Venezuela has descended into a political crisis after years of economic turmoil and a note from National security Adviser John Bolton has floated the idea of sending 5,000 U.S. troops there to help end the political standoff by backing one of the claimants to the presidency, Juan Guaidó. So, what's exactly going on? And what could 5,000 troops actually accomplish?
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, seen here while not allegedly killing his political opponents.
(Agência Brasil, CC BY 3.0)
Let's start with the recent history of the country. If you vaguely remember a lot of protests on your TV as well as a lot of social media commentary around whether or not socialism was bad, chances are you're remembering Venezuela.
Basically, Venezuela was a U.S.-aligned democracy for much of the Cold War, but a movement towards socialism was championed by populist Hugo Chavez (you've likely heard of him) who was elected president in 1998 and took office in February 1999. Chavez's populist priorities immediately ran into trouble as low oil prices and other economic problems made his socialist overhaul of the country unaffordable.
Chavez cemented his hold by training up a paramilitary loyal to him, issuing decrees, and spreading propaganda, all of which eventually triggered protests and uprisings against him. Chavez survived a coup attempt in 2002. Allegations that the U.S. assisted in the coup persist to this day, even though Chavez, senior coup leaders, and the U.S. have all either denied it or said it was unlikely.
After the coup, rising oil prices allowed Chavez to finally follow through on many of his campaign promises and buy loyalty.
So, the Chavez era was rocky, to say the least, but it became worse when he died in 2013 and Nicolás Maduro took over.
Nicolás Maduro. The usage rights for this photograph require that it not be used in a way that would disparage the coat of arms or flag, so we can't comment on how humorous it would or would not be for a chubby man, famous for eating on public TV while his country starved, dressed up in the Venezuelan colors and posed in front of a lean Simón Bolívar.
(Government of Venezuela)
Maduro lacks the charisma and the political history that Chavez enjoyed, and he ran right into the same fallen oil price problems that had plagued Chavez. His attempts to hold onto power amid growing unrest and economic scarcity failed, and uprisings, extreme scarcity, and starvation have plagued the country in recent years.
And all of that has led up to the 2018 elections which resulted in Maduro carrying all 23 states and about 68 percent of the vote; but there were tons of irregularities in the election, and less than a third of the population trusted the government to hold a free and fair election.
After the elections, continuing protests led to National Assembly Speaker Juan Guaidó declaring himself acting president. America reportedly voiced support for the move secretly ahead of time, but the U.S. definitely voiced public support after the fact, with Vice President Mike Pence recording a video addressing the Venezuelan people.
March for peace in 2015. Peace has struggled a bit in the years since.
(Carlos Díaz, CC BY 2.0)
So, yeah, people have different ideas of who the proper president of Venezuela is, but the U.S. is officially backing Guaidó as interim president, and National Security Adviser Bolton showed off a legal pad with a note about sending 5,000 troops to the country, ostensibly to back up Guaidó.
We won't get into the politics of the discussion, but what could 5,000 troops do successfully in the country when the actual military has 515,000 personnel, counting the national guard and militia? After all, America sent 26,000 troops to Panama to oust Noriega, and Panama had around 15,000 troops at the time. Fewer than 4,000 were actual soldiers.
A RAND report from 1996 pointed out that the U.S. enjoyed massive advantages in Panama, from public support to ample training to little real resistance, and that soldiers and leaders in future contingency operations should not expect such an easy path. So, what will 5,000 troops be able to accomplish in Venezuela?
U.S. Marines are less welcome on some doorsteps than missionaries. Our guess is that Maduro would rather see the missionaries.
(U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Danielle A. Baker)
The quick answer is: not much. 5,000 troops would be more a show of support than an actual military deterrent. At most, the troops could secure a few buildings or key locations. But, given the political fracturing in the country, that actually might be enough to tip the scales in Guaidó's favor, hopefully without triggering a major conflict.
First, Maduro's control of the military appears to be quite fragmented. There are still supporters of democracy and capitalism in the country as well as a larger base of support for true socialism instead of the crony socialism under Maduro, who has eaten pies on TV while his people starved. The Venezuelan military seems to have a quiet minority that would support a change in leadership even though most high-level military leaders are in place due to appointments made by Maduro.
So, 5,000 U.S. troops combined with the hollow support in the ranks for Maduro might give Maduro supporters pause before they use force to put down Guaidó's bid.
You really don't want these guys to show up in the plains near your capital city.
(U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Hall)
Next, there is currently an unofficial supreme court in exile known as the Supreme Tribunal of Justice for Venezuela in exile. It has 33 jurists who hold court every 15 days via Skype. It has sentenced Maduro to 18 years in prison, referred Venezuelan leaders to the Hague, and even supported Guaidó before he announced. And the Lima Group, a consortium of 12 Latin American countries plus Canada, supports the court.
If the U.S. followed up its recognition of Guaidó by recognizing the tribunal, it could bolster support for Guaidó and give legitimacy for the court. And 5,000 troops are more than enough to protect the court if it returned to Venezuela.
(A quick note about the court, though: The court may be one reason why the military hasn't moved against Maduro already. Some of those leaders referred to the Hague are military leaders, and plenty of leaders and soldiers could face charges if Guaidó takes the presidency and doesn't grant amnesty.)
Finally, the presence of 5,000 U.S. troops, regardless of their deployment and stated mission, always ups the ante. Attacking the 5,000 risks American retaliation from warships and submarines that could be lurking off coast or quickly deployed nearby. Fun fact: the U.S. Navy could hit wide swaths of Panama from the Atlantic or the Pacific, provided the ships firing from Pacific side have the permission of Panama and/or Colombia.
And the U.S. Air Force could quickly muster planes for strikes out of Puerto Rico if necessary. The U.S. has an Air National Guard base only 560 miles from Caracas, meaning F-22s could hit the capital as long as they could top off on gas from a tanker flying over the Caribbean Sea.
But, the best thing could be 5,000 troops as a sort of threatening token never deployed. Bolton can exert pressure on Maduro and his government just by showing up at a press conference with two lines of ink on a legal pad. If that gives National Assembly supporters enough ammo to push Maduro from power without more violence, great.
But it does raise the specter that the threat of a U.S. troop deployment will make an actual deployment more necessary.