Very few Americans have as much experience with The Venezuelan Spring as Admiral James Stavridis (USN, Ret.) who before he became Allied Supreme Commander was the Combatant Commander of Southern Command, which oversaw the American military’s activities over the vast region of Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, including of course Venezuela. There are very few people outside of the presently serving government other than Admiral Stavridis whom the country should be listening to on how to respond to the #VenezuelanSpring:
HH: So pleased to welcome Admiral James Stavridis, retired United States Navy where he served for 33 years, including as NATO’s allied supreme commander, and for our purposes, perhaps even more important, as the combatant commander for Southern Command, that part of the American military that includes not just the Caribbean, but of course, Latin and Central and South America, including Venezuela. Admiral, welcome back. It is always a pleasure, even, and thank you for taking time away from the Carlyle Group this morning. I appreciate that chance to talk to you.
JS: It’s my pleasure, Hugh. We going to talk about Venezuela this morning?
HH: We are. Let’s start with your experience there, Southern Command, your knowledge of the country and its military.
JS: Indeed. I spent a lot of time in and out of there several years back when I was commander of Southern Command. And it’s a capable military by the standards of the region. It certainly has the power to keep Maduro in power unless there’s a huge political press against that, or even a military press against it. So they’re capable, and we ought to remember, sadly, they’ve been trained by the Cubans. So there is a linkage between these two dictatorships. This is a rotten apple that I hope falls.
HH: Now four months ago, you wrote a piece for Bloomberg – “Suffering Venezuelans Need the U.S. to Stay Hands Off,” which was my opinion at the time, and it was also the opinion of [then National Security Advsior] H.R. McMaster when I interviewed him, the opinion of most senior American administration officials, that there had to be an organic “Venezuelan Spring.” It appears we have one on our hands. How optimistic are you?
JS: I’m quite optimistic. I think there’s a two in three chance that the Maduro regime goes down. And it, a couple things have come together. One is this dynamic, very young 35 year old leader, Juan Guaido, and second is the ongoing press of the economic meltdown in the country with inflation rates approaching a million percent. And thirdly, it’s the humanitarian crisis that’s built with millions pushed outside the country, and even more millions displaced inside the country, a country of 31 million, Hugh, probably 10 million people living on the edge of starvation. So this is happening in front of us. And I think because of those factors, it demands a very robust response.
HH: Now we have a response thus far that includes the President, backed by the Secretary of State, at the UN, and John Bolton on Twitter and on social media disintermediating a country from its sovereign wealth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before. I’ve seen individuals disintermediated from their money, but we are disintermediating Venezuela from their sovereign wealth. You know, as a Carlyle Group executive, that’s got to introduce some uncertainty into the investing world when governments do this. But maybe this is the exception that proves the rule.
JS: I think this is an extreme exception, but I think it’s a strategy that makes a lot of sense given the moment we’re in. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. They are, and ought to be an extremely wealthy, well-run country, but they are not. And we are at a stage here where I would advocate using all political and economic levers to the max, and looking at what the potential military options could be. I don’t think we have to get to a full-on military result here, but I think that if we use a strategy like extreme economic pressure, we can topple this regime.
HH: I will come back to that in a moment. I want to play for you a little clip from Meet the Press yesterday, because I was surprised by the reaction to it among some on the left in America. This is my exchange with Chuck Todd on Venezuela yesterday, cut number 3:
HH: “Sad, no compromise, again,” that’s in the [Meet the Press] word cloud. The next 3 weeks allow the opportunity to go big and solve it. Jared Kushner’s leading it. And it is far more important to shut down the Maduro government than our government. And I think Donald Trump is leading there, and he is winning there because of Bolton and Pompeo going down to see Bolsonaro and Duque. That’s going to happen. That’s going to bring us together.
CT: That is going to bring us together? Getting involved in a Latin American politics? Has it ever gone well for the United States in years past?
HH: Absolutely, because you know, Russia is against that.
CT: I understand that.
HH: Trump is for that, and that will help.
HH: Now Admiral, I expected Chuck to do what moderators do, which is to push back. But I did not expect to find the old left in our country refusing to sign up for the #VenezuelanSpring. You know, my often-interlocutor, David Corn, and I got into it on Twitter yesterday. Don’t you, well let me put it very neutrally: Do you believe most Americans will support a robust support of the Venezuelan spring?
