How much should one read into someone’s personal notes? Well, if you’re National Security adviser John Bolton, walking into a press conference filled with reporters and photojournalists and your notepad faces a news tested audience, a relatively small detail can be picked up by a camera – conveniently enough. And this is exactly what happened during a recent announcement in the White House briefing room by senior government officials of sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned energy giant PDVSA.
Scrawled in small handwriting on a yellow pad, Bolton’s note of “5,000 troops to Colombia” may have been an extemporaneous observation, but given escalating tensions between the U.S and Venezuela, and President Donald Trump’s remark that “all options are on the table,” it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to reach a conclusion that a military strike against President Maduro could be on the cards – or notebook – to be precise.
If the U.S does decide to oust the last dictator on the South American continent, would it start as a pre-emptive strike, a full force invasion, or none of the above?
The first scenario is that Maduro caves in under the sanctions imposed on his main source of foreign revenue – oil – destined to pay the salaries of his inner circle and some 2,000 Generals loyal to the regime. The move by the U.S Treasury Department would cost Venezuela as much as US$11 billion a year, but Maduro has no intent on recognizing Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president, so sanctions would trickle down to worsen the lives of 32 million Venezuelans trying to survive in a nation with a worthless currency and critical food shortages. The sanctions are likely to entrench Maduro’s hardliners even more, and with a heavily-armed militia waiting to attack the opposition, the country could erupt in an all-out civil war, exacerbating the critical humanitarian crisis in the country, and across the region.
With oil accounting for 95% of Venezuela’s exports and more than 40% of the regime’s revenues, the country’s production has been plummeting since Hugo Chávez seized power in 1998 when PDVSA pumped 3.3 million barrels a day. Now output is a paltry 1,3 million barrels a day, and subsidizing Cuba may no longer be sustainable, especially if Maduro has even less cash to feed his cronies. Once his military establishment is crippled by hyperinflation and their assets seized overseas, an internal revolt could oust Maduro from power within weeks. But, coups aren’t a gauge of change, as a failed one against Chávez in 2002 resulted in 17-years of chavismo. Maduro will ensure that despite the economic collapse, he has enough funds to offer government appointments and kickbacks.
The second scenario is for the U.S to flex military muscle close enough to the Venezuelan mainland, recalling naval operations against the tyrannical regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad after chemical weapons were dropped on civilians. Just last year, Bolton rallied the U.S’s leading allies in the region – Britain and France – to support the use of airstrikes when videos surfaced of children being gassed by a deadly nerve agent. A pre-emptive strike against Maduro would drag the entire region into a Cold War battlefield not unlike Angola during the 1990s. Russia has warned the U.S not to intervene in Venezuela with Vladimir Putin in direct talks with Maduro. China, Turkey and Iran are the other three players who continue to pledge support to the autocrat. In an interview with Canada’s CBC, Vladimir Frolov, an independent Russian foreign policy analyst remarked: “If Maduro stays for a protracted period of time and the U.S. does nothing, Maduro and Russia win.”
This sentiment, and one resonating in the international community, places pressure on the White House to take swift action against Venezuela during a month in which special counsel Robert Mueller is expected to end his investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
President Trump may use the results of the Mueller probe to send a clear message to his Republican base that he has never been a puppet of the Kremlin.
Caracas is in Washington’s backyard and Trump wants to keep it that way, especially now that Putin’s announced Russia will withdraw from a nuclear treaty that threatens to ignite a Cold War-era arms race.
This brings us to Bolton’s “5,000 troops” to Colombia playbook and what some analysts believe was an intentional show-and-tell to the media of classified notes in order to send a not so cryptic message to Maduro. If – and if the keyword here – the U.S is planning on deploying troops to its most loyal ally in the region, the number would be more than double the amount currently in Syria. Trump’s tweet last December of a swift departure from the war-ravaged nation, having declared victory over Islamic State, has since been revised to a slow withdrawal, and ratified by Bolton during a recent trip to Israel. “There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” said the national security adviser.
President Duque’s remarks, February 1, that “the dictatorship in Venezuela has but a few remaining hours,” may seem optimistic, but given a rash of high level desertions from the military to pledge allegiance to Guaidó, and the mass outpouring of support in the streets, the Venezuelan people appear on the verge of taking control of their democratic future without foreign intervention. And if a negotiated transition of power is reached peacefully, all the “end game” theories will become historical footnotes of a conspiracy.