Analysis: Trump’s gamble in Venezuela offers opportunity but could backfire badly
President Trump has finally encountered a dictator he doesn’t like.
With unusual forcefulness, speed and coherence, Trump and major U.S. allies have sought to unseat Venezuela’s authoritarian socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, and replace him with Juan Guaido, the leader of the country’s political opposition.
The move carries considerable risks for the White House and marks a notable shift for Trump. Until now, he has embraced strongmen around the globe, challenged foreign alliances and pursued a more isolationist foreign policy.
But in this case, the White House has embraced a four-pronged strategy that reflects a reversal of those approaches — even as Maduro’s supporters, especially Russia, say the U.S.-backed campaign is aimed at stealing Venezuela’s oil.
Diplomatically, the White House has amassed a coalition of more than two dozen countries — including Canada, the European Parliament and most of Latin America — who recognize Guaido as the legitimate president.
Economically, the administration has slapped the stiffest sanctions yet on the Maduro government, hitting the oil sector and seizing oil revenue. Psychologically, U.S. officials have repeatedly hinted at a potential military invasion, saying all options remain on the table.
Politically, and most controversially, the administration insists on recognizing Guaido as the country’s president, and the people he is appointing as members of his parallel government, even though Maduro still holds the reins of power in Caracas, the capital city.
“It could be days, months, years until the inevitable collapse,” said William Brownfield, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela who supports the current policy. “This is a time of great opportunity and a time of great danger.”
Most importantly, Maduro still controls the Venezuelan military, and experts warn he is not likely to go peacefully.
U.S. officials are treading carefully as a result. The “entirety of our focus” remains a “peaceful, democratic path to restoring constitutional order” in Venezuela, said Kimberly Breier, who recently filled the long-vacant post of assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs.
In the weeks since Guaido declared himself president on Jan. 23, opposition and exile figures who support him have made the rounds in Washington, visiting Vice President Mike Pence at the White House, lobbying on Capitol Hill, and hitting the think tank circuit with a single message.
“We cannot resolve the Venezuela crisis with Maduro in place,” explained Carlos Vecchio, whom Guaido appointed as Venezuela’s envoy in Washington.
Guaido has promised to stabilize an oil-rich economy that once was one of the region’s most prosperous, but has collapsed under Maduro. The country suffers from widespread food and medical shortages and the world’s highest inflation.
Trump saw Venezuela as a problem for other reasons. The tumult has spurred a refugee crisis, with 3.3 million Venezuelans fleeing the country and half a million landing in Florida.
Beyond that, U.S. officials have accused some of Maduro’s top aides of drug trafficking. The White House sees a new government in Caracas as a way to cut off support for the communist government in Cuba. And U.S. officials have claimed Iran has sent militants into the hemisphere through Venezuela.
“This was an easy subject for Trump to become angry about,” said Mark L. Schneider, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank that sponsored one of several events for Venezuela’s opposition leaders.
Added to that equation are Venezuela’s vast oil reserves. Trump has criticized past presidents for failing to seize Iraq’s oil in that conflict. He has not threatened to do so in Venezuela, but sorting out the crisis could ease global oil prices.
Fixing Venezuela also could be good politics. Trump has faced steady pressure to intervene from Sen. Marco Rubio — a hard-liner on Cuba and other leftist governments in Latin America — and other Republican lawmakers from Florida, which will be a key battleground state in the 2020 election.
Shortly after Trump took office, Rubio brought the wife of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez to the White House to meet the president and first lady. Let Lopez “out of prison immediately!” Trump tweeted at the time.
Rubio visited the Oval Office again the day before Trump officially recognized Guaido, urging the president to do so.
Days later, Trump’s hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton, was photographed at the White House holding a notepad on which was written “5,000 troops to Colombia.” Whether it was a plan or a prank wasn’t clear — no large deployments have been announced — but Trump’s critics began warning of a U.S. invasion.
The White House also raised alarms in Caracas and among Democrats by naming Elliott Abrams, a former diplomat with a controversial past, as special representative to Venezuela.
Under President Reagan, Abrams helped engineer a failed attempt to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua. He pleaded guilty in 1991 to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal but was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.
“He is not the guy you put in place for negotiations,” said Ana Quintana, a Latin America specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has advised the Trump administration. “He’s one who will get the job done.”
Abrams emphasizes the new unity of the Venezuelan opposition, which imploded in past efforts to challenge Maduro. At 35, Guaido is a fresh face from a middle-class background, unlike the wealthy elites who previously led the opposition.
Despite the high stakes,Trump’s leverage appeared limited in the long term.
The administration already has levied the toughest sanctions it can, with little more left to seize. And it has gone as far as possible in diplomatic terms by recognizing Guaido and his government. It has vowed a fierce response if Maduro’s forces act against Guaido or against U.S. diplomats still in Caracas, a line Maduro has been careful not to cross.
“If this doesn’t work to dislodge the regime, there’s not a lot left in the toolbox,” said Shannon O’Neil, a Latin America expert at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations.
“Military intervention is unrealistic,” O’Neil said, noting that Venezuela is twice the size of Iraq, has more oil, would meet any foreign troops with formidable military resistance and is essentially a failed state.
Reconstruction after even a successful military foray would be a long exercise in nation-building, a costly project the Trump administration has opposed elsewhere.
But failure to oust Maduro would be disastrous for the region and problematic for Trump, several analysts said.
“There is no guarantee” the White House approach will work, said Fernando Cutz, who handled Latin American affairs for the National Security Council for the first 18 months of Trump’s tenure.
“They will have used all the diplomatic and economic leverage they have,” he said. Failure could result “in a new Cuba: decades of isolated dictatorship. It won’t be pretty.”
A senior U.S. official involved in Venezuela policy said critics underestimated how much additional pressure the administration can exert.
“We have many tools, and we will be creative,” said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in keeping with White House rules. “Maduro’s days are counted.”
For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.