The Trump administration’s statements about Venezuela are beginning to sound eerily like Western governments’ pronouncements about Syria over the last seven years:

The United States has no timeline for a change in government in Venezuela, a U.S. top official said, but is certain embattled President Nicolas Maduro will not remain in power.

Almost three months have passed since the U.S. threw its support behind Guaido as “interim” president. During that tine, the opposition has made no discernible progress in taking over, and the military remains firmly on Maduro’s side for now. The administration has no “timeline” for when Maduro will leave power because they and the opposition have no idea how to achieve the regime change they are seeking, but that isn’t stopping them from pursuing it anyway. Like the confident Western assertions from 2012 that Assad “must go,” the administration is “certain” of an outcome that seems increasingly unlikely to happen.

It is possible that the top military brass will eventually decide that it is better for them to rid themselves of the unpopular ruler and retain power for themselves, just as Algeria’s military did with Bouteflika and Sudan’s military did with Bashir recently, but there is no guarantee that this would lead to a “restoration of democracy.” On the contrary, a transition that depends so heavily on the military is much more likely to produce another dictatorship. Even if Maduro were forced out by his current supporters in the military, it does not follow that Guaido or any other opposition figure would take over later. At that point, does the policy of forcing regime change continue shuffling forward like a zombie, or will the U.S. then accept a military government in Venezuela that is run by someone not named Maduro? How long does the U.S. keep trying to install its preferred government in power before admitting that it won’t work?

The absurdity of the administration’s current policy is quite remarkable. They insist that Maduro is no longer president, but the president they recognize controls nothing. The success of their ill-conceived regime change “plan” depended almost entirely on mass defections from the military, but they have found no way to spur these defections. Since these haven’t occurred, they have no plan except to strangle Venezuela’s economy further through sanctions. Perhaps the best part is that the administration claims that Guaido is president of Venezuela, but that his presidency hasn’t actually started yet. The administration’s special representative, Elliott Abrams, claimed this in a press briefing last month, saying that the 30-day “interim” period of Guaido’s “presidency” won’t begin until after Maduro leaves office. According to them,
Guaido is the “legitimate” president but has not yet assumed office:

QUESTION: So Juan Guaido is the interim president of an interim that doesn’t exist yet?

MR ABRAMS: The 30-day end to his interim presidency starts counting. Because he’s not in power, that’s the problem [bold mine-DL]. Maduro is still there. So they have decided that they will count that from when he actually is in power and Maduro’s gone. I think it’s logical.

QUESTION: So then he really isn’t interim president, then?

MR ABRAMS: He is interim president, but he’s not —

QUESTION: With no power.

MR ABRAMS: — able to exercise the powers of the office because Maduro still is there.

Abrams’ comments remind us of the shaky legal basis for everything that Guaido has been doing this year. As Noah Feldman pointed out shortly after this started, the provision in the Venezuelan constitution that Guaido invoked to claim his position as “interim” president was intended to apply in cases of death or incapacity of the incumbent president. It wasn’t a loophole for declaring the presidency vacant when it is still very much occupied. Now because it is occupied, the official line is that Guaido’s “interim” presidency hasn’t really begun. Judging from how the regime change effort has been going so far, it probably never will.

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