by Andrew Korybko
PART II: The US’ Geopolitical War Against Venezuela
(Please read Part I before this article)
The Military-Political Game In Guyana
The US is exploiting its latest proxy client, Guyana, in order to open up a second ground front in the containment of Venezuela. Franco Vielma, in a translated article for The Saker, brilliantly explains how this came to be. To summarize his detailed research (which the reader is highly recommended to read in full), Venezuela and Guyana have been engaged in an over-100-year-long territorial dispute stemming from the UK’s colonial seizure of a large swath of Eastern Venezuela. Although the 1899 Paris Arbitration Award set the current borders, the 1966 Geneva Agreement invalidated its predecessor, but retained the status quo until a joint resolution could be worked out between them. Guyana, however, was reluctant to see this happen, recognizing the potential energy wealth lying underneath both the mainland and maritime portions of the disputed territory that it controls. When Exxon Mobil prospected for oil in the disputed maritime area, Venezuela saw t he writing on the wall of an imminent destabilization and knew that it had to act in protecting its territorial claim before it could be stolen out from under it, ergo the 26 May decree establishing the Zodimains, one of which cut into the contested area (the other was in the Gulf of Venezuela and was described earlier).
Mr. Vielma rightly notes that Venezuela took this step in order to preempt the deployment of affiliated mercenaries by Exxon in securing its potential offshore resource stake, which could eventually even gain a mainland component someday. He also makes proper mention of the US’ strategic interests in all issues related to energy, arguing that prospective major finds in Guyana would surely place the country front and center on the Pentagon’s radar and invigorate full-spectrum bilateral relations, including in the military sphere. Taking that into account, it’s thus worthwhile to sketch out where the situation is headed, and how it fits into the larger strategy of containing Venezuela.
Here’s the three-step escalation plan that Venezuela must prepare to deal with:
1. Attract US Attention:
Guyana wants to transnationalize the crisis and move it past the realm of Venezuelan-Guyanese bilateral relations. It had hoped that its CARICOM allies , some of which are also ALBA members (Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines), would issue a strong declaration of support for its side, which would then escalate the issue to one of regional attention and create friction between the Caribbean members of ALBA and the Venezuelan core. While ultimately not worded as strongly as Guyana would have preferred, the regional grouping did take its side in the dispute after a three-day summit in Barbados, showing that the topic has officially become one of international importance and raising the possibility of a larger fissure within ALBA.
The US saw CARICOM’s support of Guyana as a trigger for its own diplomatic involvement, with the American Ambassador to Georgetown expectedly issuing his own statement in support of the country, too. Thus, the crisis has expanded to hemispheric proportions and the door has been opened for further American involvement in it. This could predictably see a rotating presence of US warships stationed in the disputed maritime area, supposedly to ‘protect’ the Exxon prospectors from the Venezuelan navy. Along the same lines, the US Navy could also base its operations out of the port of Georgetown, which it previously called port at for the first time in 2010, showing that there is indeed a precedent that could be built upon in expanding bilateral maritime cooperation with Guyana.
2. Divide Venezuela’s Military Focus:
The appearance of US naval vessels and their expected ground component counterparts in Guyana would instantaneously elicit an angry response from Venezuela, which would likely attempt to counter it with a reinforcement of military assets along the border. One needs to keep in mind that the Venezuelan military has up until this point paid less attention to Guyana than it has to Colombia, so an urgent focus on the eastern border would be something akin to a military pivot of sorts. Additionally, this region is scarcely populated and infrastructure development is at a bare minimum, meaning that this will be somewhat of a different operational environment for the military than it is accustomed to as regards Colombia. Complicating matters even further is that the military must still retain a sizeable presence in the country’s major cities in order to deter and respond to any Color Revolution destabilizations, so it must consequently enact a careful balance between this priority as well as its deployments along the Colombian and Guyanese borders. All of this serves to divide the Venezuelan military from a concentrated focus on any singular crisis spot that erupts (be it Colombia, Guyana, or a Color Revolution), and the simultaneous opening of all three fronts would represent a doomsday scenario for its strategic planners.
