Tag Archives: Venezuela

Venezuela’s Bad Neighborhood

The last few years in Latin American politics ushered in a wave of political upheavals from Chile to Honduras to Venezuela, and most recently Bolivia. Though the causes that sparked the manifestations differed across the hemisphere, Venezuelan involvement appears to be a common thread in the northern reaches of the continent. In a region that struggles to establish liberal democracies with fully-functioning economies, the socialist government in Caracas has an existential need to avoid isolation. It pursues this objective by destabilizing neighbors it views as ideological rivals and undermining the political opposition in socialist-leaning capitals. The governments of Ecuador and Colombia have both complained directly and repeatedly to the Maduro Administration about its meddling in political protests but their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Despite crippling inflation and a contested political atmosphere, Caracas continues to see Latin America as a bad neighborhood to be managed.

Regional Problems

The complaints emanating from Colombia and Ecuador are a natural response to apparent Venezuelan meddling in their politics. During popular protests in Ecuador last month against suspension of fuel subsidies, President Lenin Moreno accused his predecessor, exiled former President Rafael Correa, of working with Venezuela to destabilize the Ecuadoran government. Specifically, Moreno accused Correa of “igniting” the protests using Venezuelan and Cuban agitators paid to fuel the protests. Indeed, many of those arrested were in fact, Venezuelan and Cuban, suggesting a more international conspiracy than a fuel-price hike would normally trigger. More ominously, the arrest of 17 Cuban and Venezuelan “spies” caught shadowing and photographing President Moreno’s convoy suggests those countries have a very high-risk tolerance for intervening in the affairs of their neighbors.

Colombia also has its concerns about Maduro’s political meddling. In an explosive speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Colombian president Iván Duque denounced Maduro for support to drug trafficking and transnational terrorism. In addition to having similar complaints about Venezuelan nationals sparking violence at protests, Duque was referring to the more sinister threat posed by thinly-veiled Venezuelan government support to ELN and dissident factions of FARC. According to documents leaked from the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebín), and the Operational Strategic Command of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (CEOFANB), there is a well-known and growing relationship between Venezuela’s armed forces and these groups. Among other things, the documents revealed the Venezuelan military supports the activities of Colombian guerillas it calls “red groups.” Trained by the military, these red groups can be directly integrated with ELN and FARC and can provide intelligence support to Venezuelan military planning for war with Colombia. One document addressed to the Sebín Director of Counterintelligence shows an ELN presence in nearly every state in Venezuela, a force the Colombian military believes to number 2000 guerillas.

Global Linkages Venezuela

Venezuelan meddling in the affairs of its neighbors is almost certainly not a new phenomenon. Maduro’s relationships with other irredentist regimes like Cuba, exacerbate the threat he presents to the region. His relationships with global powers Russia and China are a problem for the United States and therefore tied to issues of global imporance. The deployment of a People’s Liberation Army (Navy) hospital ship to Venezuela in early 2018 and Washington’s reaction to it illustrate this point. As troubling as a PLA(N) presence in the Caribbean may seem to the Pentagon however, Russia has far more robust economic and military interests in the stability of the Maduro regime.

Russian oil companies are a critical factor in preventing the slow collapse of productivity by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. Long the economic lifeline of the Maduro regime – and the Chavez regime before that – PDVSA’s decline, and Russia’s relationship with it, gives Moscow tremendous leverage over Maduro and his foreign policy. A Venezuela-friendly neighborhood is certainly good for Russia’s military sales program which had been at a low ebb after the April 2016 election of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) in Peru and later Ivan Duque in Colombia. In PPK’s case, he set the conditions for corruption investigations associated with previous administrations’ purchase of Mikoyan fighter aircraft, Mil helicopters, and associated support packages. For his part, Duque demonstrated an early willingness to review the peace agreement with FARC, a move that threatened to reduce its influence and that of its Russian sponsor.

