The Trump era has electroshocked most people’s attention spans. In its environment of nonstop news and social media, little things can get missed. Case in point: few in Washington saw the rollout of the president’s new Venezuela policy—recognizing a rival president—coming.
This change was teased Tuesday night in a video message in both English and Spanish by Vice President Mike Pence. Addressing the people of Venezuela, Pence declared, “We are with you…. We stand with you, and we will stay with you until democracy is restored and you reclaim your birthright of libertad.”
On Wednesday morning, National Assembly president Juan Guaido declared himself interim president. This bold move followed growing protests in the streets after Nicolás Maduro was inaugurated for another six-year term on January 10. His May election was widely considered rigged. By lunchtime on Wednesday, the White House had announced its support for Guaido, and by close of business, to the D.C. foreign establishment’s surprise, so had most of the power players in the region. This included Canada, which the administration has quarreled with nastily, along with Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Chile.
On Saturday, Spain, France, Germany, and Britain gave Maduro an ultimatum: call for new elections in eight days or they would recognize Guaido as president, too. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called an emergency session of the UN Security Council, telling members it has a choice: it can either support a transitional government in Venezuela or give in to “mayhem.”
For once, it seems that the U.S., under Donald Trump, is leading a tough-minded, bold, new policy course that other countries are signing up for. It’s the Kremlin that’s been forced into desperate, amateurish moves: reportedly sending in mercenaries to defend Maduro’s life. At the moment, Washington looks capable and in charge.
Now, that doesn’t mean the course is prudent. The appointment of neoconservative Elliott Abrams, previously rejected for a State Department job because of his Never Trump associations, as special envoy to Venezuela, is a distressing development. It’s incuriously retrograde, as the U.S. remains disliked in the region in part because of decisions made during Abrams’ controversial Reagan-era tenure on Nicaragua and El Salvador policy and his attempt to foster a coup in Venezuela in 2006. He was also convicted for lying during the Iran-Contra scandal, though he was pardoned by President H.W. Bush.
As with the appointment of Abrams’ friend James Jeffery as Syria envoy, Trump has allowed an old hand into his administration while allegedly dedicating himself to new foreign policy thinking. Abrams’ appointment is concerning, especially if it signals that neoconservatives and regime change proponents have the president’s ear. Past isn’t prologue and just because the administration has its act together on this so far doesn’t mean it has an inspiring plan to see it through. It would be a shame to see the wrong influences fill the gap.
But Washington may not continue to run point on this. Mexico, with its new leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has not recognized Guaido. AMLO, as he’s called, could be angling for a mediator role that spares the life and liberty of Maduro while smoothing a transition in Caracas. That would be wise.
Then again, it could all go off the rails. A former senior U.S. military official told me: “Putin is the real beneficiary. He sends two bombers. He makes a phone call and he could divert half the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps into this Latin quagmire.”
One impression, however, is overwhelming: the Venezuelan announcement this week had qualities rarely seen in the Trump era. It was coordinated. It was effective to its aims. And it didn’t leak ahead of time.
It had been in the works for quite a while. Yet media coverage of Trump’s quiet approach to Venezuela kept falling through cracks in favor of other national security prerogatives: the broken deal with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea.
On the eve of his fire-breathing address to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2017, Trump dined in New York with Maduro’s neighbors, a gathering that garnered little U.S. media attention. There, he ruminated on Venezuela with then-Brazilian president Michel Temer, then-Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela, and Peru’s Pedro Kuczynski. Brazil’s and Colombia’s governments have since only become more conservative. But regardless, convincing Latin America’s power players to track away from their cornerstone principle of non-intervention was no small bore. Though no region is closer geographically to the United States, the Latin American portfolio usually takes a backseat to China, the Middle East, and Eurasia. But on Venezuela, the Trump administration made the unlikely happen on both ends.
Venezuela will continue to divide realists and foreign policy restrainers. They’re almost universal in their disparagement toward U.S. misadventures in the Middle East and apocalyptic attempts at regime change on the Korean peninsula. But turning up the volume on China and Latin America has some support among certain restrainers, which is problematic for those who want to see an America stepping away from primacy.
Some, such as paleoconservative eminence grise Tucker Carlson, who has often hit the president from the restrainer right, have warned of Chinese influence in Latin America. The thinking goes that China is America’s only true peer competitor, with a rival ideology of efficient authoritarianism to boot.
Underrated in the Venezuelan case is the unprecedented refugee crisis that the Maduro government has created, with throngs of the desperate pouring into Colombia and other countries by the tens of thousands. Such crises may be boilerplate in the Middle East and Africa, but they are not in Latin America. One could imagine a scenario in the coming years as Central America continues to spiral or a coalition fails to rebuild Venezuela where the United States is not only flooded with human caravans but outright onslaughts of the immiserated in the European style. Some may call for a Marshall Plan for the region, as has been floated in policy circles before. What then?
The actions this week on Venezuela raise profound questions that will likely shape the foreign policy debate in unusual ways for years to come. Those opposed will have to sharpen their arguments against the approach that’s being taken. Those in favor will have to hope for the best.
Curt Mills is the foreign affairs reporter at The National Interest, where he covers the State Department, National Security Council, and the Trump presidency.