3. Entrap Venezuela In A Disastrous Military Campaign:
The US’ grand strategic goal is to coax Venezuela into a military intervention to restore its historical sovereignty up to the Essequibo River. It’s not being argued that Venezuela shouldn’t reestablish control up until this point or that it has no grounds to do so, but rather that such a move, if it takes a military dimension (no matter if it’s to preempt an American deployment in the area or to respond to a Guyanese provocation), entails significant tangential costs that might not be recognized at first glance. It’s not as simple as beating a much weaker military foe, but in holding and administering dense jungle territory with barely any infrastructure to speak of. This is an enormous hurdle for even the most advanced global militaries, to say nothing of a regional mid-rate power like Venezuela’s, although it does have a bit of a competitive edge over them because of its own jungle terrain that its soldiers are accustomed to training in.
The problem, however, is that the area being claimed by Venezuela is about 56,121 square miles large, which to put it a different way, is about the size of Nepal (or one-fifth the size of Venezuela’s currently governed territory). Administering such a vast and difficult-to-traverse area carries with it enormous financial costs and creates a plethora of military vulnerabilities to stay-behind US-supported guerrilla forces. There’s a serious risk that Venezuela could find itself quickly engaged in a mission creep scenario where it ultimately overstretches its military forces and creates strategic openings for provocations coming from Colombia and the Color Revolutionaries. Compounding this risk, an extended military campaign, wrought with financial burdens and piling casualties, could escalate dissent at home and increase the risk that the next expected Color Revolution attempt could gain wider support and perhaps succeed in toppling the government (especially if it’s aided by surgical ‘anti-FARC’ strikes and complementary ‘limited incursions’ by the Colombian military).
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Guyana has fast emerged as a major strategic vulnerability for the Venezuelan leadership, in that it presents a Catch-22 dilemma which must be responded to in one way or another. If Caracas concedes to Georgetown’s oil exploration in disputed waters and allows Exxon to drill there, then it essentially cedes the maritime zone to Guyana once and for all. However, by responding to this clear provocation, Venezuela has unintentionally initiated a process whereby Guyana will can now escalate the crisis to regional and hemispheric proportions, all with the ultimate goal of inviting the US military as a de-facto party to the conflict, albeit on its side. Furthermore, because Venezuela is in a much better military position against Guyana than it is against Colombia, it can be expected the Pentagon would accelerate any assistance it renders to Georgetown in order to rapidly mend the military imbalance as best as it could (perhaps substituting its conventional inequality with asymmetrical advantages such as unconventional warfare training ). There’s no ‘silver bullet’ solution to the Guyanese threat, showing that Venezuela must carefully mind all of its options and their expected consequences before taking its next step.
Calculating The Containment Consequences
There are three immediate consequences of the US’ current progress in containing Venezuela:
Strategic Damage To ALBA Unity:
The co-opting of Cuba’s leadership has created the opportunity to eventually split Havana and Caracas. This won’t be evident on the physical side of things (bilateral on-the-ground assistance to one another is still strong) but more on the strategic one, such as through an unfriendly rivalry for control of ALBA. Any number of scenarios could present themselves in the near future where Raul Castro and Nicolas Maduro enter into firm and public disagreement with one another (perhaps over FARC, or Cuba’s friendly relationship with the US amidst a renewed Washington-driven regime change campaign against Venezuela), and given the personality-driven nature of Latin American politics in general, this could lead to a national falling out between the two that would inevitably force the ALBA states to take sides. Speaking of which, the Caribbean members of the alliance have refused to take their Andean patron’s side out of institutional CARICOM solidarity with Guyana (which hosts the organization’s headquarters , incidentally), thus setting the stage for a larger intra-ALBA split in and of itself, and if Cuba uses this occasion to promote its own interests with those countries at Venezuela’s expense, then this could herald in the Venezuelan-Cuban split that was just discussed.
