Venezuela: Strike While the Iron is Hot

The Trump administration has decided that now is the opportune moment to depose the leftist Maduro dictatorship of Venezuela and is breaking out all of America’s tools to make sure he doesn’t stay in power.

Failure to successfully remove the Maduro regime will result in a continued and exacerbated humanitarian crisis which has already led to an exodus of over three million Venezuelans.  Resolving the political crisis in Venezuela and restoring order and economic security won’t just avert a humanitarian crisis, it's an opportunity for the U.S. to flip Venezuela from being an adversary to an ally.  That could be a significant blow to Cuba, Russia, Iran, and China, who have close relationships with the Venezuelan dictatorship. Golden opportunities for a diplomatic coup like this are rare.

The U.S. has a righteous cause in supporting the challenger to the Maduro regime, Juan Guaido. Guaido was recently made interim president by Venezuela’s National Assembly in the wake of months of protests which followed Nicolas Maduro’s victory in national elections last May.  There are widespread suspicions that Maduro rigged those elections. Effectively, there are now two parallel governments in Venezuela. However, Maduro holds the high card with control of the military.  As Mao Zedong astutely observed, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.”

Steps Already Taken
So far, the Trump administration has taken all the right steps to give Guaido the best possible chance of wresting control of Venezuela away from Maduro.

The Trump administration is throwing all its diplomatic power behind Guaido.  U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made Venezuela a litmus test for the rest of the world, "Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side.  No more delays, no more games.  Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you're in league with Mr. Maduro and his mayhem," he told the United Nations Security Council.  So far, almost the whole Western Hemisphere, have declared support for Guaido and most of Europe has announced plans to support his claim to the presidency if Maduro does not announce new elections within a few days.

The U.S. is also trying to put the squeeze on Maduro economically.  On Monday the Trump administration announced sanctions against Venezuela’s state-run petroleum company, PdVSA, effective immediately.  The U.S. also successfully convinced the U.K. to cut off Maduro from his government’s $1.2 billion worth of gold in the Bank of England.

Ostensibly, the plan is to remove Maduro’s control over the Venezuelan military by preventing him from being able to continue paying their meager salaries. This strategy could be undermined if one of Maduro’s benefactors offer him loans; however, it could successfully weaken loyalty to Maduro’s government amongst members of Venezuela’s armed forces and even lead to mass defections.

If Maduro hasn’t yet realized that he is in a tight spot, he will soon. And once he does, an exit plan will begin looking very appealing. Guaido has already offered him one, promising amnesty to Maduro for his past crimes.

What Happens Next?
Anything can happen next. Maduro could decide next week that he doesn’t have the best cards, take Guaido up on his offer for amnesty, and go live the rest of his life in lavish exile in some sympathetic state.  Or he could decide that he’s not going anywhere and attempt to crush his opposition by force.

The Trump administration may be hoping for the best, but they are prudently preparing for the worst.  National Security Advisor John Bolton told the press that, “[Trump] has made it clear, all options are on the table.”  It also didn’t require sharp eyes to spot the line, “5,000 troops to Columbia,” on Bolton’s notepad.

But the Trump administration must tread a fine line if it wants Gauido to be successful.  Anti-American sentiments run high in that part of the world and too much overt intervention by the U.S. -- even if successful -- could undermine the legitimacy of any government that follows.  That’s not a good solution at all.

The solution (if past experience is any indication) which the Trump administration is currently pursuing, will be to encourage regional states to take ownership of the situation.  The U.S. has two allies who border Venezuela and who have an immediate interest in preventing a civil war or humanitarian disaster which will lead to millions of additional refugees.  Brazil and Columbia both prefer a stable neighbor to a dystopian socialist apocalypse.  They are the natural choices for leadership of a South American coalition.

A regional coalition prepared to deal with any contingencies that might arise should Maduro refuse to step down isn’t just a prudent precaution, it would also dramatically alter Maduro’s calculations of his chances of holding onto power.  Not only will he have to figure out how to combat domestic opposition but possibly foreign militaries as well. That beach house in Cuba will begin to look mighty tempting.

If Maduro doesn’t decide to step down and things devolve to a point where intervention is warranted, a regional coalition crucially provides the international opposition to Maduro the face of concerned neighboring states.  South Americans solving South American problems.

U.S. intervention wouldn’t be precluded by the creation of a regional coalition -- the U.S. would still have options to use its intelligence and military assets either directly or in support of allied forces.  But by working under the umbrella of a South American coalition, both the U.S. and the Guaido government would have political cover.  The U.S. couldn’t be so easily attacked as imperialists and Guaido couldn’t be so easily attacked as an American puppet.  It would also provide more legitimacy to Venezuelan elections and a new government if/when that point is reached.

The Trump administration has an opportunity to score a huge foreign relations win and avert a humanitarian crisis simultaneously.  Hopefully, they can successfully form a South American coalition without there being any need for it.