Venezuela, once the richest country in Latin America, has been a dumpster fire for years. Inflation is through the roof. Ordinary Venezuelans are roaming the streets scavenging for extra food in order to feed their families. PDVSA, the nationalized oil company and country’s main cash cow, was pumping less and less crude oil into the market even before Washington instituted oil sanctions. Desperate with no way out, 3.4 million Venezuelans have decided to pack up and leave.
The political situation has only gotten tenser as Juan Guaidó, the camera-ready opposition politician and head of the National Assembly, declared in January that President Nicolás Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate and claimed the presidency for himself. Venezuela is for all intents and purposes a land of civil disturbance and political turmoil, which could swiftly lead to civil war.
Guaidó’s status as interim president has the backing of about 50 countries. That includes the United States, which has long viewed Maduro as an incompetent, criminal goon who survives on kickbacks to the Venezuelan brass and fearmongering about the “Yankee” empire to the north. Yet terrible though he might be, Maduro has managed to hang on despite reams and reams of economic sanctions levied by Washington, which range from visa bans and bank freezes to oil export cutoffs. This was made clear just in the last 24 hours. Despite Guaidó’s dramatic call for Maduro to resign yesterday, the mass protests he called for did not fully emerge, leading Maduro to claim victory over what he called a coup.
Guaidó has called for a second day of protests on Wednesday.
The language coming from the Trump administration is that of straight-up regime change. Senator Marco Rubio is crafting Latin America policy for the White House, with John Bolton screaming “Troika of Tyranny” at the top of his lungs. Not that we should have expected anything less.
It’s hard to blame Guaidó for pushing the envelope. If you were a no-name politician in the Venezuelan legislature, only to become a household name in less than a year, you might also have a sense of invincibility. And if you had the senior-most officials of the world’s most powerful country rooting you on and throwing down sanctions on your mortal enemy, well, that’s even more reason to keep screaming into the bullhorn.
Guaidó is in no mood to capitulate to Maduro. On Tuesday, surrounded by disaffected members of the Venezuelan army near the La Carlota base in Caracas, the opposition leader pledged to continue the fight and urged Venezuela’s senior officers and rank-and-file troops to choose the constitution over Maduro. “People of Venezuela,” Guaidó said, “we will go to the street with the armed forces to continue taking the streets until we consolidate the end of usurpation, which is already irreversible.”
Back in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser Bolton, and Senator Rubio all seconded the motion. “Estamos con ustedes!” Pence tweeted. “We are with you! America will stand with you until freedom & democracy are restored.”
Bolton, speaking in a rare press conference outside the White House, stated that a post-Maduro future for Venezuela was on the minds of U.S. officials. “We have been planning for what we call the day after—the day after Maduro—for quite some time,” he told reporters. “It’s been very much on our mind that we can provide a lot of assistance to the Guaidó government when he assumes power to try to get the Venezuelan out of the ditch that Maduro has put it in.”
In the end, we don’t know where Venezuela’s political crisis is heading. The possibilities are endless. As it stands now, the country is in a holding pattern, with Guaidó trying his best to incite a rebellion from within the ranks of the army but Maduro thus far keeping control of his men. The vast majority of the army remains on the side of Maduro, perhaps out of fear for their lives or concerns about instigating a civil war.
All this could end with Maduro making the decision to vacate his chair and search for asylum, though that is highly unlikely unless his supporters in the military push him out. Alternatively, there could be a split in the Venezuelan armed forces between pro- and anti-Maduro factions, which would precipitate a civil war and result in more refugees and an even more dire economic catastrophe. Venezuela’s neighbors could conceivably step up and organize a Latin American coalition of the willing, although this too is far-fetched, given the political capital such a campaign would require and the popular opposition it would create. Or, in a far more likely scenario, Venezuela could go through a slow burn for months or even years.
But whatever comes to pass, the United States should check its regime change impulses at the door. The propensity in Washington on both sides of the aisle to take ownership of the Venezuela problem and fix it with an American-imposed solution must be tamped down in favor of the prudence and restraint so often thrown by the wayside. Emotion should not dictate policy.
All of us would like to see democracy sprout up in Venezuela like the cherry blossoms along the Jefferson Memorial Tidal Basin. Perhaps someday, these hopes will turn into reality. But hope is not a strategy. And neither is regime change—a policy that is likely to cause as many problems as it solves. U.S. policymakers need to understand that it is the Venezuelan people who must be their society’s agents of change.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.