties in Miami and a U.S.-registered private jet.

Ultimately, the “military option” controversy is less about Trump than about the pathologies of the region — pathologies that were amusingly described in the non-fiction book, “Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot.” A bestseller in many Latin American countries, and written by Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Carlos Alberto Montaner, and Alvaro Vargas Llosa, the book observed: “For the Latin American idiot, Yankees…are the scapegoat to which all blame must be transferred. Because of them we aren’t rich, wise, or prosperous. Because of them we can’t secure that wonderful place we deserve in the assembly of nations.

It is difficult, to be sure, to envision the type of military operation that might work in Venezuela. But at least Trump’s remark about deploying a “military option if necessary” is the sort of language that the leaders of a socialist thug state will understand.

A few high-level politicians — Florida senator Bill Nelson, Argentina’s president Mauricio Macri — have proposed an outright embargo on U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil. That would destroy what’s left of Venezuela’s economy and very likely hasten Maduro’s fall. But it would wreak some havoc on the U.S. economy, too. Louisiana and Texas are home to Venezuela-connected refineries; the U.S. government would in effect be shutting down domestic companies and raising the price of gas in order to topple a foreign dictator.

In August, President Trump spoke mysteriously of a “military option” to stop the Maduro regime and restore democracy. But if the administration isn’t even talking about sanctioning Venezuela’s oil exports, it certainly isn’t considering regime change. Venezuela has a capable army; the risks of a military intervention would be far greater than those of overthrowing, say, Manuel Noriega in 1989.

The reality is that the Chavistas must be deprived of their oil. Otherwise Maduro stays, and Venezuela’s nightmare continues. If the Trump administration wants to rid the Americas of their most odious regime, it will have to embargo Venezuelan oil. Announce the decision six months in advance: Maduro and his cronies step down peacefully or the U.S. deprives them of their only real source of money. In the meantime, strengthen the opposition with clandestine funding and overt encouragement.

American Covert Action in Venezuela?

While there are serious arguments for backing a coup in Caracas, the potential downsides of such a move are too great.

The New York Times reported that the Trump administration had held a series of meetings with elements of the Venezuelan military who are considering an attempt to depose President Nicolas Maduro. These revelations have intensified the debate over whether the United States should intervene militarily in Venezuela. Most analysts covering the country have come out strongly against a U.S.-backed coup, arguing that an American intervention would be unpopular in the region, undermine U.S. interests, violate international law, and exacerbate Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.

I, too, am slightly opposed to a U.S.-backed coup, but I think the case in favor of one is far stronger than the anti-interventionists concede.

The first reason to favor overthrowing Maduro is that his government has effectively destroyed Venezuelan democracy. Despite his pathetically low approval rating (23 percent), there currently exists no way for the opposition to legally take power. Maduro’s party controls the presidency, the Supreme Court, the legislature, and the CNE (the body that oversees elections). In one form or another these institutions have all been packed with Chavista loyalists; as a result, Venezuelan elections have become increasingly farcical. And by manipulating the country’s foreign-exchange regime and controlling its massive oil reserves, Maduro’s government can leverage its economic power to hold on to its political power. In short, the odds of a legal, orderly transition of power are nonexistent.

The second reason to favor a coup is humanitarian. The Venezuelan people have suffered tremendously due to the astonishing absurdity of their rulers’ economic policies. Here is the Times’ concise description of their plight:

Venezuela’s health care system is in such dire straits that malaria, once almost wiped out, is soaring; about three quarters of the population has involuntarily lost nearly 20 pounds of weight and people scrounging for food in garbage has become, according to the Brookings Institution, the new normal.

Overthrowing an unpopular and irresponsible government might allow an opening for proper economic management.

The final reason to consider a coup is strategic. A million Venezuelans have fled their rapidly deteriorating nation, mainly to Colombia. Massive refugee flows could well threaten regional stability. And given that the Venezuelan kleptocracy controls the world’s largest oil reserves, has abetted terrorist and drug-trafficking activity, and espouses a rabid form of anti-Americanism, the case for overthrowing it starts to sound rather appealing after all.

