The Next Great Geopolitical Crisis: Venezuela

If Venezuela provokes a war with one of its neighbors, it would draw the ire of the United States.

South America gets a lot less attention that it deserves from foreign policy chats and geopolitical blogs. Much of that is because the continent is largely stable: not since the 1930s have there been any interstate wars and now that Colombia’s FARC revolutionary army is on the back foot, it appears failed states have also receded over the horizon. South America’s stability is taken for granted by both the hemispheric superpower and much of the rest of the world.

But within Venezuela, all kinds of chaos is breaking loose.

Last week, the country’s president, Nicolas Maduro, threatened to invade and annex half his neighbor, English-speaking Guyana. Before that, he deployed forces to the border with Colombia. Meanwhile, at home, he’s been arresting enemies and presiding over a state that feels very much like it’s collapsing.

Should Venezuela’s state behave as irresponsibly as its past suggests it will, the next great geopolitical crisis will not be in well-trodden battlefields in the Middle East, Asia or Europe but in the United States’ own backyard.

But first, the cliff notes

  • Venezuela’s geography has long locked many of its people into cities and along the coast, leaving it quite crowded and therefore quite susceptible to both socialist populism and fast-spreading unrest.
  • That trend has been accelerated by oil reserves which Venezuela has plenty of and which used to grease its economic wheels and allow whoever was in charge to indulge their political fantasies.
  • But the oil price crash has also brought on an economic crash in the country, skyrocketing crime, exposing inept governance and forcing the state to look for some kind of alternative to avoid being held responsible.
  • Since Venezuela’s ruling elites don’t want to give up power, the government’s only options are either declaring war on its own people or declaring war on a neighbor. Both options are bad and both risk causing the kind of regional chaos that will require American power to be deployed to the region.

Venezuela: the good, the bad and the ugly

Venezuela sits near the equator and both enjoys and suffers from its tropical climate. When land is cleared, farming is straightforward, with plenty of rain and sunshine. With access to the Caribbean, fishing and trade help feed the nation while modern medicine skyrocketed the population to over 31 million today. It also has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, bigger even than Saudi Arabia’s. Such wealth has propelled it to modernity. That’s the good part.

But there’s a cost to being Venezuela as well. Being tropical has brought a history of tropical diseases hidden within its Amazon jungle. That meant, historically, Venezuelans crowded into a handful of cities along the coast and the country’s major river, the Orinoco. While nearly half the country’s landmass is south of the Orinoco, only about 5 percent of people actually live there. There’s a social inertia to this: while modern medicines and technology make life habitable in the Amazon, few have much incentive to move there. Instead, the population continues to cram into the cities, making use of well-worn infrastructure and social networks.

Which leads to the ugly. Urban societies can experience political unrest much, much faster than rural ones: word of discontent simply moves faster when you hear about it fifteen times on the train to work. That’s not to say urban societies are less stable: should a state be able to function well, there’s hardly a difference.

But when a state is inept, corrupt or broke, word travels much faster in a crowded elevator than in a spread-out farmland. The comparison between Egypt and Syria is apt here: Egypt, highly urban, organized a fast uprising that took all of a few weeks to topple Hosni Mubarak while Syria, with a greater disparity between population centers, took months to firstly organize protests and then to arm themselves into rebellion.

Venezuela’s crowded cities are potential tinderboxes of riots, protests and plenty of violence. When such a society is stressed, it can act out much, much faster than a rural country. And Venezuela is more than stressed.

And for that, you can blame everything from colonialism to Hugo Chávez

One major reason Latin American countries struggle with corruption in a way the United States and Canada don’t is because of their colonial legacies. When English and French settlers moved to the United States and Canada, they were establishing autonomous colonies they meant to run on their own.

Spanish colonies were not. The Spanish arrived to exploit and plunder: Hernán Cortés may be the most spectacular example but Spanish colonial government was underpinned by gold-grabbing governors, human rights-violating slavers, avaricious and corrupt church officials, and all sorts of elites who sought to siphon as much wealth as possible into their haciendas, their villas and private fiefdoms.

This isn’t to say the Spanish were more immoral than the French or English; rather, it’s a result of what the Europeans found when they arrived. The Spanish found rich kingdoms, cities and empires they could and did plunder, establishing a tradition of stealing from the locals that goes on to this day. The English and French found natives, too, but much poorer ones who had the unattractive quality of not piling gold into easy-to-sack temples.

Thus Canada and the United States were begun by elites who had to be efficient to survive; Latin America, Venezuela included, were run by elites who were rewarded based on how much they stole.