Hidden Hand

Apart from Venezuela, Moscow remains a primary supplier of hardware and expertise to Nicaragua and Cuba among others and uses those countries as enablers and staging areas for the conduct of active measures like those affecting Ecuador. According to a white paper released in May 2019,[1] “Russia seeks to undermine the consolidation of the region as a group of pro-U.S. states, and in the process, distract the U.S. and weaken its strategic position in the Western hemisphere.” Russia does this by propping up friendly regimes and manipulating the politics of others as part of its larger strategy.

As U.S. Senator Rick Scott said during an interview for Brazilian newspaper: Folha de S. Paulo, “Russia and China are in all Latin American countries, but not to help. They want to control.” In many ways, this is a replay of conditions seen during the Cold War when the Soviets used proxies to drive wedges between rival governments and indigenous or marginalized political groups. Many of those groups are still notoriously underserved by their governments and represent a tremendous potential for resistance. Venezuela, which exerts influence on all the countries around it, has both the political will to develop this potential and a well-developed capacity to do so. The ability to see Moscow’s hand behind Venezuela’s machinations however is not so clear. For its own reasons, the Maduro regime seems content acting as a Russian enabler in the region if not an outright proxy for Moscow’s interests. How long those roles remain unchanged in the face of Venezuela’s continuing decline is certainly something its neighbors will watch.

[1] Though this white paper, titled: “Russian Strategic Intentions”, is not an official publication of the U.S. Department of Defense, it is signed by the Deputy Commanding General of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and includes chapters written by numerous U.S. Military and Intelligence Community officers writing in their official capacity.

Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

Liberty Happens: Venezuela on the Brink

On the morning of April 30th, Juan Guaidó announced a non-violent uprising against the Maduro government. He called the uprising “Operation Liberty” and for the first time, he openly invited the country’s military forces to join him. Broadcast on social media from an Air Force base in Caracas, the poorly produced video announcement was a confusing mixture of a populist call to action and an appeal to defend the Constitution from the usurpation of the Maduro regime. With Maduro under increasing pressure economically and politically, the time seems right for such a move yet it has seemed this way for years. Guaidó’s failure to spark any significant change under these conditions suggests that even in Venezuela there is more to achieving liberty than mobilizing enthusiasm for the cause; there must also be a plan.

Resistance Potential

There is a concept in the doctrine of revolution that seeks to measure the capacity of a society to change its government. Called “resistance potential,” one measures this capacity by an ambiguous dynamic of popular discontent, insurgent organization, inspirational leadership, geographic viability, and other factors. Without it, there is no possibility of a revolution. The good news for Guaidó, and the reason he keeps up the pressure on Maduro, is that resistance potential in Venezuela is extremely high.

An accelerating economic catastrophe exacerbates Venezuela’s political crisis. Home to the world’s largest proven oil reserve, Venezuela was once among the wealthiest nations on earth. But since Hugo Chavez first set the country on its current course in 1999, the economy has become increasingly reliant on crude oil, with exports reaching 98% of the nation’s external trade by value. This overreliance on a single commodity is unhealthy under normal circumstances but it is catastrophic with crude production at a 70-year low – nearly a third of the daily output achieved 20 years ago and half what it was in 2014. The slide has taken the currency with it, hitting ordinary Venezuelans hard and causing shortages in basic retail goods across the board. Hunger, unemployment, and desperation have become a feature of life for Venezuelans not wealthy enough or quick enough to leave before their savings were eliminated by hyperinflation exceeding 1.3 million percent.

The resultant humanitarian disaster has pushed 3.4 million desperate Venezuelans out of the country and is the fuel that feeds its resistance potential. Increasingly reliant on oppression and corruption to maintain power, Maduro is the focus of popular discontent that erupted in a spectacular attempt on his life by drone-delivered bombs in August 2018. Though he survived the attempt, it is likely this led Guaidó, by then the President of the tightly controlled National Assembly, to invoke an obscure clause in the Constitution allowing him to declare himself President in January. Since then Guaidó has done little beyond calling for popular demonstrations, though that changed in February when he attempted to spark an uprising by forcing humanitarian aid across the border from Colombia. Maduro easily countered the ill-conceived move, causing a dramatic confrontation and burning of the aid on the Santander Bridge. Somehow Guaidó’s credibility survived mostly intact even though many passionate Venezuelan volunteers did not.

