One measure of just how desperate the situation in Venezuela has become is that, to many regime opponents, the idea of a U.S. invasion has quietly moved from “unthinkable catastrophe” to “extreme measure that’s arguably better than the alternative.” Over the past six years, Venezuela’s economy has thoroughly collapsed in tandem with its democracy. With per capita GDP now barely half what it was in 2013, inflation rising 46,305 percent in the past 12 months and millions fleeing the country, yesterday’s absolutely crazy ideas have begun to look comparatively sane to some.
They should know better. If there’s one thing Venezuelans ought to have grasped these past 20 years is that no matter how bad things look now, they can always get worse. Much worse. Layering a war on top of what is already a calamitous humanitarian situation risks setting off the kind of outright famine Venezuela’s chronically malnourished people have been tiptoeing around for years.
It’s telling that, in pressing his aides, Trump reportedly recalled the invasions of Grenada and Panama as models of what he had in mind. Americans tend to remember these — when they’re remembered at all — as quick-and-painless operations. The parallels are misleading. For all intents and purposes, Panama came conveniently pre-invaded. Large, permanent U.S. military bases in the canal zone — which was under U.S. control at the time, lest we forget — gave the United States an enormous tactical advantage. Even so, the U.S. attack on the Panamanian army headquarters set off a fire that destroyed a large, densely populated neighborhood directly next door, killing many civilians, although there are no exact figures. All told, between 500 and 700 civilians died, according to human rights organizations. Even the 1983 invasion of minuscule Grenada — population about the same as Burbank, Calif. — wasn’t over before the United States mistakenly attacked a mental-health facility on the island, killing 18.
With antecedents like those, the mind reels at the thought of what might happen in Venezuela. To be sure, Venezuela’s woefully unprepared, undertrained and ill-equipped military wouldn’t last long in a fight, but then, the Maduro government knows this. That’s why, for two decades, its defense doctrine has stressed asymmetrical warfare: tacitly conceding that it would not be able to hold back an initial invasion, but betting that it can use insurgency tactics to wear down the enemy over time. For years, the regime has been arming and training its civilian supporters to prepare them for this kind of fight.
Just think how a leader like Trump might react to reports on Fox News, night after night, of U.S. soldiers being picked off by pro-Maduro snipers hiding in civilian neighborhoods and U.S. convoys attacked with improvised explosive devices. It’s easy to imagine someone who has publicly advocated targeting the families of U.S. adversaries for reprisals hitting back with overwhelming firepower, collateral damage be damned.
Venezuelans who allow themselves to entertain fantasies of deliverance from “chavismo” at the hands of U.S. Marines need to be careful what they wish for. The risk of an absolutely ghastly bloodbath is real, and the vast bulk of the blood would be Venezuelan.
For now, it appears that Trump has ceased fantasizing about amphibious landings in the Caribbean, but with him you can never be too sure. Should he regain interest in a Venezuelan adventure, he could find that the new and much more hawkish Colombian president, Iván Duque, might be willing to countenance the use of his territory as a U.S. staging ground — something that would have been unimaginable under his predecessor.
The decision would revive the interventionist Monroe Doctrine that has done so much damage to U.S.-Latin America relations over the years and bring back the kind of gunboat diplomacy recent U.S. administrations have desperately sought to consign to the past. Then again, there’s little that this U.S. president relishes more than torching the bipartisan consensus upheld by his recent predecessors.
To be sure, a U.S. invasion of Venezuela remains a remote possibility, but it is not the absurd impossibility it looked like a year ago. An impulsive U.S. president in need of a quick win to set off a rally-around-the-flag effect could find the prospect of a relatively fast initial victory in Caracas alluring. The coolheaded advisers who surrounded him when he pushed the idea last year — H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson key among them — are no longer in place. Their replacements appear to be far less interested in trying to rein in the boss.
One thing’s for sure, then: The next time Trump decides to ask about a Venezuelan invasion, he will likely get much less determined pushback than he did last year.