The U.S. — along with more than 50 other nations — is making the right call in recognizing Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela, given the illegitimate means by which President Nicolas Maduro obtained, and retains, office.
The Trump administration also rightly encouraged senior Venezuelan military leaders to rise up and rid their nation of Maduro, an antidemocratic, corrupt and cruel ruler who is destroying his country. And the U.S. is correct in sticking with Guaido even though his attempt to rally Venezuela’s military and citizens to topple Maduro fizzled late last week.
Guaido, the legitimately elected leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, represents his oil-rich nation’s potential, while Maduro reflects its miserable present-day destitution, characterized by an inflation rate that may top 10 million percent as well as by chronic (indeed, deadly) shortages of food, medicine, electricity and hope. The dire conditions have created a Syrian-sized refugee exodus of more than 3 million people who have fled to neighboring nations ill-equipped to manage such mass migration.
The U.S. needs to keep the pressure on Maduro, but it shouldn’t act militarily to try to dislodge his regime. Beyond the moral and legal concerns, using force would not guarantee a successful outcome. In fact, it might cause Venezuela’s military and citizens to rally around Maduro, who could cast a conflict as a fight against imperialistic aggression.
Other key factors to consider include the prospect of a prolonged military crisis despite lopsided capabilities. The U.S. has seen this happen repeatedly in recent decades and should avoid the possibility of a repeat. Additionally, military action would shatter the precious hemispheric consensus that Maduro must go, and would further embolden enabling nations like Cuba and geopolitical powers like China and Russia that immorally back the Maduro regime.
Rather, the U.S. should continue to nurture the multinational effort to rescue Venezuela from its slide into political and economic chaos and rely on economic pressure, including increasing and extending sanctions on key Maduro backers, to force a transition. And while not ideal, it should not rule out the prospect of negotiations with some of the same military leaders who have enabled Maduro’s misrule.
“What we know from the study of democratization is that there are extremely few transitions that happen without negotiation,” Harold Trinkunas, deputy director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, told an editorial writer.
To maintain, let alone lead, the anti-Maduro coalition, the administration needs to do a better job formulating, implementing and communicating policy. Confusing, even contradictory, signals from President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton during last week’s failed uprising undermine America’s — and most important, the Guaido-led opposition’s — credibility.
And Trump should not take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word on his intentions regarding Venezuela, as he seemingly did during a phone call last week. As he showed in Syria, Putin will use lethal support to prop up pro-Russian regimes no matter how vile. He’s also willing to lie about his nihilism, and Trump looks naive and weak when he believes his denials.
The U.S. is on the right side in this foreign-policy crisis. It needs to stay there in order to help Venezuela’s victimized citizens.