JS: I do, and I’m certain they will support a political and an economic one. And I think that if there were to be a military option here, it has to be multilateral. We’re not there, yet. But as is often said in these crises, everything should be on the table. And I do think, as you know, I’m critical at times of the Trump administration. In this case, I think they’re doing the right set of moves. They’re ratcheting up the pressure. And you know, there’s a strategic context here, Hugh.
HH: That’s what I want to get to, yeah.
JS: Yeah, tactically, we want this to happen for all the humanitarian reasons and the reasons for the entire region. But strategically, this is really about democracy versus totalitarianism. And that, I think, is the big issue of our times. Do authoritarians get to stay in power just because they want to, even when they have failed their country miserably? And I think in that context, this is a very important strategic set of events that’s about to unfold.
HH: Now I mentioned briefly to Chuck, because I had been briefed the day before. I’d made some calls around to executive branch officials that will talk to me candidly when it’s off the record. We have sent both Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Bolton, the National Security Adviser, to see President Bolsonario of Brazil, and they have both been to see Duque, the president of Colombia. One of them pointed out to me that we’ve got a pretty robust American military presence in Colombia that is pretty quick and close, and Brazil is not without assets. But of course, Venezuela has got a large military, as you pointed out. This would not be Panama, right, under George H.W. Bush? Or would it be, Admiral Stavridis?
JS: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are military forces in Colombia. We have good relationships not only with the two nations you mentioned, Brazil and Colombia, but also with Chile, Argentina now under the Macri government. The idea of putting a coalition together is conceivable. But I think we need to use those political and economic levers first, Hugh. Have the military option in the background, have support, militarily, for the humanitarian response that I think undoubtedly is coming, but no, this would not be Panama. This is a serious military, and I would exercise extreme caution before moving to a full-on military option.
HH: It’s also a much larger country.
HH: And a much more difficult set of terrain. Do they have much of a naval presence given their island terrain and their ports?
JS: They do. They have a very reasonable naval capability. On the other hand, this would not be, in my view, if we exercised a military option, would not be a naval option. It would be a direct-to-government. I think the way to go here is use those political and economic levers, and also we ought to be very, very capable and cautious at the same time looking at the military options that could be on the table. And it’s interesting, you mentioned Colombia, and back to Chuck Todd. We were actually very successful in Colombia using a military option when we did it fully with the local forces. That’s going to be the key, is the co-opting the Venezuelan military. That’s what has to happen. That’ll require, that’s where the political and the economic help you, because that’s what flips the military in the end.
HH: And flipping the script of the military is where I want to come back to after one last military question.
HH: Would it help or would it hurt to surge the, I think it’s the George H.W. Bush is in San Diego, to push them out there within the vicinity, because with a carrier group or the Bush comes a lot of pressure?
JS: Indeed. I think we’re not there, yet. That could be on the table at some point, but remember the psychology of Latin America. This is a nation that has seen the United States intervene repeatedly. That’s simply a fact over the last 150 years.
JS: And so we are working against that. The best thing we have going for us is the way we operated in Colombia. We didn’t send a carrier battle group there. We had a limited number of troops, special forces, trainers. We got engaged with the local forces. That’s the next step in the puzzle here, and I think that’s, to get there, we have to get the Venezuelan military to recognize that Maduro is poison for this country, and he really is. And I’m confident two in three chance we can get there if we stay in the game and keep the pressure on. And I want to commend Secretary Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton. I think they’re steering this one just about right.
HH: Well then, let me ask you about enticing the military away from Maduro. It seems to me that when Idi Amin bolted for Saudi Arabia, and when Baby Doc bolted for France, it would because they knew they had very little time to get to a bolt hole. Can we disintermediate those generals? Can we do interventions, individual sanctions on the admirals, and just tell them about it before it happens so they realize there will be no bolt hole, there will be no bank account in Switzerland unless you get on board now?
JS: That’s exactly the strategy we ought to be pursuing. We ought to be putting an amnesty strategy out there. And I don’t see Maduro as an ideologue. He pretends to be a proponent of “Chavissimo,” following Hugo Chavez in an ideological sense. He’s not. He’s a thug. He’s driven by self-interest. His bolt hole is probably Havana, Cuba. It’s not that far away. I think that by offering an amnesty in Juan Guaido, who we have recognized, we the United States and all of our allies have recognized as the appropriate president/leader of Venezuela, is offering that kind of amnesty. I think that’s the path we ought to be following.
