Leading from Behind?

Here’s hoping that Jair Bolsonaro’s first official act as president of Brazil is to invade Venezuela.

As a result of twenty years of Chavismo (a word that, like Juche in North Korea, signifies a locally-flavored brand of militant socialism) Venezuela’s economy is in a state of total collapse. As with North Korea in bad years, starvation and disease are rampant. Venezuela has been less adept at making itself a prison than North Korea, though: over 2 million Venezuelans – roughly 8% of its former population – have fled to neighboring countries. Presently, about 3,000 malnourished people, many of whom are also diseased, are making it out each day – and straining social services in neighboring countries.

While the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela grows ever worse, senior members of that country’s regime are becoming fabulously rich off the backs of their supposed beneficiaries. The late Hugo Chavez’s daughter alone is reported to be worth over $4 billion (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3192933/Hugo-Chavez-s-ambassador-daughter-Venezuela-s-richest-woman-according-new-report.html). No wonder Sean Penn, like so many of Hollywood’s best and brightest, loved hanging around with, and repeatedly expressed vehement support for, Chavez.

The Cubans are playing the big-brother-in-tyranny role in Venezuela, much like the Chinese do in North Korea and did in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era. Thousands of members of the Cuban secret service are providing the muscle for Maduro’s thuggery (https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/02/07/cuba-is-making-the-crisis-in-venezuela-worse/). The Cubans have also done a marvelous job of teaching Chavistas how to strangle a democracy – controlling the judges and the media, vilifying, prosecuting and sometimes killing political opponents and organizing armed gangs that can be useful as extra-judicial enforcers of the party line.

It has taken twenty years to turn what was a democracy and the richest country in Latin America – with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, no less – into a basket case, but tyrannically-enforced socialism has been up to the task.


I’m not kidding about the suggestion that Brazil invade Venezuela. They should go in with the announced intention of ousting the Maduro regime, re-establishing Venezuela’s democratic institutions, and leaving. As when the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Brazilians would be acting largely on humanitarian impulses rather than coming as conquerors. Ideally, they would arrange a coalition of the willing with other neighboring countries that are also facing social services breakdowns as a result of fleeing Venezuelans.

The US should have no role at all, other than providing encouragement, diplomatic cover and perhaps military intelligence. (And here’s an advantage to this approach: if President Trump were to suggest an invasion of Venezuela to Bolsonaro, we might have an actual example of what his predecessor described as leading from behind).

Would it be expensive for Brazil to undertake such an effort? The answer depends mostly on how serious the Venezuelan resistance would be. My guess is: not terribly.

Doubtless there would be logistical issues galore in bringing Brazil’s military to the confrontation – while the two nations share a long border, it’s far from Brazil’s population centers, major transportation routes and (I’m guessing) military bases. With sufficient determination – and maybe the support of Colombia and/or Guyana – the logistical problems of getting Brazil’s troops close enough to Venezuela to show that they mean business could surely be solved.

I cannot imagine that that the Maduro regime’s “friends” – Cuba, Iran and China – would globalize the crisis by shipping their own troops to Venezuela – Cuba doesn’t have the men, the others have no way of getting large numbers there in a hurry and none of them would be itching to make enemies of Brazil, which is Latin America’s largest country by far.

Can I imagine a long, drawn-out war in which the Chavistas fight to the last man? No. There have been many rumors that the Venezuelan military’s rank and file are deeply unhappy about both their personal circumstances and their nation’s ever-worsening crisis. With the Venezuelan economy in a state of collapse and clearly stated Brazilian goals of going in, cleaning up and getting out (with such goals more credible than they might otherwise be seen as being because of the differences in language and culture between the two nations), it would be madness for the Venezuelan soldiers to try to resist their vastly larger neighbor. The Venezuelan elites would almost certainly flee; Maduro, a former bus driver who became the uber-flunky to Chavez, doesn’t look like a fighter to me. After all, Cuba has fine beaches and nice weather.

What would Brazil have to gain from such an expense in money and, potentially, blood? The most important benefit would be humanitarian: after a successful conclusion to the confrontation, ordinary Venezuelans’ circumstances would improve dramatically – and a stable Venezuela would mean no more refugees for Brazil and other neighboring countries to feed, house and care for. Indeed, restoring Venezuela to its former prosperity could only be a huge plus for the regional economy. And finally, it it would be nice to eject Cuba’s thugs from the neighborhood. They’re only there to make trouble, as Bolsonaro doubtless knows.

There is a cruel joke that has long been told at the expense of Brazil: that it is the country of tomorrow, and always will be. Well, maybe yesterday’s tomorrow actually is today.


M.H. Johnston

3 comments to Leading from Behind?

  • Doug  says:

    “Transformation can only happen immediately; the revolution is now, not tomorrow.” Difficult to imagine Venezuelans making a change on their own.

    Jiddu Krishnamurti

    • M Johnston  says:

      Agreed. If help doesn’t come from the outside, my guess is that the tyranny and murderousness of the regime will only get worse.

  • Dennis Paine  says:

    Loved the post, hated the headline.

    Oil reserves are the wild card in this scenario. However, Mark, you do elaborate some very interesting possibilities.


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