President Donald Trump has not made it easy for Democrats to forge bipartisan approaches with him on foreign policy. By undercutting essential alliances, embracing autocrats and discarding well-crafted international accords on Iran, trade and climate change, he has abandoned American ideals and undermined U.S. interests.
On Venezuela, however, Trump’s instincts have often been right, and his administration, notwithstanding this week’s tactical missteps and rhetorical overreach, has often done what it has failed to do in most other contexts — build multilateral alliances, fashion targeted sanctions and coordinate with congressional Democrats.
Some voices on the far left, among them U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and the peace activist group Code Pink, have employed the usual tropes about American interventionism. Omar told the “Democracy Now!” news program that American “bullying and the use of sanctions to eventually intervene and make regime change really does not help the people of countries like Venezuela, and it certainly does not help and is not in the interest of the United States.”
But joining the Trump administration in backing Juan Guaido, whom Venezuela’s democratically elected National Assembly designated as interim president, should be a no-brainer for progressives. Democrats with actual authority over foreign affairs — including the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.; and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey — have advanced legislation to pressure the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, promote a democratic transition via free and fair elections, and increase humanitarian assistance.
Maduro, who assumed power following the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013, has stolen elections, jailed political opponents and shuttered media outlets. Under his rule, security services have executed and tortured political opponents. Maduro’s economic mismanagement has also produced an economic catastrophe of historic proportions. Since 2013, GDP has been cut in half, inflation has soared to more than 10 million percent, and food and medicine have gone scarce, leading 2.7 million Venezuelans — about 10% of the population — to flee to neighboring countries.
Despite the protestations of some on the left, the U.S. is not looking to control Venezuela’s oil — the shale revolution has reduced the U.S. need for oil from countries such as Venezuela. Nor is Venezuela an ideological battlefield per se. Guaido’s party, Popular Will, is affiliated with the Socialist International, the international grouping of social democratic parties, yet he has the fervent support of conservative Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. What’s at stake in Venezuela is more basic — whether the country will be a disintegrating dictatorship or stable democracy.
More than 50 countries have joined the U.S. in recognizing Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela, and many have followed the U.S. in imposing sanctions on Maduro and other members of the regime for corruption, drug trafficking and human rights abuses. Nevertheless, Maduro has been able to cling to power, thanks to support from Russia, China and Cuba and a military that has largely remained outwardly loyal. Members of the high command have illicitly enriched themselves and fear being held to account for their misdeeds.
Guaido’s failed attempt last week to mobilize the military to peacefully support his leadership and end what he calls Maduro’s usurpation of power highlighted that the direction of Venezuela will be determined by the armed forces. The Venezuelan public is firmly on the side of Guaido; as a national poll last month by the Albright Stonebridge Group and GBAO Strategies shows — Guaido wins a hypothetical matchup against Maduro, 61 to 28%. But the thus-far peaceful and fleeting public protests have been insufficient to dislodge Maduro or impel the military to embrace Guaido.
Trump and other administration officials repeat that “all options are on the table” regarding Venezuela. That has led many to fear (or hope) that the U.S. is contemplating military action to remove Maduro. In fact, the administration seems wedded to a single option — the ratcheting up of sanctions to starve the Maduro regime of financial resources and force its downfall.
There are no signs the Department of Defense is planning operations in Venezuela intended to produce regime change, and American military officials say as much in private. At the same time, the administration rejects negotiations with the regime other than to negotiate Maduro’s exit from power.
The sanctions strategy could work, especially if they complement the apparent ongoing back channel negotiations between Guaido’s representatives and senior officials of the Maduro regime. The misery in Venezuela, which affects families of the middle and lower ranks of the armed forces, could spur a revolt, and offers of amnesty from Guaido and the U.S. could provide enough assurance that a democratic government will put a priority on reconciliation and peace over accountability and vengeance.
Time might not be on the administration’s side, however. The longer Maduro is in office, the more dispirited Venezuelans will be. Protests will be harder to sustain, and the pace of migration will pick up, providing a safety valve for the regime. And while the Trump administration has tried to tailor sanctions to maximize pressure on the government and minimize the impact on the Venezuelan people, the measures are hitting the public. Venezuelans overwhelmingly and rightly hold the Maduro regime responsible for the economic crisis in the country, the Albright Stonebridge-GBAO poll shows; but 3 in 5 say they have been negatively affected by U.S. sanctions.
In the event of an extended political stalemate, there will be increasing pressure for negotiations with the regime. A bare majority of Venezuelans already support internationally mediated dialogue, according to the poll, and a grouping of European and Latin American governments has reached out to the leadership of both sides in Venezuela, albeit with nothing to show for the effort. Maduro’s opponents are especially right to be skeptical of talks since Maduro used dialogue in 2015 and 2016 to stall for time and consolidate power.
But the domestic and international dynamic was different then. It is hard to imagine today, but when President Barack Obama sanctioned seven Venezuelan officials in 2015, most governments in Latin America condemned the move. The Maduro regime now would enter negotiations diplomatically isolated and under severe economic pressure.
Unfortunately, the U.S. would be ill-equipped if a diplomatic track takes on more importance. John Bolton, the national security adviser, has resorted to name-calling — branding Venezuela, along with Cuba and Nicaragua, the “troika of tyranny” and the “three stooges of socialism” — and invoked the anachronistic Monroe Doctrine to warn countries such as Russia and China against intervening in the Americas. This supposed muscularity was exposed as empty rhetoric this week as he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged being outmaneuvered by Russia when the effort to flip senior military officials failed.
Democrats might be inclined to revel in the administration’s diplomatic blunders. And Trump and Bolton will not make bipartisanship any easier if they continue to imply parallels between Maduro’s socialist rule and some Democrats’ policy platforms. But the consequences of Maduro’s misrule are too tragic. All Americans should be rooting for a peaceful, democratic transition in Venezuela.
Mark Feierstein is an adviser to government and businesses on Latin America. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.