Op-Ed: Trump has sounded all the wrong notes on Venezuela, even though he’s right about Maduro

President Trump speaks in Miami, Fla. on Feb. 18.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

“The people of Venezuela are standing for freedom and democracy, and the United States of America is standing right by their side,” President Trump declared Monday at a rally in Miami.

It’s a frequent refrain from this administration. But it needs to be more than a hollow slogan, and the president should stop exploiting this crisis for partisan gain.

Trump showed no regard throughout his speech for its potential effect on the precarious dynamics in Venezuela – a nation whose fate remains uncertain as its illegitimate dictator defiantly clings to power. Indeed, Trump’s performance risked playing into the desperate hands of Nicolas Maduro, who often blames American imperialism for his country’s plight.


Trump’s craven rally undermines what had been an uncharacteristically well-executed diplomatic effort by his administration.

Maduro’s contention is absurd, of course. Venezuela is in shambles because of his own corruption, tyranny and incompetence, something the Trump administration fully understands.

Yet Trump still managed to strike all the wrong notes. He used most of the speech to attack socialism, which risks antagonizing Chavistas who loathe Maduro even though they, like many Scandinavians, still embrace socialism. His threats against Venezuelan security officers who refuse to buck Maduro may instead motivate some to dig in. And his continued insinuations that a military option is under consideration only bolster Maduro’s “coup” narrative.

What is particularly frustrating about Trump’s craven rally is that it undermines what had been an uncharacteristically well-executed diplomatic effort by his administration.

Before endorsing the claim of National Assembly President Juan Guaidó to the presidency, the administration had quietly worked to secure support from key regional and global powers. Where Trump’s go-it-alone impulses have sabotaged many foreign policy endeavors, here the administration built a strong multilateral coalition, levied meaningful sanctions, exhibited discipline, and maintained a strong message of support for the oppressed people of Venezuela.

Trump’s speech kneecapped that meticulous diplomacy. But there are things the administration could now do to move us productively forward again.


First, let’s be clear that the new sanctions on Venezuela’s oil will also further limit people’s access to basic necessities. They must be paired with a comprehensive humanitarian surge – one devised, above all else, to actually help the suffering.

There is no excuse, of course, for the fact that Maduro is shamefully blocking U.S. aid from his people – and drawing attention to that cruelty may well further our ultimate political objectives. But what it hasn’t done is provide immediate relief for those in urgent need. Life-and-death aid for Venezuelans should not be contingent upon – nor solely aimed at achieving – Maduro’s ouster.

As we barrel toward a weekend showdown over that stalled aid, we must acknowledge that its delivery is not guaranteed, and its scale is not sufficient. We must dramatically increase our contributions on multiple fronts — including boosting aid to international and regional humanitarian organizations, and overhauling our support for Venezuelan refugees resettling in countries like Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.

Of course, that brings us to a more fundamental failure of values by the Trump administration.

Consider this: An estimated 3 million to 4 million people have already fled Venezuela in recent years, yet the U.S. has not granted refugee status to a single one. And despite the White House’s apocalyptic portrayals of the country, it continues to deport Venezuelan immigrants and deny legitimate asylum claims, which increased 12-fold from 2014-17.

Those denials have included the exact kind of people Trump championed in Monday’s speech, like anti-Maduro activists and military defectors. That’s simply indefensible.


Bipartisan bills have been introduced to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelan immigrants – the administration should make that designation immediately. It should also raise its historically low refugee cap and greenlight the resettling of Venezuelans, as well as expediting and approving asylum claims. This is the absolute least we can do.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute »

Don’t get me wrong: It’s refreshing to see Trump take an interest in confronting a repressive dictator. But “standing with the people” subject to such a despot requires more than platitudes. And Venezuela is the tip of the iceberg.

This president constantly threatens to slash foreign aid to countries in need. He has turned his back on refugees and demonized asylum-seekers. He’s banned travelers from countries like Iran, where we similarly purport to “stand with the people” against a brutal regime. He’s refused to condemn human-rights abusers from Saudi Arabia and North Korea to China to Russia.

America’s interest in oppressed peoples cannot be selective. Our promises to help them cannot be hollow. Our doors cannot be bolted shut.

We cannot continue to fail people like Helegner Tijera Moreno, a former Venezuelan army lieutenant who defected in protest of Maduro.


“I came here because I thought the United States was the principal opponent of the Venezuelan government and because I thought we had a good chance of help,” Tijera said from an immigration detention facility in New Mexico after being denied asylum.

“Sadly, I was wrong.”

Jesse Lehrich is a Democratic strategist and former foreign policy spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.