Point 16 (of 18) in the Lima Group’s latest declaration stands out. It calls for a democratic transition in Venezuela by peaceful means. But the group’s point man, interim president Juan Guaidó, calls for something else.
Venezuela’s neighbors face grueling problems. First the refugee outflow. By November last year, over three million Venezuelans had fled to Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Brazil, among others. These countries’ bureaucracies could barely cope, and the division among Venezuelans is straining host countries’ social fabric too. By and large – so far – however, Venezuelans have settled in relatively peacefully and now contribute substantially to their host societies.
Apart from the refugee flow, neighboring countries face a more serious problem on which they have to act: Venezuela’s institutional breakdown could trigger war. Divisions in the country run so deep that not only opinions but also institutions are divided; armed factions like the police, the military, death squads and crime syndicates vie for influence and profit. The population at large suffers misery. Citizens have to go to great lengths to get goods necessary for survival.
In that environment, the resulting aggression and distrust keep society constantly at boiling point which could tip into civil war. This would throw the door open to geopolitical interests of super- and big powers, which have thrown their support behind one side or the other but so far refrained from lighting the fuse.
Guaidó & the Lima Group
Made up mostly of Latin American countries, with Canada representing as usual the friendly face of US foreign policy, the Lima Group faces breaking waves from two sides. First, the countries need Maduro and his entire royal court gone. Otherwise, the mafia behind Maduro will deepen the crisis, even without foreign intervention. In its statement, the Lima Group has been clear on that point. Whenever it referred to Maduro, it attached the verb ‘illegitimate.’
So much for the easy part.
Almost at the end, the Lima Group declaration states the “democratic transition must be managed by Venezuelans themselves pacifically… assisted by political and diplomatic measures, without force.” Many observers, not entirely wrongly, interpreted this point as a rebuke to US intervention but left Guaidó out of the story.
The interim president has called frequently and brazenly for US invasion. In a February 9 tweet congressman Ro Khanna even explained to him that Guaidó has no authority to request or green-light military action, only congress has. Yet on February 23, Guaidó again parroted the White House, putting ‘all options on the table.’
Los acontecimientos de hoy me obligan a tomar una decisión: plantear a la Comunidad Internacional de manera formal que debemos tener abiertas todas las opciones para lograr la liberación de esta Patria que lucha y seguirá luchando.
¡La esperanza nació para no morir, Venezuela!
— Juan Guaidó (@jguaido) February 24, 2019
The Lima Group emphasizing something as normal as peaceful conflict resolution indicates that some state leaders are nervous. War in any Latin American country would be catastrophic for every country in the region. No one could stay neutral and would have to pick sides between countries like China, which supplies investments, and the US, which supplies military aid. That would not only drain foreign investment but also create painful rifts within societies. Crime would increase, refugees and misery. And conflict could easily spill over. None of the Lima Group countries would gain.
But Guaidó doesn’t seem to care about the worries of his regional backers. By calling for a US invasion he signaled that he prefers the approach of discredited but resurgent neoconservatives, and the associated financial and ideological network of his mentor, Leopoldo López.
Illusions and cold water
Lima Group countries should have no illusions about the person they support. Although congress won’t authorize troop deployment, the US presidency since at least George W. Bush has accumulated a lot of executive power regarding clandestine operations. Trump could legally dispatch arms shipments, special forces and drone strikes by signing a piece of paper the fundamentalists in his circle put before him. Judging by his statements, Guaidó would be fine with that, but judging by the Lima Group statement, his right-wing brethren would have to take measures to contain the conflict.
So the Lima Group is in an increasingly impossible position. If it abandons Guaidó, Maduro wins; if it allows Guaidó to keep cozying up to one of the most corrupt governments in the hemisphere which levels unprecedented attacks on its country’s democracy, violence could result too. To get out of the bind, the Lima Group must name names: China and Russia supporting Maduro with all the consequences for the region; the US for trying to destroy the region by applying the Iraq/Afghanistan playbook. And the group must throw a bucket of cold water at Juan Guaidó.
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Christian is Managing Editor at Chile Today, where he curates the foreign policy blog Teatinos One/Eighty. Christian is also Lead Editor of E-International Relations, co-editor of an open access textbook on International Relations Theory and Director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI).