Venezuela: What Does US Want?
Terry H. Schwadron
May 3, 2019
Television brought us the smells and action from the streets of Venezuela this week as we were told that a popular uprising was overturning the entrenched administration of Nicolas Maduro. But then the effort — not quite a coup, not quite a citizen revolt, not quite a takeover by the U.S.-recognized Juan Guidó — seem to fizzle.
Not only was the fate of Venezuela left hanging as well as the hunger and chaos facing its people, but there was a gapingly wide-open question about what the U.S. foreign policy is concerning Venezuela. Indeed, the only agreement seems to be that the White House was caught short and in need of more information on the ground.
There were open questions about whether the United States is prepared to send in American troops, about whether U.S. intelligence has a handle on what is going on, about whether there were double-crosses and mix-ups in the execution of a planned uprising. I find it pretty weird that there has been little effort besides name-calling for what the United States’ interests are in this conflict.
Increasingly, whatever statements and actions we can see in the White House seem to suggest only that the Maduro government is a target because it is socialist, because it is aligned with Cuba and because it is playing footsie with Russia, among others U.S. rivals. What it all says to me is that our White House is so consumed with itself, with defending itself against a growing number of investigations, that it has lost the ability to create or execute solid, planned, coordinated foreign policies, even involving a U.S. neighbor.
The New York Times noted that Trump’s advisers were left to blame Cuba, Russia and three influential Venezuelan officials, who failed to switch sides, for frustrating the uprising plans, raising questions about whether the United States had faulty intelligence about the ability of the opposition and to misread events on the ground.
Maduro has been weakened at home and discredited abroad, but he remains a stubborn rival unwilling to step aside for Guaidó, who may not have as much popular support as he has claimed.
The Washington Post reported that the United States had been involved for weeks in a comprehensive plan to replace Maduro. Several top military and civilian aides were said to have been persuaded to switch sides, while others would be allowed to leave the country. There was a strong suggestion that Maduro himself might fly to Havana.
But then Maduro learned the plan, and Gauido moved ahead anyway. After a day of bloody protests, the government remained intact. The Trump administration publicly blamed Russia and Cuba — Maduro’s top backers — for keeping him in place and discouraging expected high-level defections.
Yesterday, as the United States and Russia traded barbs, the White House held an emergency meeting of top national security aides to mull next steps.
Throughout, there have been mixed messages about what role the U.S. military would play in the crisis. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that a peaceful resolution was still desired but that “military action is possible. If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do,” he told Fox Business Network.
Meanwhile,White House national security adviser John Bolton told MSNBC that President Trump “has been clear and concise on this point: All options are open. We want a peaceful transfer of power. But we are not going to see Guaidó mistreated by this regime.”
Top Pentagon officials emphasized nonmilitary options and said they had not been given orders to pre-position troops or prepare for conflict.
Nevertheless, Trump apparently has shown little willingness to plunge into Venezuela, current and former aides told The Post, although he has already imposed sanctions on Cuba — which the administration has accused of controlling the Venezuelan military — and threatened more. Russia, the White House said in a statement late Wednesday, “must leave” Venezuela “and renounce their support of the Maduro regime.”The president has occasionally mused to others that Bolton wants to get him into wars.
Bolton seems the one seeking more aggressive involvement; U.S. military leaders have suggested more diplomatic and economic actions. While the Pentagon has developed military options for Trump, it has urged caution in internal discussions regarding the use of force.
Our government seemed to want a magic wand to wave, with a peaceful transition in Caracas. That seems more than unlikely. So far, the American military has helped run back-end logistics for aid deliveries to Colombia for the Venezuelan people, and a U.S. Navy hospital ship sailed to neighboring Colombia to aid Venezuelan refugees. The military could step up such operations in a show of support to the Venezuelan people and regional allies.
U.S. diplomacy in Venezuela has wide bipartisan support in Congress, but it is unclear how many would back offensive military action. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fl, has openly called for using the U.S. military, at least to deliver humanitarian aid. The administration, which has characterized the Venezuelan crisis as a national security threat, has also considered invoking the Rio Treaty, a 1947 Cold War pact with Latin American governments that allows for mutual defense.
Meanwhile, the Russia-Venezuela connection seems to be growing stronger. Russian officials have pointed out “interference” in Venezuela was “a most graveviolation of international law,” according to Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Russia does owns substantial portions of Venezuelan oil fields, which it got in exchange for loans and bailouts over the past decade. Venezuela signed over almost half of Citgo — its wholly owned company in the United States — as collateral to Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, for what was reported to be $1.5 billion in cash. Prepaid oil deliveries to Russian clients were also used to buy Russian tanks and guns for Venezuela’s defense force.
Part of the reason that the Trump administration and its supporters in Congress feel as strongly as they do about Venezuela is because of opposition
to communist Cuba, which backs Venezuela.
Meanwhile, the lack of cohesive U.S. policy is giving rise to inexplicable declarations, without evidence, like that of Mario Dias-Balart, R-FL, who is asserting thatthere are Russian nukes in Venezuela,aimed at the United States.
Venezuela’s political turmoil has been exacerbated by mass food shortages. The average Venezuelan has lost 20 pounds in the last year, with 90% of people suffering from malnutrition. Still, the United States has done nothing about extending temporary protective stats to Venezuelans.
It might solve the issues in Venezuela, but as a citizen, I’d like to know what my government is trying to achieve.