With the triumph of Jair Bolsonaro in Sunday’s Brazilian presidential election, there has been discussion this week of a joint Colombo-Brazilian invasion of Venezuela to remove the illegitimate regime of Nicolas Maduro, and do the region a favor by putting an end to the massive humanitarian crisis that the once-rich petro-state has become.
Let us preface this by saying that the prospects of such an invasion are remote, at best. Most of the region’s governments would support removing Maduro, but by all appearances, they are going to try other means to do so, at least for now.
That being said, if push came to shove, and the unthinkable were to occur in 2019, who could Maduro count on?
Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia: The Latin American Communist Alliance
Let’s first take a look at his regional allies. Maduro has precisely three of any importance: the three hardcore Marxist regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. Unsurprisingly, these are the poorest and least democratic nations in the Americas, all with serious domestic problems of their own. Cuba is still dependent on Venezuela’s external largesse for oil, and it hasn’t turned into the tropical Caribbean paradise that many predicted when Obama opened diplomatic relations and made it easier for Americans to visit. The Cuban people are largely unhappy and restless, and most simply want to leave. Cuba remains as dictatorial and authoritarian as ever.
Bolivia and Nicaragua each have serious problems as well. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega has become increasingly authoritarian and state security forces, in conjunction with hooded paramilitary groups, have murdered hundreds of students this year who began to protest his administration. Tourism has plummeted, Nicaraguans are seeking to leave the country, and the economy is lackluster. Ortega, who certainly would not win a free and fair democratic election, will seek to stay in power now by any means possible.
His ideological comrade to the south, Evo Morales, faces a similar predicament, after he lost a referendum to change the Constitution and allow him to serve for a fourth term. He remains unpopular, and it appears that his plan is to steal the upcoming presidential election in 2019, which he would likely lose.
In the event of an invasion, it is a reasonable assumption that Venezuela could count on explicit military support from all three countries. However, their ability to actually make a positive impact is dubious at best, particularly with regard to Bolivia. Cuba currently has 69,500 active duty military personnel, and the logistics of sending troops to prop up Maduro and cronies would be daunting at best. Bolivia would have any even more difficult time of sending real practical military aid, while Ortega (who undoubtedly would like to help) has his hands full with quelling his own domestic dissent.
The prospects of legions of Nicaraguan and Cuban troops arriving by plane and/or boat to save the glorious Chavista Revolution seems doubtful and impractical. Regardless, the forces of these four Marxist states combined would be no match for the much larger and better funded Colombian and Brazilian militaries.
Russia and China: Friends for Oil
Which brings us to the two 500 pound elephants in the room: Russia and China.
Would they go to bat for Maduro?
Any answer is, of course, speculative, because neither Beijing nor Moscow has ever addressed the matter publicly, nor would they.
Most likely, the answer is no. With respect to China, they would certainly make a major diplomatic issue about it, and sternly warn against any external interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation state. (Ironic when they are constantly interfering in the affairs of Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines.) But the prospect of China sending troops and other military aid to Caracas and setting up a possible World War 3 scenario, in which the United States would almost certainly be supporting the invasion, seems highly unlikely.
Most South and Central American states at this point would be supportive of such an invasion, if it ever came to that, and China simply has too much at stake to risk its lucrative economic investments and geopolitical relationships throughout the region, to go to bat for a murderous dictator who is widely despised across the political spectrum, throughout the region.
If anything, China, as Venezuela’s most powerful ally, might help to broker an arrangement allowing Maduro and his band of thugs to abdicate (with some of their ill-gotten riches in tow), and then work with the international community to install a transition government to begin the long and arduous job of restoring democracy and reviving the economy.
What about Russia? Would Vladimir Putin back Maduro militarily? Again, the answer is most likely no. Putin does dream of resurrecting Russia as a global super-power capable of taking on China, the US, and the EU. But his commitment to military force is based more on pragmatism, and his support for Russian-speaking populations beyond Russia’s borders: case and point…the eastern portion of Ukraine, the Crimea, Georgia, Chechnya and Dagestan. The exception to this is the Syrian Civil War, where Putin deemed access to Syrian naval bases to be a sufficient reason to commit Russian muscle to bolstering Al-Assad.
A further consideration is that Russian military participation in Venezuela would hardly be popular in Russia. Russia is still a democracy, albeit a highly flawed one, and Putin does have to win reelection. While supporting ethnic and linguistic Russians in Georgia and the Ukraine was relatively popular, it strains credulity to think that the Russian people would be enthusiastic about sending their boys to Venezuela to back a garden variety Latin American dictator who the Russian people could care less about.
Moscow and Beijing probably would like to be able to prop up Maduro for as long as possible, and both would use their diplomatic influence to stave off a military invasion, but odds are good that they would not commit military resources to saving him. The risks and consequences would be too great. In the case of China, the US and Chinese economies are so closely linked, that war by proxy between China and the United States would be a disaster for both.
Maduro’s fate remains in the hands of the Venezuelan military. Maduro knows that he only has three options: exile, arrest, or a fight to the death. He will never relinquish power via any democratic means. For now, a 2019 invasion appears unlikely, but that could change based on circumstances. One thing is certain: if push comes to shove, Maduro is largely on his own, and war or no war, Duque and Bolsonaro are now his worst nightmare.