When President Trump took questions at his March 19 news conference with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a reporter asked what he thought about possibly using military force to remove Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Trump’s answer was, “I think of all possibilities. All options are open.” The Trump administration has repeatedly stated the United States will not “rule out” military intervention in Venezuela because “every option is on the table.”
Two months ago, Trump recognized National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela’s interim president in January. Increasing numbers of Venezuelans — and foreign governments — have backed Guaidó and rejected the contested presidency of Maduro, but the country remains in a political stalemate. What happens next?
Debate over whether to invade a Latin American country has been far less common in this century than the last, but there is currently a high-level public discussion around the world about whether to use force in Venezuela to end the Maduro regime. Venezuelans are suffering from hunger, lack of electricity and medicine, hyperinflation and political repression — and the humanitarian crisis has put the country in the global media spotlight.
Why is the United States so involved? And what would an armed intervention mean for the future of Venezuelan democracy? Here’s what you need to know.
1. The U.S. has historically involved itself in Latin American politics
There’s a long history here. Most analyses of U.S.-Latin American relations share common assumptions that there is a power imbalance, and that the United States will play a central role in any Latin American political crisis, perceiving the region as its backyard. There are many examples of U.S. intervention, including use of military force.
Depending on your theoretical or empirical tastes, these factors matter because the United States will seek to project economic power, choose unilateral options, and perceive an inferior Latin America in need of U.S. improvement — or employ force to appease domestic constituents.
At the same time, U.S. power should not blind us to Latin American agency, which influences U.S. policy decisions and autonomous foreign policy capacity in the region. Latin American influence can both shape and strengthen U.S. initiatives. Latin American leaders have successfully argued or cajoled to inject their opinions into U.S. policy deliberations.
In 2015, the Obama administration declared Venezuela a national security threat, following months of protests and subsequent government repression. That declaration opened the door for sanctions against individuals in the Maduro government. The administration’s logic was that economic pressure would encourage military defection and compel the regime either to democratize or collapse, but neither happened.
In 2017, President Trump stated that his administration had “many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary,” which added a credible threat of violence. However, neither sanctions nor threats produced regime change or free elections.
Citing the fraudulent 2018 presidential election, in early 2019 Guaidó controversially invoked the constitution to proclaim Nicolás Maduro as usurper and himself as interim president. The Trump administration then recognized Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela and expanded sanctions further to include the state-owned oil company, which is Venezuela’s source of hard currency. The U.S. policy logic remained focused on military defection, ramping up the pressure on the Venezuelan economy.
2. Armed intervention does not typically lead to democracy
The discussion of U.S. armed intervention stems from the failure of these policy tools to achieve their goals. The literature both on democratic transitions and on U.S.-Latin American relations tells us something empirically about how desirable this option should be.
The odds are not good that a military intervention would succeed.
Armed intervention would constitute a transition by “imposition,” whereby one country or political faction imposes the rules of the game. The literature suggests this approach yields a less democratic result — by definition it excludes some groups or individuals. After World War II, “externally monitored installation” worked to reestablish Germany and Japan — but these conditions are not present in Venezuela.
And research suggests military intervention is much less likely to produce a successful outcome in poor and diverse countries. Instead, aid to peaceful opponents is more conducive to democratization than military intervention.
Venezuelans remain highly polarized, and a foreign-imposed transition would likely alienate a significant portion of the population and encourage electoral authoritarianism — where a government allows elections but controls them tightly and limits opposition participation.
Those who see invasion as a good option point to the U.S. invasion of Panama as a successful example because a dictatorship was ousted and democracy — though highly flawed — emerged. However, scholars point to how small Panama is in comparison to Venezuela, and how deeply embedded the United States already was in Panama.
3. U.S. armed intervention has been bad for Latin Americans
Research on U.S.-Latin American relations point to the historical use of force in bilateral relations and how it consistently undermined Latin American democracy. It contributed to militarization and violence (even to the point of fostering a “killing zone”), increased state repression, privileged the military over civilians and strengthened economic elites.
What would this mean in Venezuela? There’s a high risk that U.S. military intervention would involve long-term occupation, and undermine democracy and increase violence in the long term. Latin American political leaders long ago advocated multilateralism and nonintervention as core elements of foreign policy, simply for self-protection. Military action against Venezuela would therefore sour regional relations — particularly since even allies have spoken out against this approach.
Because of its relative power and its historical interest in the region, inevitably the United States becomes deeply involved in Latin American political crises. This is not likely to change anytime soon. Research tells us that the policy options most conducive to democracy are nonviolent, multilateral and consensual. If democracy is the true goal, then attacking Venezuela is unlikely to lead in that direction.
Gregory Weeks is associate dean for academic affairs and professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He blogs regularly on Latin American politics at Two Weeks Notice.