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Please Don’t Let Venezuela Be Trump’s Shutdown Distraction

Nicolás Maduro has presided over a humanitarian nightmare. But there are huge risks to dabbling in regime change.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The fraught situation in Venezuela seems to be coming to a head. On Wednesday, 35-year-old opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president following widespread protests calling for the resignation of strongman Nicolás Maduro, the president and leader of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution that began under Hugo Chávez in 1999. Guaidó was quickly recognized by the United States, Canada, and Brazil. Mexico, under the new administration of leftist Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, did not endorse Guaidó. In Russia, a key Maduro ally, members of parliament condemned the U.S. recognition, calling Guaidó’s move a “coup.” China, which has helped shore up Maduro’s government in the past, remained silent.

By openly calling on foreign governments for support, Guaidó, an engineer who presides over the country’s National Assembly, presents the sharpest and most consequential threat yet to Maduro’s regime. In recent weeks, Venezuelan opposition leaders have intimated that Maduro is vulnerable and that a small show of force would be enough to force his ouster. Their goal was almost certainly to nudge friendly right-wing governments in Brazil and the United States toward supporting regime change. It remains unclear, however, that the military has turned decisively against Maduro, setting up the possibility of a far-reaching and deadly armed confrontation should Maduro resist ousting. Even if the armed forces have abandoned the president, the drastic step of removing him by force is unlikely to pacify this deeply divided nation. It would almost certainly make a bad situation worse.

Earlier this month, Jorge Borges, an exiled opposition leader whom Maduro has accused of plotting his assassination, explained that the president “remains in power, fundamentally, due to two things: the support of the military—really just the upper ranks—and the dictatorial know-how of the Cubans.” Other than that, Borges noted, “Maduro has nothing. There’s no economic support, no diplomatic support, no political support ... I think he’s irredeemably defeated and it’s impossible for him to overcome the crisis he’s created.”

If the regime lacks popular support now, that wasn’t always the case. Venezuela managed to secure real material and social gains for its poorest citizens under Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez. With the end of the so-called commodity boom following the global 2008 crash, however, Venezuela began a slow-motion process of economic collapse that the government has been unable to reverse. As a former advisor to Chávez put it in a recent interview, “even if it’s sensationalized in the international press, the Venezuelan government also suffers from a lack of transparency, from corruption, and there is a general problem of mismanagement, lack of technical skills, and of qualified people in the right places.” Maduro, a Chávez protégé, narrowly won the race to succeed him in 2013. In 2018, Maduro won a second term in an election many consider to have been rigged. As economic conditions have worsened in recent years, the regime has hardened to the point that the government can no longer be considered fully democratic. In May 2018, a 400-page independent report published by the Organization of American States concluded that Maduro bore responsibility for a litany of human-rights abuses: murders, extra-judicial executions, and torture, in addition to the ongoing humanitarian crisis linked to economic ineptitude.

For the Trump administration, this is sufficient grounds to push for Maduro’s removal. In an official statement responding to Guaidó’s proclamation, Donald Trump called the National Assembly led by Guaidó “the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the people” and declared that “the people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law.” In response, Maduro gave U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country. “The United States does not recognize the Maduro regime as the government of Venezuela,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo replied in a statement shortly thereafter. “Accordingly, the United States does not consider former president Nicolas Maduro to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata.”

Open conflict remains unlikely, particularly since the governments that in the morning recognized Guaidó’s claim to the presidency added by the late afternoon that they would not themselves expel Maduro from the presidential palace. But that unnerving prospect looms over escalating diplomatic tensions.

Venezuela is a quagmire that defies simple solutions. Even if Maduro were to fall easily with international intervention, as the opposition claims he would, the aftermath is sure to be calamitous and possibly even worse than the status quo. This is to say nothing of the illegality of such a strike—despite the moral, political, and economic failures of Maduro’s leadership—or the dismal record of U.S.-supported efforts at regime change.

Comparing one part of the world to another is always a risky proposition, but the 2003 Iraq War carries important lessons. On September 14, 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney infamously declared that invading U.S. troops would be “greeted as liberators.” For now, notwithstanding the protestations of Republicans in Congress, the American people seem inoculated against such presumption when it comes to Venezuela. There is little appetite for “boots on the ground,” perhaps in recognition of the moral and strategic blunders of previous ham-fisted attempts to shape global affairs.

As was the case with Iraq, there is no clear plan for what comes next in a post-Maduro Venezuela in the event of an intervention unsanctioned by international law. As Matias Spektor, a professor of international relations at Brazilian university Fundação Getúlio Vargas, noted on Twitter Wednesday afternoon, Guaidó “has no plan for a political transition, no united base, does not control the movement in the streets and there is no organized machinery in the country. He also has no agreement with the Armed Forces, an actor without whom there will be no transition to a democratic government.” President Barack Obama recently said that insufficient planning for a post-Gaddafi Libya was his single biggest regret. Although Trump has shown no disposition to learn from his predecessors, the country, the region, and the world would undoubtedly benefit if he took a lesson from Bush and Obama in this instance, particularly given the distinct possibility that any conflict in Venezuela would spill over into neighboring Brazil, or already-unstable Colombia.

Maduro’s government deserves profound condemnation. But the context in which Wednesday’s escalation has taken place matters. Getting tough with Venezuela comes at a politically opportune moment for both Brazil’s far-right new president Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, allowing the former to distract from a disastrous first trip abroad and a scandal involving his son and the latter to project strength amid a government shutdown with no end in sight. While the United States and Brazil both ruled out directly military strikes against Maduro, Trump and Bolsonaro have ample motivations to make hay of regime change abroad. Both men may find that a widely reviled figure like Maduro makes for an attractive—and expedient—foil. The challenges in both the U.S. and Brazil are to make sure such immediate incentives don’t overwhelm prudence.