Yet there remain solid reasons to oppose a U.S.-backed coup against Maduro, and I find them more compelling.

To begin with, most regional governments have stated that they would be vehemently opposed to an American-backed coup. South American governments that have been fiercely critical of Maduro, including those of Peru, Brazil, and Colombia, have said unequivocally that the Venezuelan crisis must be resolved without bloodshed. Even if there is good reason to believe that overthrowing Maduro would require violence, these governments are opposed to American meddling and will not cooperate if a coup is instigated by the United States. Attempting to impose the will of the United States on Venezuela in the absence of Brazilian and Colombian collaboration would be folly.

Moreover, it is hard to trust the Trump administration’s ability to 1) competently see through a successful transition of power, and 2) empower the sorts of constitutionally minded liberal-democrats we would like to see rule Venezuela. However one feels about Trump, it is indisputable that his administration is in disarray: A recent op-ed in the Times suggests that the president struggles even to command the respect of the officials who work under him. Sponsoring regime change in Venezuela would require a focused commitment that Trump is almost certainly incapable of mustering.

Indeed, American officials have already been placed in rather awkward positions while speaking with the coup plotters. As the Times reports, “one of the military commanders involved in the U.S.-Venezuelan coup talks was hardly an ideal figure to help restore democracy: He is on the American government’s own sanctions list of corrupt officials in Venezuela.”

The Washington Post also reports that American officials have had severe difficulties obtaining basic information about dissidents in the Venezuelan military. As one official put it to the Post, “[We U.S. agents] had very little confidence in the ability of these [coup plotters] to do anything, no idea at all about who they represented, and to what extent they had not exposed themselves already.

Supporting a coup in the face of such a scarcity of reliable intelligence would be reckless and dangerous.

Venezuela, we cannot forget, has already experienced an unpopular coup, and there are useful historical lessons we can draw from it. In April 2002, Hugo Chavez was overthrown by military rebels. He was replaced by Pedro Carmona, a rich businessman without much popular support. Carmona unilaterally rolled back all the reforms Chavez had democratically passed during the preceding three years and in so doing provoked a furious reaction that ended his brief rule. Chavez was returned to power in two days.

Of course, the country’s circumstances today are different than they were in 2002. Chavez was intelligent and well-liked by the masses; Maduro is foolish and detested by them. Nevertheless, it would be ill-advised for the U.S. to try to violently impose an unknown leader on the Venezuelan people. The risk of retaliatory slaughters or civil war would increase dramatically, and the humanitarian crisis might therefore be made worse rather than better.

Despite the undeniably wretched nature of the government in Caracas, then, there are still persuasive reasons to oppose what would be a unilateral U.S. intervention. (I take the objection that a U.S.-sponsored coup would be a violation of international law seriously as well, but exploring that topic would require an essay of its own.) If Maduro launches widespread massacres of the opposition, or if regional governments decide to change their posture, then the scales might be tipped in favor of intervention; currently they are not.

In the meantime, there remain constructive steps the U.S. can take short of inciting a coup. Daniel Larison, an anti-interventionist at The American Conservative, lists a few: “maintaining a united regional diplomatic front, providing assistance to Venezuela’s neighbors to cope with the influx of refugees, providing humanitarian relief for the civilian population, documenting abuses by Venezuela’s political leaders and their allies.” To this list I would add that the U.S. should ramp up its intelligence-gathering capacities so as to give material aid to democrats in the opposition. The sooner constitutional order can be restored in Venezuela, the better.

The Case for a Limited Humanitarian Intervention

The people of Venezuela are starving to death. Bands of hungry looters roam the streets of its cities, the currency is worthless, and no one can create wealth thanks to incompetent and corrupt regulators backed by the regime.

The governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro have ruined the nation’s economy in the time-honored way: by controlling it. What money the government has comes from the state-owned oil company; it funds a police state solely concerned with protecting the totalitarian party of Chavismo and destroying its enemies. The democratic opposition has either been brutalized into silence or bought off. The few still willing openly to oppose Maduro are fractured by ideological differences and exhausted by poverty.

