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Utilizing Insurgents to Exert Political Control

By Lola Macy


In the wake of WWII, insurgent movements have become critical actors in modern-day international affairs due to an increase in civil wars as well as the diffusion of state power. Insurgent actors such as the ELN, Houthi movement, ISIS, and the Zapatistas all control territory and exert sizable sociopolitical control over the people they govern. Thus, governments must learn to work with insurgent groups that are present within their territories, as well as in zones that governments are intervening in. This is extraordinarily relevant to the United States due to our continued political and military presence around the world. The use of a Venezuelan example will indicate the necessity for governments to leverage the presence of insurgencies in order to achieve political objectives.

Under the Maduro regime, the Venezuelan people have experienced a lack of free and fair elections, disastrous humanitarian conditions, and a rapidly failing economy; consequently, the country is seeing unprecedented levels of inflation that is leading to mass migration and increased violence within Venezuela and across borders. The United States recognizes Interim President Juan Guaidó as rightful president, and considers the 2015 democratically-elected Venezuelan National Assembly to be the only legitimate federal institution in Venezuela. This political impasse has become difficult to resolve using traditional means such as diplomatic efforts, economic sanctions and military pressure; thus necessitating the use of unconventional methods. It is vital for the US to resolve this political impasse because of the natural resources and regional hegemony that are at stake. By permitting the Maduro regime to remain in power, that means permitting China, Iran and Russia to maintain a foothold in the U.S.’s backyard. Venezuelan crude oil is being sent to China at a rate of over 324,000 barrels of oil a day for free, and if Guaidó became President, that oil would be available to the U.S. Diplomatic efforts between the U.S. and Maduro regimes were severed in 2015, making it very difficult to apply further pressure onto Venezuela. Increased sanctions exclusively harm the Venezuelan people, and military pressure will only incite intervention from Venezuela's allies. If the U.S. wishes for Interim President Juan Guaidó to become the acting legitimate President, a partnership must be developed between Guaidó and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).

Maduro remains in power largely due to his extensive network of foreign powers and criminal elites. The ELN is one of the largest non-state criminal actors in the expansion of this illicit trade network through their recent expansion outside of Colombia into Venezuela. The ELN may be able to be turned into a quasi-military force supporting Guaidó if in turn they are provided with access to resources and uncontested territory in rural forested zones. The presence of the ELN should be leveraged by the U.S. and Guaidó to protect rural and indigenous communities from the military and paramilitary groups that patrol the countryside; thus increasing rural support for the Guaidó administration.

The ELN holds a place of power in Venezuela due to the ongoing governmental collapse as a result of a failed political-institutional transition and the discredited relationship between the people and the military. Guaidó would benefit through the formation of a partnership with the ELN; their support would allow Guaidó to rival the Venezuelan military that is under Maduro’s control and gain the presidency. Post regime change, the ELN would be granted further access to natural resources in their occupied territory, consequently granting more income. Another impact of this partnership would be an increase in relative well-being of rural and indigenous communities that are currently governed by the ELN. According to official statements from the Colombian military, security analysts, and human rights activists, guerrilla fighters from across the border operate in more than half of Venezuela’s territory, and they impose harsh penalties for robbery, cattle rustling, and other crimes; they mediate land feuds, truck in drinking water, offer basic medical supplies and investigate murders in a way the state never did, implicating that many fully established communities communities rely on the ELN for protection and the provision of social services.

Guaidó may be able to latch onto this temporary stability and leverage it into political support from residents in the rural communities. The Guaidó administration could permit the ELN to freely operate in rural forested zones they are already present in, while mandating that a set amount (maybe 20%) of the ELN’s income derived from mining or drug running goes directly to expanding infrastructure and utilities for rural and indigenous communities. This economic and infrastructural support serves two purposes; firstly, to empower rural communities to reclaim their civic participation by no longer having to worry about their day-to-day safety, and secondly to improve the indigenous communities’ perception of Guaidó, thus granting Guaidó more widespread domestic support. The ELN and a variety of other Bolivarian political organs [command] control of national-level assets and structures inside Venezuela. Guaidó can leverage this existing political and infrastructural support to gain enough momentum to oust Maduro from executive office and effectively take over the bureaucracy.

While this strategy has not been implemented, it does hold promise for being successful in any environment where a non-state actor holds more power and influence over the majority of a population than the government, such as failing or failed states. Partnering with strong established insurgencies has proven to be a successful strategy among opposition leaders in other weakened states, such as Mexico and the relationship between major cartels and state governors. Additionally, the rising prevalence of insurgent actors gaining power over large swaths of territory and populations means that if established governments wish to enact change or instil a new government, they must work within the boundaries created by these insurgencies, rather than ignore, or even worse fight against these insurgent actors.


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