(Bloomberg) -- Late last month, as U.S. officials joined Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido near a bridge in Colombia to send desperately needed aid to the masses and challenge the rule of Nicolas Maduro, some 200 exiled soldiers were checking their weapons and planning to clear the way for the convoy.
Led by retired General Cliver Alcala, who has been living in Colombia, they were going to drive back the Venezuelan national guardsmen blocking the aid on the other side. The plan was stopped by the Colombian government, which learned of it late and feared violent clashes at a highly public event it promised would be peaceful.
Almost no provisions got in that day and hopes that military commanders would abandon Maduro have so far been dashed. Even though Guaido is back in Caracas, recognized by 50 nations as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, the impromptu taking up of arms shows that the push to remove Maduro -- hailed by the U.S. as inevitable -- is growing increasingly chaotic and risky.
As the standoff drags on, the urge to seek some sort of military solution will only increase. Guaido himself hinted at such an idea in the immediate aftermath of the failed aid mission. His comments got a cool official reception in Washington, Bogota and Brasilia but Senator Marco Rubio, who has helped shape U.S. policy on Venezuela, seemed to cheer them on. President Donald Trump has said all options remain on the table.
A Brave Face
This article is based on interviews with U.S. and Latin American officials and Venezuelan exiles, some of whom asked not to be identified speaking about confidential matters. Alcalá, the retired general, did acknowledge the plan to escort the aid across the border and said he understands why the Colombians wanted to avoid trouble. A Colombian government spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. officials who have driven the Venezuela policy -- Rubio, National Security Adviser John Bolton and special envoy Elliott Abrams -- continue to put on a brave face, increasing economic and diplomatic pressure and tweeting daily about Maduro’s certain departure.
Behind the scenes, however, there is concern and dismay. At a United Nations Security Council session last week, Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-sponsored resolution calling for free and fair new elections and restoration of democracy. Moreover, when Guaido was in Colombia, its president, Ivan Duque, expressed frustration to him. Witnesses said Duque complained about the failure of Guaido’s promise to bring tens of thousands of Venezuelans to the border to receive the humanitarian aid.
3.4 Million Refugees
There have been other concerns. Guaido was planning to make a tour of European capitals this week to build international support, but the Americans told him he needed to return to Venezuela or he’d lose whatever momentum remained.
U.S. officials say they worry that Colombia, a vital ally still getting over a decades-long guerrilla war, is especially vulnerable to the ongoing Venezuela crisis. The number of Venezuelan refugees escaping shortages, hyperinflation and hunger is likely to increase from the current 3.4 million to over 5 million if Maduro is still in office at the end of the year, they say. Many will end up in Colombia.
Drug trafficking, which the U.S. says is led partly by senior Venezuelan officials, could further damage Colombia’s efforts to stop the increase of coca cultivation. The impact of both drug trafficking and refugees would also harm Brazil, which is trying to overcome its own economic and corruption crises.
Despite calls for military intervention, no major government involved -- U.S., Brazil or Colombia -- is planning such a move. Those who oppose the idea say it’d require tens of thousands of troops and billions of dollars in a country twice the size of Iraq with both a standing army and citizen militias. But as the situation deteriorates and as hundreds of soldiers escape to Colombia, debate over targeted military operations continues behind the scenes.
Hector Schamis, who teaches at Georgetown University and serves as a senior adviser to the secretary general of the Organization of American States, wrote a column for El Pais newspaper last week saying the country is mired in a crisis similar to the ones in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. In both cases, foreign military intervention that wasn’t approved by the UN ended a humanitarian crisis.
“I am saying that the world waited on Bosnia and Kosovo way too long,” Schamis said in an interview, adding that his comments do not reflect the positions of the OAS or its secretary general, Luis Almagro. “It’s important for Latin American governments to get involved here. We are beyond the Cold War and gunboat diplomacy. This is the biggest refugee crisis in Latin American history. We need to debate all options without prejudice.”
Long, Messy Process
Almagro himself said last September that concerted military intervention in Venezuela shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand although any solution needed to conform to international law.
European and Latin American diplomats say they are preparing for a long and messy process in which Maduro stays in power despite an economy in tailspin. One Latin American diplomat said Maduro has learned from his patrons, the Cubans, about how to be resilient. Sanctions and international pressure may wind up strengthening his regime, at least in the short term.
“I am stronger than ever,” Maduro said in an impassioned and expletive-laden speech on the day that his security forces stopped the arrival of the aid. He saved some of his harshest words for the Trump administration and called the aid initiative a mere pretext for foreign invasion. “Standing, ruling our homeland, for now, and for many years.”
The Latin American diplomat, who has been in contact with Washington, said the U.S. strategy seems to be to continue to provoke instability in Venezuela in hopes that Maduro will make a move that could warrant more aggressive U.S. action. Bolton and Abrams have said that arresting Guaido would prompt a severe response.
That has raised concerns in Europe, where trust of Trump is low. In talks at the Security Council, allies supported the defeated U.S. resolution on Venezuela only after it removed language that could’ve been seen to justify a military intervention, diplomats said.
Latin American governments have officially and soundly rejected any such intervention. But several Latin American officials and Venezuelan exiles said both Brazil and Colombia are worried enough that they might be more tempted by a quick military operation that removed Maduro in the coming months if nothing changed.
--With assistance from Andrew Rosati, Ezra Fieser and Nick Wadhams.
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