Trump Administration Threads the Needle in Venezuela

Trump Administration Threads the Needle in Venezuela
AP Photo/Fernando Llano
Trump Administration Threads the Needle in Venezuela
AP Photo/Fernando Llano
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The Trump administration has clear goals in Venezuela and is determined to achieve them with limited means. Those goals are straightforward:

--Out with the fraudulently elected regime of Nicolás Maduro, its Chávez-style socialism, and its strong ties to Cuba, Russia, Iran, and China;

--In with the duly elected moderate Juan Guaidó.

To do that without sending U.S. troops means squeezing Maduro with harsh economic pressure, recognizing Guaidó as the legitimate leader, and naming an experienced point man, Elliott Abrams. It also entails, and this would be a departure for President Trump, building a supportive coalition of Latin American nations and major economic powers.

The coalition helps in two ways. First, it blunts Maduro’s knee-jerk claim that any effort to replace him is simply Yankee imperialism. His claim sounds ludicrous when there are massive protests inside Venezuela itself and after nearly every country in South America (Bolivia and Uruguay are the exceptions) recognized Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader.

Within the region, Maduro’s support comes mainly from Cuba, an ideological fellow traveler with few resources to help. Outside the region, his support comes from Russia, Iran, and China, the triumvirate that now challenges the U.S. around the globe. They would hate to lose their foothold in Latin America.

Of the two coalitions, America’s is obviously much larger and richer, much more capable of exerting economic leverage. Sanctions are key. The heaviest blow was Washington’s decision to place Venezuela’s oil revenues in escrow. With a stroke of the pen, the U.S. Department of the Treasury cut off Maduro’s primary source of foreign exchange, his only way to pay the army. When he desperately tried to move his country’s gold reserves out of Britain, the Bank of England refused. The European Union is likely to impose additional sanctions this week.

These restrictions won’t add much more pain for Venezuela’s ordinary citizens, who already face grim conditions. The economy is in free fall, food is scarce, and inflation tops 1 million percent, according to Reuters. When currency becomes worthless, as Venezuela’s has, the economy is reduced to barter. What will the sanctions do, then? They will make it very hard—nearly impossible—for Maduro to buy food and essential supplies for his soldiers. If they defect, the regime dies.

That’s why Maduro has been so reluctant to ask his military to do tasks they might refuse, like killing unarmed citizens in mass demonstrations. As a result, the demonstrations keep growing and Maduro’s political base keeps shrinking. Mid-level officers are becoming increasingly restive as they go unpaid, see their family and friends scrounging for food, and wonder if the regime can survive. They are caught, fearing execution if they try to defect or retribution if they stick with the regime and it is toppled.

As this vise inexorably tightens, Maduro’s foreign allies face two hard questions. First, will any of them extend hard currency or military backing to the embattled regime? The second question is more troubling for the U.S. and Venezuela’s people. Will Maduro’s allies support a guerrilla insurgency or civil war if Guaidó takes over? This is a grim scenario. It is not overly expensive to provide arms and financial support to guerrilla fighters, which could destabilize the new regime and prevent the U.S. and its friends from claiming success. Remember Iraq after “Mission Accomplished”? It wasn’t. Remember Afghanistan and Libya? Remember Putin’s on-going policy in Ukraine after his puppet was deposed? The old regime may be gone, but continued armed resistance can prevent the new one from taking firm hold.

Perhaps the hardest lesson America has learned since 2001 is that it is far easier to depose an incumbent regime than to stand up a stable successor. Trump knows that. He campaigned on it, and he found a responsive electorate, as did many Democrats who took the same position. Not only does Trump seem disinclined to send troops to depose Maduro, he is unlikely to send more than a small, stabilizing force after Maduro is ousted.

They will deliver humanitarian aid (which Maduro has openly rejected), train local forces, provide intelligence, and probably perform some high-value covert missions. But they won’t become an occupying power or a fighting force.

Such restraint, like so many of Trump’s policies, would mark a new stage in post-Cold War American policy. It keeps the president’s campaign promise to reverse America’s costly engagements in wars that never end and cannot be won decisively. Trump has gone still further to call for ending even small-scale deployments in other war zones, notably in Syria, where he has received strong pushback from other Republicans. It is not surprising, then, that the administration refuses to send U.S. troops into Venezuela as two sides contest for control.

The immediate question, then, is whether Maduro can retain control of his country’s military. If he cannot and his regime is deposed, the next question is whether its die-hard remnants will fight on, aided by Cuba, Russia, and Iran. If they do, America will assist the new regime with arms, training, investments, and markets for oil. But don’t expect many American boots on the ground.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at

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