Home/Daniel Larison/Hold Trump Accountable for Making Things Worse in Venezuela

Hold Trump Accountable for Making Things Worse in Venezuela

Russian President Vladimir Putin By Harold Escalona/shutterstock And President Trump By Drop of Light/Shutterstock

Francisco Toro assesses the Trump administration’s failing Venezuela policy and Mike Pompeo’s role in promoting it:

It’s no longer a fresh insight to say that the administration’s Venezuela strategy has stalled, or even that it’s now in grave danger of failing. As expected, U.S. oil sanctions have hit Venezuela’s export earnings hard. That shut off a major source of revenue Maduro was using both to keep Venezuelans alive (barely) and to fund the repressive apparatus that keeps him in power (lavishly).

With so little money now flowing in, it’s still just about possible to imagine military support for Maduro crumbling in the coming months. But optimism is hard to sustain. Worst-case scenarios are looking increasingly likely. Sanctions have worsened an already severe humanitarian crisis and accelerated the flow of refugees fleeing the country [bold mine-DL]. They have also cemented Venezuela’s now-complete alignment with a rogues’ gallery of international actors. To be sure, Maduro had always been close to Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Cuba — but he had never owed his survival entirely to them. Today he does.

Pompeo’s weak pleading on the border suggests that he is only now awakening to the impossible corner he has painted American policy into. Having fired his biggest gun — sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports — too early, Washington is left without many options. Maduro’s plan to ride out the pressure and shift the costs onto everyday Venezuelans seems to be working.

Pompeo’s petulant reaction to a question about the humanitarian effect of sanctions the other day was confirmation that he and the administration have no good answers for what to do next. They plunged ahead at the urging of hard-line ideologues and with unrealistic expectations of quick triumph. Now they need to face up to the fact that their interference was a serious mistake that needs to be reversed before it does even more harm. The Trump administration thought they had an easy win teed up for them, but instead they struck out. There is still time to backtrack from the worst errors by lifting the sanctions they imposed on Venezuela’s oil sector and climbing down from their uncompromising demands, but I think we all know that won’t happen.

There is an alternative available to the administration, but it would require admitting that its usual heavy-handed combination of threats and sanctions can’t succeed. Instead of pursuing a maximalist goal of regime change, they could endorse international mediation between the rival camps and support the efforts of the International Contact Group. The U.S. could take a distant back seat and accept that forcing a change in government is not worth the cost of further destroying an already battered economy. That would be an admission of failure, but it would also be the smart and responsible thing to do at this point. I have no confidence that Trump and Pompeo would do any of that, because they are too arrogant and too committed to their failing policy to change course. We need to hear from the candidates that want to replace Trump what they would do on Venezuela policy and how they would repair the damage that the current administration has caused.

Toro chides the administration for recognizing the powerless Guaido and cutting all ties with the de facto government:

Recognition based on facts, not preferences, arose gradually precisely to prevent situations such as the one that has developed in Venezuela, where urgent diplomatic business needs to be conducted but can’t be, because countries have withdrawn recognition of those in power.

To Pompeo, and to his boss, flouting the diplomatic rule-book was a feature of this Venezuela policy, not a bug. But his speech on the Colombian border on Sunday lays bare the limitations of this approach. The diplomatic rule-book wasn’t written by a bunch of liberals on CNN to thwart the designs of the Trump administration. It developed gradually over a very long time to codify hard-learned diplomatic lessons. You ignore it at your peril.

Or, well, at Venezuelans’ peril.

Had Guaido and the opposition taken control of their country on their own, it would have been defensible to recognize their government. Unfortunately, like so many of the administration’s “recognitions of reality” the recognition they extended to Guaido was an attempt to force a change that had yet happened. In this case, claiming that Guaido is Venezuela’s president amounts to a sustained effort at make-believe that runs head-first into the reality that Maduro isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Meanwhile, the civilian population of Venezuela is under pressure from every side and their misery grows worse each day.

That is what makes Trump’s Venezuelan meddling particularly galling. There was nothing that required the U.S. to interfere in Venezuela’s crisis, but Trump did it for his own cynical reasons. He is toying with the lives of tens of millions of people and their political future because he thought it would give him some slight advantage in the next election, and now that it isn’t working out as intended he will probably continue to strangle Venezuela’s economy with no end in sight and ignore the terrible harm that his intervention has caused. Toro continues:

Trump stands to gain all the credit if the Maduro regime collapses, but he risks little of the blame for worsening a humanitarian disaster if it doesn’t.

That’s where I hope Toro is wrong. Just as Trump has inflicted collective punishment on the Iranian people and made their living conditions worse for no good reason, he has done the same to the people of Venezuela. That is something that he has chosen to do to them, and he absolutely did not have to do it. For the sake of bankrupt policies of regime change and to satisfy hard-liners in his party, that is what he did. It is imperative that he be held accountable for that and not be allowed to shift the blame for the consequences of his policy to anyone else.

Toro owns up to his own mistake in supporting the administration’s decision to impose sanctions, and delivers this powerful conclusion:

And while the oil sanctions are clearly creating major problems for the Maduro regime, they’re doing so at the cost of pushing untold numbers of vulnerable Venezuelans into extreme destitution, even outright starvation [bold mine-DL].

It’s a miserable state of affairs. Those, like me, who supported the oil sanctions by reasoning that Pompeo wouldn’t be taking such risks without an ace up his sleeve are left to muse darkly on our own gullibility.

It seems more and more that all he had was wishful thinking — and this administration’s disastrous inability to distinguish that from an actual strategy.

I fear that this was a glaring flaw in the administration’s Venezuela policy from the very beginning, and there was no reason to think that the inept architects of the clumsy, heavy-handed “maximum pressure” on Iran and North Korea had suddenly become supple and clever when they turned their attention to Venezuela. This is an administration that counts the infliction of economic pain as a success, and so they congratulate themselves when the civilian population in the targeted country becomes more miserable. It goes without saying that they are not concerned about the welfare of the people that they are choosing to punish, and so they have never worried about the destructive consequences of their sanctions policies.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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