At one stroke, Donald Trump’s America has made a Libya out of Venezuela. By delegitimizing 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 U.S. and Venezuela’s neighbors could have increased pressure on the Maduro government to resign in favor of an internationally approved interim process, backed by a group like 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 percent in the 12 months ending in November 2018, according to a study by the opposition-controlled National Assembly. In 2017, eight out of 10 Venezuelans surveyed by Encovi, an annual assessment of living standards conducted by Venezuelan universities, said they did not have enough food at home.
The lessons of Libya should have been learned. In 2011, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi used disproportionate force to deal with massive public protests and the West’s stated humanitarian concern elicited U.N. Security Council authorization for intervention. Within three weeks, the mission went from concern for the Libyan people to regime change.
By March 2011, France cut out the Qaddafi regime and recognized as Libya’s legitimate government the National Transitional Council, a discordant group that agreed only on the need for a post-Qaddafi era. The U.S. followed suit. In October 2011, Qaddafi was captured and killed.
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 House of Representatives, but anti-Qaddafi militias refused to disarm and a new General National Congress appointed itself the legitimate government. From 2016, there has been a third Libyan administration – the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord.
Libya remains a largely ungoverned space, one ruled by militias. Meanwhile, eight years after the toppling of Qaddafi’s regime, Libya’s oil output has not fully recovered. Sharara, its largest oil field, has been occupied by an armed group and has been closed for two months.
No one, certainly not the people, is likely to win a Libya-style tussle between competing governments.