Humanitarian Cucuta Colombia Venezuela
Humanitarian aid burns on the Santander Bridge linking Cucuta, Colombia with Venezuela on 23 February 2019. Guaidó’s ill-conceived push to force the border was easily countered by Maduro.

A Vision Without a Plan

Juan Guaidó believes the Maduro regime is ready for a fall, but his failures prove it takes more than resistance potential to change a government. Guaidó has a vision of Venezuela that is prosperous under his leadership and free of Maduro, but Guaidó is a tactical thinker, not a strategist. His political career thus far, and the public struggles he hoped would trigger Maduro’s downfall, were poorly planned and opportunistic. Not only does Guaidó lack a plan for success, he lacks the institutional capacity necessary to implement a plan in the first place. To understand this, one must know how power works in modern Venezuela.

The Venezuelan military, particularly the Army, is the guarantor of the Maduro regime’s viability. The basis for this arrangement is a patronage system that privileges the business interests of senior military officers and their families. Of all the failing institutions of the Venezuelan government, the military and police get paid first and they repay that patronage with loyalty. President Trump’s 18 February appeal directly to the Bolivarian Military to ignore their orders indicates a basic understanding of this in Washington, yet Guaidó made no similar moves to attract the Venezuelan officer corps to his cause until this morning. Doing so will require more than platitudes about liberty and the will of the people. It will require amnesty for senior officers, a strategy for paying salaries and funding the military through the transition, and at least a partial guarantee the patronage system will not be immediately dismantled. At this time, Guaidó doesn’t even have a designated Minister of Defense or a General Officer prepared to offer advice and take command of the military if required.

This apparent oversight cannot be attributed only to a flawed or non-existent strategy. With few exceptions, Guaidó’s team consists of his peers in the national assembly, many of whom are younger than he and lack bureaucratic experience. They struggle with funding and are invariably double- or triple-hatted. In the few instances where they manage well-defined ministerial portfolios, they do so under ambiguous authority, without the support of a single institution staffed, funded, and equipped to carry out the functions of government, and often in direct contravention of a Maduro official that does have proper agency backing. Needless to say these are very challenging conditions under which to manage a national crisis, especially one under tremendous pressure from external stakeholders.

Making Liberty

Despite the apparent shortcomings of Guaidó’s strategy and planning, he is a bold leader of character that puts himself at risk to achieve a positive vision for Venezuela. His apparent misreading of the country’s resistance potential and hesitation to recruit the military is perhaps better understood by recognizing that he is not a revolutionary. Guaidó does not want to fundamentally change Venezuela. He does not seek to abolish the legislature, defeat the National Bolivarian Armed Forces, or put his name on the Presidential palace. Instead, he wants to take over the existing system, and he wants to do so within the legal parameters available to him under the country’s current constitution. Until now he has been reliant upon popular demonstrations to exert pressure on Maduro to walk away, but for Operation Liberty to succeed, Guaidó will need a plan that draws the military away from Maduro. Liberty doesn’t just happen, it is made.

Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He was directly involved with Guaidó’s failed attempt to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela in February 2019. You can see his first hand observations of that dramatic event on this Twitter thread from that day.

Maduro Drones On

Wearing full regalia to mark the 81st anniversary of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard on August 4th, President Nicolas Maduro became the world’s most prominent target of a drone strike. The scene was typical of the farcical government theater Venezuelans have grown accustomed to over the last 19 years since Maduro’s charismatic mentor, Hugo Chavez was elected President. The small explosion occurred while Maduro was addressing a massive assembly of soldiers, firefighters, and police; seven of whom were wounded when two drones approached and dropped their ordnance near the procession.

In a speech the following day, Maduro blamed the attack on the former President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, a claim Santos bluntly repudiated. Though Maduro is accustomed to droning on against foreign interference, those claiming credit for the attack, a previously unknown group called “Soldiers of Flannel”, identify themselves as patriotic Venezuelans. They blame Maduro’s incompetence for the exploding economic crisis that is pushing millions of Venezuelans into desperation. Though some would like to write off the incident as a parochial Latin American squabble, the drone-delivery of explosives is a growing global security threat that simply cannot be ignored.

