US President Donald Trump has not made it easy for Democrats to forge bipartisan approaches with him on foreign policy. By undercutting essential alliances and discarding international accords, he has abandoned American ideals and undermined US interests.
On Venezuela, however, Trump’s instincts may be right, and his administration, notwithstanding last week’s tactical missteps, has often done what it has failed to do in most other contexts — build multilateral alliances, fashion targeted sanctions, and coordinate with congressional Democrats.
Democrats with actual authority over foreign affairs have advanced legislation to pressure the regime of Venezuelan President Nicols Maduro, promote a democratic transition via free and fair elections, and increase humanitarian assistance.
Maduro, who assumed power following the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013, has jailed opponents and shuttered media outlets. His economic mismanagement has also produced an economic catastrophe of historic proportions. Since 2013, GDP has been cut in half, inflation has soared to over 10 million per cent, and food and medicine have gone scarce, leading 2.7 million Venezuelans — about 10 per cent of the population — to flee to neighbouring countries.
Despite the protestations of some on the left, the United States is not looking to control Venezuela’s oil — the shale revolution has reduced the US need for oil from countries such as Venezuela. Nor is Venezuela an ideological battlefield per se. The party of Juan Guaido, Maduro’s main challenger, Popular Will, is affiliated with the Socialist International, the international grouping of social democratic parties. More than 50 countries have joined the United States in recognising Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela, and many have followed the US in imposing sanctions on Maduro and 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. Guaido’s failed attempt last week to mobilise 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. Trump and other administration officials repeat that “all options are on the table” regarding Venezuela. That has led many to fear that the United States 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 Defence 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 US 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 maximise pressure on the government and minimise the impact on the Venezuelan people, the measures are hitting the public. In the event of an extended political stalemate, there will be increasing pressure for negotiations with the regime. The US would be ill-equipped if a diplomatic track takes on more importance.
National security adviser John Bolton 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 outmanoeuvred by Russia when the effort to flip senior military officials failed.
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 a stalemate in Venezuela are too tragic. Everyone should be rooting for a peaceful transition in Venezuela.
Mark Feierstein has served in senior positions in the US government.