Liberty Expose: The Dangers of Mercenaries in Venezuela
With clashes in Venezuela between supporters of the interim government of Juan Guaido and the regime of Nicolas Maduro ramping up in intensity, the United States is keeping all issues on the table, including using military force to oust Maduro from his seat of power. While the US is right to support Guaido and the interim government as the regime has proven time and again that he is incapable of competently running the country, it should be cautious at carrying out a military campaign as it risks alienating allies, both in Venezuela and those neighboring the beleaguered Bolivarian Republic. Among one of the proposals to oust Maduro comes from the infamous President of the Blackwater Mercenary Company (now known as Academi), Erik Prince who wants to use private soldiers as a means to bring about this change. To say this is a controversial policy would be an understatement, but is this a sound strategy? Ultimately, no, it is not and this article will provide a critique of such a proposal through the lens of conservatism and through the father of modern political science, Niccolo Machiavelli and his magnum opus, The Prince.
But before delving into an analysis of Erik Prince’s proposal and the Venezuelan conflict at large, it is necessary to recall what has transpired previously when the United States relied on private mercenary companies (PMCs) such as Blackwater in its military operations. The company gained its notoriety during the Iraq War in 2007 when it was providing security for a group of State Department Employees in Baghdad’s Mansour District. A firefight broke out involving the mercs, Iraqi security forces, and supposed gunmen who the contractors accused of opening fire on them. In the end, the battle lasted for 20 minutes and resulted in the deaths of 20 Iraqi civilians, including a child. The Nisour Square Massacre resulted in a just uproar from the Iraqi people and the government which lead to Blackwater being expelled from the country.
Since these events, Erik Prince has sold Blackwater and founded a new private security firm known as Frontier Services Group (FSG), which is based out of Hong Kong and primarily focuses on security in Asia and Africa. The company has come under fire for building a training camp in China’s Xinjiang Province where the government is putting the region’s Uighur Muslim population into internment camps in the supposed name of national security. Strangely, FSG is even permitted to operate in Iraq and has an office in the country’s southern region of Basra that is rich in oil.
Getting back to Venezuela, Prince’s supposed plan is a lofty one but would surely fail if it is actually true. According to Reuters, the proposal would call for the deployment of 4,000-5,000 mercenaries from other Latin American countries to assist the opposition movement and act as a counter-balance to the sizeable Venezuelan military. This is not the first attempt by Prince to privatize conflict as he has repeatedly tried to use his connection as brother to Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Department of Education Secretary, as a way to pitch using mercenaries to handle Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
The use of mercenaries as an alternative to a conventional, state-backed military has been an issue that political scientists have discussed for countless generations. The most noted critique of such a practice comes from Chapter 12 of The Prince by Machiavelli. In his treatise on how a Prince should govern and wage war, the Renaissance-era thinker argues that: “Mercenary and auxiliary arms are useless and dangerous; and if one keeps his state founded on mercenary arms, one will never be firm or secure; for they are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, unfaithful; bold among friends, among enemies cowardly; no fear of God, no faith with men; ruin is postponed only as long as attack is postponed; and in peace you are despoiled by them, in war by the enemy” (pg. 48).
To demonstrate the futility of using private arms, Machiavelli looked to how the various Republics of Italy fought its numerous wars in the 13th Century. Case in point was Milan’s attempt to conquer Venice. In their quest to conquer their adversary, the Milanese hired the brilliant military strategist Francesco Sforza and his army, hoping the mercenary captain would be successful. However, after being victorious in several battles, Sforza flipped allegiances to the Papal States, turning on the Milanese by oppressing them because he knew that Milan was completely dependent on his successes and could not stand without him. What happens if the Prince’s mercenaries are successful initially? They might demand more out of Guaido and the National Assembly or threaten to leave, further destabilizing the country.
At the end of the day, mercenaries only have one true loyalty, their own self interest. If Guaido were to agree to Prince’s proposal, he would open himself up to extortion and betrayal. Should the campaign to oust Maduro go south, Guaido may end up in a more precarious situation as the mercenaries may flee or become indiscriminate in who they target, potentially killing civilians and thus destroying any legitimacy he claims to have. As demonstrated in the case of Iraq, Blackwater’s involvement imperiled the U.S.’s counterinsurgency campaign which is centered on winning the hearts and minds of the population. When private military companies commit egregious acts such as the Nisour Square Massacre, the people will close themselves to any outside assistance, seeing them all as enemies and they can hardly be blamed for that.
Already imperiling Guaido’s campaign against Maduro is the fact that the military is standing firmly behind the latter. When protests broke out last week after the Interim President called for security forces to join him, they instead rammed into anti-government protesters that were throwing stones at military vehicles. So far, the only high-ranking defection from Maduro’s upper echelon has been his chief of intelligence, Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera who wants an end to the corruption that plagues the government. The current US strategy is to exert maximum diplomatic pressure on Maduro by sanctioning key individuals linked to him and possibly enforcing a blockade of Cuba which has been a key supporter of the Venezuelan government. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that the administration is considering military engagement in support of Guaido, but this plan seems to be on the backburner for now as allies discuss their options.
The United States must learn from its past mistakes in regime change to prevent Venezuela from falling further into chaos. Any suggestion to allow PMCs in aiding Guaido must be soundly rejected. Furthermore, military action should only be taken if there is an undeniable threat to the Venezuelan people and the United Nations invokes the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P); or, if other Latin American countries agree that the situation can no longer stand and agree that the U.S. must get involved militarily. If this does not happen, then the U.S. should not go down the same road it has gone down countless times before that leaves behind a broken state and broken people.