By: Patrick Savage, Columnist
Photo Credit: Juan Barreto, AFP (via CNN.com)
As political and economic chaos continues to mount in Venezuela, worry has grown in the international community over the possibility of the total collapse of the country—a failed state scenario. If Venezuela were to enter a state of chaos similar to that of Somalia in the early 1990s, the products of a decade of intense militarization would be unleashed on its populace, potentially resulting in death and destruction on a scale that has not been seen in modern Latin America.
The military has long been a prime focus of the current government in Venezuela. The father of Chavismo, former-President Hugo Chavez, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Venezuelan Army and led a faction of the army in an attempted coup against the government in 1992.[i] Under Chavez’s rule, and that of his successor—current President Nicolas Maduro—Venezuela has increased its military procurement, purchasing large amounts of new hardware. Between 2011 and 2015, the country of roughly 32 million people was the 18th largest importer of military equipment in the world, having spent more on defense than any other country in Latin America in the past few years.[ii] Most of this equipment has been purchased from the Russian Federation, including, but not limited to, combat aircraft, main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles—as well as factories to produce more rifles and ammunition in-country.[iii]
The increased tempo of arms sales to Venezuela, given the country’s authoritarian tendencies and anti-American rhetoric, has long been a concern of both the Bush and Obama administrations.[iv] But now, as Russia announces it will finish its scheduled arms deliveries to Venezuela by the year’s end, the presence of such large supplies of weapons and war materiel pose a regional threat of a different sort.[v] It provides the means for rampant internal conflict should the increasingly fragile state collapse in on itself.
Venezuela has been locked in a deepening economic and political crisis for the past year, which shows no signs of abating in the near future. Countless Venezuelans are suffering from malnutrition due to a lack of money to pay for food imports, with 74% of them having lost an average of 8.7 kilos (roughly 20 pounds) in the past year alone. Medical supplies are also critically low, with hospitals barely functioning on less than 5% of the medicine needed to treat their patients.[vi] This is all occurring in conjunction with worries that Venezuela may default on its loans, especially as production by its national oil company falls—a key source of the country’s income.[vii] Meanwhile, protests denouncing the stripping of power from the legislative branch and demanding new elections continue to intensify across the country, with the number of dead, injured, and arrested rapidly rising.[viii]
It is amidst this backdrop of increasing chaos that the motives and cohesion of the military and the security of Venezuela’s arsenal are called into question. Amid power grabs by Maduro, the opposition has raised the specter of a military coup as the President made overtures to the military, stating that it can’t idly stand by as the crisis in the country worsens. This has created more apprehension in the opposition, seeing that Venezuela has experienced three attempted coups since 1992.[ix] But the more pressing concern is a fracturing of the military alongside the state. Experts have been quick to point out that the “National Bolivarian Armed Forces” are not a unified bloc and are just as divided as the rest of the country, with several different pro and anti-Maduro factions in its ranks.[x] If Venezuela’s government were to collapse, the true nightmare scenario may not be a military coup, but the military fracturing completely into rival factions with no one group filling the void, leading to total anarchy and civil war.
The United States must harbor no illusions about the situation that would result. If the state built by Hugo Chavez comes crashing down on itself, the stockpile of advanced weapons and fighting machines will almost certainly be turned on Venezuela’s people as multiple factions vie for control. There are concerning similarities with Somalia. As Somali dictator Siad Barre’s military collapsed in 1991, its large arsenal of weapons was left free for the taking. While much of the arsenal was unserviceable by that time, it was still enough to help fuel the decades of war and factional fighting that have resulted since 1991.[xi] If Venezuela’s arguably more formidable arsenal is lost to anarchy, the results could be even worse than Somalia. The possibility of proliferation of weapons to other nations must also be considered, especially as neighboring Colombia works to institute a peace treaty with rebel groups after decades of fighting.
A failed Venezuelan state would be disastrous not only for its people, but for the stability of the entire region. Civil war and internal conflict in its geopolitical backyard would be extremely harmful to the national interests and security of the United States—particularly in the nation that has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. Thus far, the United States has been limited in its ability to engage with Venezuela in attempts to alleviate its crisis, the result of continuing bad blood between the two nations. But it is highly unlikely Venezuela will be able to solve its current financial and political woes on its own. The only available constructive option may be to work at a distance, utilizing regional bodies such as the Organization of American States, international bodies like the United Nations, or working through states neighboring Venezuela to negotiate a solution to its issues and possible assistance to stave off collapse. In the event a total collapse of the Venezuelan government does occur, the United States and its regional partners should have contingency plans in place to intervene militarily and stabilize the country politically in order to prevent mass violence and conflict that could greatly destabilize all of Latin America—especially given the potential for violence its large stockpile creates.
[i] Evan Romero-Castillo, “Maduro and the military,” Deutsche Welle, April 7, 2017, accessed April 16, 2017, http://www.dw.com/en/maduro-and-the-military/a-38348066.
[ii] Ernesto Londoño, “Venezuela’s Military in the Spotlight,” The New York Times, May 24, 2016, accessed April 16, 2017, https://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/05/24/venezuelas-military-in-the-spotlight/?_r=2.
[iii] Diana Negroponte, “Russo-Latin American Arms Sales,” Americas Quarterly, Winter 2015, accessed April 16, 2017, http://www.americasquarterly.org/content/russo-latin-american-arms-sales.
[vi] “Venezuela’s hospitals face crisis as meds run low,” PBS, March 26, 2017, accessed April 16, 2017, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/venezuela-hospitals-face-crisis-meds-run-low/.
[vii] “How close is Venezuela to the brink of total collapse?,” Al Jazeera, April 15, 2017, , accessed April 17, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/countingthecost/2017/04/close-venezuela-brink-total-collapse-170415075521348.html.
[viii] Colin Dwyer, “PHOTOS: As Anti-Maduro Protests Swell In Venezuela, Death Toll Mounts,” NPR, April 14, 2017, accessed April 17, 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/04/14/523922534/photos-as-anti-maduro-protests-swell-in-venezuela-death-toll-mounts; Fabiola Sanchez, “Venezuela: Protests Target President Nicolas Maduro,” Time/AP, accessed April 17, 2017, http://time.com/4735679/venezuela-protest-nicolas-maduro/.
[ix] “Venezuela’s congress decries ‘coup’ after top court seizes power,” Deutsche Welle, March 31, 2017, accessed April 17, 2017, http://www.dw.com/en/venezuelas-congress-decries-coup-after-top-court-seizes-power/a-38222969.
[x] Romero-Castillo, “Maduro and the military.”
[xi] IISS Military Balance 1989–90 (London: Brassey’s, 1989), 113.