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Collapse in Venezuela

Set in June 2018. Venezuela’s government defaults on foreign loans, and the ensuing financial panic precipitates a true economic and political collapse.


This case is set in June 2018.


After an economic collapse sparks popular protests, the president of Venezuela flees the country. Two members of the ruling party claim the presidency, but neither is able to stabilize the economy or establish full control. Meanwhile, protests continue, factions of the military abandon the government, violence escalates, and drug trafficking and paramilitary activity increase. The National Security Council (NSC) meets to weigh the situation, which both poses threats to the United States and offers the chance to improve relations with an influential regional power and major oil exporter. To recommend a course of action, NSC members must consider how to prioritize and pursue the U.S. interests at stake, including economic stabilization, regional security, a stable flow of oil, protection of human rights, and restoration of democratic governance and the rule of law.

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Collapse in Venezuela SMALL PROMO IMAGE

The Situation

Venezuela’s government defaulted last month on a large package of foreign loans, and the ensuing financial panic precipitated a true economic collapse. Their bolivars suddenly worthless, and with food and basic necessities in short supply, protestors stormed the Miraflores Palace, causing President Nicolas Maduro to flee the country. Two members of the ruling party have since claimed the presidency, but neither has been able to rally the disparate parts of the party, stabilize the economy, or establish control over most of the country’s territory. Meanwhile, protests continue and factions of the military have abandoned the government. Violence is escalating and Venezuela’s borders and coasts are increasingly unpatrolled, leading to rising reports of activity by drug traffickers and the FARC, the guerrilla group and U.S.-designated terrorist organization. The National Security Council (NSC) meets to weigh the situation, which both poses threats to the United States and offers the chance to improve relations with an influential regional power and major oil exporter. To recommend a course of action, NSC members must consider how to prioritize and pursue the U.S. interests at stake, including economic stabilization, regional security, a stable flow of oil, protection of human rights, and restoration of democratic governance and the rule of law.



  • Sovereign default and economic collapse
  • Peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and peacemaking
  • Weak states
  • Multilateralism
  • Political and economic ideologies
  • Sovereignty
  • Terrorism



  • U.S. support for democratic governance and the rule of law
  • Costs, benefits, and risks of military and other interventions
  • A stable flow of oil
  • Protection of human rights
  • Challenges of economic and political development
  • Regional security in the Americas
Guide Sections
An Introduction to the National Security Council
National Security Council meeting

“The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security...”

– Title I of the National Security Act of 1947

1.1 Overview 

The United States plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining international order in an increasingly globalized world. The range of foreign policy issues that require its attention or involvement is vast: from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to tensions with North Korea and Iran; from long-standing alliances with European and Asian powers to complex, evolving relationships with Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa; from the stability of global finance to the promotion of economic opportunity in low-income countries; and from climate to health to nuclear proliferation to terrorism. There is little around the world in which the United States does not have a vested interest. Further, issues such as immigration, trade, and cybersecurity underscore the fading distinction between domestic and international matters.

U.S. leaders use a range of tools to pursue a foreign policy that they believe will safeguard national security and achieve U.S. goals:

  • diplomatic, such as bilateral or multilateralconsultations and negotiations, treaties, defense and security agreements, resolutions at global and regional bodies such as the United Nations, and public diplomacy to promote U.S. views and culture
  • economic, such as trade and investment agreements, tariffs, sanctions, embargoes and boycotts, development assistance, loans for the purchase of U.S.-manufactured products, and sales of arms, equipment, and technology
  • military, such as missile strikes, nuclear deterrence, ground force deployments, ship and submarine patrols, blockades, unilateral or partnered military exercises, foreign military training, and special operations forces
  • unconventional actions, sometimes secret, undertaken by the U.S. government and its proxies, such as training and assisting foreign intelligence services, supporting armed nonstate actors, private security contracting, and cyberwarfare

Effective policymaking requires a deft combination of these tools. To accomplish this, policymakers need to clearly define U.S. interests and gauge the interests, resources, and motivations of foreign governments and nonstate actors. The U.S. intelligence community helps policymakers in their work by collecting and analyzing a vast range of information, including satellite images, communications records, documents, data, and personal observations.

Foreign policy successes and failures are often associated with presidential decisions. Less explored is the decision-making system that helps the president make those critical choices and coordinate their implementation. This guide will help you understand the system through which the United States creates and implements its foreign policy.

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National Security Council meeting
CIA Director George Bush discusses the evacuation of Americans from Beirut

“....I envisioned a special role for the national security advisor, who is the manager of the National Security Council. I needed an honest broker who would objectively present to the president the views of the various cabinet officers across the spectrum.”

— George H.W. Bush, “A World Transformed,” p. 18

1.2 The Interagency Process

Whether it aims to respond to an immediate crisis or to advance a long-term objective, a successful foreign policy–making process starts with a clear articulation of interests and goals. Policymakers and their advisors then formulate policy options to meet those goals and consider each option’s strengths and weaknesses. This process is challenging in the best of times. Information may be unreliable or incomplete, an adversary’s intentions may be unclear, and a decision’s consequences may be unknowable. Leaders often have to choose from a list on which every option is imperfect. Adding to this uncertainty is the complexity of the U.S. government’s foreign policy machinery: numerous agencies—each with its own interests and biases—seek to influence how policy is decided and carried out. In these circumstances, it takes considerable effort to run a process capable of producing sound policy decisions.

The National Security Council (NSC) plays a critical role in this effort. Its mission is to help the president effectively use a variety of instruments—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—to forge policies that advance U.S. national security goals.

The NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which defined it as an interagency body intended to “advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” Following World War II, in an age of expanded American interests and responsibilities, the NSC was expected to provide a place where the heads of federal departments and agencies could cooperate to develop and recommend to the president policies that would advance U.S. aims. The NSC and its staff were also meant to manage the policymaking process so that the president would receive a full range of advice and opinion from the departments and agencies involved in national security.

The NSC has evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the preferences of successive presidents and the challenges they faced. Variables such NSC meeting attendees, the frequency of meetings, the amount and format of information passed to the president, the importance of consensus, and the relative dominance of the NSC over other government institutions have changed over the decades.

During this time, the NSC has evolved to comprise various interagency committees and a large staff to prepare analysis and coordinate policymaking and implementation. The NSC is at the center of the interagency process, one through which relevant government agencies address foreign policy issues and help the president make and execute policy choices.

I. National Security Advisor

The national security advisor (formally assistant to the president for national security affairs), a senior advisor to the president, is at the heart of the NSC structure. Ideally, the national security advisor’s role is twofold: to offer advice to the president and to coordinate and manage policymaking. Because they have direct access to the president and do not represent a cabinet department such as the State Department or Defense Department, national security advisors are in a unique position to drive foreign policy decisions, manage the actors involved, and mitigate conflict throughout the decision-making process.

II. National Security Council Staff

The NSC staff consists of individuals from a collection of agencies that support the president, the vice president, and the administration. NSC staff members are generally organized into directorates that focus on regions or issues. The size and organization of the staff vary with each administration.

The NSC staff provides expertise for the variety of national security policy matters considered by the committees and the president. It manages numerous responsibilities, including preparing speeches, memos, and discussion papers and handling inquiries from Congress on foreign policy issues. Staff members analyze both immediate and long-term issues and help prioritize these issues on the interagency agenda.

