Bello |ı| Why armed intervention in Venezuela is a bad idea

Jan 18th 2018Screen Shot 2018-01-18 at 2.26.27 PM

Violent action against the dictatorship is risky and ill-advised, but it has started

WHAT should be done when a regime remains in power by dictatorial means while pitching its people into penury? That is the question that Venezuela’s opposition has been grappling with since it won a legislative election in 2015, only to see Nicolás Maduro’s government use its puppet courts to strip power from the legitimate parliament.

The opposition has tried two strategies. One was sustained protest. That was met with violence: about 120 people died in protests last year, many at the hands of the security forces. Despite the protests, Mr Maduro created a new, hand-picked assembly to replace the parliament. (The opposition boycotted a vote in July that was intended to give this new body a figleaf of respectability.)

The second track has been to try to negotiate with the regime for a free and fair presidential election due later this year. In theory the two strategies are not incompatible, but in practice pursuit of both has divided the opposition (which has paid a high price for its failure to forge a single party with a single leader). Those splits and the regime’s refinement of fraud and clientelism—votes for food and cash—allowed Mr Maduro to win the recent regional and municipal elections.

In talks with part of the opposition this month in the Dominican Republic the government has been uncompromising. It has barred the two most popular opposition leaders from running for president. It shows no sign of agreeing to a non-partisan electoral authority or to the international election monitoring that the opposition demands. In desperation, the opposition may settle for much less.

Venezuela is not standing still. Living conditions continue to deteriorate. On top of shortages of food and medicines and rampant crime, the country has now entered hyperinflation. The central bank has stopped publishing regular statistics. According to an estimate by the finance committee of the national assembly, prices rose by 2,616% in 2017, and by 85% in the month of December alone, as the government finances itself by printing money. (Most economists define hyperinflation as being 50% or more per month.) Despite regular increases, the minimum wage has lost most of its value.

In the 1970s Venezuela was the richest country in Latin America. Partly because of a fall in the oil price in 2014, but mainly because of the anti-market policies of Mr Maduro and his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, the economy this year will be a third smaller than it was in 2013. (In acknowledgment of that decline, and of the poor quality of Venezuela’s data, this week we have replaced the country in our statistics pages with Peru, whose economy will soon be bigger. We will continue publishing statistics on Venezuela on our website.)

Venezuela’s desperate plight is prompting some desperate thinking. Warning of impending famine, Ricardo Hausmann, a Venezuelan economist at Harvard University, this month called for the parliament to appoint a new president who would call for international military action to overthrow the regime.

This is a bad idea, and unlikely to come about. No Latin American government will back it. Nor, probably, will Donald Trump, though he has mused about it. And it risks large-scale bloodshed: Venezuela has a well-equipped army. At least some of its forces would fight, as would pro-regime militias.

More likely is guerrilla action by Venezuelans. In a small way, this has begun. On January 15th the security forces cornered Óscar Pérez, a dissident police captain who last month led a raid on a National Guard armoury, making off with a cache of weapons. Mr Pérez tried to surrender, but was summarily killed along with six followers. This contrasts with the leniency shown to Chávez: the democratic government that he tried to overthrow in 1992, in a coup attempt that left 67 people dead, not only spared his life but pardoned him after just two years in jail.

Mr Maduro’s ruthlessness betrays insecurity. His regime may have crushed the opposition for now, but it is under strain. The country has seen another round of looting and protests over food shortages. A fall in oil output is offsetting the recent increase in its price. Financial sanctions imposed by Mr Trump have made it hard for Mr Maduro to raise money abroad. There are reports of sympathy for Mr Pérez among the security forces.

In one respect Mr Hausmann raises a valid point. Latin America should not stand idly by in the face of an unprecedented and entirely man-made calamity in Venezuela. The region could put more diplomatic and financial pressure on the regime. There is no guarantee of success—but the alternatives are worse.