The political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in oil-rich Venezuela has caught the world’s attention. As foreign powers position themselves for intervention, lessons from Africa offer insights into what will not work and the dangers that lie ahead.
This is what we know. When Juan Hugo Chávez won Venezuela’s presidential election in 1998, he was swept into office on a platform calling for social revolution. Although its huge oil reserves made Venezuela one of Latin America’s richest counties, it was profoundly unequal, with the descendants of European settlers dominating the state and economy. Venezuela’s poor, indigenous, and African-Venezuelan populations rallied to Chávez and his call to redistribute wealth and power. Following Chávez’s death in 2013, Nicolás Maduro was elected to office, claiming his predecessor’s socialist mantle. However, the Maduro government was marred by authoritarian practices, human rights abuses, and economic mismanagement. The vast majority of Venezuelans continued to live in extreme poverty, and millions left the country to survive. Returned to office in 2018 in elections widely viewed as fraudulent, Maduro was confronted by massive popular protests from across the political and economic spectrum.
The crisis intensified in January 2019, when Juan Guaidó, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, declared himself president. Deemed a savior by some and a usurper by others, Guaidó based his legitimacy on a constitutional clause that, in the absence of an elected head of state, vests power in the National Assembly president until free and fair elections occur. Maduro, predictably, refused to step aside; his military and police remained loyal, and protests continued. The international community lined up to take sides that aligned with their political and economic interests. Some, including the United States, hinted that military intervention may be in the offing.
Guaidó’s international backers claim to be responding to a power grab by an illegitimate authoritarian regime. They point to widespread opposition to Maduro within Venezuela and present themselves as enforcers of the people’s will. What is really at stake is Venezuela’s enormous wealth—who will control it and whom will it benefit. Rather than resolve a humanitarian crisis, foreign intervention is certain to intensify it. The legacy of US intervention in Latin America, which the United States has treated as its “backyard” since the nineteenth century, has left a bitterness that is far more powerful than local hostility toward a brutal president. Foreign meddling, with the aim of returning to power the old oligarchy that enriched foreign businesses, is likely to sharpen divisions, increase violence, and create a dangerous power vacuum.
Lessons from recent interventions in Africa should be heeded. Cases from across the continent underscore the fact that, regardless of the official rationale, external powers tend to intervene only where their own political, economic, and strategic interests are at stake. Rather than promoting peace and stability, foreign military intervention has more often increased outside support for repressive regimes, exacerbated local conflicts, and undermined prospects for regional peace.
Take the cases of Libya and Somalia—two of many that illustrate these points. During the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, foreign governments and organizations intervened in Libya, ostensibly to protect civilian lives, but with regime change as an unofficial objective. The NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi resulted in a power vacuum that opened the door to civil war and terrorist infiltration in Libya, with widespread regional ramifications—including a military coup and jihadist insurgency in Mali with ripple effects throughout the Sahel.
Foreign intervention in Somalia, which provoked decades of instability and a terrorist insurgency, is especially instructive. After the Cold War, Western powers abandoned the Somali strongman, Siad Barre, whom they no longer needed as a regional policeman. Warlords and militias vied for power, state institutions and basic services crumbled, the formal economy ceased to function, and southern Somalia disintegrated into fiefdoms ruled by rival warlords and their militias. War-induced famine, compounded by drought, threatened the lives of much of the population.
In 1992, the UN Security Council authorized the establishment of a US-led multinational military task force to ensure the delivery of humanitarian relief. In 1993, another UN mission, also led by the United States, permitted military personnel to forcibly disarm and arrest Somali warlords and militia members. As the United States embroiled itself in Somalia’s civil war, it generated enormous hostility within the civilian population. As a result, when US Special Operations Forces attempted to capture key militia leaders in October 1993, and Somali militias shot down two Black Hawk helicopters, angry crowds attacked the surviving soldiers and their rescuers. Eighteen American troops and some one thousand Somali men, women, and children were killed in the violence that ensued.
The United States and UN hastily withdrew from Somalia, and the turmoil intensified. Islamist groups gained widespread popular support by providing essential social services and courts to enforce law and order. However, the United States, which viewed all Islamists as a threat, worked with Somali warlords and neighboring Ethiopia to oust them. The result was an anti-foreign backlash and the transformation of al-Shabaab, originally a youth militia that defended the Islamic courts, into a violent jihadist organization that quickly gained the support of al-Qaeda. As al-Shabaab took control of large swaths of central and southern Somali in 2007, the UN and African Union intervened, neighboring countries interceded to push their own agendas, and al-Shabaab extended its targets to include them. Today, the Somali government, weak and beholden to outsiders, has little internal support, and al-Shabaab continues to wreak havoc in Somalia and the region.
What lesson should be learned? In Africa, foreign support for governments that benefit privileged elites and their external backers has perpetuated violence and instability. It is bound to do the same in Latin America. Latin American pro-democracy movements, like their African counterparts, demand access to education, employment, health care, clean water, sanitation, electricity, and infrastructure. They call for responsive democratic governments that respect the rule of law, eliminate corruption, and distribute resources more equitably. If underlying political, economic, and social grievances are ignored, intervention by outsiders will only intensify violence and instability and undermine prospects for an enduring peace.