III. Committee Structure

Committees are at the core of policy deliberation and policymaking in the NSC. They fall into four categories:

  • The highest-level is the National Security Council itself. Formal NSC meetings are chaired by the president and include individuals named by the National Security Act of 1947 as well as other senior aides the president invites.
  • The principals committee (PC) comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state and defense. The national security advisor traditionally chairs the principals committee.
  • The deputies committee (DC) includes the deputy leaders of the government departments represented on the principals committee and is chaired by the deputy national security advisor.
  • Policy coordination committees (PCCs) cover a range of regional areas and issues. Each committee includes officials who specialize in the relevant area or issue at one of the departments or agencies in the interagency system. PCCs are generally chaired by senior directors on the NSC staff. Much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement foreign policy across the U.S. government happens at the PCC level.

This committee structure tackles both immediate crises such as an outbreak of conflict and enduring issues such as climate change. In the normal course of events, PCCs conduct analysis on an issue, gather views on it and its importance from various departments, formulate and evaluate policy options, and determine what resources and steps would be required to carry out those options. The deputies committee, meanwhile, manages the interagency process up and down. It decides what PCCs to establish and gives them specific assignments. It also considers information submitted by the PCCs, ensuring that it is relevant, complete, and clear, before relaying it to the principals committee or the full NSC.

The principals committee is the highest-level setting, aside from the NSC itself, for debating national security issues. It consists of the heads of the NSC’s component agencies—essentially all the members of the NSC except the president and vice president. Formal NSC meetings, which the president chairs, occur whenever the president sees fit. They consider issues that require the president’s personal attention and a direct presidential decision.

The goal of this committee structure is to foster consensus on policy options or highlight where and why consensus cannot be reached. If officials at one level agree on an issue, it may not need to go to senior officials for a decision. This practice reserves the president’s time, and that of the principals, for the most complicated and sensitive debates.

When a crisis erupts, however, issues may not follow the usual path up from the PCCs. In these cases, NSC staff members and officials in government departments and agencies generally draft papers drawing on their expertise, available intelligence, and any existing contingency plans. Policy options are then debated and decided at the appropriate level, depending on the nature and severity of the crisis. The policymaking process may also deviate from this model based on the preferences of each president.

For the purposes of Model Diplomacy’s NSC simulation, you will role-play the NSC meeting with the assumption that the committees described have already done their jobs and passed critical information to the highest-level decision-makers.

Presidential Decisions

When the president makes a policy decision, it may take the form of a verbal instruction recorded in a NSC staff document and shared with relevant departments and agencies. The president may also issue formal decisions in documents that lay out the administration’s policy and explain its rationale and goals. These documents have gone by different names under different presidents. President Donald J. Trump issues national security presidential memoranda, which replace the presidential policy directives and presidential study directives that President Barack Obama issued.

The president may also issue an executive order. In the past, presidents have issued executive orders for such purposes as facilitating sanctions against foreign individuals and establishing new offices in government departments to achieve foreign policy aims. For federal agencies, both national security directives and executive orders carry the full force and effect of law, though the president’s authority to issue these kinds of documents is sometimes questioned.

National Security Council meeting
President Bush leads a meeting of the National Security Council.

“These complex times have made clear the power and centrality of America’s indispensable leadership in the world.”

— Obama 2015 National Security Strategy

1.3 Departments and Agencies 

Although many executive branch departments and agencies are involved in foreign policy and, depending on the issue, play a role in the NSC process, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community form the core of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice often play crucial roles as well.

Department of State

The Department of State conducts the United States’ relations with other countries and international organizations. It maintains U.S. diplomatic presence abroad, issues visas for foreigners to enter the country, aids U.S. citizens overseas, and manages cultural exchanges and other programs to promote American interests. As head of the department, the secretary of state is the president’s principal foreign affairs advisor and has a keen understanding of the United States’ international relations, the relationships between foreign countries, and the behavior and interests of their governments.

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense carries out U.S. defense policy and maintains U.S. military forces. It includes the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, as well as an array of agencies with missions ranging from advanced technological research to defense cooperation with friendly countries. The department employs more than two million military and civilian personnel and operates military bases across the United States and abroad. The secretary of defense, the head of the department and the president’s principal defense policy advisor, stays up-to-date on the security situation in foreign countries and the possibilities and implications of U.S. military involvement. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces and the president’s top military advisor.

Intelligence Community

The U.S. intelligence community consists of seventeen agencies and organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which gather and analyze intelligence to help policymakers formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Each of these agencies has its own mission; for example, the NSA focuses on signals intelligence (information gathered from communications and other electronic signals) and the Defense Intelligence Agency on military information. The director of national intelligence, the president’s principal advisor on intelligence issues, oversees this network of agencies with the aim of ensuring that they work together and deliver the best possible information to U.S. policymakers.

Department of the Treasury

The Department of the Treasury carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The secretary of the treasury, as head of this department, serves as one of the president’s chief economic advisors and is responsible for addressing a range of economic concerns, including growth, trade and investment, and the position of the U.S. dollar. The Treasury’s ten bureaus, which include the U.S. Mint and the Internal Revenue Service, do much of the department’s work, which ranges from collecting tax to printing currency and executing economic sanctions.

Department of Homeland Security

Created soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security works to counter and respond to risks to American security. It focuses on issues such as terrorism prevention, border security and immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity. Familiar agencies within the department include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which checks travelers and goods coming into the United States; the U.S. Secret Service, which protects the president and investigates financial crimes; and the Transportation Security Administration, which ensures security at airports. The secretary of homeland security oversees the department and advises the president on relevant issues.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice investigates and prosecutes possible violations of federal law, represents the U.S. government in legal matters, oversees federal prisons, and works more broadly to prevent and respond to crime. Agencies such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are part of the department, as are divisions focusing on particular areas of law, such as national security and civil rights. Leading the department is the attorney general, who offers legal advice to the president and the heads of other departments, including on matters under discussion in the NSC.

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Guide Glossary


alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
attorney general:head of the Department of Justice and chief lawyer of the U.S. government. Among other duties, he or she offers advice on the legal aspects of proposed policies to the president and other department heads.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.
blockade:an act of war wherein a foreign military cuts off access to a specific location, usually a port, to impede deliveries of supplies. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba—calling it a “quarantine” to avoid the implication of declaring war—in response to Soviet missile activity on the island.


Cabinet:the group comprising the vice president of the United States and the heads of all fifteen federal executive departments, such as the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, labor, and education. Other officials may also have cabinet rank, depending on the administration.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS):the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces. The CJCS does not exercise command authority over U.S. troops, but instead works with the leaders of the U.S. military services to fulfill his function as the top military advisor to the president and other senior officials.
chief of staff to the president:a close advisor to the president who is responsible for coordinating the implementation of presidential policy and managing the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which includes the national security staff among many other entities.
cyberwarfare:defensive and offensive actions taken by a government or nonstate actor in the realm of information network systems and digital infrastructure. Specific actions include planting computer viruses, mounting denial-of-service attacks to disrupt internet and network activity, and conducting electronic surveillance.


deputies committee (DC):the intermediate-level setting, below the principals committee, for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system. Chaired by the deputy national security advisor, it comprises the second- and third-ranking leaders of the departments and agencies represented on the National Security Council. It manages the interagency process up and down, answering to the principals committee and assigning and reviewing the work of interagency policy committees.
director of national intelligence:the president’s principal advisor for intelligence-related matters and the head of the intelligence community, a network of seventeen agencies and organizations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), that collect and analyze information to assist policymaking.


executive order (EO):a decision issued by the president that carries the full force and effect of law. An executive order usually instructs government departments and agencies to implement or modify particular policies or procedures.


foreign policy:a country’s attitudes and actions in the international arena. Foreign policy includes two principal elements: goals or interests as the country defines them, such as peace with one’s neighbors, and the means pursued to advance these interests, such as diplomatic negotiations, trade agreements, and military alliances. A country carries out its foreign policy through its dealings with other countries, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and nonstate actors such as corporations and advocacy groups.


interagency:involving two or more agencies. The National Security Council (NSC), for example, is an interagency forum, not a forum internal to any one agency.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


National Security Act:a law signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1947 to reorganize the agencies and processes related to intelligence, foreign policy, and the military. Among its reforms, the act established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
national security advisor (NSA):the so-called honest broker of the national security policy process and the president’s principal advisor on national security issues. The NSA manages the National Security Council (NSC) staff, chairs the principals committee, and coordinates and manages policymaking with the goal of ensuring effective policy development and implementation.
National Security Council (NSC):an interagency body that serves as the forum for the president to discuss and take action on the most critical national security issues facing the United States. Its membership has varied since its creation in 1947, and now includes the president, vice president, national security advisor, secretaries of state and defense, and a variety of other senior officials.
National Security Council (NSC) staff:the president’s national security and foreign policy personnel. The NSC staff receives direction from the president via the national security advisor, provides expertise on issues and regions, and collaborates frequently with employees from other government departments and agencies to carry out the interagency policymaking process.
national security presidential memorandum:a type of presidential directive, or official order from the president, on matters related to national security. Called different names by different administrations, these documents may initiate a review of current policy, reorganize the structure of the national security policy apparatus, or lay out new strategies.
nonstate actors:individuals or groups that do not belong to or act on behalf of a state. This may refer to nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International, media outlets such as the New York Times, or terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.


policy coordination committees (PCCs):the lowest-level setting for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system and the home of much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Often chaired by a senior director on the NSC staff, PCCs develop, coordinate, and carry out policy options in distinct regional and functional areas.
principals committee (PC):the highest-level setting, aside from the National Security Council (NSC) itself, for debating issues in the NSC system. Generally chaired by the national security advisor, it comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, and other senior officials.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secretary of defense:the principal defense policy advisor to the president and head of the Department of Defense, which oversees the formulation and execution of defense policy and manages U.S. military forces.
secretary of energy:the head of the Department of Energy, which executes U.S. policy on energy, environmental, and nuclear issues and oversees seventeen national scientific research laboratories.
secretary of homeland security:the head of the Department of Homeland Security since its creation after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This department works to protect U.S. security by implementing federal policy concerning terrorism prevention, border security, immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity.
secretary of state:the president’s chief foreign affairs advisor, the country’s chief diplomat, and the head of the Department of State, which conducts the United States’ relationships with foreign countries and international organizations.
secretary of the treasury:one of the president’s chief economic advisors and head of the department of the treasury, which carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The department is home to the U.S. Mint and Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies.


tariff:a tax on goods arriving from a foreign country, generally used as a tool of trade and foreign policy to penalize adversaries or favor allies or domestic producers.


U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (UN):the ambassador-level official who advances U.S. foreign policy interests in the bodies and forums of the UN system.
unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.


vice president:the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. government and first in line to assume the presidency if the president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to serve. Though given only one responsibility in the Constitution—to serve as president of the U.S. Senate, with the power to break ties—the vice presidency has become a visible part of the modern White House. Today’s vice presidents undertake a variety of functions, from serving as an all-purpose presidential advisor to carrying out diplomatic trips abroad. The personality of the individual who occupies this post and his or her relationship with the president define the scope of the role.
Case Notes Sections
Venezuela protest
Collapse in Venezuela SMALL PROMO IMAGE

“I can’t be standing in line for five hours to buy a carton of milk. This isn’t about what political party you support. We’re in a crisis and we need change.”

—Edwin Reverol, Venezuelan citizen, January 14, 2015

2.1 The Issue 

Home to thirty-one million people, Venezuela plays an important role in South America and the global economy. This role is largely driven by its energy wealth, which is powered by the world’s largest known oil reserves. This oil is important to the U.S. economy, but Venezuela also presents a significant challenge to the United States on other fronts. Over the decades, Venezuela’s politics have become increasingly anti-American, first under Hugo Chavez, a leftist leader who governed Venezuela from 1998 until his death in 2013, and then under his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

Under Chavez, the Venezuelan government enjoyed years of domestic approval, in part because of its extensive spending on social programs made possible by high oil prices. But Chavez’s economic policies—such as increasing market interventions and mismanagement of the state-owned energy company—spurred inflation and led to declines in investment and production in the non-oil sectors of the economy.

The Venezuelan government lost political support after Maduro, Chavez’s long-time deputy, took over as president in 2013. Maduro’s administration repeatedly responded to challenges by cracking down on dissent. It arrested opposition leaders and accused the United States of meddling in its domestic affairs. In 2014, the plummeting price of oil, which is the country’s only major export, drove Venezuela’s economy into further crisis. Meanwhile, crime escalated in many forms that continue today. In urban areas, including the capital Caracas, kidnappings, murder, and robbery plague both affluent and poor neighborhoods. The United States has also confirmed that terrorist organizations such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) use the rural Venezuelan-Colombian border as a safe haven and drug-trafficking corridor.

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Caracas aerial view

“I loved Chavez.… I believe in the revolution, and Chavez’s policies. But Maduro…. I don’t know. He blames everyone for all the problems we face and doesn’t seem to be able to resolve any of them. Maybe Obama is to blame, but not for everything.”

— Melisa Robles, Venezuelan citizen and member of the people’s militia, March 24, 2015

2.2 Background

Political and Economic History

Venezuelans enjoyed one of the highest living standards in Latin America during the twentieth century, thanks largely to the country’s immense oil wealth. The government poured money into modernization projects that included roads, railways, schools, housing projects, industrial parks, and hundreds of state-owned enterprises. But during the mid-1980s, oil prices plummeted, leading to a decade of economic crises. Severe inflation and growing unemployment led to discontent among Venezuela’s poor. Measures taken by the government to cut spending and raise taxes sparked unrest, ultimately unraveling the traditional political system.

Unhappiness with the economic and political situation led to the election of Hugo Chavez as president in 1998. He ran under the banner of his newly created political party, which called for an end to corruption, more spending on social programs, and a redistribution of oil wealth. Chavez won the election with 56 percent of the vote, ushering in what he called twenty-first century socialism, or Chavismo.

Chavez used both democratic and antidemocratic tactics to consolidate and maintain his power, including rewriting the constitution in 1999, firing government employees not loyal to him, and cracking down on freedom of expression after an attempted coup in 2002. During his presidency, Chavez also restructured the economy and significantly increased spending. He used oil proceeds and debt to boost government spending on social programs, an integral part of his populist appeal. Social spending rose to 21 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006, four times the 1998 figure. Military spending also increased. Between 2004 and 2011, the government bought $13 billion in arms, more than any other Latin American country. The increases in social and military spending, however, occurred as Venezuela’s main revenue stream, oil, was becoming less profitable. By 2013, crude oil production had fallen to 2.5 million barrels per day from a high of 3.3 million in 1997. To fund these expenditures, Venezuela turned to borrowing heavily from other countries: the country’s public debt increased to $216 billion in 2012 from $31 billion in 1999. 

Chavez also nationalized other sectors of the economy in addition to the oil industry, such as telecommunications, electricity, steel, and cement. Nationalization hurt domestic businesses, reduced local entrepreneurship, and weakened the non-oil economy, making foreign companies wary of investing in Venezuela. The erosion of the non-oil economy, declining production at the state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA), and years of excess spending laid the foundation for a full-blown economic crisis.

Foreign Relations

The U.S.-Venezuela relationship before Chavez’s election was largely positive. The United States was, as it is today, Venezuela’s largest trading partner. For decades, Venezuela supported the United States in the Cold War, voting alongside it at international organizations on several notable issues. But Chavez’s election changed that: from the start, Chavez took an anti-American stance, seeking to undermine U.S. interests in the region. Chavez blamed the United States for not warning him about the 2002 coup attempt and intensified his anti-U.S. rhetoric. Both the Chavez and the Maduro governments have continually blamed the United States for Venezuela’s economic woes and political unrest. Nonetheless, Venezuela has also continued to sell its oil to the United States—nearly seven hundred thousand barrels per day in 2017.

Internationally, Chavez pursued strategic alignments with authoritarian powers such as Russia, Iran, and China. Venezuela signed a major weapons deal with Russia in 2005 and soon became one of its most important customers. Iran also invested in the Venezuelan oil industry and sold arms to the government. Venezuela’s relationship with China is mostly based on trade, foreign investment, and oil. All of this has contributed to Venezuela’s position as a regional center of anti-Americanism.

Venezuela’s neighboring countries—Brazil, Colombia, and Guyana—also have clear economic, political, and security interests in Venezuela, in part because of the significant number of refugees seeking to flee Venezuela. Of these, Colombia has been the most affected. As of 2018, at least 660,000 Venezuelan refugees have entered Colombia, most citing food scarcity as their reason for leaving. Colombia has also accused Venezuela many times of allowing criminal and terrorist organizations to seek safe haven in its territory; as Venezuela’s government weakens, the ungoverned spaces between Venezuela and Colombia become more susceptible to these groups.   

Current Events

Chavez died from cancer in 2013, two months into his fourth term. His handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, narrowly won the special election following Chavez’s death but, lacking Chavez’s charisma and military ties, could not command the same support. Maduro had less influence on the disparate ruling party factions and leadership than Chavez did and was unable to rectify the worsening economic and political crisis. As oil prices fell, the economy contracted 10 percent in 2015 and inflation skyrocketed. Inflation officially topped 180 percent that year and is expected to reach 13,000 percent in 2018. Facing $10 billion in debt payments in 2016 and few possibilities of loans from traditional creditors, Venezuela had little money to pay for even basic food imports.

The Maduro government has become increasingly autocratic; the spring and summer of 2017 saw a wave of violent protests as the government took steps to consolidate power. In March, the Venezuelan Supreme Court briefly stripped the National Assembly of power and later banned opposition leader Henrique Capriles from running for office for fifteen years. In July, the country held elections for members of a constituent assembly tasked with rewriting the constitution. Because the opposition boycotted the vote, members of Maduro’s party won all the seats on a violent election day. The elections, though widely denounced by the opposition and the U.S. government, enabled Maduro to seat a legislative “superbody” with the authority to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. The new constituent assembly is empowered to enact laws on a range of issues, effectively stripping the opposition-run National Assembly of its authority.

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Maduro opponents protest outside the white house

“We’ve seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces.”

— U.S. Press Secretary Josh Earnest, March 9, 2015

2.3 Role of the United States 

The United States has strong interests in ending the current instability in Venezuela and ensuring that a new government operates in a lawful and democratic manner. After years of failed attempts to advance democratic values in Venezuela—including by providing tens of millions of dollars in aid through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy—the current situation may be seen by some members of the National Security Council as an opening to secure lasting change in the country.  

The broader outcomes of Venezuela’s complete economic and political collapse could also harm U.S. interests. The spread of drug trafficking organizations could undermine U.S. efforts to disrupt the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela is the world’s eleventh largest producer of crude oil and accounts for 7 percent of U.S. oil imports. An interruption in Venezuelan oil flows could raise global oil prices, driving up costs for U.S. manufacturers and consumers at the pump. Petrocaribe countries, many of them U.S. allies, risk more severe economic effects from Venezuela’s disorder.

Policy Options

In this context, the United States has four major policy options to consider. These are not mutually exclusive, and most can be combined.

Direct Military Intervention

The United States could mount a military intervention, either alone (unilaterally) or with other countries (multilaterally). Such an intervention would aim to restore and maintain order, facilitate an agreement among competing political groups, and oversee a political process leading to free and fair elections.

A multilateral military intervention means that other countries would share the burdens and risks with the United States by providing military forces, equipment, and funding. If the United States worked with other nations, its actions would presumably seem more legitimate. However, obtaining authorization from an international body for any multilateral intervention could delay a U.S. response and constrain U.S. action and goals. Moreover, coordinating multiple military forces with varying practices, equipment, training, and capabilities requires significant effort.

If the United States does not receive authorization or broad-based support for an intervention, it could pursue unilateral intervention, which would involve committing troops alone. This would give U.S. policymakers ultimate flexibility—but also ultimate responsibility for the costs and risks of an intervention. Such action, even if deemed successful in achieving U.S. goals, would likely increase the anti-American sentiment in Venezuela and make other nations doubtful of U.S. intentions.

A military intervention would likely be opposed by political leaders—and perhaps citizens—in Venezuela and the region more broadly. This would put the lives of U.S. military personnel at risk and add to the challenge of mounting a diplomatic process leading to a democratic transition. All the while, forces would need to assist in the delivery of humanitarian assistance for Venezuelans suffering from violence, shortages of basic goods, and other consequences of the crisis.


The United States could aim to limit the effects of the crisis for itself and the region through containment. This approach would mean working with Venezuela’s neighbors—Brazil, Colombia, and Guyana—to secure Venezuela’s borders and prevent the spread of criminal and terrorist activity, and to help refugees fleeing the violence. Building on then Vice President Joseph Biden’s Caribbean Energy Security Summit, held in January 2015, the United States could also help Petrocaribe countries—particularly allies such as the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica—cope with the oil price shock generated by the oil alliance’s collapse. This option could also be an opportunity to offer help to Cuba, another Petrocaribe member, as a way of improving U.S.-Cuba relations.

Diplomatic and Economic Interventions

The United States could use various diplomatic and economic tools to help reestablish basic order in Venezuela and support its democratic institutions and economic stabilization efforts. It could support organizations providing assistance to Venezuelans and facilitate or support negotiations toward a democratic transition. Economically, it could offer funds or other assistance to keep oil flowing out of Venezuela, work to provide emergency loans, and help Venezuela negotiate extensions or interest reductions on its loans.

No Action

The United States could decide that the costs and risks of any of these steps outweigh the benefits. In this case, policymakers could decide to take none of the actions—an option that deserves as much consideration as the others. However, this option would still require NSC members to consider certain decisions that might arise as the situation in Venezuela evolves.

See More

Case Notes Glossary


austerity:strict economic measures, such as tax increases and cuts to social spending, intended to reduce government deficits and debt. Such programs are common as a condition of bailout funds, including in Europe’s financial crisis in recent years. Austerity’s champions, such as Germany, view it as an essential step for indebted governments to rein in their spending. Detractors, such as the United States and countries receiving bailouts, such as Greece, argue that austerity compounds human misery and stymies the growth necessary for countries to eventually pay down their debts.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.


Chavismo:Hugo Chavez’s ideology of twenty-first century socialism. Though not precisely defined, Chavismo tended to include a populist focus on providing social and economic benefits to the masses, as well as anti-corporate and anti-American sentiments. Chavez also emphasized popular political participation, though in practice he sought to strengthen his personal political control.
coup d’état:a government takeover, often led by the military, that does not use the country’s codified mechanisms for changing power (such as elections).


default:failure to make a payment on a bond or loan as scheduled.


fuel subsidy:a government payment intended to lower the cost of fuel for drivers and other consumers. The payment can take various forms but typically compensates producers for charging less than market price. Though often criticized for burdening government budgets while encouraging wasteful consumption, subsidies are tremendously popular among consumers and therefore difficult for governments to remove.
Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia):left-wing, nominally Marxist guerrilla group that has fought against the government of Colombia since it was established in 1964. Designated by the United States as a terrorist organization in 1997, the FARC derives most of its revenue from kidnapping and drug trafficking, for which it uses the Venezuelan-Colombian border region as a safe haven. The Colombian government and the FARC signed a peace deal in 2017, though criminal gangs and other guerilla groups have expanded their activities in the dissolved group’s wake.


Hugo Chavez:the leftist president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013. Chavez first came to national attention as an army officer when he led a failed coup d’état in 1992. After running for president on a socialist platform, he restructured the economy, increased social spending, pursued regional cooperation with leaders sympathetic to his ideology, and expressed vehement anti-American views.


International Monetary Fund (IMF):a multilateral financial institution established in 1944 that exists to foster stability and growth in the international monetary system, in part by observing countries’ monetary and currency exchange policies and providing them with technical assistance. As the global economic crisis firefighter, the IMF offers loans to struggling countries, usually conditional on the adoption of certain policies to manage their economies and return them to sustainable growth.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


National Liberation Army (ELN):a guerilla group, founded in 1964 by radical Catholics inspired by Cuba’s communist revolution, whose principal adversary is the Colombian government. Smaller than the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the ELN has nonetheless mounted deadly attacks and earned significant revenue from kidnapping, extortion, and, more recently, drug trafficking. Designated by the United States as a terrorist organization in 1997, the group has participated in on-and-off peace negotiations with Colombia’s government.
nationalization:a process in which a private business or industry becomes a public one operated by a national government. Nationalization may or may not involve compensation to the previous owners. Leaders may nationalize businesses or industries in order to seize greater control of profits or natural resources, but may also do so for other reasons, as when the United States nationalized the provision of airport security after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Nicolas Maduro:the president of Venezuela since 2013 and Hugo Chavez’s longtime deputy and handpicked successor. Many Venezuelans and observers see Maduro as less charismatic than Chavez, and his tenure has suffered from a shortage of legitimacy and decreased influence on party leadership, the military, and government institutions, compounded by Venezuela’s worsening economic crisis.


oil price shock:a large and rapid change in the price of oil. The term typically refers to a price increase, which tends to hurt consumers and countries that import oil. However, the price of oil can also quickly decline, reducing the income of oil-producing countries such as Venezuela.
Organization of American States (OAS):a regional organization whose membership consists of the thirty-five countries of the Americas. Founded in 1948 to strengthen peace, democracy, and cooperation among its members, the OAS today works on such issues as human rights, security, development, and democratization. Over the decades it has undertaken initiatives to monitor human rights, provide electoral oversight, promote development, and enhance security in the region.
Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC):an organization of twelve oil-producing countries seeking to coordinate their policies in order to keep oil markets stable and advance their interests as producers. In particular, OPEC often seeks to affect oil prices by increasing or decreasing production, though its ability to do so is imperfect. Venezuela was among five founding members of OPEC in 1960.


Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela):the ruling party of Venezuela, founded by Hugo Chavez in 2007 through a merger of coalition parties.
PetroCaribe:a program established by Hugo Chavez in 2005 in which Venezuela provides subsidized oil to thirteen Central American and Caribbean countries.
Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA):Venezuela’s state-owned energy company. Long a massive source of government revenue, PDVSA’s operations began to falter as Chavez sought greater control over the company and failed to reinvest enough money to keep its production steady.


referendum:a vote, typically organized by a government, in which participants approve or reject a certain policy proposal. This is a form of direct democracy, in which citizens themselves (as opposed to elected representatives) make a policy decision.
refugee:an individual forced to leave home due to conflict or natural disaster who, unlike an internally displaced person (IDP), crosses a recognized international border and does not stay in his or her home country.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.


unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.
Role Play Sections
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.1 Role

Welcome to your role as a participant in the National Security Council (NSC)! You should have received an email with your role assignment, but if you did not, you can view your assignment by clicking on the “My Simulations” tab on your account page. At this point, you should have reviewed essential background information about the NSC, read the case, watched the accompanying videos, and perused some of the additional reading. Whether you have been assigned a specific role as an individual or part of a group, or as a general advisor to the president, we suggest you read the case once again to identify material that is particularly relevant to your role or that requires further investigation. After that, you will conduct independent research as you write your position memo and prepare for the role-play.

There are four subsections that follow. Research and Preparation (3.2) will aid your research for the position memo and provide additional reading to guide your research; the Guide to the Memoranda (3.3) provides information about position memos and an example; and the Guide to the Role-Play (3.4) provides more information on the in-class role-play.

You can learn about your role by reading the information provided on your role sheet, which can be found in the Guide to the Role-Play section (3.4).  Review this information thoroughly and often, as your objectives and strategy in the position memo and role-play will be shaped by the institutional perspective of the role you have been assigned (unless you are playing a general advisor). After you finish the role-play and subsequent debrief, you will have an opportunity to share your personal thoughts and recommendations on this case in a policy review memo (Section Four, Wrap-up).


Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.2 Research and Preparation 

Your role sheet contains three parts: a description of your role, issues for consideration, and research leads. The role description details the position you will portray in the role-play. The issues for consideration will guide your thinking and assist you in approaching the case from the perspective of your assigned role. Most relevant, however, are the research leads. Going beyond the reports and articles linked to throughout the case and in the reading list, these research leads provide suggested materials and topics for further research specifically relevant to your assigned role. Below are some tips to review as you prepare for the role-play exercise.

Research and Preparation

  • Draw on the case notes, additional case materials, and your own research to familiarize yourself with

    • the goals of the NSC in general and of this NSC meeting in particular;
    • the U.S. interests at stake in the case and their importance to national security;
    • your role and your department or agency, including its purpose and objectives in the government and on the NSC;
    • the aspects of the case most relevant to your role;
    • the elements that a comprehensive policy proposal on the case should contain; and
    • the major debates or conflicts likely to occur during the role-play. You need not resolve these yourself, of course, but you will want to anticipate them in order to articulate and defend your position in the NSC deliberation.
  • Set goals for your research. Know which questions you seek to answer and refer back to the case notes, additional readings, and research leads as needed.
  • Make a list of questions that you feel are not fully answered by the given materials. What do you need to research in greater depth? Can your classmates help you understand these subjects?
  • Using the case materials, additional readings, and discussions with your classmates, weigh the relative importance of the U.S. interests at stake in the case. Determine where trade-offs might be required and think through the potential consequences of several different policy options.
  • Conduct your research from the perspective of your assigned role, but be sure to consider the full range of U.S. interests at stake in the case, whether diplomatic, military, economic, environmental, moral, or otherwise. This will help you strengthen your policy position and anticipate and prepare for debates in the role-play.
  • Consider what questions or challenges the president or other NSC members might raise regarding the options you propose and have responses ready.