The "Soldiers of Flannel" claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.
The “Soldiers of Flannel” claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.

Bolivarian Devolution

Though Saturday’s drama may seem remote to those outside Latin America, Venezuela is in the midst of an exploding humanitarian disaster. This is not hyperbole. Some 1.5 million Venezuelans have fled the hyperinflation and scarcity that has plagued their economy since 2014. Conditions are at the point that international humanitarian actors supporting affected Venezuelans in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and elsewhere claim newborns in Syria have lower mortality rates than those in Venezuela. Once the richest nationality in Latin America, Venezuelans both at home and abroad suffer from malnutrition, crime, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking as the crisis — and their desperation — intensifies. Meanwhile, the Maduro regime increasingly relies on repression and violence to maintain control. A patronage system guarantees military and police loyalty but is coming under escalating stress from an inflation rate that may exceed 1 million percent by the end of the year.

At these rates, it is difficult to imagine Maduro will be able to sustain this system, particularly in the face of the rapid collapse of oil exports. For years, the state oil company, PDVSA, funded the socialist economy set up by Hugo Chavez; but as PDVSA demands for control of production grew to pay the rising costs of Chavismo, international oil companies began to cut their losses. Beginning with the American firms, the oil majors shut down their Venezuelan operations, taking their expertise and equipment with them and leaving a lasting impact on the economy, currency, and security of the country. Something will have to give in order for conditions to improve and Saturday’s drone strike suggests the security situation will further deteriorate long before the economy stabilizes.

Drones On Target

Saturday’s attack on Maduro, though of little significance in real terms, marks the first notable proliferation of non-state, drone-delivered explosives outside the Middle East. Though the attacked wounded seven members of the Bolivarian National Guard, Maduro was unhurt and he and the generals surrounding him responded stoically enough to preserve their machismo. What alarms security officials around the world about the incident however, is there is no real way to defend against this rapidly proliferating technology.

Drone technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last five years. Improvements in battery capability enabled this leap, driving down costs and giving smaller drones more range and power. Though state militaries were the early drivers of drone technology, they focused their research and development efforts on larger platforms that somewhat replicated capabilities of manned aircraft. Private hobbyists and commercial interests such as Amazon pushed demand for smaller devices and drove innovation faster than militaries were capable of doing. Not surprisingly, the commercial utility of drones as a delivery device has military implications as Mr. Maduro discovered on Saturday.

Maduro's security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.
Maduro’s security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.

Keeping up with technological advancement is not the only policy challenge drones represent. In most parts of the world, airspace is only regulated above 3000 feet above ground level (AGL). Below that level, there are very few regulations and almost no laws governing air traffic. Even in those instances where governments made steps to address this gap, enforcement remains an administrative and technical headache. There are very few requirements for registration or licensing, and that’s just the start. On the extreme end of the spectrum, traditional defenses against air attack, specifically fighter aircraft and surface to air missiles, are almost completely ineffective below 3000 feet AGL. This is especially true in urban environments. Though one of the drones that attacked Maduro was reportedly shot down by an alert sniper, it crashed with its deadly payload into a nearby apartment building, setting fire to the structure and forcing an evacuation. The incident highlights that even effective defenses may cause unintended harm.

Technological solutions are no more promising. Countermeasures range from systems that jam guidance inputs, to others that launch netting to capture drones, to trained birds of prey. Clearly the defense sector is struggling to establish a workable industry standard. Detection is a different problem that has more obvious solutions but integrating them with countermeasures and backing that up with effective legislation and enforcement is the biggest challenge of all. If there is a silver lining associated with the dramatic attack on Nicolas Maduro, it is that his misfortune may actually raise enough alarm at a high enough level to make a difference. When it comes to drone defense, the Soldiers of Flannel said it best: “…it’s only a question of time.”

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Thanks to Kirby Sanford for consulting on flight rules and airspace control measures. Kirby is the author of Bolivarian Devolution and Paraguay: Voting Away Freedom on The Affiliate Network.