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OPINION: Venezuela should be careful, very careful.

By Dr. Randolph Persaud (Randy), Professor Emeritus

States that have relied on belligerence and particularly military aggression in the recent past have not done well. Practically all instances of aggression against small states have failed, either partially or outright. In several instances, leaders of the aggressor states were removed from office, and some even lost their lives. Developments in the Middle East in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War come to mind.

On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait on the grounds that the small Gulf State was slant-drilling into Iraqi oil veins, and that it was also overproducing with the effect of lowering the world market price of crude. Many of you will recall that April Glaspie, the US Ambassador to Iraq was widely blamed for the invasion because of statements deemed tantamount to strategic ambiguity.  The real culprit, however, was Saddam Hussein. He and the Generals of the Ba΄ath Party exploited Glaspie’s diplomatic inexperience to invade Kuwait. The real objective was to get rid of a huge debt owed by Iraq to Kuwait, and to strengthen its position Vis à vis Iran. Put differently, Iraq invaded Kuwait because of domestic economic reasons as well as considerations pertaining to the regional balance of power. We know what happened. Iraq was pushed back and became a pariah state.

The internal weaknesses that developed in Iraq due to sanctions, combined with aggressive American strategic reorientation of the Middle East saw the removal of the Saddam and the Ba΄ath Party in what is widely known as the Second Iraq War. It is good to keep in mind that Iraq had the 4th largest army in the world in 1990 when it launched its campaign against Kuwait. Yet, it was defeated in 43 days. 39 countries supplied 670,000 soldiers in UN-backed multilateral force, with the US contributing 470,000. General Norman Schwarzkopf’s Operation Desert Storm pulled a ‘Hail Mary’ which trapped the highly trained Republican Guards. Saddam Hussein’s best fighting units were taken out of action. The retreat of Iraqi forces fleeing north towards Basra was met with massive ariel bombardment, leaving a long convoy of death and suffering, a spectacle that was labeled a Highway of Death. Thermobaric bombardment (use of fuel-air explosives) also registered untold suffering. (Ps: I was against this bombardment of the retreating troops in 1991).

A common error by leaders who chose belligerence is that they think scapegoating a foreign enemy is enough to divert attention from serious domestic problems, most of them economic. The Hugo Chávez led Bolivarian Revolution was supposed to have made things better for the average Venezuelan, a country with 300 billion barrels of oil reserves, but with a 70% poverty rate in 1992. Instead, from 1999 when Chavez took power, wild policies based on economic populism chased away both domestic and foreign capital. Unqualified party comrades were placed in strategic roles in the economy which they mismanaged, and Chavez’s ‘red berets’ formed a street army steeped in Cultural Revolution type harassment of those who did not drink the Kool Aid.  Since the death of Chavez in 2013, President Maduro has kept the same structures of economic populism and political domination alive. The Venezuelan people have suffered immensely.

In 2019, Marcela Escobari testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs stated that Venezuela is a “[a] man-made crisis due to corruption, repression, and incompetence [that] has plunged a once-prosperous country to the brink of starvation and destitution. The regime overseeing this disaster remains in place through military force and political repression.” And further that “Venezuela has seen one of the most dramatic economic contractions in human history, more so considering that this has been a man-made disaster, outside of a war zone (even if the statistics resemble a war zone)”. In 20021 inflation was clocked at 1,588.51%, with shortages of the most basic consumer goods rife throughout the country. Forced measures such as prince controls enforced by the military have brought down the inflation rate, but the suffering continues.

Venezuelans continue to suffer everyday from economic woes and from authoritarian rule. Reuters (March 7, 2023) recently reported the following salient facts about the conditions in Venezuela: –

·         Many Venezuelans [are] left to scour through garbage to find food, and millions fled the country to build new lives across South America and beyond.

·         Monthly private sector pay averages $139 and public sector salaries are around $14 per month, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Finances, while the average family grocery shop comes in at some $370 per month.

·         41% of those polled said they skip one meal per day.

The economic disaster in Venezuela, combined with military authoritarianism has left President Nicholás Maduro, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, and president of the National Assembly Jorge Rodríguez, in a terrible bind. Regrettably, they are going down the path that past leaders in similar situations have gone. They have opted to cultivate xenophobic nationalism against Guyana and have even gone further with saber-rattling. This is a grave mistake. Guyana has international law on its side. But what is even more relevant, it has friends and ‘allies’ who are powerful actors in the regional and international system. Venezuela should be careful; very careful.

Dr. Persaud is an Adviser in the Office of the President, Guyana.