Upon his election in 1998, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez launched a “Bolivarian Revolution” that would create “socialism for the twenty-first century” funded by billions of petrodollars. Chávez, an admirer of Fidel Castro, very clearly sought to transform Venezuela into a new Cuba. For the next twenty years, Venezuela has gotten exactly that: a slow, agonizing descent into socialist tyranny.
Chávez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, with help from Russia and China, doubled down on this suicidal trajectory. The results are clear. Since 2013, three million Venezuelans have fled their country. Starvation, disease, and murder have become political weapons of the regime against the Venezuelan people. Venezuela is now the worst humanitarian disaster in the Americas.
To his great credit, President Trump is leading the international effort to oust Maduro. His administration has taken unprecedented diplomatic and economic steps against the Cuban-backed regime and has declared that all options to resolve the crisis, including military force are on the table.
It is vitally important that President Trump follow through with this resolution. Venezuela is a serious threat to the stability of Latin America and the United States. Maduro is unlikely to go away peacefully. Only America has the military capacity, moral leadership, and political will to overthrow him. If there was ever a moment when military intervention in Venezuela was justifiable, it is now.
A Disaster Nineteen Years in the Making
Hugo Chávez’s 1998 victory prepared the disaster that was later to come. Funded by Venezuela’s immense oil wealth, it was a program to implement radically socialist economic and social policies and spread them to other countries in Latin America.
Beginning in 2001 and accelerating after 2005, the Chávez regime began a Cuban-style “land reform” program. Large farms were confiscated and “redistributed” to allies of the regime or transformed into state-run “peasant cooperatives.” Political enemies of the government, such as Manuel Rosales, a former governor and chief opposition candidate to Chávez in the 2006 presidential election, were the usual targets of land expropriations.1
The government also expropriated private businesses, oil companies, and banks. In 2007, Chávez confiscated the assets of Exxon Mobile and ConocoPhillips for refusing to hand over majority control of their operations to the government. Whole industries involving cement, steel, and utilities were nationalized.
Beginning in 2002, Hugo Chávez purged more than 20,000 “unloyal” workers and engineers from the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela. Many purged workers fled the country to work for other oil companies around the world.
This takeover of the oil industry and the resulting flight of expertise from the country, combined with the sharp decline in global oil prices, caused the Venezuelan economy to collapse. Oil production—which in the seventies made Venezuela the richest country in Latin America—fell from 3.5 million barrels per day in 1999 to a mere 1.3 million in 2018. In 2018, Venezuela’s Gross Domestic Product shrank 18%, the third consecutive year of double-digit decline and 40% below its 2013 peak.2
Government theft of property combined with price controls is causing shortages of every type of consumer good from food to bandages to soap to medicine. Not surprisingly, agricultural production collapsed. Staples such as flour, corn, butter, and milk are either unavailable or too expensive for the average person. Venezuela has gone from producing 70% of its food to importing 70%.
Long lines where consumers wait hours are a common sight outside the few markets still in operation. In 2016, the average Venezuelan lost 26 pounds due to malnutrition.3 By 2018, 30% of Venezuelans were eating only one meal per day4 and more than 60% said they go to sleep hungry every night.5 To survive, many Venezuelans have resorted to rummaging through trash in search of food.
Basic medicines have disappeared from hospitals. Infectious diseases that had long been eradicated or greatly controlled such as malaria, diphtheria, scabies, and measles are exploding and spreading to neighboring countries. In 2016, maternal mortality increased by 65%, and infant mortality increased by 30%.6
Hyperinflation has destroyed the bolivar, Venezuela’s currency. In the twelve-month period ending in November 2018, inflation reached 1,300,000%, the highest in the world. It has lost 99.9% of its value since 20167 and prices double, on average, every 19 days. Many businesses and doctors only accept payment in U.S. dollars, which has become the de facto alternative currency of the country.
Just like Cuba, average Venezuelans have little choice but to steal to survive. Consequently, corruption has become a fact of everyday life in Venezuela. Maduro and his cronies have turned Venezuela’s government into a giant mafia state. He gave whole industries over to his generals to run as personal businesses. The military controls food production and distribution, oil, medicine and nearly every other important sector of the economy; all run for personal profit.8 Black markets and bribes are often the only ways Venezuelans can buy staples such as rice, corn, and even water.
Drug trafficking has become a major source of income for the Maduro regime. In 2013, French police intercepted 1.3 tons of cocaine in 31 suitcases on a flight from Caracas to Paris. French police arrested officers of the Venezuelan National Guard in connection with the shipment, but the discovery was just the tip of the iceberg.9 Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. police have discovered many other drug shipments. In 2015, the US Drug Enforcement Agency arrested two nephews of President Maduro for smuggling cocaine.10 Venezuela is now a major corridor for the global distribution of cocaine out of Colombia. Drug trafficking has become so common that members of the government no longer try to hide it.
With corruption, starvation, and the breakdown of the justice system, crime in Venezuela is rampant. It has the second highest violent crime rate in the world, after El Salvador. In 2017, Caracas became the world’s most deadly capital city, with 111 murders per 100,000 residents.11 It is fourteen times more deadly than São Paulo, Brazil, and fifteen times more than Mexico City. According to some estimates, Venezuela has the highest rate of kidnapping in the world.12 A staggering 38% of Venezuelans reported that they were robbed in the past year, the sixth highest in the world.13
According to a 2016 Gallup poll of 135 countries, Venezuelans feel less secure in their country than any other people in the world, including war-torn Syrians. Just 14% of Venezuelans feel safe in their country, compared with 32% for both Syrians and Afghans.
