Andres Oppenheimer

A U.S. military intervention in Venezuela is not completely unthinkable anymore amid Trump’s rhetoric | Opinion

Supporters of Venezuela’s opposition hold up letters reading “Justice” during a rally in Caracas in January.
Supporters of Venezuela’s opposition hold up letters reading “Justice” during a rally in Caracas in January. Getty Images

How likely is a U.S.-Brazil-Colombia military intervention in Venezuela?

I still think that it’s highly unlikely, but judging from what I’m told are secret talks between United States and Latin American officials to resurrect a dormant 1947 Inter-American mutual defense treaty, I’m no longer willing to bet that it won’t happen.

First, the Trump administration is escalating its rhetoric following the Venezuelan opposition’s courageous but unsuccessful April 30 attempt to spark a military rebellion. Going beyond his earlier talking point that, “All options are on the table,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that “military action is possible.”

Second, the Trump administration may increasingly be worried about not being taken seriously about its vows to help topple Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. Trump’s vows that he will oust Maduro may soon sound like his empty claims that, “Mexico is going to build the wall.”

Trump, who cares very little about democracy in Russia, China, Turkey and most other countries, and whose interest in Venezuela is most likely because of his desire to win Florida’s Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American votes in the 2020 elections, may be pressed by some of his aides to take military action in Venezuela.

Third, Latin American diplomats tell me there are ongoing private discussions within the Organization of American States to invoke the 17-country Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance of 1947 — TIAR — also known as the Rio Treaty. Its key point is that an attack against any member country is an attack against all of its member countries.

The TIAR’s current members include the United States, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Peru. Leftist-ruled Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua left the treaty earlier this decade.

When I asked Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, whether there are behind-the-scenes discussions about invoking the TIAR, he neither confirmed nor denied it, but said that, “The TIAR is much wider in scope” than a mutual defense treaty.

“The TIAR talks about joint actions, but they can be diplomatic, or economic, or about sanctions. It’s not true that the TIAR is (just) a military treaty,” Abrams told me in the May 2 interview.

While virtually all existing TIAR members have already said that they are against a foreign military intervention in Venezuela, it’s unclear what would happen if millions more Venezuelans flee into neighboring countries.

Some Latin American diplomats say that would have a “destabilizing” impact on Brazil and Colombia’s economies, and that it would trigger growing regional calls for a military intervention to counter Russia and Cuba’ s military presence in Venezuela.

Fourth, a military rebellion to restore democracy in Venezuela may be more difficult now after the Trump administration’s blunder in revealing the names of three top Venezuelan officials — including defense minister Vladimir Padrino — who it says were secretly vowing to turn against Maduro on April 30.

Now, Padrino and other Venezuelan officials may be more reluctant than ever to talk with any opposition emissary, for fears of being publicly exposed by the U.S. government.

Why do I still think that a military intervention in Venezuela is unlikely?

Because while White House hard-liners may support that option, the Defense Department is not keen on it. Many in the U.S. military fear it would be easy to attack Venezuela, but it wouldn’t be easy to get out. Many fear it would lead to another Syria or Afghanistan-like quagmire.

Also, if Trump’s main interest in Venezuela is winning Florida next year, the best scenario for him may be to maintain the status quo — tough talk, no military action — until at least after the elections. If Trump decides on military action now, he may secure some votes in Florida, but he may lose more votes elsewhere in the country.

Summing up, a U.S.-backed military intervention continues to be an unlikely scenario.

But if Maduro — who, let’s not forget it, is an illegitimate leader who re-elected himself in fraudulent 2018 elections — fails to allow credible early elections to restore democracy, Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis will worsen, and millions more of Venezuelans will flee abroad. If that happens, a U.S.-Brazil-Colombia military action under the TIAR treaty would not be unthinkable.

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