There’s no doubt Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro is a terrible leader. Following in the steps of his predecessor Hugo Chavez, he is further destroying what’s left of a once-prosperous oil state. His human rights record is a disaster.
But the Trump administration’s effort to oust Maduro — it recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as legitimate president last week — revives memories of past unhappy U.S. efforts at regime change. Think Libya, failed efforts in Syria, and Iraq, for starters.
In true Trumpian fashion, there appears to be no Plan B should Maduro hang on, nor any strategy for coping with a failed state if he is deposed. Yet so far Trump’s Venezuela venture has received bipartisan support in Congress. It should be getting much more skeptical scrutiny than it has received until now.
First, there is the matter of why we are involved in Venezuela regime change at this moment.
The rhetoric about human rights from the president and Vice President Pence clearly doesn’t cut it; this is not a White House that cares about humanitarian causes. Maduro may be the first despot for whom Trump has expressed dislike.
When the Venezuela story broke last week, it looked like a move to distract from the government shutdown. I thought it might be a test run for the bigger Trump aim of squeezing Iran into regime change via sanctions.
Yet, as the New York Times has detailed, the effort to dislodge Maduro is mainly the result of a long-running push by Cuban American Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) to engage Trump on the issue. The underlying reason appears to be Cuba: Maduro, like Chavez, is closely aligned with Havana, which long profited from cheap Venezuelan oil. Ousting Maduro would hurt the Cuban regime.
It looks like Rubio, along with another Cuban American — the National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, Mauricio Claver-Carone — persuaded Trump this issue was a winner.
Perhaps this appeared to be the opportune moment: the situation was at boil, with huge anti-Maduro demonstrations on the streets of Caracas. The optics were good. “This is a civic revolution against a kleptocratic tyranny,” says the University of Maryland’s Vladimir Tismaneanu, an expert on popular revolts against dictators. The young, handsome Guaido — directly encouraged by Pence — declared himself the legitimate president.
As leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Guaido had a plausible legal basis to take charge, since the last presidential elections were blatantly rigged. Moreover, Washington got many Latin countries to recognize Guaido, with EU nations poised to join if Maduro didn’t schedule new elections.
Yet, good optics and good causes can’t overcome the caveats that make U.S. intervention a huge gamble. So far the Venezuelan military is backing Maduro, and it, plus tens of thousands of armed militiamen, has all the guns. U.S. sanctions may deter Maduro from selling oil to the United States, but his strong backers, China and Russia, can take up the slack, while other countries will also buy more discounted oil.
Will the United States intervene militarily if Maduro hangs on? It looks unlikely (despite National Security Adviser John Bolton’s efforts to hint that this option is open). At a time when Trump wants to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, Afghanistan, and maybe even South Korea — damn the consequences — it’s hard to imagine him invading another country.
That’s a good thing, because, if the military sticks by Maduro, U.S. intervention would be a very bad idea.
“In Venezuela, you would need to go in with a large force and stay for a long time,” says Shannon K. O'Neil, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This is not Panama in 1989, where you could take out a leader and have a working government.” Even many Venezuelans who desperately want Maduro out would reject a U.S. invasion, she says, nor would other Latin American governments be likely to join it. “This would be an American project,” she says.
Even if Maduro falls, the big question is what comes after. The country is awash with armed groups; opposition groups are sharply divided,
“Venezuela is a failed state,” says O’Neil. Much of the middle class, including professionals, has fled, infrastructure has collapsed, and even the oil industry is terribly degraded. “You would have to rebuild the basic functions of a state.”
And, lest we forget, the United States has a sad record with helping rebuild states whose leaders it has ousted. In Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of billions of dollars were wasted. In Libya, Washington stayed aloof after helping depose Muammar Gaddafi; the country became a terrorist haven.
Trump has made clear his disdain for nation-building. He would probably tell Guaido to pay for reconstruction with oil, even though it will take years to revive the industry. Trump might even ask him to hand over some of his oil fields to repay American efforts.