Why a US military intervention in Venezuela is out of the question

On August 11, 2017, President Trump made a statement regarding the internal situation in Venezuela that caused shockwaves in the Western Hemisphere. Trump’s assertion that the US does not rule out the possibility of a military option regarding Venezuela’s crisis brought back the Cold War era in Latin American politics where military solutions were fair game from a US perspective. But the swift reaction from Latin American governments, including from those that strongly oppose Maduro’s government, should point out the dangerous path that a military intervention represents in the already embattled resource-rich country.

As we will see, the potential direct and collateral negative effects of a military US intervention not just on Venezuela, but also on global oil markets, other Latin American economies, and US economic interests at home make this event highly unlikely. 

US military action is unlikely to receive regional or international support

A US military action most likely will not receive regional and international support because it might be perceived as a violation of international law. At the regional level, the most important foreign ministries immediately issued statements criticizing President Trump’s remarks, without mentioning him by name.

  • Lack of support by US key allies in Latin America: The first government to criticize was Colombia because military intervention in Venezuela could derail the Peace accord signed between the Colombian government and the FARC. In addition, it would cause a massive influx of Venezuelan refugees through the 2,219 kilometers of the Colombia-Venezuela border. Other governments to quickly condemn Trump’s statement were Mexico through its Foreign Minister, Luis Videgaray, and Peru, which recently organized a regional reunion in Lima where 12 countries signed a strong declaration against Maduro’s government.

Colombia, Peru, and Mexico are staunch critics of Maduro’s government; thus, it is feasible to expect that LATAM governments would not support any military solution to a governability crisis in Venezuela at the Organization of American States (OAS) or the United Nations (UN) level.

  • Likely veto of China and Russia at the UN Security Council: Furthermore, at the UN Security Council, neither China or Russia would support a US intervention, and would veto instead any such attempt because of their strategic interests in Venezuela. From 2005-2013, Venezuela concluded 30 contracts worth $11 billion with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-owned company exporting military hardware. Hence, Russia would want to avoid another “Libya outcome” when Russia abstained from voting on the UNSC resolution 1973, which established a no-fly zone in Libya. Russia’s abstention ended up costing it over $2 billion dollars in military contracts signed with Gaddafi’s regime. Likewise, China would not support a military intervention in Venezuela, which owes China more than $62 billion in loans and is behind on oil shipments used for payment. China would be inclined to support a political solution, but not a military strike.

A US military strike could have an upside “Panama scenario” or a downside “Iraq scenario” 

  • Upside “Panama Scenario”: An upside scenario of any US military intervention in Venezuela would be an operation similar to the one the US launched in December 1989 called “Operation Just Cause” that ousted Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega from power. It was a short and successful military operation, even though it received condemnation from the OAS members
  • Downside “Iraq Scenario”: However, a downside scenario is more likely in this case because a US military intervention could unleash a major conflict within Venezuela that could become a protracted conflict like the ones in Iraq or Afghanistan. Venezuela stopped military cooperation with the US in 2003, and since then its military has developed an “asymmetric warfare” doctrine where a civic-military union would defend the country against a foreign intervention. Hence, a conflict like the one in Iraq with high death toll and economic cost (e.g., over 500,000 casualties and $3 trillion) should not be discarded as a possible scenario. Venezuela’s Defense Minister, General Vladimir Padrino López, has already responded directly to President Trump’s remarks by saying that Venezuela’s armed forces would defend its sovereignty against an “act of madness.”

A US military strike could disrupt the global oil market and US economic interest at home

  • A shortage of Venezuelan oil could benefit US administration foes, Russia, and Iran: Venezuela has the largest oil reserve on the planet (297.6 billion barrels proven reserves versus 265.9 billion in Saudi Arabia and 173.9 billion in Canada). The late President Hugo Chávez used to threaten to destroy the country’s oil fields in case of a military intervention in Venezuela; thus, this possibility cannot be ruled out as part of Venezuela’s military strategy. A disruption of Venezuelan oil exports would raise global oil prices, which would help the economies of Russia and Iran, the two geopolitical foes of the current US administration
  • Job losses in the US: At the domestic level, the US administration should also weigh in the fact that Citgo, which is wholly owned by Venezuela’s PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, would be seriously affected. Citgo operates 4% of American refining capacity and owns more than 6,000 retail locations, providing 46,000 jobs. Since Trump’s campaign platform was about creating jobs in the US, a military strike in Venezuela is not in America’s interest, because it could destroy jobs in the US
  • Strong opposition from US oil companies: Finally, if the US stopped importing Venezuelan oil it could also have a direct effect on energy companies, such as Chevron, Valero Energy, and Phillips 66. This would make them replace Venezuela’s heavy crude by importing it from places, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This would be an inconvenience because transporting oil by sea from Venezuela to Texas requires only 5 days compared to 30-40 days from the Middle East. The US could soften their economic blow through the strategic petroleum reserve, but Venezuela still offers cheaper and more abundant heavy crude resources

In short, a US military strike is highly unlikely because it could have serious geopolitical and economic consequences in the world, including serious disruption to global oil markets and damaging to US interests at home. It is also not surprising that LATAM governments that oppose Maduro’s regime and even the internal opposition Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) reject any foreign military option for resolution of Venezuela’s crisis.

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