  • Consult a wide range of sources to gain a full perspective on the issues raised in the case and on policy options. Seek out sources that you may not normally use, such as publications from the region(s) under discussion, unclassified and declassified government documents, and specialized policy reports and journals.
  • Remember: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can be a reasonable starting point. The citations at the bottom of each entry often contain useful resources. 
  • Just as policymakers tackle issues that are controversial and subject to multiple interpretations, so will you in your preparation for the writing assignments and role-play. For this reason, evaluate your sources carefully. Always ask yourself:
    • When was the information produced? Is it still relevant and accurate?
    • Who is writing or speaking and why? Does the author or speaker have a particular motivation or affiliation that you should take into account?
    • Where is the information published? Determine the political leanings of journals, magazines, and newspapers by reading several articles published by each one.
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the author provide sufficient evidence for his or her analysis or opinion? Does the author cite reliable and impartial sources?
    • Does the information appear one-sided? Does it consider multiple points of view?
    • Is the language measured or inflammatory? Do any of the points appear exaggerated?
  • Take note of and cite your sources correctly. This is important not just for reasons of academic integrity, but so that you can revisit them as needed.
  • Ask your teacher which style he or she prefers you use when citing sources, such as Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style, or Associated Press (AP).

Reading List 


2.1 The Issue

William Neuman, “In Chavez, Maduro Trusts, Maybe to His Detriment and Venezuela’s,” New York Times, March 9, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/10/world/americas/in-chavez-maduro-trusts-maybe-to-his-detriment-and-venezuelas.html?_r=0.

Danielle Renwick, “Venezuela in Crisis,” CFR.org Backgrounder, March 23, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/venezuela-crisis.

“How Venezuela’s Crisis Developed and Drove out Millions of People,” BBC, August 22, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36319877.


2.2 Background

Richard Lapper, “Venezuela and the Rise of Chavez,” CFR.org Backgrounder, November 22, 2005, http://www.cfr.org/venezuela/venezuela-rise-chavez-background-discussion-paper/p9269.  

Zeeshan Aleem, “How Venezuela went from a Rich Democracy to a Dictatorship on the Brink of Collapse,” Vox, September 19, 2017, https://www.vox.com/world/2017/9/19/16189742/venezuela-maduro-dictator-chavez-collapse.

Jon Lee Anderson, “Postscript: Hugo Chávez, 1954-2013,New Yorker, March 5, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/postscript-hugo-chvez-1954-2013.


2.3 Role of the United States

J. Weston Phippen, “What to do with Venezuela?” Atlantic, August 16, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/08/venezuela-intervention/536970/

“Venezuela’s Migration Crisis: Is Enough Being Done?” BBC, September 19, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-45546650.

Shannon K. O’Neil, “Options for U.S. Policy in Venezuela,” Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, March 2, 2017, https://www.cfr.org/report/options-us-policy-venezuela


Further Reading

Jon Lee Anderson, “Slumlord,” New Yorker, January 28, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/01/28/slumlord.

BBC News, “Timeline: Venezuela,” August 1, 2012, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1229348.stm

Lauren Carasik, “Tough Talk in Venezuela Won’t Work,” Foreign Affairs, April 2, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2015-04-02/fighting-words.  

Javier Corrales, “Don’t Blame it on the Oil,” Foreign Policy, May 7, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/07/dont-blame-it-on-the-oil-venezuela-caracas-maduro/.

Patrick Duddy, “Political Crisis in Venezuela,” CFR.org, Contingency Planning Memorandum Update, March 2015, http://www.cfr.org/venezuela/political-crisis-venezuela/p36356.

Hugo J. Faria, “Hugo Chavez Against the Backdrop of Venezuelan Economic and Political History,” Independent Review 12, no. 4, Spring 2008, http://www.independent.org/pdf/tir/tir_12_04_2_faria.pdf.  

Sujatha Fernandez, “Barrio Women and Popular Politics in Chavez’s Venezuela, Latin American Politics and Society 49, no. 3, 2007, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/latin_american_politics_and_society/summary/v049/49.3fernandes.html.

Foreign Affairs, “Collapse in Venezuela: A Foreign Affairs Mini-Anthology for Model Diplomacy,” https://www.foreignaffairs.com/CIV_eBook.

Patrick Gillespie, “Five reasons why Venezuela may be the world’s worst economy,” CNN Money, February 20, 2015, http://money.cnn.com/2015/02/20/news/economy/venezuela-economy-inflation/?iid=EL.

Patrick Gillespie, “Venezuela’s currency isn’t worth a penny,” CNN, June 3, 2015, http://money.cnn.com/2015/06/03/investing/venezuela-bolivar-currency-imploding/.  

Stephen Johnson, “Recommendations for a New Administration: Interests, Policies, and Challenges in the Americas,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 21, 2012, http://csis.org/files/publication/121128_SJohnson_PolicyRecommendations_HemFocus.pdf.  

Stephen Kinzer, “Venezuela Resisting I.M.F. Rein,” New York Times, July 25, 1983, http://www.nytimes.com/1983/07/25/business/venezuela-resisting-imf-rein.html.

Nicolas Maduro, “Under my presidency, Chavez’s revolution will continue,” Guardian, April 12, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/12/my-presidency-chavez-revolution-continue.  

Humberto Márquez, “VENEZUELA: Wound Still Gaping 20 Years After ‘Caracazo,’” Inter Press Service, February 27, 2009, http://www.ipsnews.net/2009/02/venezuela-wound-still-gaping-20-years-after-lsquocaracazorsquo.

Jennifer McCoy, “Chavez and the End of ‘Partyarchy’ in Venezuela,” Journal of Democracy 10, no. 3 (July 1999), https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_democracy/v010/10.3mccoy.html.

Carl Meacham, “Venezuela’s Desperate Times and Nicolas Maduro’s Desperate Measures,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2, 2015, http://csis.org/publication/venezuelas-desperate-times-and-nicolas-maduros-desperate-measures.

———, “Will the Venezuelan state fail?” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 19, 2015, http://csis.org/publication/will-venezuelan-state-fail.

Juan Cristobal Nagel, “Venezuela’s Glass Revolution,” Foreign Policy, December 30, 2013, http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/12/30/venezuelas-glass-revolution.  

Shannon K. O’Neil and Danielle Renwick, “Hitting the Restart on US-Latin America Ties,” CFR.org, April 8, 2015, http://www.cfr.org/global-governance/hitting-restart-us-latin-america-ties/p36412.  

Jacqueline O’Neill, “Are Women the Key to Peace in Colombia?” Foreign Policy, April 20, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/20/are-women-the-key-to-peace-in-colombia-farc-talks/.  

Barack Obama, “Executive Order – Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela,” March 9, 2015, http://www.cfr.org/venezuela/executive-order-venezuela/p36261.  

Mario Osava, “Dependent on Venezuela’s Oil Diplomacy,” Inter Press Service, March 18, 2013, http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/03/several-countries-depend-on-venezuelas-oil-diplomacy/.

