Turning Venezuela into a Libya-on-the Caribbean

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 3, 2019

Deconstruction course. Venezuela’s self-declared interim leader Juan Guaido (C) speaks to supporters during a gathering at a public plaza in Las Mercedes neighbourhood of Caracas, January 29. (AP)

At one stroke Donald Trump’s America has made a Libya out of Venezuela. It is no justification that the South American country was already part of the way to becoming a Caribbean Tripoli. Whatever happens, the United States has introduced a new element of chaos into the tumult that has been the state of Venezuela for several years.

By delegitimising Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and hailing opposition politician Juan Guaido as the rightful leader, Trump plunged the country into deeper crisis. All the signs point to Venezuela becoming the Western Hemisphere’s Libya — a country with more than one government, each supported by armed groups that seek to control the lucrative oil industry.

It did not have to be this way. The United States and Venezuela’s neighbours could have increased pressure on the Maduro government to resign in favour of an internationally approved interim process, backed by the Organisation of American States or the United Nations.

There was never any argument for letting Maduro continue the impoverishment of millions of his people, as well as the autocratic deconstruction of his country’s once-thriving multi-party democracy. On Maduro’s watch, Venezuela has suffered terribly, its once-prosperous economy shot to pieces, its people starving.

Venezuela, which is blessed with the biggest oil reserves of any country on Earth, is reduced to unimaginable inflation rates — 1,300,000% in the 12 months ending November 2018, a study by the opposition-controlled National Assembly stated. In 2017, eight-of-ten Venezuelans surveyed by Encovi, an annual assessment of living standards conducted by Venezuelan universities, said they did not have enough food at home.

It was never in doubt that Venezuela badly needed a fresh start but should Washington decide when and how? More to the point, the lessons of Libya should have been learnt.

In 2011, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi used disproportionate force to deal with massive public protests and the West’s stated humanitarian concern elicited UN Security Council authorisation for intervention. Russia and China abstained.

The NATO initiative had France and Britain in the lead, participation from Italy, Libya’s former colonial master, and the United States “leading from behind.” Within 3 weeks, the mission went from ostentatious concern for the Libyan people to regime change.

By March 2011, France did for Libya’s flawed government what Trump’s America has done for Venezuela’s in 2019. France cut out the Qaddafi regime and recognised as Libya’s legitimate government the National Transitional Council, a discordant group that agreed only on the need for a post-Qaddafi era. The United States followed suit within a few months.

In October 2011, Qaddafi was captured and killed in a celebration of savagery that appeared to show Libyans to the world as bloodthirsty and lawless.

Subsequently, Libya’s transitional government failed to govern. It handed power in August 2012 to a General National Congress, which pursued Qaddafi’s supporters and refused to call the promised elections.

After polls did take place in June 2014, power was vested in the internationally backed House of Representatives but anti-Qaddafi militias refused to disarm and a new General National Congress appointed itself the legitimate government. From early 2016, there has been a third Libyan administration — the UN-backed Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj.

Despite the proliferation of governments, Libya remains a largely ungoverned space, one ruled by militias.

The similarities between Venezuela tomorrow and Libya past and present go further than the gaggle of leaders. Their oil sectors may soon start to resemble each other.

Eight years after the toppling of Qaddafi’s regime, Libya’s oil output has not fully recovered because of competing militias and administrative breakdown in much of the country. Though it has the world’s ninth-largest oil reserves, Libya is unable to capitalise on its natural wealth. A case in point is Sharara, its largest oil field, which has been occupied by an armed group and has been closed for two months.

In the context of the continuing chaos, the plea of Mustafa Sanalla, head of Libya’s national oil company, is worth noting. On January 29, he said foreign powers should abandon “rushed unsustainable” solutions for his country.

Much the same might be said by Venezuelans for their country. No one, certainly not the people, is likely to win a Libya-style tussle between competing governments.