Photo: Telemundo retrieved

Dorothy Kronick’s latest piece for The New York Times asks an uncomfortable question: what if Maduro’s regime surfs the wave of economic pressure while Venezuelans pay the price? It’s certainly not the first time Maduro faces unrest and international pressure, and yet he’s been ruling for six years when many were betting that he wouldn’t last six months.

Kronick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Caracas Chronicles contributor, writes that two months after Juan Guaidó became Speaker of the National Assembly, the fracture he and his allies have tried to create in the military hasn’t happened. The United States and its regional allies seem to understand that there won’t be any regime change without the Armed Forces’ support, expressed either by them turning their backs on Maduro or by forcing him to hold fair elections, which he would certainly lose. The events of February 23rd suggest that this won’t happen until the military—or at least the High Command—finds itself at a point where the alternative to abandoning Maduro represents an existential threat.

What if Maduro’s regime surfs the wave of economic pressure while Venezuelans pay the price?

Before even considering the possibility of a potentially catastrophic military intervention, the international community has logically decided to escalate diplomatic and economic pressure first, with the Americans leading the way in terms of sanctions, banning American companies from trading with PDVSA while openly threatening foreign companies that do so. This has contributed to more reductions in oil production, on which the already destroyed Venezuelan economy depends. But contrary to what some left-wing radicals argue, American sanctions aren’t the reason behind Venezuela’s crisis: 20 years of massive corruption and nonsensical economic policies crippled the economy long before the first sanctions were even planned at the White House. Actually, until very recently most sanctions were on individuals within the regime’s ruling clique, having little to no effect in the development of the economy. Nonetheless, as Kronick states, oil sanctions will undoubtedly hit the country hard in the coming weeks, reducing the state’s capacity to buy food and medicine and making life way harder for regular Venezuelans than for chavista honchos, at least in the short term.

Kronick correctly argues that a backup plan is needed to mitigate that suffering in the very real scenario that a transition doesn’t occur immediately after that. But I think her alternative isn’t the best. She says: “A better backup plan would allow Venezuela to exchange oil for essentials. For example, the United States could buy Venezuelan oil so long as proceeds accrued to escrow accounts—subject to international monitoring—are used only for purchases of food, medicine, and oil-sector infrastructure.”

I respectfully disagree. An escrow could guarantee that the money is used only to get food and medicines, but even then, how would the international community guarantee that Maduro doesn’t weaponize these products? How could they make sure chavismo won’t use these medicines as a tool for political segregation, just like they do with CLAP boxes already? How would they prevent these supplies from ending up in the black market, filling the pockets of some corrupt military officer? Yes, theoretically they could audit distribution and cut the cash flow, but wouldn’t we be back to square one in that situation?

How could they make sure chavismo won’t use these medicines as a tool for political segregation, just like they do with CLAP boxes already? 

Furthermore, this plan would lead to the perfect scenario for chavismo: an absurdly long negotiation process with the international community, a process during which they could keep the country at the brink of collapse indefinitely, while widespread corruption and crime keep making Venezuelans’ lives a nightmare. Maduro doesn’t need food or medicines to survive, but money to keep a relatively small group of people happy. If he agrees to this plan, it’ll only mean he’s sure he can divert part of that income to sustain his allies. Even if oil income goes directly to escrowed accounts, the government could find other sources of income (aka drug money) to make this clique happy enough to keep Maduro—or someone else—in power for years.

Sadly, without a military intervention off the table, the existential threat that could push the Armed Forces to abandon Maduro may only come from the widespread chaos that erupts in Venezuela once the bleakest consequences of these sanctions start to hit us all. This is a dangerous bet because, in the absence of an effective transition, these consequences could extend over a long period, causing suffering potentially greater than that of military action.

Kronick’s backup plan is little more than an escape valve to all this pressure. It wouldn’t only fail to guarantee the aid is fairly distributed, but it would also help chavismo keep the same kind of chaotic equilibrium they need to turn an intrinsically self-destructive project into one that could last for many more years, costing countless lives in the long term. Any Plan B for Venezuela should be aimed at ending the causes of Venezuelans’ suffering, not prolonging it indefinitely.

“Some have argued that depriving the Venezuelan government of cash is a moral imperative because not doing so amounts to paying a hostage-taker. We should not reward hostage-takers like Nicolás Maduro, the thinking goes. But of course, in practice, the international community has done it, in Iraq and elsewhere. We pay hostage-takers not because it feels good or right. We do it when the alternative is worse,” Ms. Kronick continues.

A flawed analogy, since although Maduro surely holds us hostage, he isn’t asking for any rescue money. This hostage-taker won’t let us go after he gets paid.

He’ll take the money and buy the bullets he’ll put in our heads.

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