And following independence from Spain, such a legacy was hard to shake off

Venezuela’s elites from independence downwards have alternated between campaigns for and against corruption. To hold together a society that whereby the implicit social contract was that the rich stole and the poor endured, strongmen, or caudillos, mostly ran the show. As strongmen do, they indulged their loyalest by letting them plunder the state to varying degrees.

This isn’t all that different from the rest of Latin America where caudillos gave way to democracies only to be overthrown by new caudillos when the democracies wobbled.

The most recent round of democracy-to-dictatorship in Venezuela took place in the early 2000s under Hugo Chávez. Using the country’s oil wealth, Chávez indulged just about every political fantasy he had, inventing the “Bolivarian Revolution” and throwing gobs of cash at his subjects. With each new bribe, he won votes to further secure his power while neutralizing his opposition. He grabbed hold of the media, the military and civil society, as any good would-be dictator does.

And this was all mostly harmless to the geopolitical stability of his country, since, like Saudi Arabia, he had high oil prices to uphold the social contract he was building.

But since his political ideals were bunk, he was simply freezing the country in place economically rather than developing it

Chávez fell victim to that ever-so-dear resource curse and Venezuela’s economy and society stagnated in the face of easy oil money. When that money dried up, as it did starting last year, it preceded a crisis.

Chávez died in 2013 after winning most of the elections he sought and having built a mighty political infrastructure capable of keeping his lackeys in power. One of those lackeys, Nicolás Maduro, was named his successor and was duly rubber stamped to the presidency.

Like other autocratic, oil-rich megalomaniacs, Chávez’ political ideas were never really tested in the real world. He could always pretend success because oil money kept the country afloat. Lavishing subsidies on the poorest segments of society won their loyalty but also created a bill the state could not pay once oil slipped below $100 a barrel.

Worse, since oil wasn’t used to fund sustainable economies, Maduro is now left with few options to remain in power.

Except the absolute worst ones

Governments can remain in power only so long as they appear to solve problems. Some governments cynically create solvable problems to do just that. A few offer the mafia-type protection: How will you prevent civil war without us? How will you keep out the jihadists? And so on.

Others go further. Maduro is this sort; he’s nearly started two dumb wars with his neighbors, using a military emergency to claim the country needs him. The threat of war also allows him to clamp down on his enemies in the name of “security.”

But Maduro doesn’t have the strengths other dictators have had. Many dictators can play the race, religion or ethnic card but Venezuela is largely homogeneous and Maduro can’t plausibly claim that to overthrow him is to replace him with some ethnic boogeyman. Trained and ready elites are waiting in the wings to take his job.

Moreover, the urban masses are grumbling at a greater rate than ever before. When a match finally lights their fuse, they will be more than capable of overwhelming and even co-opting his security forces. Such a match may be more bad economic news, skyrocketing fuel prices or something as simple as run-of-the-mill corruption going viral, as the Arab Spring in Tunisia was.

Which means he must create a crisis that only he can solve and war is his best option

And herein is the danger. Maduro won’t be readily able to provoke a civil war he can survive; he doesn’t have a split country where he can play groups off one another. Instead, he must boost himself through military adventurism, the only card he has left.

Nearby Guyana is a very tempting target. Not only is it a former British colony — and therefore an English-speaking Other he can demonize — but Venezuela has long felt much of Guyana is actually its territory. Guyana’s weak army and small population could be rolled over in a short and decisive war.

But to do so would be to draw the ire of the United States who won’t countenance a border change in the hemisphere without its permission

For Maduro to attack Guyana will be to make Venezuela into the new Iraq circa 1990 with Maduro as Saddam and Guyana as Kuwait. Just as it was then, the United States would deploy to stop the invasion and would annihilate Venezuela’s military in the process.

Maduro can’t rely on China or Russia to protect him; neither wants to poke the United States’ eye in the Western Hemisphere and neither has the capacity to supply or support him anyway. The entirety of South America would turn on him and America could readily count on powerful allies in Colombia, Brazil and Argentina to fight alongside it.

In other words, it would be a total disaster. And yet desperate men do desperate things.

So the question now is, would the military let him get away with it? And what about the upcoming legislative elections?

Doubtless Venezuela’s generals know full well that to start a war will draw in the United States. The question is whether Chavez’ “revolution” has gone deep enough into the military to allow Maduro the option. If so, the odds rise dramatically in favor of a dumb war: unchecked, Maduro will grasp at the final military straws he has.

If not, the next factor is December’s upcoming legislative elections which could return opposition parties to power and isolate Maduro to the point where he’d either resign or be ousted. That would return democracy to the streets of Caracas; while that would be lovely in some ways, it still won’t solve its economic woes nor bring stability to the country.

Drinking too much oil, after all, always leads to a terrible hangover.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, September 28, 2015.