Venezuela is volatile. The oil-rich country has experienced instability for years under the inept leadership of President Nicolás Maduro, but everything escalated on Jan. 23 when the opposition leader Juan Guaidó swore himself in as the new president of Venezuela. The international community didn’t hesitate to pick sides. The next day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Latin American governments to recognize Guaidó. Russia issued a warning to the U.S. and affirmed Maduro’s government as the legitimate one. The war hawks in Washington D.C. are already salivating at the prospect of invading Venezuela and ousting Maduro directly. But if the militarists can’t have an Iraq, they will begrudgingly accept a Syria. Appeals have been made to start funneling U.S. weapons into the hands of mutinous Venezuelan soldiers. President Trump would surely welcome a distraction from the pressure he’s facing at home, so wading into the Venezuelan crisis seems ever more appetizing.
The thing is, nobody wants a war in Venezuela unless they are someone who would profit from it. Guaidó himself is cautioning against that kind of intervention. The U.S. already has a nasty reputation of overthrowing Latin American presidents during the Cold War, and even trying to remove an unlikable thug like Maduro is bound to reopen old wounds.
All of this exposes a flaw in how the U.S. deals with dictators. We act like they can just be overthrown directly or by our proxies, and that would solve the whole problem. This unimaginative strategy often forces dictators to entrench themselves. Furthermore, our violation of their country’s sovereignty allows the dictator to improve legitimacy by claiming national self-defense. That is exactly how Maduro is responding right now. If anything, the self-defense argument is helping him shore up support with his military.
A new method for removing dictators needs to propagate through U.S. foreign policy. We need to start giving them a secure path towards self-exile. We also need to tolerate a situation where they may live comfortably for the rest of their days, and never have to answer for their sins. This is a tough pill to swallow for the idealists in U.S. government. After all, this country concluded WWII with the Nuremberg Trials, where Nazis were forced to answer for their wicked deeds.
However, realism matters more than idealism, and the situations surrounding embattled dictators is no exception to that rule. We should recognize that these despots almost always act in their own self-interest. If we invade directly, they will try to go into hiding as Saddam Hussein did for nine months. If we arm up rebel proxies, the dictator will entrench as Bashar al-Assad did. But if we present a viable and secure pathway to exile, then maybe dictators can be forced out without mass bloodshed. The former tyrant of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, escaped from his country in 2011 into the open arms of King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia. To this day, Ben Ali is living comfortably in Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia is progressing as a fragile but comparatively successful democracy.
Self-exile is a real possibility for Maduro if the international community plays its cards right. Nicaragua and Cuba are two destinations that are likely to host him. The U.S. should make no attempt to intercept or pursue him if he does choose exile, because the outcome of having him retire comfortably is preferable to having him drag Venezuela into further misery or civil war. In order to make self-exile an attractive option for Maduro, U.S. leaders need to immediately cease the threatening rhetoric about intervening in Venezuela. The only meaningful ally that Maduro still has is his military, and they are more likely to stick with him if the threat of foreign invasion is looming.
When the U.S. pulls back, it makes it clear that the toppling of a dictator has to be earned. Guaidó and his opposition legislature, the National Assembly, will have to persuade the army to turn on Maduro. Defections in the Venezuelan National Guard indicate that faith in Maduro is waning even within his own government. The U.S. can only aid this process by making self-exile an attractive option. That means encouraging Nicaragua to host him, staving off any interest by the International Criminal Court and, most importantly, respecting Venezuela’s sovereignty.
When things get tough, dictators try to deflect blame. Maduro likes to use U.S. meddling as a scapegoat to divert attention away from his failed government. Considering the ample historical evidence that the U.S. does indeed meddle with disastrous consequences, his scapegoat isn’t totally arbitrary. If the U.S. can exercise self-restraint, then the spotlight stays on Maduro. He won’t stay in that spotlight long if he has a discontent people and mutinous army on one side, and a safe villa in another country on the other.