The US has manipulated South American politics in such a way that Venezuela is now caught in the middle of two pincers, each of which can use their respective territorial disputes to escalate the situation at will. Venezuela is pushing back against these aggressive claims, but it is not yet certain how long it can hold out for. Should Colombia and Guyana enter into coordinated agreement with one another under American strategic supervision, then they could realistically construct a scenario by which their united efforts could be channeled in destabilizing Venezuela for each of their respective territorial gains. The reemergence of Guyana as a hostile anti-Venezuelan force dramatically changes Caracas’ strategic calculations, since it must now simultaneously balance between countering it and Colombia, which could lead to weaknesses along either of these fronts that could be exploited by the other per their American-coordinated strategic collaboration.
Faced with two serious strategic concerns along its borders, an economy that’s tanking due to the US’ subterfuge, and the ever-present threat of a renewed Color Revolution, Venezuela has been forced onto the strategic defensive for self-preservation purposes. It still retains influence in the region, but it’s not as capable of projecting it in the same manner as it previously did a few years ago owing to the plethora of problems that the US has unleashed against it under Barack ‘honest man’ Obama’s Administration. It simply doesn’t have the available resources or manpower to focus on such goals as it once did. In and of itself, this is already a victory of sorts for the US, since it’s succeeded in tempering Venezuela’s multipolar exports throughout the region, but in order for Washington to fully come out on top, it must either topple the Venezuelan government or guarantee its capitulation in the same fashion as it did Cuba’s.
It’s advised that Venezuela urgently follow the prescribed action plan below in order to best defend itself against the imminent containment threats that are brewing around it:
Regain Control Of The Country:
The first thing that must be done is for Venezuela to stabilize its economy and reign in the Color Revolutionary civil society. Prolonged economic malaise, regardless of the cause, naturally leads to dissatisfaction with the government, and even individuals who are not orientated towards regime change may innocently be drawn into Color Revolution protests because of this, without understanding the full context of what they’ve gotten themselves into. So far, Venezuela has secured a $5 billion loan from China in exchange for future oil exports, but it’s not yet known whether this is the proper scale of relief that its economy needs right now. More than likely, the country will require a lot more than China’s loan to get back on its feet again, but if it adequately invests this amount into easing the economic burden that its citizens have faced over the past year (made even worse by the global oil price slump), then it could be a positive step in the right direction.
When it comes to reigning in Color Revolutionary elements, it’s advised that Venezuela follow Russia’s model in forcing foreign-funded NGOs to register as foreign agents. After that, it can then continue in Russia’s footsteps by giving the government the right to shut down undesirable NGOs, which could simplify the legal hassle in dismantling these subservient networks and kicking them out of the country. However, removing the foreign elements of regime change will arguably not be enough in securing Venezuela’s sovereignty, since a large amount of the forces agitating against the government are its very own (albeit misguided) citizens. This means that the absolute prime focus must be on helping citizens deal with the ongoing economic turmoil, which in turn would diminish the appeal of anti-government Color Revolution protests (whether the participants recognize their larger regime change intent or not) and aid the government in separating the legitimate demonstrators from those who want to overthrow the state.
Engage In Proactive Defense:
The most commendable thing that the Venezuelan government has done in protecting its sovereignty was the establishment of the two Zodimains. These demonstrated that Caracas was cognizant of its neighbors’ plots against its territorial claims and showed the state’s commitment to securing its legitimate interests. In a way, Venezuela emulated the China approach to the South China Sea, by which China took proactive steps to fortify its maritime position in advance of its rivals doing the same in the disputed territories. Had China or Venezuela refrained from their respective actions, it’s entirely conceivable that the US would have set up bases in the same islands that China is currently reclaiming and that American naval assets would be sailing along Venezuela’s northeastern Atlantic coast.
At this point, Venezuela needs to show that its proactive defense is a serious move predicated on a solid commitment to maritime sovereignty, and it will pragmatically respond to any forthcoming provocations from either side (just as China has done). By showing that it’s not a pushover and won’t be intimidated into backing down from its position (while keenly avoiding a military entrapment by the US, be it on land or at sea), the Venezuelan government can score patriotic points among the population and hopefully increase its appeal among the many that had been adversely affected by the latest economic crisis. If the population can acutely understand the threat facing their country at the moment, the well-intentioned anti-government flock being herded by the Color Revolution organizers might horrifyingly recognize their inadvertent contribution to regime change and change their ways. They may not be any more satisfied with the government or their despairing economic position, but realizing that their physical anti-government manifestations are only making the situation worse might be enough to get them to stop partaking in such protests for the time being, which could help achieve the earlier stated goal of separating the legitimate protesters from the regime change provocateurs and therefore helping the state reassert control within its own borders.
