Things are going from bad to worse, and perhaps soon catastrophic, in Venezuela. The situation amounts to a humanitarian crisis for the good people of Venezuela, as well as a potential security crisis for neighboring countries, up to and including the United States.
Several million refugees have already moved into Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and other regional countries, rivaling the mass migrations from Syria and North Africa for the claim to the largest human displacements of the century.
All that has happened in the past three years, after two decades of severe misrule by the governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, leading to gradual economic decline that has now cut the economy in half. But with the new Trump administration sanctions on the oil sector, the gross domestic product per capita and access to critical food and medicine supplies in Venezuela could halve again in coming months. The nation of 30 million could soon teeter on the edge of becoming a failed state. Several million more Venezuelans may seek to leave their country.
With these deplorable conditions could come a worsening of government inability to patrol its own territory, meaning that elements of Colombian extremist groups, namely the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, could continue to earn revenue and maintain sanctuary on Venezuelan territory with evidence of support from the regime. The former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia chief negotiator in Venezuela announced his return to combat, repudiating the controversial peace accord signed three years ago. This situation is akin to how the Taliban uses Pakistani territory to nurture its murderous networks that act inside Afghanistan, or how Shia militias in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon benefit from nearby Iran. Earlier this year, a National Liberation Army attack killed more than 20 police academy cadets in Bogota.
It is time to plan for a dramatically worse situation over the next year. Washington and Bogota should begin this planning process, and bring other regional countries into the discussions in short order. It makes sense for this planning process to begin with the United States and Colombia because the alliance between the two countries is particularly close. In the last two decades, Colombia has dramatically reduced its violence from peak levels, seriously weakened several drug cartels, and reached a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which is admittedly now fraying and bringing new risks. While far more certainly needs to be done, including on the counternarcotics front, but through Plan Colombia and Peace Colombia, the two countries have proven that their bilateral alliance is second to none in the Western Hemisphere.
Two kinds of military operations should be planned for now. Neither yet involves a forceful regime change option. However, the time for general international discussions of the vague possibility of such scenarios is over. Circumstances and risks have become acute. First, the main significant operation that should be envisioned should be a humanitarian relief mission. This would include bringing food, water, security, and medical care to as many as five million to 10 million more Venezuelan citizens.
In a worst case scenario, a humanitarian sanctuary might need to be established, with authorization by the United Nations Security Council and request of the Venezuelan government but with or without the formal permission of the regime, on the territory of that nation. Such a safe zone would indeed require armed forces, perhaps numbering in the low tens of thousands, primarily from regional powers. American contributions would likely center on logistics and intelligence. But the purposes would be for defensive and policing purposes near and within the safe haven and confronting transnational crime rather than maneuvering warfare.
This kind of zone could not possibly suffice for the systematic relief of the suffering of an entire population. But it could provide a sanctuary for dissidents, a possible safety valve for some of the deprived population, and potentially a location where a future opposition government could establish some degree of sovereign rule in what could temporarily then become a divided country if things get bad enough. Much of the planning needed to handle this kind of contingency is about providing food, water, and medical supplies to massive numbers of people. In such dangerous environments, with large population flows, it is often only military forces that can address the magnitude of the problem quickly and safely, aided by numerous humanitarian organizations from Colombia, countries from the broader region, the United States, and the international community.
Next, there should be targeted strikes against the extremist strongholds in the border region of Colombia and Venezuela. Since extremist groups are violating Venezuelan sovereignty and using its territory to plot attacks on Colombia with likely regime complicity, Washington and Bogota can consider a response under Article 51 of the United Nations charter. Any American assistance would likely consist of intelligence support, but depending on specific circumstances, some limited direct American kinetic involvement could be appreciated by the people of Colombia.
Neither of these missions would ever be entered into lightly, and neither would be easy. That is precisely why detailed planning is required on both sides sooner rather than later. We can hope that the proverbial “3am phone call” will never come, but it is far better to be ready just in case.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Juan Carlos Pinzon serves as the current ambassador of Colombia to the United States.