It is no surprise that millions of Venezuelans have fled the country. The United Nations estimates that three million Venezuelans have left, mostly to Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Spain, Mexico, and the United States. A further two million more are expected to leave in 2019, a total that would surpass Syria.
Like Fidel Castro before them, Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro waged a violent crackdown on all opposition. Radio and television stations have been closed or nationalized. The government implemented a Chinese-style firewall that filters out content of web sites critical of the regime. Prominent journalists and politicians critical of the regime have been arrested, beaten, or exiled. In 2017, Maduro closed 49 radio stations citing “irregularities.” Since 2013, three-fourths of Venezuela’s newspapers have closed.14
Massive protests against the government erupted across Venezuela at the beginning of 2014 and continued through the 2015 parliamentary elections in which the opposition won a large majority. Maduro doubled down by attacking protesters with the police and pro-regime militia. Police killed hundreds and arrested thousands more.
In December 2015, opposition parties won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly, dealing a stinging rebuke to the Maduro government. Rather than compromise with the opposition and alleviate the economic chaos caused by socialism, Maduro again doubled down. Labeling the opposition “fascist,” he weakened the Assembly by packing the court system with judges loyal to him and simply declared that he would not accept certain laws contrary to bolivarianismo.15
In December 2017, after massive street protests against the government, Maduro’s Supreme Court effectively nullified the National Assembly of its legislative powers and granted them to a new “Constitutional Assembly” packed with his supporters.
Venezuela as a Slave of Cuba
From the beginning of his rule, Hugo Chávez established Venezuela as a satellite regime of communist Cuba. He called Fidel Castro his “mentor” and “brother” and praised Cuba as a “revolutionary democracy.” In 1999, during one of his many visits to Cuba, Chávez stated:
Here we are, as alert as ever, Fidel and Hugo, fighting with dignity and courage to defend the interests of our people, and to bring alive the idea of Bolívar and Martí. In the name of Cuba and Venezuela, I appeal for the unity of our two peoples, and of the revolutions that we both lead. Bolívar and Martí, one country united!
In exchange for token “humanitarian” assistance in the form of “doctors,” Venezuela has sent Cuba billions of dollars in “economic aid” and millions of barrels of free oil every year.
When Chávez purged the Venezuelan oil industry and military in the early 2000s, he created a massive internal spy network thanks to the help of thousands of Cuban intelligence officers. The Chávez/Maduro regime has purged, jailed, and in some cases tortured and killed thousands of Venezuelan officers and soldiers suspected of any disloyalty.
Venezuela now has a highly effective apparatus for rooting out opposition. This extends to the Internet, where a Chinese-style firewall blocks online content hostile to the regime. A full-fledged disinformation campaign attacks and attempts to discredit opponents. The Maduro regime’s repression of its people would not have been possible without Cuban expertise.
Russia and China
Diplomatic, economic, and military support from both Russia and China has been a key factor in keeping the Maduro regime in power.
Both countries have loaned Venezuela over $50 billion, to be repaid in oil shipments. Russia sold the regime billions of dollars in weapons, from fighter jets to rifles and routinely sends its military forces to Venezuela, providing Vladimir Putin a strategic base from which to exert power and influence in the Western Hemisphere. Last December, Putin sent two Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers to Venezuela, a clear message of support for the regime. These jets are capable of launching nuclear cruise missiles 3,410 miles away from their targets, which is a direct threat to America.
In addition, both China and Russia consistently support Venezuela at the UN, vetoing any resolutions against Venezuela. On January 29, Putin’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov “warned” the United States against military intervention in Venezuela. “Venezuela is friendly to us and is our strategic partner,” he said. “We have supported them and will support them.”16
Fake Election Spurs International Action
In May 2018, Maduro won re-election to a new six-year term in an election rife with voter fraud and in which he banned the main opposition from running. Both the United States and the European Union condemned the election as illegitimate.17
Shortly after Maduro’s inauguration on January 10, 2019, the United States and the 14 Group of Lima countries declared Maduro illegitimate and recognized Juan Guaidò, the head of the National Assembly, as the legitimate president of Venezuela. The European Union followed soon after. The Trump administration also slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports, cutting off its only real source of income. Venezuela is at its weakest position since the beginning of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution.
The Time to Act Is Now
The Chávez/Maduro regime has survived twenty years of domestic unrest and economic hardship. Maduro and his generals run a criminal enterprise and have no incentive to back down. It is unlikely that Maduro and his government will surrender peacefully and hand power over to Juan Gaidò, no matter how bad things become.
It is very possible that the regime, though crippled, will settle into a Cuban-like status quo: the economy stagnates, people continue to flee, and the Venezuelan people resign themselves to the new “normal,” while the regime stays in power. Such a scenario would be a humiliating defeat for the United States and a victory for Cuba, Russia, and China and their apologists in Europe and the U.S.
President Trump affirmed that “all options are on the table,” including military force, to solve the Venezuelan crisis. If all other options fail, it is crucial that the U.S. follow through with this threat. At this critical moment, the cost of failure would be incalculable to American national security, the people of Venezuela and national honor.