HH: Now there was a story in the Wall Street Journal yesterday by Mary Anatasia O’Grady, “Venezuelan Spring,” in which she pointed out that the Cuban Security Services are in the country deeply embedded into the military.
JS: Big time.
HH: What does that mean for the challenge ahead?
JS: That’ll be a significant force that has to be overcome. And we will, I think, be at our best using our European allies here who can behind the curtain be pressuring the Cubans and saying look, this game is over. And you don’t want to be caught with all your apparatus, some of the most highly-tuned and trained in the Cuban intelligence forces, trapped in a changed Venezuela. There’s a kind of national amnesty that could be on the table there as well to get the Cubans out of there. We ought to also mention, Hugh, quickly, Russia and China and their play in this. They are going to what they can to support Maduro, but I think they are coming to realize they don’t have a strong hand of cards. This one really is in our wheelhouse. So for all those reasons – strategically, operationally, tactically, this is one to lean in on.
HH: Now there is, however, also Iran and Hezbollah, which interestingly enough, most Americans do not know, have a presence in Venezuela.
HH: They’re always the last to go, I mean, because it’s Soleimani again. It’s the Quds Force. They are not shy about pushing things to the extreme.
JS: They are not, although I wouldn’t overstate their capabilities up north. As you know, Hugh, we see more of Hezbollah down south around the tri-border area – Argentina, Paraguay, excuse me, and that part of the world. There is a money laundering aspect to what’s going on, and Hezbollah is involved in the drug trade. But they’re less of a factor than the Cubans are in this case.
HH: All right, a couple last questions. One of my buddies, Captain Jerry Hendrix, had told me, and look, “the carrier group would come from Norfolk, and Marine amphibious group. Look for an Airborne division. But like Stav,” I guess he’s an old friend of yours, “you don’t want to [have] to do that.” And I want to emphasize to people, I don’t want to do that, and no one in the Administration wants to do that because of history. Can you explain that a little bit, Admiral, what that means?
JS: I can. I can. If you ask a typical American you know, how many times has the U.S. intervened in Latin America in the last 150 years, an intervention, an invasion, if you will, consisting of armed troops for political purpose without the consent of a sovereign nation, most Americans will say you well, you know, quite a few, maybe 15 or 20 times. You know, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada. You know, you go back 150 years, Hugh, the correct number is somewhere north of 60 times we’ve intervened.
JS: So there’s enormous history there. And Latin America remembers those old ghosts. They rattle around. We need to be mindful of that. That’s why we should not be pushing troops forward. We ought to be hitting those political and diplomatic levers the way the administration, I think very capably, is doing.
HH: Very last question. You know, it is the time, as Jerry said, to recover our hemisphere. What, and put on your Carlyle Group hat now. What could Venezuela be given what they have and the people that they have there?
JS: This is an imminently fixable country. You know, in the sense that you look at the challenges trying to fix a place like Afghanistan with limited resources, uneducated population, etc., etc. Venezuela has a highly-educated population, enormous oil reserves, natural minerals – gold, diamonds, enviable geographic position. Venezuela could be an enormous force for good in this region. That’s why the administration sees this correctly as a challenge worth working very, very hard.
HH: And so would you tell investors if there was a change of regime that it would be a predictable and stable area in which to invest? That’s the kind of thing that the Carlyle Group does. I mean, assuming Guaido, I’ve been saying Guaido, but you’ve been pronouncing it better, of course. Assuming he comes into play and is the president and does elections and they get back to the military being in its cabin, would that be a place to invest?
JS: I think so. And a good parallel, Hugh, is Colombia and right next door where we see after a 50 year insurgency under President Duque and previously under President Santos, we see excellent investment opportunities. It would be the same in Venezuela, and I think we could get there pretty quickly. Look for this one to move fast. This is not going to be a slow mover.
HH: Admiral James Stavridis, always a pleasure, Admiral. Thank you for spending a lot of time. I don’t think there are a lot of people in America not in the government who have their thumb on, and in fact, you’re probably ahead of a lot of people in the government except Bolton and Pompeo, and the President, and the Vice President, have their thumb on this one like you do, and I appreciate the time this morning.
JS: My pleasure, and let’s hope for a good outcome in Venezuela.
HH: Amen to that. Amen to that.
JS: All right.
End of interview.