The only way to help the people of Venezuela is to cut off Maduro’s sole source of money, oil:

The reality is that the Chavistas must be deprived of their oil. Otherwise Maduro stays, and Venezuela’s nightmare continues. If the Trump administration wants to rid the Americas of their most odious regime, it will have to embargo Venezuelan oil. Announce the decision six months in advance: Maduro and his cronies step down peacefully or the U.S. deprives them of their only real source of money. In the meantime, strengthen the opposition with clandestine funding and overt encouragement.

Of course, very few in the U.S. government are contemplating this step. It would be a difficult and costly one on both sides. Citgo — the Houston-based subsidiary of PDVSA, Venezuela’s national oil company — would in effect be shut down, costing thousands of jobs on America’s Gulf Coast and raising gas prices everywhere. But it’s the only way to bring Maduro down and give Venezuelans the chance to live.

There may be a less costly way, though, to rattle and embarrass Maduro’s regime, even if it won’t threaten its existence. It’s an unconventional idea — and maybe “unconventional” is another word for crazy — but either word might fairly describe the current U.S. administration.

If Maduro’s government is starving its people, and if there is no feasible way to remove him and no one yet ready to take his place, the United States and its allies can aid Venezuelans directly by coordinating a massive humanitarian airlift. A forcible transport of food and medical supplies to, say, the country’s five largest cities — Caracas, Maracaibo, Maracay, Valencia, and Barquisimeto — would accomplish at least three aims at once. If nothing else, a large-scale and sustained airlift would (1) save some not insignificant number of people from starvation. It would also (2) humiliate a detestable regime that cherishes international prestige. And (3) an airlift led by the United States and joined by Canada, Britain, the E.U. states, and perhaps other allies — the whole operation carried out by the U.S. military — would convey an unforgettable message of friendship to the persecuted and oppressed of Venezuela.

Such an aggressive humanitarian intervention, effected against the will of the Maduro government, comes with risks. Government forces might try to stop it, just as the Soviets wouldn’t allow aid to West Berlin in 1948 and 1949, and as Burma wouldn’t allow humanitarian aid deliveries after the cyclone of 2008. If Maduro were to stop a U.S.-led humanitarian airlift, the policy should be to overrule him, as President Truman overruled the Soviets. An airlift to Venezuela would have to be what Larry Minear has called “coercive humanitarianism.”

The Case for an all out Military Intervention in Venezuela

With the Venezuela crisis worsening, the Trump administration has let it be known that “all options are on the table;” and Trump himself has mooted invading the country. The Trump administration had secretly been in touch with dissident officers in the Venezuelan armed forces about launching a coup, but the regime caught on and arrested them. Most recently, Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the OAS, broached the idea of a foreign military intervention against the Maduro government, which he accused of crimes against humanity.

The United States and the EU have imposed rafts of onerous sanctions, but with no discernible effect on the regime’s behavior. The latest punitive measures, adopted by the US at the end of September, target Maduro, his wife (a former speaker of the National Assembly and a prominent politician in her own right) and members of his inner circle. Imposing a blockade on Venezuela’s export of oil — the government’s main source of revenue and hard currency — might force a change in leadership, but only after significantly worsening life for the masses of already hunger-stricken Venezuelans.

So, what is to be done? Given that the Maduro regime has neutered the opposition and rendered impossible change via the ballot box, and in view of the stakes, both for the Venezuelan people and the region, outside efforts, including US efforts, to bring about a change of government in Venezuela must continue. For starters, the US and other countries could offer Maduro and his accomplices, in return for their abandoning power, safe passage to a third country (say, Russia or China), as well as immunity from prosecution. Such an offer would seem immensely unjust, given the scale of the Maduro regime’s crimes, but this might be the price to pay for the peaceful removal of the government.