The Venezuelan leadership needs to understand that political alliances of the type that it expects cannot be bought by oil subsidies alone, and sincere ideological solidarity to the multipolar cause is much more important than rhetorical statements of support. While not all members of Petrocaribe (Venezuela’s regional subsidized oil network) are part of ALBA and vice-versa, there’s still a strong overlap between ALBA membership and Petrocaribe participation. Excluding Ecuador and Bolivia, all members of ALBA are part of Petrocaribe, meaning that they receive Venezuelan oil imports at preferential prices. The weak link in this allied chain are the smaller Caribbean states such as Dominica, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. These countries are reportedly looking for supplier alternatives as Venezuela cuts back on shipments and their own fears are raised that their once formerly reliable partner, having been brought to its economic knees by the US’ asymmetrical war against it, might not be able to continue the program in the same format in the future. As such, these island countries, which are also members of CARICOM alongside Guyana, might deepen their support for the latter in its territorial dispute with Venezuela, hoping that doing so could lead to a compensational windfall of resource benefits from the US in the likely form of fracked oil .
Venezuela must therefore accept that its smaller Caribbean ‘allies’ might leave ALBA when their oil subsidies dry up, and that such tiny countries are easily susceptible to the US’ ‘dollar diplomacy’ when the bolivar finds itself in the tough times it’s currently experiencing. Instead of viewing any potential CARICOM-member desertion from ALBA as a loss, Venezuela must see it as a strategic gain in the sense that it frees up its resources and attention to focus more intensely on aiding the joint ALBA-Petrocaribe state of Nicaragua. Cuba, too, is a member of both groups, but given its leadership’s recent pivot towards the US, it’s also just as susceptible to dollar diplomacy and ‘fracked friendship’ as its CARICOM counterparts, and must no longer be seen as an ally whose ideological loyalty can be guaranteed. Nicaragua, on the other hand, is in strict ideological solidarity with Venezuela and the multipolar world because of the Chinese-financed Trans-Oceanic Canal that’s planned to run through it. By looking at ALBA more as a constellation of firmly committed multipolar states like Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia, Venezuela can cushion the blow from the any CARICOM desertions that occur and work on strengthening its core constituency in confronting the US’ renewed unipolar ‘rebound’ in Latin America.
Receive Multipolar Diplomatic Support:
Venezuela should use its diplomatic channels to inform its multipolar allies of the importance of any supportive statements they can make on its behalf. Russia, China, and Iran have close relations with Venezuela, but each is presently so embroiled in handling their own complicated regional affairs that they may not be aware of the threat that their South American ally is facing right now. They should thus be informed of Colombia and Guyana’s boisterous actions against Venezuela’s maritime sovereignty and encouraged to publicly proclaim their position on the issue. It’s not expected that they’ll be as openly partisan as Venezuela may want them to be, but those familiar with diplomatic speech could easily read through the lines and see the implicit support being expressed. This is very important because it would demonstrate multipolar solidarity with Venezuela (in whichever degree it’s being voiced) and cause the US to take note that the local meanderings of its regional proxies have now attracted global attention, which would set the stage for the logical implementation of the final policy recommendation.
