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Venezuela’s Situation Strains Latin America’s New Leadership

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By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security

Nicolas Maduro was sworn in for his second, six-year term as president of Venezuela on Jan. 10, despite the country’s record inflation, food and medical shortages, and a precipitous decline in living standards.

Although Maduro relies heavily on the military for support, he nevertheless has increased the number of arrests and torture of military members out of fear of assassination plots and potential coups,  according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. The human rights organization documented “almost three dozen cases where military officers, their family, spouses or acquaintances were arbitrarily detained and often tortured.”

Opposition forces in Venezuela have had little success in coalescing into a unified front against the Maduro regime beyond organizing protests. So it is unlikely that the situation in that South American nation will improve any time soon.

Venezuela’s neighbor to the south, Brazil, also inaugurated a new president this year, but he comes from the far right fringes as opposed to the far left. Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in October after his two predecessors were caught up in a corruption scandal that opened the way for someone, anyone, to run who promised some sort of change in governance.

Bolsonaro is already making statements that contradict his administration’s positions and has worried the military leaders he adamantly courts. Brazil will see some significant changes over the course of the Bolsonaro administration, but whether those changes are for the better is still a matter of debate.

Flirtations with populism have been simmering elsewhere in Latin America as well, but they have hardly led to a wave of new governance in the region. Several South American leaders, for example, have been in power for decades. Even if they tend toward leftist populism, they have managed to survive the decline in commodity prices on which their economies are so dependent.

This has led to a political split across Latin America, between those ruling from the far right and those ruling from the far left with a few ruling from the center. Although this dynamic is not unprecedented in the region,  it led Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico’s former foreign minister, to comment in The New York Times, about  Maduro and Bolsonaro that, “The clash between these like-minded leaders is a conflict foretold.”

The Challenge of Conventional Conflict in South America

Insurgency in South America is far more common than conventional conflicts in Europe. As Castañeda notes, “There are several hundred thousand Venezuelans across the border in Brazil and Colombia. Presidents Bolsonaro and Duque both detest Mr. Maduro. Both sympathize with President Trump, and he sympathizes with them. A pincer movement by the two countries’ armies, with more or less discreet United States backing, is increasingly conceivable, particularly as the region drifts to the right.”

The aforementioned split between far right and far left leadership in the region has occurred with some frequency in the past, but it hasn’t led to widespread conventional conflicts. That’s because moving troops and heavy equipment across the Amazon rain forest or over the Andes is difficult for even the most advanced militaries.

Simón Bolivar, the 19th century liberator of much of South America, was, perhaps, the last military leader to actually pull off the feat of moving troops across this difficult terrain. The terrain does, however, lend itself to insurgent activity as we saw in the latter half of the last century.

If Colombia and Brazil did decide to wage war against Venezuela (and this is a big if), then both nations would have to rely on naval combat and troop insertions on Venezuela’s Atlantic coast. Even with this option, the military approach to dealing with Maduro and his failing state is wrought with challenges.

Moving forward in Latin America will present some profound challenges to states such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, both of which face political instability. However, the region has faced worse problems. Latin America is no longer a playground for great power politics, despite Chinese investment or the small Russian military presence in some locations.

With the right mindset and good policy, Washington can still engage with the region to their mutual benefit, although the prolonged U.S. government shutdown is not helping. Bolsonaro’s new government in Brazil hasn’t yet shown itself to be regionally disruptive, but Maduro’s inept leadership is placing a strain on his neighbors.

Eventually this situation will have to be resolved because Latin America cannot continue to support Venezuela when Caracas has failed to do so. In a previous column I suggested that in lieu of military intervention, perhaps by engaging with the Venezuelan refugees they might build an opposition coalition that could return home and present a viable challenge to Maduro’s government. Time is of the essence, however. People are suffering. The new, untested leadership in the region might be forced to take drastic measure the longer the situation in Venezuela drags on.

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