What if these efforts fail? Does a legal basis exist for outside military action to oust the Maduro regime? Yes. The doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), adopted by the UN (and approved by Venezuela) in 2005, provides it. The principle is simple: sovereign states have a duty to safeguard their populations from, among other things, crimes against humanity and genocide — and a government’s rejecting humanitarian aid and leaving its people to starve and die without medical care certainly constitutes the former, and possibly the latter. Other factors buttressing the case for intervention include the breakdown of the Venezuelan state, its involvement in narcotics trafficking, and its inability to confront the raging epidemic of violent crime.

Citing R2P, the UN has authorized military action a number of times in Africa and the Middle East. In the case of Venezuela, however, Russian and Chinese vetoes would surely doom any R2P resolution concerning Venezuela in the Security Council.

But the Security Council isn’t the only body that could act. The O.A.S. could, and might be gearing up to do so. On September 17, Almagro tweeted that “millions of people have already been murdered, tortured, and displaced in Venezuela. The responsibility to protect is not to count the dead” — an obvious reference to R2P. (The International Criminal Court, at the behest of six Latin American countries, is already investigating human rights abuses in Venezuela.) Colombia has special incentive to intervene, since Venezuela has permitted two Marxist guerilla organizations — the FARC and the ELN — to launch attacks against Colombia from its territory. (It should be noted that Colombia also has a large, battle-hardened, well-equipped army, and could lead any intervention.) If Colombian president Ivan Duque has, at least as of last summer, publicly rejected the idea of using military force to topple Maduro, his government, and that of Canada, recently abstained from a Lima Group proclamation opposing the use of military force against Caracas.

Could Maduro effectively fight back? The country has a 438,000-strong “Bolivarian militia” (possibly equipped with Russian shoulder-carried Igla anti-aircraft missiles), that could assist Venezuela’s regular army, which has more than 300,000 troops. Armed, pro-regime motorcycle gangs known as Colectivos patrol barrios and suppress dissent, but they could also attack invaders. Military planners would have to take all this into account; but it should be remembered that the Venezuelan military has not seen action (and that, low-scale) since the 1960s; and its soldiers have been increasingly going hungry, deserting, and being arrested for treason or rebellion. Under fire from forces led by, say, the Colombian army, which would surely receive intelligence support (if not more) from the US, how long would they hold out? How many would choose to fight and die for the wildly unpopular Maduro?

Once Maduro and his henchmen have been removed, the country stabilized with an international coalition of forces occupying key government and military facilities, political prisoners freed (including, obviously, Leopoldo López), and humanitarian aid permitted entry, the same coalition could oversee the formation of a transition government. This government could declare the reestablishment of constitutional order and the holding of free and fair elections within, say, four to six months — elections in which all parties, including the current ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, could take part.


Whether a professedly but inconsistently nationalist U.S. administration has the will to face down this neighborhood tormentor is anybody’s guess. If it does, the oppressed around the world will watch and learn.It might be a wild idea. Perhaps the saner move would be the more immediately consequential one of embargoing the country’s oil. But either is better than watching another generation of Venezuelans starve.

The prospect of a protracted Syrian-style conflict in the Americas seems an event for which policymakers in the United States are ill-prepared. Such a scenario would mean the implosion of a country rich with oil resources, a state flush with government-backed narcotics traffickers, money, and weapons. It could spark a refugee crisis similar to that which has cast the Middle East and North Africa into disorder and strengthened the rise of reactionary elements inside Europe. It would be a conflict that would threaten American national security and may necessitate and armed American response.

The trajectory Venezuela is following in 2017 is eerily similar to the path Syria took in 2011. It would behoove the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the United States, in particular, to begin preparing the public for the prospect of necessary contingency operations. The worst case scenario is now pretty easy to envision.

The intervention proposed above would carry risks. But they must be weighed against the certain consequences for Venezuelans of doing nothing: more disease, death, political oppression and flight abroad.

Venezuelans deserve better, but this time, they need help to get it. Providing assistance would be the humane — and just — thing to do. The United States has a duty to save people from starvation and ethnic cleansing.


Barton Swaim:

Christian Alejandro Gonzales:

Jeffrey Tayler

Further Reading:



James Slate

I Defend America and its Foreign Policy from a Liberal Perspective.