Is it Time for an Insurgency in Venezuela?
Frustrated members of Venezuela’s opposition and their supporters saw their attempt at a military coup fall short last week as senior leaders of the security forces failed to join an attempt to force President Maduro out of office and out of the country. Despite an economy in ruins, a failed health care system, and international sanctions; the Maduro regime has survived. There are several reasons for this.
First, the security services are led by men who profit from the regime. They are among the leftist elites who still live well while the rest of the country suffers. Even if they join a coup, there is no guarantee that many would not eventually be held accountable for past abuses. That fear is not entirely unfounded.
The Venezuelan Army rank and file are not nearly as well motivated as the general officers and colonels, but in an uncertain economy, they at least have jobs and are fed regularly - if not well. They may not be very well trained or motivated to die for the regime but running over unarmed civilians with armored vehicles doesn’t take crack troops. I have said before in these pages that an American funded promise to provide decent pay and conditions for the troops when the current regime goes would be the thing to turn the rank and file against the government and their generals. This would be a key in successful internally generated regime change; unfortunately, that has not been seriously attempted to date.
A second reason for the failure of civil society to oust the regime is that the government has such a tight control of the job market via labor unions that those still employed can be easily stripped of their jobs if they join the protesters. Like any socialist state, government employees make up a significant portion of the work force, and they too fear for their jobs.
A final reason for the failure of civil society to impact regime change flows from the first. Because the regime has guns and the rest of the population is largely unarmed, massed demonstrations can be easily intimidated as witnessed by the images of armored cars running over unarmed demonstrators. Until the security services face consequences for their abuses of the population - and have alternative to obeying their officers - the current government will be able to keep its proverbial boot on the necks of the majority of the population.
The Argument for Insurgency
Because of the failure of peaceful civil society efforts to effect regime change in Venezuela, it may be time for the opposition to consider an insurgency. The armed forces remain the primary bulwark of the regime. It is fairly easy to bully unarmed protesters, but if the poorly trained military mob that constitutes the army would be forced to face rebels armed with automatic weapons and anti-tank missiles, it would likely be a different story.
Armies that become political enforcement police almost always crumble when faced with real combat. The disgraceful performance of the forces of the Argentine Junta in the 1982 Falklands War when it crumpled upon coming upon British Royal Marines, Guardsmen and Gurkhas is one example. The collapse of Qadhafi’s Libyan Army in the face of armed rebels in 2011 is another. The Syrian Army in the face of armed rebels was only saved from collapse by the intervention of Russian forces and Iranian surrogates.
What an Insurgency Needs to Succeed
As a general rule, a successful popular insurgency needs five things to succeed. Venezuela currently has four of the five:
1. Sources of Grievance. The incompetence, corruption, and governmental mismanagement that led to the collapse of the nation’s economy alone should be grievance enough, but the total undermining of the nation’s democracy by the Maduro regime that began with Chavez has left the population with no avenue to look for redress for its grievances. The people of Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, and Syria had much less to complain about when they rose up than the present Venezuelans.
2. Sanctuaries. Most successful popular insurgencies have outside sanctuaries where their troops can be re supplied and be protected when pursued too heavily by government forces. Brazil and Columbia are two states bordering Venezuela who have condemned the Maduro regime and might well be willing to provide insurgent sanctuaries. These would also provide areas to equip rebels with American weapons and training.
3. A Non-Hostile Population. There is a misperception that the insurgent has to have support of the entire population. This is particularly true of the rural areas where most popular insurgencies germinate. The insurgents and the government must vie for the support of the population, but an unpopular and repressive government is always at a disadvantage. Mao won over the majority of Chinese peasants in the areas that his Red Army occupied by never robbing from them, repairing any damage done by his troops, and providing good governance to areas where he exercised even temporary control. It is very difficult to envision the Maduro regime as currently constituted countering a well constituted insurgent group that does these things.
4. A Consistent Narrative. No insurgency is successful if it does not have a successful psychological operations component to gain popular support. In doing so, the insurgents must emphasize its successes and minimize their failures in order to gain traction. The core narrative of the message must transmit a vision of how life will be better when the insurgents take control.
5. A Dedicated Insurgent Cadre. An insurgency takes time to germinate. Unlike the popular uprisings that the Venezuelan opposition has been trying to foster in the nation’s urban areas, popular insurgencies need time to grow from the bottom up. The cadre must be willing to make sacrifices, families should leave the country so the regime cannot hold them hostages, and the insurgents must be prepared to endure hardships for protracted periods. Most of the potential leaders of a Venezuelan insurgency are urban dwellers and adjusting to life in the bush would not be easy. If such a dedicated cadre cannot be formed, an effective insurgency will not be possible. This is the “long pole in the tent” for a potential Venezuelan insurgency as it is not yet certain that there is the will among the opposition to take that next step.
