Roger Noriega was U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs from 2001 to 2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Since taking office 20 months ago, President Trump has recognized Nicolás Maduro’s criminal regime in Venezuela as an intolerable threat to U.S. interests in the Americas. Media reports say the president has repeatedly raised the “military option” with advisers and regional counterparts, who have counseled against the use of U.S. force. However, Trump’s security team owes him alternatives for dealing with Maduro — either by rallying Venezuelans to resist the dictatorship, halting a bloody crackdown or defending neighbors from aggression.
Maduro and his acolytes in Venezuela are systematically destroying a key South American economy and democracy, looting billions of dollars in oil revenue and mineral wealth, shoveling cocaine to the U.S. and European markets, helping Colombian terrorists threaten a sovereign neighbor, and forcing millions of hungry and desperate people into exile.
Establishment commentators assert that a foreign intervention or coup d’état against Maduro would be unacceptable. They’re too late. Cuba’s takeover of Venezuela already has happened. The country’s democratic order was toppled by a criminal cabal long ago. Unless U.S. and Latin American policymakers face these facts and consider all options to rescue Venezuela, Maduro’s narco-state will continue to pummel its people and overwhelm the region with violence and refugees. Left unattended, this problem may escalate into a crisis that only a U.S. military response can resolve.
The U.S. Treasury Department is out front in responding to Trump’s directive, targeting regime leaders with financial sanctions to expose their corruption and freeze at least $3 billion of ill-gotten assets. And the Justice Department has jailed Maduro’s relatives on drug charges and reportedly has gathered enough eyewitness testimony and reams of evidence to indict the entire leadership of the Caracas regime. But other agencies have fallen short.
For years, U.S. diplomats had no strategy for confronting the dictator other than asking him to behave. Years of dialogue and multilateral diplomacy have failed — tragically allowing the regime to consolidate its position, suffocate the opposition and ferret out foes in the military. Close observers understand that Maduro and his gang, who fear justice for massive corruption and ruthless abuses, will never cede power voluntarily, through phony dialogue or rigged elections.
Insiders report that Pentagon planners have not even pondered the use of U.S. military force in Venezuela. At a bare minimum, they should be prepared to respond to military aggression or the slaughter of innocents.
Rather than heading off such catastrophes by challenging Maduro’s grip on power, U.S. bureaucrats hiss “Venezuelans must do it themselves.” However, when a diplomat met with a Venezuelan military official plotting a risky rescue mission, U.S. officials refused to help, and the plan was leaked to the New York Times.
It is a sad reality that U.S. agencies may not be able to develop a proactive strategy on the ground in Venezuela without naysayers leaking the plans. However, our diplomats and military should be prepared to provide decisive support when Venezuelans take matters into their own hands.
Real leadership will have to come from the new Trump appointees at the State Department and National Security Council staff, including Marshall Billingslea, Kim Breier and Mauricio Claver-Carone. This new team should be empowered to craft a more decisive Venezuela strategy to splinter the regime and embolden internal opposition. Such initiatives should enjoy strong bipartisan support among the foreign policy leaders in Congress who agree that the Maduro regime is illegitimate and dangerous.
For example, U.S. authorities could delegitimize the regime by indicting its leaders and exposing its criminality, choke off the gangsters’ access to hundreds of billions in looted oil revenue, sow division among regime leaders, or induce a rebellion among patriotic soldiers who are known to be upset with Maduro’s corruption and terrible mismanagement of the economy.
Those most concerned with the humanitarian disaster in Venezuela and the threat it poses to U.S. interests are often met with a dismissive “nobody cares.” That’s wrong. The president of the United States cares a lot. And it’s not asking too much for the rest of the U.S. government to care a little more.