Host Russian And Chinese Naval Facilities:
The capstone recommendation in securing Venezuela’s territorial integrity from American-directed Colombian and Guyanese geopolitical intrigue is to have the country host Russian and Chinese naval facilities. Such a proposal is quite logical in light of recent statements made by each of these multipolar giants. Russia has conducted joint naval drills with Venezuela before in 2008 and has announced plans to do so again in the near future, so maritime cooperation between the two is not unprecedented or unusual. Additionally, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has voiced interest in having Venezuela host such a naval base as is envisioned by the author. Regarding China, its first-ever white paper on military strategy makes it abundantly clear that it wants to spread its naval influence throughout the globe as a means of defending its economic interests. It goes without saying that China would likely open up a facility in Nicaragua to guard the canal that it’s financing there, but it could also do the same thing in Venezuela in order to more concretely secure its oil interests. After all, the South American country is home to the Orinoco oil basin, which experts have assessed as containing one of the world’s largest untapped reserves totaling upwards of 513 billion barrels , and Maduro said that he received assurance that China would invest $20 billion in the country’s economy (some of which will naturally go to Orinoco resource developments) during an early 2015 trip to Beijing.
Russia and China evidently have strategic interests in Venezuela, and it would be natural for them to defend their investments in the country via a (joint) naval deployment there. If the US can and has been doing similar things for decades in relation to its own allies, there’s no reason why Russia and China can’t do the same with theirs. The presence of their naval forces in Venezuelan waters would cause the US to second-guess the proxy conflict potential that it had planned to unleash against Caracas, as it may not be prepared for an escalation of the New Cold War right on its own doorstep (despite the irony of it doing so against Russia and China in Ukraine and the South China Sea, respectively). A coordinated Russian-Chinese naval posting in Venezuela (whether at the same facility or separate ones) has the potential to completely disrupt the current dynamics of the New Cold War and turn the initiative against the US, and since it can also secure Venezuela’s sovereignty and reinforce its government against the external threats facing it, it should be seriously contemplated by the highest decision makers from all three states as a masterful move to be unveiled in the near future.
Venezuela is being geographically choked by the US’ latest inroads in regional affairs, which seek to constrict the strategic and military flexibility that Caracas once wielded in Latin America. Cuba has, whether knowing or unwittingly, become one of the highest strategic uncertainties for Venezuela, and it can no longer unquestionably rely on its supposed ally’s ideological solidarity in guaranteeing the positive state of bilateral relations between them. The main consequence of this emerging doubt is that ALBA’s unity is not as solid as was once thought, and that any forthcoming Havana-Caracas fissure could lead to the dissolution of the alliance or its separation into two distinct blocs (with Cuba influencing the CARICOM members and Venezuela retaining influence on the mainland). This strategic threat doesn’t have any immediately military implications, unlike the one emanating from Colombia. Venezuela’s neighbor seems primed to flex its muscles the moment the FARC conflict is resolved, and it’s expected that this will take the form of an eventual American-Colombian military buildup along Venezuela’s borders. In the future, this could be used to add teeth to Colombia’s maritime claims in the Gulf of Venezuela, or even stage a false-flag ‘anti-FARC’ operation in Venezuela to push the government to the breaking point if it’s mired in Color Revolutionary chaos at the time. Finally, Guyana has somewhat unexpectedly jumped to the forefront of Venezuela’s security concerns as a result of the renewed maritime dispute in the Atlantic Ocean, which has the prospective of drawing in the US’ Fourth Fleet.
Confronted with such heated geopolitical adversity, the Venezuelan government must find a way to neutralize the domestic Color Revolution threat in order to secure its territory, and only after that can it efficiently and confidently defend its border and maritime claims. Behind as proactively as China does in the South China Sea is a good model to follow, but Venezuela must commit to remaining consistent in its actions and rhetoric and not cede in the face of aggressive threats, something which may be difficult for it to do in its currently weakened position. However, if it can succeed in doing so, as well as in reconceptualizing the ALBA grouping, then it could more reliably count on the diplomatic support of the multipolar world. The end game must be for Venezuela to successfully court the Russian and Chinese navies into setting up a (joint) base in the country, as this would provide it with the necessary deterrent to stave off the US’ proxy games. It would also turn the entire tide of the New Cold War by shifting the theater of competition into the US’ own Caribbean backyard, a much-needed reversal of Washington’s own policy of tension in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea. This development, more so than anything else that Russia and China can do in the entire Western Hemisphere at the moment, would signify the seriousness of their resolve in deterring threats to their strategic Venezuelan interests and finally taking the initiative in turning the New Cold War dynamics around in their favor.