Pew Research Center Global Indicators Database, “Venezuela,” 2014, http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/1/country/238/.

James Read, “Hugo Chavez: Venezuelan leader’s Latin American legacy,” BBC, March 6, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-21682064.  

Charles Roth, “Venezuela’s Economy Under Chavez, by the Numbers,” Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2013, http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2013/03/06/venezuelas-economy-under-chavez-by-the-numbers/.  

Don A. Schanche, “Despite Riots, Venezuela Will Stress Austerity,” LA Times, March 3, 1989, http://articles.latimes.com/1989-03-03/news/mn-253_1_austerity-measures.

Amanda Taub, “11 Stunning Photos of the Protest Movement Sweeping Venezuela,” Vox, February 26, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/2/26/8115535/venezuela-protests-photos.

Transparency International, “Corruption and Human Rights Violations in Venezuela,” June 2, 2015, http://www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_and_human_rights_violations_in_venezuela.  

Jamila Trindle, “Are U.S. Sanctions a Gift to Venezuela?” Foreign Policy, March 12, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/03/12/are-u-s-sanctions-a-gift-to-venezuela/.  

UNDP, “Venezuela,” Human Development Report 2013, http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/Country-Profiles/VEN.pdf.  

“Venezuela after Chavez,” Christian Science Monitor, March 25, 2015, http://www.csmonitor.com/Photo-Galleries/In-Pictures/Venezuela-after-Chavez#799163.  

Kurt Weyland, “Will Chavez Lose His Luster?” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2001, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/venezuela/2001-11-01/will-chavez-lose-his-luster.

Peter Wilson, “The Collapse of Chavezcare,” Foreign Policy, April 27, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/27/chavez-maduro-healthcare-venezuela-cuba/.  

Karla Zabludovsky, “Did You Hear The One About Venezuelans Buying Food By Blood Type?” Buzzfeed News, June 2, 2015, http://www.buzzfeed.com/karlazabludovsky/laughing-your-caracas-off#.wd9VeOnjJ5.

Karla Zabludovsky, “No One Knows Just How Many Venezuelans Are Being Killed As Murder Rate Spirals,” Buzzfeed News, May 20, 2015, http://www.buzzfeed.com/karlazabludovsky/no-one-knows-just-how-many-venezuelans-are-being-killed-as-m#.gbKrYbdXqP.

———, “A Revolution in Green: The Rise of Venezuela’s Military,” Foreign Affairs, October 1, 2014, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/south-america/2014-10-01/revolution-green.  

———, “Keeping It in The Family: How Nepotism Is Helping Venezuela’s Powerful Families,Buzzfeed News, May 28, 2015, http://www.buzzfeed.com/karlazabludovsky/keeping-it-in-the-family-how-nepotism-is-helping-venezuelas#.xh1VxzM3Jr.


Quotation Sources

Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by the Press Secretary on Venezuela,” March 9, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/09/statement-press-secretary-venezuela.

Kejal Vyas, “Venezuela’s Top Opposition Leader Calls for Antigovernment Demonstrations,” Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/venezuelas-top-opposition-leader-calls-for-antigovernment-protests-1421280714.

Peter Wilson, “Selling Crude to Los Imperialistas,” Foreign Policy, March 24, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/03/24/selling-crude-to-los-imeperialistas-maduro-washington/. ​​​​​​​

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.3 Guide to the Memoranda

A major goal of the Model Diplomacy program is to strengthen your ability to write concise, articulate, and persuasive documents that busy colleagues can absorb quickly. In completing this section and Section Four, you will write two memoranda, or memos. These assignments will improve your writing skills and give you a taste of how U.S. foreign policy is conceived, coordinated, and executed.

What is a memorandum?

  • A memo is a formal, succinct written message from one person, department, or organization to another. It is an important form of formal, written communication in the workplace. A memo is generally short, to the point, and free of flowery language and extraneous information. A memo is typically informative or decision-oriented and is formatted in a way that helps readers quickly grasp the main points.
  • In the National Security Council (NSC), memos consider, coordinate, and articulate policy options. They help analyze, evaluate, advocate, and channel those policy options and decisions within the bureaucracy.
  • Memos also function as historical record. Many memos related to NSC discussions and presidential decisions are filed in government archives. Some are later declassified and released to help people understand how policy was devised at a given time in U.S. history. You can access historical examples of memos online. One such resource is maintained by the Federation of American Scientists and offers links to memoranda and directives that various U.S. presidents have issued.

Position Memo


  • The first memo everyone (except the president) writes is called a position memo. It is written from the perspective of your assigned role. It presents a set of policy options for consideration by the NSC and recommends one of them to the president. The recommendation, or position, outlined in this memo is the one you will present during the role-play. (Keep in mind you may change your position as a result of the role-play discussion.)
  • The position memo will help your fellow NSC members consider the issue efficiently and facilitate decision-making by the president. Equally important, it will help you clarify your understanding of the case by forcing you to identify the essential facts and viable policy options.
  • If you have been assigned a specific role, remember that you are writing from the point of view of the department, agency, or office you represent. Using your institutional position as a lens, you will outline a set of options to address the crisis. Make sure you take into account the pros, cons, and ramifications of each option as it pertains to your role and as it is informed by your reading of the case materials and further research. Also, anticipate critiques of your proposed policy and incorporate your response into the memo. Doing so will help you prepare for the role-play.

Note: If you are assigned the role of president, you will not write a position memo. Instead, you will write a two-page presidential directive, or PD, at the conclusion of the role-play. You will address the PD, which will follow a memo format, to the NSC members and inform them of your final decision regarding the policy option or options to be implemented (see below).

If your teacher has chosen to assign everyone the role of general advisor to the president, you will not need to write the position memo from a particular institutional position. Instead, you will have the flexibility to approach the issue from your own perspective, incorporating a comprehensive assessment of the crisis into your argument.


Position Memo Guidelines

Total length: approximately one thousand words

  • Subject and background (two short paragraphs): Summarize in the first paragraph the significance of the issue in the context of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Identify in the second the central policy question or questions to be decided. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader understands your memo’s purpose and importance; do not attempt to discuss the case in any depth.
  • Objectives (bullet points): Succinctly state your department’s objectives in the current crisis. These can be general national security objectives (such as preventing war) or more specific goals tied to your department’s mission (such as protecting U.S. citizens). They should be important to U.S. national security, directly tied to the case, and feasible. These objectives should guide the policy analysis and recommendation that make up the rest of your memo.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph for each option): Present and analyze several options for U.S. policy. Discuss their costs, benefits, and resource needs where possible. To illuminate the trade-offs inherent in complex policy decisions, be sure to acknowledge the weaknesses or disadvantages of each proposed option. No option is likely to be perfect.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify your preferred policy option or options and describe how you think it or they could be carried out. Explain your reasoning, keeping in mind that you aim to convince the president to follow your recommendation. Addressing the weaknesses or disadvantages you identified in the options and analysis section can help strengthen your argument.

Click here to see a sample position memo.

Presidential Directive


The format of the presidential directive is simpler than that of a position memo. A directive contains a record of the policy option or options that the president has chosen as well as the accompanying orders to various parts of the government with details on how to carry out these decisions.

