The policies of Donald Trump’s administration towards the crisis in Venezuela reflect his personal characteristics, the nature of his political constituency, and the national security team he has built over time. Because there are fundamental tensions among these three factors the policy reveals a chaotic foreign policy process, inconsistent strategy and increasing desperation in the administration’s rhetoric and its reading of the Venezuelan situation.
Unfortunately, in the wake of Juan Guaidó’s failed call for rebellion, the Trump administration may opt for Donald Trump’s least preferred policy – an overt US military operation involving US soldiers in the name of supporting a democratic transition.
Trumpian Foreign Policy
Trump campaigned on a platform that included reducing US foreign military presence, including in NATO, not to mention Afghanistan. Part of his political constituency is isolationist, believing “America First” means staying out of foreign affairs that do not directly and immediately threaten the US Trump’s oversized ego also convinces him that he can negotiate anything to his advantage as long as he can interact with the rival, even if it requires cheating and lying. But he is also a bully, so while he prefers to utilize economic sanctions he is not beyond threatening to use the power of the US military. He doesn’t expect to have to commit to the use of significant forces for any but the shortest period – the airstrike against Syria is his model – because he expects others to back down.
Foreign policy, however, is not simply made by Trump. His national security team (Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor) and key Republican party Senators have an impact as well. Because his cabinet has been chaotic and his own willingness to contradict and embarrass Secretaries publicly, the President has found it difficult to recruit and maintain respected foreign policy advisors. Thus, he currently has only an Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and ultra-right wingers John Bolton as National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. The latter two (and recently named Special Representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams) are particularly bellicose in their foreign policy outlooks. One can only assume that Trump selected them to make his military threats more credible when he mentions them.
Wishful Thinking on Venezuela
The Trump administration identifies the ‘enemy’ in Venezuela as “Socialism” with Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro as the vehicles that imposed it on Venezuela. The President also threatens increased pressure on Cuba as part of his Venezuela strategy. These targets may sell well with right wing Republicans in the US but in Venezuela independent polling demonstrates support for the social programs created by Chávez. Importantly, Juan Guaidó has not called for a new constitution, despite the power-concentrating and anti-democratic pieces in the Chávez constitution – a clear sign that the opposition no longer considers this wholesale attack on chavismo a winning strategy. Venezuelans unite in their opposition to Maduro and are not fans of Cuba, but they are not united against Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution.
President Trump’s ideal approach to the crisis in Venezuela is “threaten and sanction”. That strategy appeals to his bullying instincts but is also supported by key civilians in the Trump foreign policy coalition, including key Republican members of Congress. Trump first mentioned a ‘military option’ in August 2017 when increasing sanctions on individuals in the Maduro administration. Senator Marco Rubio has been a ‘hawk’ on Venezuela for years and Senator Rick Scott wants a US naval blockade of the oil trade between Venezuela and Cuba, as well as US soldiers to confront Venezuela’s military blockade of humanitarian aid. Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted, “where is the aircraft carrier?” as Guaidó’s call for rebellion fizzled. Bolton made a direct appeal to the Monroe Doctrine to justify the right of the US to use military force, ignoring its controversial history in Latin America.
The Defense Department remains cautious and skeptical regarding military options. They must provide advice when asked and will have to follow orders by the President, so they participate in meetings and briefings. But reports indicate that they point out the strong negatives associated with US military ‘options’.
- collateral damage from air strikes or forceful delivery of humanitarian aid.
- regional blowback from US assertion of a right to military action in the hemisphere (Even the Lima Group, which recognizes Guaidó as legitimate president and has multiple governments led by the political right, rejects military intervention.)
- sustaining order in Venezuela after intervention might require US troop presence in the medium-term.
Guaidó’s failure at the end of April was unexpected by the Trump foreign policy elite. Trump is reported to be irritated by those who convinced him that Maduro would be quickly abandoned and flee the country. When Pompeo and Bolton attempted to explain failure by highlighting Russian support, it also put Trump also in a quandary over his general policy of denying that Russian President Putin is threatening US national interests. The credibility of his Russia policy is thus another reason why Trump will want a ‘victory’ over Maduro.
Though Trump is reported to be concerned about being trapped into using military force, he cannot conceive of a strategy that does not include military threats. The Trump administration, therefore, has no political choice but to turn up the pressure and hope for the best. With most government officials and the oil trade under sanctions, the only non-rhetorical option left on the table for a right-wing US government is military intervention. This is not a ‘strategy’; it is simply a hope that something will ‘click’ and Maduro will leave. Unfortunately for Venezuelans who survive, neither does the Trump administration have a plan for what comes after, except ‘free and democratic elections’.
Why has Maduro survived?
Fear of repression and loss of ration cards certainly play a role. But part of the answer to the question of Maduro’s resilience lies in the lack of popular support for the opposition. Maduro has the worst poll ratings among political leaders, but among major opposition leaders, only Guaidó had positive levels before the failed rebellion (and even these levels might fall into negative territory if Venezuelans judge the call to be poorly conceived). Recent polling shows strong support for continuing some version of Chávez’ social programs. But no one knows what economic recovery program could be implemented by a Guaidó-led administration or even who would be the most influential people in such a group.
A typical ‘structural adjustment’ program would continue the pain in the short term for most people in Venezuela even while investors and professionals would benefit. The credibility that such suffering would produce benefits in the medium term for the poor is undermined by the record of the administration of Rafael Caldera (1994-1998) before Chavez took office in 1999 – which implemented an economic structural adjustment program that pleased the elite while the poor fell deeper into poverty. A positive program to force Maduro out of office has to make credible proposals regarding the path of recovery and the distribution of costs and benefits along that path.