How to prepare for a Venezuelan Civil War.

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At the meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) on March 28 its members urged the Venezuelan government and the opposition to settle differences through dialogue. The OAS backed off from suspending the socialist dictatorship because of opposition from Caribbean states. Instead, the organization hopes that President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition will be able to negotiate a timetable for holding democratic elections.

The new push for dialogue between the Maduro government and Venezuelan opposition will likely go nowhere, similar to previous efforts. The Venezuelan government has shown that it is unwilling to give up power by repeatedly ignoring calls to stage a recall referendum, having the Supreme Court –stacked with regime supporters by Hugo Chavez- briefly took away the National Assembly’s law-making power until it was forced to back-track due to international and opposition pressure, and refusing to hold regional elections scheduled for this year.

Opposition to transitioning to democracy was even demonstrated at the March 28th OAS meeting. When a coalition of member states called for Venezuela to hold democratic elections the country’s Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs attacked states for interfering in Venezuela’s internal politics.

Suspending Venezuela from the OAS might also do little to end the country’s dictatorship. Maduro could use the OAS suspension to delegitimize the organization as an imperialist tool of the United States. Once suspended Venezuela could attempt to utilize alternative leftist Latin American organizations such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Latin American and Caribbean Community of States (CELAC) group for access and to spread its influence.

The possibility that a suspension would isolate Venezuela from other South American states is unlikely. The group failed to suspend Venezuela because of the influence Caracas has over the organization’s Caribbean states. Additionally, Caracas still has friends in the governments of Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Venezuela also has a long-standing alliance with Iran, who set-up an IRGC and Hezbollah networks throughout the country, and China, which has given Caracas cash to boost oil-output. All of which makes isolating the Maduro regime more unlikely.

An OAS suspension would mean that Caracas could not participate in the organization, but would still have to fulfill its other obligations like enforcing human rights. The U.S. could back-up the suspension with an embargo on Venezuelan oil or additional sanctions on members of Maduro government who are involved in narco-trafficking.

The U.S. is the main importer of Venezuelan petroleum, which means that any oil embargo could seriously hurt the South American country’s economy. Right now Caracas cannot even provide food or health services so denying them major oil revenues might worsen the country’s internal conditions. If Maduro is unable to fund the army and paramilitary groups upon which he depends on to stay in power further destabilization is likely. The U.S. could agree to end the embargo once the OAS ends its suspension of Venezuela.

However, these measures are unlikely to stave off Venezuela’s eventual descent into civil war. The government of President Maduro is too entrenched with their control of the army and paramilitary groups. The Venezuelan opposition is divided between those who want a peaceful tradition to democracy and factions who believe street protests and violence are necessary to oust the Maduro regime.

A U.S. oil embargo and an OAS suspension might hasten Venezuela’s collapse because they would leave Maduro without cash to shore up his base. Although narco-trafficking does generate profits for Venezuelan political and military officials it will probably not be enough to fund the entire army and the many pro-government military groups. Cutting the flow of U.S. dollars may help split the Venezuelan army from Maduro, given a lack of funds to buy their loyalty.

Opposition leaders might take advantage of Maduro’s weak hold over his power base and stage massive protests to force him to stand down. A refusal by the army and the paramilitary groups to suppress protests would further weaken Maduro and embolden the divided opposition. In the longer term however, it seems unlikely the army would support a transition to democracy.

This unstable situation could lead to a civil war as Maduro, the armed forces, paramilitary groups, and the opposition struggle for the control of the country. That said such an outcome is already increasingly likely due to the decayed nature of the Venezuelan state.

An OAS suspension followed by a U.S. oil embargo may quicken the already all but inevitable Venezuelan collapse, even while it remains a vital step towards insuring that the Maduro regime does not enter such a conflict as the strongest of the disputing factions.

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