Crisis of Command
America’s Broken Civil-Military Relationship Imperils National Security
The Venezuelan political crisis has reached a familiar stalemate. In the two and a half months since it began, National Assembly president Juan Guaidó’s challenge to President Nicolás Maduro’s legitimacy has lost its momentum, stymied by the same mechanisms that have foiled opposition efforts in the past. On April 1, the government-controlled Constituent Assembly, acting on the instructions of the Supreme Court, stripped Guaidó of his parliamentary immunity, removing a legal barrier to his arrest. And the Venezuelan armed forces—the central pillar upon which government power rests—have remained loyal to Maduro throughout Guaidó’s challenge.
But there is still uncharted terrain into which the crisis could spiral. Increased international attention on Venezuela—particularly from the United States—has moved the threat of a military intervention to remove Maduro from power past the point of idle talk. Senior U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton, have asserted that “all options” remain on the table, a turn of phrase familiar from previous administrations in the run-up to military interventions.
In the case of Venezuela, the loudest calls for intervention are coming not from the White House and its media mouthpieces but from some members of the Venezuelan opposition and from residents of the country desperate for a solution—any solution—to their years-long plight. For many, that solution lies in the country’s constitution: article 187(11) grants the opposition-controlled legislature, the National Assembly, the power to authorize foreign military missions in the country. First launched into the sphere of public debate by a fringe parliamentary bloc just over a month ago, talk of invoking article 187(11) has become commonplace in the country.
Article 187 of the Venezuelan constitution sets out the powers of the National Assembly. Section 11 of the article grants the legislature the power to authorize not only Venezuelan military missions abroad but also foreign military missions inside the country.
The article rose to prominence in the Venezuelan lexicon following the highly publicized attempt to deliver humanitarian aid into the country on February 23. The attempt had been weeks in the making, spearheaded by a defiant opposition (backed by its foreign allies) eager to prove that they could do what Maduro could not: provide relief to the country’s humanitarian crisis. After delivery of the aid was blocked by government forces, a small, hard-line parliamentary faction called the Bloque 16 de Julio, which enjoys the support of Vente Venezuela party chief Maria Corina Machado, began to campaign for the National Assembly to apply article 187(11). Machado is one of the fiercest critics of the government in the Venezuelan opposition and a leading proponent of mass civil disobedience and protest. Machado argued that 187(11) would “[open] the way” for the international community to apply the Responsibility to Protect principle, which legitimizes foreign intervention in order to prevent crimes against humanity, to Venezuela. Similarly, Machado’s ally, the former Caracas mayor and Alianza Bravo Pueblo party founder Antonio Ledezma, has said that article 187(11) would allow for a “humanitarian intervention” in Venezuela.
These calls for intervention have spread among the general population. A public opinion poll conducted March 11-14 by the Meganalisis firm found that 87.5 percent of respondents supported the idea of the legislature authorizing “foreign military missions” in Venezuela as per article 187(11). Although this figure is likely inflated—the surveys do not define what a military intervention under 187(11) would look like—the country’s prolonged socioeconomic collapse and Maduro’s increasing authoritarianism have combined to make foreign military intervention, for many, an appealing panacea for the country’s problems. As a result, the push for a military intervention in Venezuela is most intense not among hawks in Washington but inside the country itself.
On the evening of February 23, Guaidó cited the Maduro government’s refusal to allow the aid into the country as justification for asking the international community to consider “having all options available” to “liberate” the country. Given the dramatic developments of the day, Guaidó’s statements appeared to be inching toward openly advocating military intervention. Two days later, the Lima Group, a hemispheric bloc of fourteen countries working to promote a peaceful transition to democracy in Venezuela, turned down the temperature of Guaidó’s rhetoric by reiterating its commitment to the idea that the political transition in Venezuela “must be conducted by Venezuelans themselves ... without the use of force.”
Despite the Lima Group’s calls for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, however, talk of intervention has continued. At a rally in Caracas on March 9, Guaidó suggested to supporters that he would invoke article 187(11) “when the time comes.” Then, on March 27, Guaidó said that article 187(11) was “of course” an option in the opposition struggle against the Maduro government.
The question remains how seriously to take these calls for intervention. Guaidó’s two-and-a-half-month-old challenge to Maduro appears to be stalling, and his public statements referring to article 187(11) may be a reflection of the mounting pressure he feels to sustain momentum against the regime.
Guaidó has been careful to caveat his statements on 187(11) at public rallies. At the March 27 rally, after mentioning the possibility of invoking 187(11), Guaidó sought to temper hopes that the article would furnish a magical solution to the country's problems. He said that the decision to authorize a foreign military mission “cannot be taken lightly” since it requires the delineation of “very specific” boundaries such as troop numbers and operational parameters.
More telling are Guaidó’s comments not before anxious crowds but to media outlets. When asked point-blank in a March 17 interview with Spain’s ABC if he supported a military intervention in Venezuela, Guaidó responded bluntly: “Put that way, no.” And, in a March 20 interview with Univision’s Jorge Ramos, Guaidó said that article 187(11) was not a tool for the “use of force” by a foreign power in Venezuela but, rather, a mechanism for “international cooperation” to put pressure on the Maduro government.
Other leading opposition figures have echoed Guaidó’s reservations. Following the March 27 rally, Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate in the 2012 and 2013 presidential elections, weighed in on the debate over 187(11). Without naming her, Capriles questioned Machado’s motives in advocating for the article, asking rhetorically if the purpose of her campaign was really to “test Guaidó’s patience.” Again without speaking her name, Capriles wondered why Machado and her allies were never present at opposition rallies. His clear implication was that Machado and her allies are duplicitously pushing 187(11) for their own political benefit.
And in fact, the debate over intervention could strengthen Machado. Were Guaidó to unequivocally dismiss the idea of a military intervention via article 187(11), disillusioned supporters might look to a figure like Machado, who seems willing to go to any lengths to remove Maduro from power. By promoting a national debate about article 187(11), Machado might be planning for a post-Maduro future, seeking to improve her credibility as an implacable opponent of the regime. Given the scale of the ruin that Maduro has brought to Venezuela, voters would undoubtedly find a politician who held nothing back in her fight against the regime to be very attractive.
The debate over article 187(11) began on the fringes. But rather than remaining there, it has gained traction where extremist ideas everywhere take hold: among the desperate, the disillusioned, and those for whom state institutions hold no answers. Guaidó has been clear in interviews that he does not want to invite a foreign military mission to remove Maduro from power by force. He has been less clear at public rallies, likely out of a fear that his stance would drive away supporters who have bought the idea that the article is a viable solution to the Venezuelan crisis. Although this strategy may pay off in the short term, Guaidó will eventually have to state his opinion on the matter unequivocally, possibly under more precarious conditions than those in which he finds himself today. The alternative, in which Guaidó yields to popular pressure and calls for an application of article 187(11) to save his leadership position, would be disastrous.
On April 3, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said in a radio interview with Colombia’s Caracol Radio that it would be “premature” for the Venezuelan opposition to request foreign military intervention through article 187(11), and that he did not think that any of Guaidó’s international allies were thinking about a military solution to the Venezuelan crisis. Although the full effect of Abrams’ comments have yet to be felt in Venezuela, Guaidó could see in them an opportunity to finally break free from a line that has been forced upon him. The true test of leadership for Guaidó will not be whether he can channel the support for article 187(11) into action on someone else’s terms but whether he can find the courage to relegate the debate back to the outskirts of the Venezuelan political consciousness.