What a Successful Venezuelan Insurgency Would Look Like. Successful insurgencies usually have three phases:
Phase I. The insurgents begin by undermining what remains of the trust of the population in the government and instilling fear in its security forces. Making the senior political and military leaders of an oppressive and illegitimate government very afraid for their personal safety is a legitimate military target for revolutionaries. The assassination of unpopular local government officials, military officers, and foreign -Cuban and Russian- advisors will demoralize the security forces. Insurgent propaganda must emphasize each victory over the enemies of the people. A sense of inevitability must be fostered among the population as well as the government. The Venezuelan army as currently configured is a garrison force. If it is to compete with the insurgents, it must take to the field and risk, ambushes, IEDs, booby traps, and disease. The ultimate objective is to make the privates and sergeants say; “they don’t pay me enough to do this sh*t”. The ultimate objective here is to force the government troops into fortified positions leaving the countryside to the insurgents. Once a wedge is driven between the soldiers and their leaders, the battle is half-won.
From an urban perspective, the assassination of government’s officials and the sabotage of infrastructure should further undermine civilian faith in the government and set in war weariness among the urban population. The narrative should stress that the violence will end when the government is gone. Urban insurgencies are hard to sustain, but if the campaign in the countryside is successful, the cities usually fall like ripe fruit. Afghanistan is an exception here because the bulk of the anti-Taliban sentiment is in the urban and suburban areas. Shadow governments should be set up in the areas not controlled by the government with civil administration.
Phase II. As government troops withdraw into fortified positions, insurgent forces should establish liberated areas where they openly govern in a fair manner and draw on logistics support from sanctuary areas to supply better governance, medical services, and economic opportunity than are available in government- controlled areas. This is an area where American and other western governments can be of invaluable support with logistics humanitarian support, and communications. Elections in liberated areas should be free, fair, and transparent.
Phase III. Liberated areas should grow like ink-blots until they come together into a true alternate Venezuela with a conventional military force capable of challenging the government in the field. This might take a long time, but more often, there is a snowball effect that will gain momentum exponentially resulting in a true popular uprising with the demoralized security forces disbanding or going over to the people as happened in Cuba in 1959 and Libya in 2011. Given the Maduro regime’s tenuous hold on power, the security forces might crack early in the insurgency, but this can’t be counted on. The insurgents must be mentally prepared for the long haul and be pleasantly surprised if things turn out better.
How the United States Can Help
It is very important that the United States not be seen as being in control of any insurgency. Like it or not, we have a history on interfering in Latin America, and memories there are long. At the present time, the Cuban and Russian footprints in Venezuela are a much larger issue than American influence, and we need to keep it that way; any revolution -peaceful or otherwise- needs to be Venezuelan. The United States should keep its hands off within Venezuela, and that includes advisors. However, that does not mean that we cannot deliver decisive help; here is how:
Support for Sanctuaries. If either or both Brazil and Columbia are willing to provide sanctuaries for an insurgency, the United States could provide immense help with both military and economic support. We can provide advisors and military trainers within the camps. These are the areas where the insurgents can be armed and trained.
The camps should be clean and comfortable so that insurgent fighters can be rotated in for rest and recreation. Good food and accommodations superior to government camps should be advertised as an inducement to defection for government forces.
No Fly Zones. The great advantage that the current government would have in any Venezuelan insurgency will be airpower. The US should not provide close air support for insurgents within Venezuela for reasons mentioned above, but it can even the playing field by declaring no fly zones above areas under insurgent control. This would raise the morale of the insurgents and conversely lower it for government forces.
Isolating the Battlespace. The Syrian government may have been saved by outside intervention, but the United States has it within its power to quarantine the sea and airspace around Venezuela from serious Russian or Cuban intervention. We have the precedent of the
Cuban Missile Crisis and President Trump has already threatened a quarantine.
Information Warfare. The US can also assist an insurgency by using is technology to disseminate insurgent propaganda via social media, and other forms of telecommunications.
Toward a Negotiated Solution?
As mentioned previously, it is quite possible that the threat of a nascent insurgency alone might bring the Maduro regime to the bargaining table given the precarious nature of its present situation. Once its soldiers and other security forces are faced with the possibility of death in defending a corrupt and illegitimate government, Maduro’s clique would do well to negotiate or leave before finding themselves at the wrong end of a rope.
To date, appeals to reason and peaceful protest have failed. The citizens of Venezuela have the right to turn to revolution and have done so before. Whether they have the courage to do so remains to be seen.
Gary Anderson lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.