It is so tempting to believe that U.S. military intervention offers a quick solution to the Venezuela crisis. And by military intervention, we don’t just mean a full-fledged invasion, but any action that involves U.S. military forcefully crossing an international border. We understand why some in the Venezuelan opposition urge the use of military force. It seems simple to have the U.S. intervene and stop the killing, the incompetence, the corruption that is today’s Venezuela.
As unarmed civilians attempt to bring needed food and medicine into the country, the Maduro government responded with blockades of international bridges and violence, beginning the killing that now headlines American news. U.S. officials warn that Maduro’s days are numbered and flash threats that the U.S. might intervene militarily, a move that would seem welcome to many Venezuelans, both at home and exile. Is that a good idea?
This should give us pause — at the very time that the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan, perhaps ending 18 years of armed intervention and the forlorn hope of building a stable democracy. The equally destructive example of Iraq and its spillover into Syria is another warning that American intervention can stimulate the creation of new enemies.
But isn’t Venezuela different? There is a long tradition of democracy, eroded by a corrupt regime held in power by a small but powerful military. We now have an active leader of the opposition and massive numbers of citizens in the streets every day. Surely this is a time when American troops will be welcomed as liberators. And what about the examples of Grenada and Panama? Didn’t military intervention “work” there? But these small states have virtually no similarities to the political and geographic situation in Venezuela.
Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, fearing the history of invasion and U.S. supported coups, consciously armed and trained tens of thousands of their supporters into militias precisely to prepare for armed attacks against their governments. We should understand that the traditions of “going into the mountains” hold a fascination and moral example in Latin America. Better armed and trained than ever the FARC was in Colombia, would we wish a 50-year civil war on our southern neighbor?
Only one course of action will forestall this scenario: The Venezuelan military must render itself to its own people, not to a foreign power.
The political campaigns and pressures already underway offer very promising avenues for change. A campaign of non-recognition of the Maduro government has led to 50 countries recognizing Juan Guaido as president. This campaign is completely in line with Latin American and Venezuelan traditions. In 1907, an Ecuadoran Foreign Minister issued the Tobar Doctrine, calling for non-recognition of any government that came to power by non-constitutional means. In the 1950s, the democratically elected Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt, followed with his “Betancourt Doctrine,” saying that Venezuela would deny diplomatic recognition to any government that came to power by unconstitutional means. At the time, not many Latin American countries followed suit, but since that time, the OAS has elaborated a legal and political framework to address governments that come to power illegally, as Maduro’s second term would be.
American intervention has a long history in Latin America; likewise, this has been a source of distrust and opposition throughout the Americas, one that Chavez & Maduro, Castro and others have nurtured and used to create political power. Perversely, the threat of American intervention strengthens Maduro’s core support, rather that weakens it.
Although this conflict may extend itself even longer and more unarmed civilians may be killed and more children may die from malnutrition and disease, there is hope that change will happen. And there is good evidence that this hope is the strategically best option for all.
Compelling evidence from Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in their book “Why Civil Resistance Works” demonstrates that disciplined nonviolent movements are more effective overall, and generally quicker to good effect, than violent conflicts. Using an original data set of all known major nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006, they show that nonviolent campaigns are more likely to win legitimacy and attract widespread support than violent movements. There are lessons to be learned from this evidence, and the Venezuelan opposition now seems to be heeding those lessons. Chenoweth and Stephan also find that nonviolent conflict is much more likely than violent efforts to lead to a democratic outcome. That is what we and what the Venezuelan people want. A U.S. military intervention would derail that success.
The Venezuelan movements against Maduro have been prolonged and often numerous with civilian participation, but the opposition parties were disunited, unable to create an inclusive vision to unite the population. It was easy for Maduro to dismiss the opposition as right-wing conservatives opposed to the inclusive vision promised by Chavez.
With the compelling leadership of Juan Guaido, that has changed. The opposition is united, not just under a charismatic leader, but with a broadening vision that has consciously reached out to the poor and other constituents of the Maduro regime, shifting their loyalties as only a nonviolent campaign can.
Chenoweth and Stephan identify what they call the “participation advantage” of nonviolent movements. Everyone can participate at levels of risk they are willing to undertake, publicly and privately creating resistance to the regime and raising its costs of repression. A wider demographic of participants brings in new tactics to keep the regime off balance; it brings in new networks of family, friendship, and influence that increase the likelihood of recruitment of military and security forces; and it brings legitimacy to an alternative vision for society.
These will be dangerous times for many activists, but it is their risks and sacrifices that can bring about a truly democratic change. Let us do nothing to rob them of their moments of courage and victory.
NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to update the number of countries recognizing Juan Guaido as president to 50.
Dr. Kathryn Sikkink (@kathryn_sikkink) is the Ryan Family Chair of Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School. Douglas A. Johnson is a Lecturer in Public Policy and the former Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy (@CarrCenter) at the Harvard Kennedy School.