  • Start with a short paragraph describing the purpose of the memo. Everyone you are writing to was in the NSC meeting, so only brief context is needed.
  • Explain in numbered paragraphs the decisions you have made, why you have made them, and any details regarding how you want the decisions carried out.
  • Explain the communications strategy for the decision, considering both relevant foreign governments and the public. Also, consider that you may wish to keep certain elements of the decision secret from the public.
  • Include any additional details before you sign.
  • Be sure to include all the information necessary for NSC members to understand and carry out your intentions.

Click here to see a sample presidential directive.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.4 Guide to the Role-play

During the simulated NSC meeting, you will meet to debate and discuss U.S. policy options in response to the issues outlined in the case. Consistent with the NSC’s mission to advise the president, you should raise the issues that are most important for the president to consider. This will enable him or her to make the most informed decision on policy options. Though you may or may not agree with this decision, your responsibility as an NSC member is to provide the best possible analysis and advice from the perspective of your role.

Role-play Guidelines

  1. Stay in your role at all times.
  2. Follow the general protocol for speaking.
    1. Signaling to Speak

      1. The National Security Advisor (NSA) will administer the meeting and should decide on a speaking order. Wait to be called on by the NSA.
      2. If you would like to speak out of turn, signal to the NSA, perhaps by raising a hand or a placard, and wait until the NSA calls on you.
    2. Form of Speech
      1. Address the president as Mr. or Madam President and your fellow NSC members in the same fashion (for example, Madam Secretary).
      2. Do not exceed predetermined time limits. If you exceed these limits, the NSA will cut you off.
      3. Frame your comments with a purpose and stay on topic. Remember that you must advise the president so that he or she can reach a decision on a precise policy question.
    3. Listening
      1. Take notes while others are speaking.
      2. Refrain from whispering or conducting side conversations.
      3. Applause and booing are not appropriate. Your words will be the most effective tool to indicate agreement or disagreement.


Role-play Tips

  • There is no right or wrong way to participate in a role-play, but the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to advance a position effectively, and the more you and your classmates will get out of the experience.
  • Be patient during the role-play. Do not hold back from sharing your perspective, but be sure to give others a chance to do the same.
  • Where there are competing interests, make the judgment calls that you would make if you were a government official, as informed by your earlier consideration of potential trade-offs. Ensure that the consequences of various decisions are carefully weighed.
  • Where appropriate, find common ground with other members of the NSC during the role-play. With whom might you work in advocating your proposed policies? You may find that combining several policy ideas into a new proposal with broader support is an effective strategy if the debate is at an impasse.
  • Think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of your approach as the discussion continues. It is important to subject your own arguments to the same scrutiny that you apply to those of your fellow students. Rethink your arguments as appropriate to take into account the feedback and counterarguments that other NSC members present.
  • You cannot win or lose the role-play. Instead, you should aim to offer a well-reasoned articulation of your position while making concessions and adjustments where you believe they are warranted.
Line Item
2 to 3 minutes per participant
  1. Present initial positions to the president.
  2. Investigate the nuances of the positions through questioning.
  3. Clarify the central questions to be debated.
Procedural Notes

Each participant presents his or her position statement. If time permits, the president may ask questions to understand each NSC member’s position and bring out the essential questions he or she wishes to debate.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Clarify the obstacles, risks, opportunities, and threats.
  2. Evaluate the various positions on their merits.
Procedural Notes

This is the debate portion of the role-play, when participants can defend their recommendations against others’ and identify potential areas of compromise or agreement.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Narrow the options to a few comprehensive and well- focused strategies that the president prefers.
  2. Provide the president with clear recommendations (from NSC members), perhaps as a consensus or through a vote.
  3. Arrive at a final presidential decision 
Procedural Notes

This round should start with the president’s stating one to three preferred options to be fleshed out.

Wrap Up Sections
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.1 The Debrief 

After the debate and deliberation close, the president will announce his or her decision, to be later finalized in the form of a written presidential directive (PD). If time permits, you will participate in a debrief following the president’s announcement. 

Be active in this debrief. The role-play might seem to be the most challenging part of the experience, but the debrief is equally important. It will reinforce what you learned during the role-play exercise and refine your analytical skills. It will also force you to step out of your role and to view the case from a personal perspective. You will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges you encountered and how you felt about the final presidential decision. The debrief will close with a reflection on the complexities and challenges of crafting foreign policy. This should help clarify your understanding of what you learned and answer any lingering questions. This exercise will also assist you in completing your final assignment, the policy review memo.  

Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.2 Reflecting on the Experience

The following questions are proposed to guide the discussion in the in-class debrief. This is not an exhaustive list and may vary depending on how your role-play exercise unfolded.  If your class does not hold a debrief, these questions will nonetheless help you reflect on the role-play and write your policy review memo: 

  • Which issues received adequate attention during the role-play? Which, if any, received excessive attention or were left unresolved?
  • Did the group consider long-term strategic concerns, or was it able to focus only on the immediate issue and the short-term implications of policy options?
  • Which U.S. interests did the group or the president prioritize in the PD and why? Were you comfortable with this prioritization?
  • Did time constraints affect the discussion and influence the policymaking process?
  • What techniques did you use to convince others that your policy position was the best option? What were successful strategies employed by others?
  • What were the most significant challenges to your position? Did any make you rethink or adjust your position?
  • Did your points cause anyone else to change his or her arguments or position?
  • What political, economic, and other issues arose that you had not previously considered?
  • How did the simulation change your perspective on foreign policy decision-making?
  • If you could go back, what would you have done differently in presenting and advocating your point of view?
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.3 Policy Review Memo

The policy review memo is your final assignment in the Model Diplomacy simulation. In the debrief discussion after the role-play, you and your classmates went beyond the role you played and thought about the issue from a variety of perspectives. Now that the National Security Council discussion and debrief are behind you, you can consider whether you personally support your recommended policy given the full spectrum of arguments and considerations that arose. Shedding your institutional role and writing from a personal point of view, you will craft a policy review memo that outlines and reflects on the policy options discussed, incorporating and critiquing the president’s decision where appropriate.

If you played the role of president in the simulation, your memo should still reflect your personal opinion. You can comment on the course of action you ordered as president, further justify it, write more extensively on the options you dismissed, or suggest and support alternate options.

No matter which role you played originally, take into account all you have learned. Your instructor will want to see whether and how your understanding of the issue and of the policymaking process has evolved from that expressed in your position memo.

As for the position memo, a sample policy review memo is provided for your reference.

Policy Review Memo Guidelines

  • Subject (one short paragraph): Offer a brief statement about the significance of the issue as it relates to U.S. foreign policy and national security. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader can understand the purpose and importance of your memo. Be sure to include an initial statement of whether you agree or disagree with the president’s decision.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph per option): Present and analyze the options discussed during the debate, deliberation, or debrief. Discuss their drawbacks, benefits, and resource needs. Be sure to acknowledge any weaknesses or disadvantages of the proposed options.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify and explain your preferred policy option or options in more detail. Here, you can explain why you personally favor one or more of the recommendations that you initially presented or the president chose, or different options entirely. If you choose to support the options you presented in your position memo, make sure to justify why you feel yours is still the best position.
  • Reflection (one to two paragraphs): Discuss how your position and the presidential directive are similar; if they are not, discuss how they are different. Use this section to give your thoughts on what the president should have included in his directive, or what you would have done differently. Remember, this is from your point of view; you are no longer advocating on behalf of a department or agency.

Click here to see a full example of a policy review memo.