Moving forward, the United States may stabilize regional power in the American continent by removing a critical Russian ally, Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro, the controversial, authoritarian president of Venezuela, is backed by the Russian government and continues an anti-American narrative beneficial to Russian interests in the American hemisphere. If the United States can challenge the relationship between Russia and Venezuela by becoming Venezuela’s ally, the United States could directly contest Russian interests in the American hemisphere.
While the rest of the world still grapples with the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuela continues to struggle with political and economic crises that began years ago, with no clear resolution in sight. Politically, the authoritarian Nicolas Maduro maintains control over critical institutions, such as the military. Juan Guaidó continues his attempt to wrestle political control from Maduro with little chance of success. Guaidó is a preferable alternative to Maduro’s policies, as he has enjoyed a decent working relationship with the US government.
Maduro continues to pressure Guaidó at home; pro-Maduro forces recently attempted to detain Guaidó within his apartment in Venezuela. Though Guaidó remains free, Freddy Guevara a critical ally of Guaidó and a political opposition leader was arrested by Maduro’s security forces.
If Guaidó can come to power and call for new elections, that will weaken Russia’s hold on Venezuelan policies and preferences as well as challenging the harmful narrative of chavismo, a political ideology that is partly responsible for the economic failures of Venezuela. Venezuela has continued to struggle underneath the weight of economic collapse and hyperinflation.
Additionally, the Venezuelan government is no longer able to provide security for its citizens both in central urban areas such as Caracas and outlying border towns such as Guaraero. Venezuelan citizens that live close to the Colombia-Venezuela border may be forced to deal with insurgent forces like the ELN, a left-wing revolutionary guerrilla force, for protection against criminal organizations. Though the ELN is hostile to outside criminal interests, the revolutionary group maintains control of any illicit substance or smuggling operations in the region. To some native residents, the trade may be worth it, as the ELN does more to ensure the safety of locals than the Venezuelan military. Before the ELN stepped in, gang violence was commonplace amongst the villages, and the military seemed apathetic at best. Though the Venezuelan government operates checkpoints along major roads with border access to regulate would-be refugees and merchants, non-government forces maintain everything beyond major roadways. In essence, criminal and armed group elements have seized control of various territories in Venezuela, both extorting the local population and providing key services that the government cannot perform. Groups such as the Colombian FARC and the ELN have established territorial interests within Venezuelan borders without facing significant reprisal from Maduro’s government.
Not even Maduro’s centralized military and police forces can keep the peace within Caracas. Recent clashes between Venezuelan police and local gangs within the city resulted in some successful seizures of gang weapons. The operation also resulted in several deaths, at least four police officers, twenty-two gang members, though Maduro’s administration has not disclosed exactly how many civilians were killed in the fighting.
True to form, media outlets loyal to Maduro have placed the blame for recent gang violence on opposition parties and foreign influences, suggesting that such interference is an attempt to destabilize Maduro’s control of Venezuela. Opposition media outlets and politicians have spoken against Maduro’s tactics of handling gang violence, suggesting that Maduro’s poor leadership and policy decisions have more to do with the increased aggressiveness of the gangs in Caracas, as the Venezuelan police and military have not been assertive or attentive towards the growing power of local gangs. Given that other areas of Venezuela have suffered from a lack of government policing, it is likely that Maduro’s poor management of government resources is catching up to even his centralized power bases within the police and the military.
Two potential policies seem evident to observers within the United States. Given the weakened nature of state institutions, new Venezuelan leadership is highly desired among the people of Venezuela. The United States could attempt to remove Maduro’s corrupt regime through direct or overt means, such as openly sponsoring groups that plan to violently overthrow Maduro’s regime or deploying American troops to install Juan Guaidó as the legitimate head of state. Such action would quickly be followed by direct Russian intervention on behalf of Maduro or Maduro loyalists.
On the other hand, the United States could continue to sponsor Maduro’s domestic political rivals, chiefly Juan Guaidó as the legitimate Venezuelan head of state. By continuing to leverage tariffs against Maduro and his ruling party, the United States can exert pressure on Maduro to cave and cede control to Guaidó. Eventually, Maduro or a successor will likely be unable to maintain control of Venezuela as a result of domestic pressure for change or foreign diplomatic strength brought to bear against it.
Though some regime change would be ideal within Venezuela, such a regime change must take place within the context of challenging Russian interests closer to American soil. Though the humanitarian plight of the Venezuelans is significant, the United States also has much to gain by challenging Russian interests within the American hemisphere. By testing the relationship between Russia and President Maduro, the United States can strengthen its regional positioning for future challenges with Russia and other foreign rivals.