When I served as commander of the US Southern Command, my first four-star assignment, I visited every country and territory in Latin America -- except Venezuela. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had destroyed relations with the US, cratered the country’s economy and polarized its electorate.
Death by violence soared, hitting levels 10 times that of the US, and 50 times higher than Western Europe. The nation’s abundance of oil became a curse, as corruption depleted the output of rich fields that hold the largest reserves in the world. And drug smuggling became endemic. It was a sorry state of affairs for a country that inherited the legacy of Simon Bolivar, the great liberator.
When Chavez died of cancer in 2013, there was a brief moment of hope that his passing would usher in a more rational set of policies under his successor, Nicolas Maduro. Instead, the downward spiral accelerated, and today a country that should be the most prosperous in the region -- a “Dubai on the Caribbean” -- is in the throes of a massive refugee crisis.
Close to 4 million Venezuelans, of the precrisis population of just over 31 million, have fled the country. Refugee centers in the surrounding countries are overflowing, and Colombia and Brazil in particular are struggling to cope. And relations with the US have even gotten worse, with President Maduro recently claiming the US is preparing an invasion and attempting to ferment a coup to overthrow his government. He also claims Washington backed the supposed assassination attempt by drone strike on Aug. 4.
What can the US do in the face of this political, economic and -- above all -- humanitarian crisis?
First, the Trump administration needs to avoid anything that smacks of unilateral US military action. What I learned over the course of years at Southern Command is how deeply ingrained the concern over historic US interventionism is across the region.
Even nations that today are strong partners and allies -- Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia -- are very cognizant of our long record of invasions and intrusions in their societies. They are hyper-sensitive to the US military in particular, and anything else that smacks of US political or economic bullying. Therefore, in addition to passing on any opportunities to back military coups (and the CIA is probably being frequently approached), the White House should seek to work multilaterally, preferably through the Organization of American States and the United Nations.
Second, we should up our game in terms of intelligence collection. Southern Command is often the poor sister among the nine US combatant commands in terms of access to Defense Department resources. Satellite focus time, aircraft and naval surveillance missions, human intelligence and cyberespionage are all prioritized to Central Command (for Iran and Syria) and Pacific Command (for North Korea and China). That is normally a reasonable precedence, but given the level of instability and the refugee flows, it is time to increase the priority for Southern Command’s Miami-based intelligence organization. We should also enlist Columbia -- no ally has better intelligence on the ground in the region, particularly in Venezuela.
A third sensible approach would be stepping up interagency cooperation, especially in preparation for potential massive humanitarian crises. This means not only the Pentagon -- which has all the logistic muscle -- but also the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development. Using Guantanamo Bay (yes, that Guantanamo Bay) as a staging area for humanitarian ops makes sense, and the Defense Department already has formal contingency plans to do just that. There are prestaged refugee housing areas, humanitarian supplies and plenty of experience. While Americans tend to think of the base as a detention center, it also has enormous strategic value for regional logistics and disaster relief.
Fourth, we should encourage Brazil and Colombia to join forces politically and militarily as the basis for a multinational refugee-control force. The civil capability of the countries in the region is quickly being overwhelmed, and there is an appropriate role for the militaries to play in terms of search and rescue, crowd control, medical response and providing basic food and shelter. We should hope that other nations in the region (both in northern South America and the Caribbean) would join in. At that point -- when it is a legitimate regional response -- it would make sense for the US to participate. Doing so sooner simply gives the Maduro regime a tasty talking point about “Yanqui aggression.”
Finally, we are going to need a long-term strategy that resolves the bubbling cauldron of anger in Venezuela, which is verging into the territory of civil war. That means patiently supporting other regional actors in forcing the Maduro regime to the negotiating table with the opposition, which unfortunately is fractured at the moment.
Ideally, over time, the people of Venezuela would be able to go to the ballot box legitimately and choose the kind of leadership they need and deserve: one that is respectful of human rights, allows for verifiable and corruption-free democratic elections, and uses a free market approach to exploit the vast resources of the nation. We are a long way from that outcome, but a steady, patient US strategy in the region may get us there.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.