Until Jan. 24th, President Trump led the world in supporting Venezuelan human rights and that nation’s legitimate president, Juan Guaido.
But from the day after he recognized Guaido’s presidency until now, Trump’s policy has been defined by far too much rhetoric and far too little action. As with former President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria, Trump’s Venezuela policy is heading for disaster. Like Syria, it will be a disaster that matches grotesque humanitarian suffering to gutted American credibility.
Trump’s problem became clear again on Wednesday, when he met with Guaido’s wife at the White House. Trump offered vocal support to Guaido, and warned that “Russia has to get out” of Venezuela. But where it matters most, in pledges of major action, Trump once again offered nothing. It’s a big problem.
In 2015, Putin came to understand that Obama’s lofty moral rhetoric on Syria existed in a vacuum of serious action. Obama refused to support the more moderate elements of the Syrian rebellion just at the moment Bashar Assad was weakest. And Putin took notice: He sent his military in to gut the rebellion, Syria’s civilian population, and U.S. interests. In 2019, Putin sees Trump’s lofty rhetoric on Venezuela matched with no action when action is needed most. Thus Russia, which would utterly fail to contest the U.S. in Venezuela were the U.S. acting seriously, is seizing the moment to save its ally, Nicolas Maduro.
Trump, John Bolton, and Mike Pompeo have got to wake up. They talk the talk, but they are most certainly not walking the walk.
Guaido’s request for a U.S.-led embargo on Maduro’s oil theft has been ignored. And Trump has rejected severe sanctions against Maduro, his cronies, and his military supporters. Don’t tell me the sanctions that the Treasury Department announces every couple of days are sufficient. They are not.
But in Venezuela, the reality is blinding: The humanitarian catastrophe is set to spiral into a truly nightmarish dystopia. And if Trump thinks his words and Venezuelan suffering will persuade Putin to be tougher on Maduro, he’s delusional. As in Syria, the Russians will do exactly the opposite. As in Aleppo, they will make the humanitarian suffering worse, and they’ll make it clear that the price tag for basic humanitarian relief will be America’s acquiescence to Maduro’s power.
Maduro knows it. Which is why he’s taking increasingly aggressive action against Guaido’s inner circle. On the present track, Guaido is going to end up in the SEBIN gulag, or shot dead by Maduro’s cutouts. Then Trump will have his Syria — as with Obama, his credibility will have been gutted by a lesser power as a despot continues to destroy his people.
It needn’t be this way. Employment of U.S. military force against Maduro is not yet warranted. But Trump has far more means of action against Maduro than he’s currently employing. If Trump chooses to use them, Venezuela’s people will find salvation, Maduro will disappear, democracy will prevail, and American interests will trump Putin’s agenda.