Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.”
President Trump’s decision to recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as that country’s president is definitely a risky move. But it’s one that is justified for both humanitarian reasons and as an expression of an “America First” foreign policy.
Venezuela has been driven into the ground by the repressive socialist policies pursued by Nicolás Maduro and his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Since Chávez came to power in 1998, his self-styled Bolivarian Revolution sought to turn Venezuela into a socialist paradise. Instead, the once relatively well-off country has become an economic shambles.
Inflation is running at an unbelievable 1 million percent. More than 3 million people have left the country in recent years, a refugee crisis nearly as large as the highly publicized crisis in Syria. Basic foodstuffs and medical supplies are hard to find, and the economy, which has shrunk by more than 50 percent in the past five years, continues to contract.
Venezuelans have tried to kick Maduro and his socialists out of power using the ballot box, but Maduro has used his control of the nation’s security apparatus to maintain control. Opposition figures have been arrested or driven from the country, and Maduro has usurped the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which Guaidó heads, with the blessing of judges loyal to him and his party. Without international pressure, Venezuelans will continue to suffer and flee.
American pressure is also justified by our clear national interest. The regime has long been close to Communist Cuba. It has received tens of billions of dollars of crucial financial support from Russia and China over the past decade and a half. The Russian military has also conducted joint exercises with Venezuela, going so far as to send two bombers capable of bearing nuclear weapons to the country last December. Combating Russian influence in our backyard is at the core of our national interest.
Given the close ties between the two dictatorships, it’s no surprise that Russia reacted angrily to Trump’s move and warned against any military intervention. But given the bipartisan recognition that Russia is a dangerous adversary, this statement should not deter Trump from exercising appropriate options if necessary.
Trump has many levers to pull short of military intervention to topple Maduro. He could use U.S. pressure on the global financial system to cut off regime access to international banks, freezing access to any secret accounts that the regime — and, probably, its highest-ranking leaders — established offshore. He can, as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has suggested, work with American oil companies that purchase Venezuelan oil to provide the profits from those purchases to accounts controlled by Guaidó's National Assembly. He can also pressure China, which has a far more valuable relationship with the United States than it does with Venezuela, to withdraw its support. Any or all of these measures would ratchet up pressure directly on the regime, decreasing its ability to finance itself and buy support from security and military figures.
Nor is Trump acting without regional allies. Brazil is now led by a fervent anti-Communist, Jair Bolsonaro, who also recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate head. Neighboring Colombia and almost every other South American country has followed suit.
Trump’s foreign policy instincts have always confused observers. Those who focus on his attacks on the Iraq War and his withdrawal from Syria might be surprised that he is confronting Venezuela. But, as we saw with his reaction to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2017, he is moved by humanitarian crises. And he has always maintained that his administration would directly and swiftly defend American interests.
Odds are that increasing financial pressure on the regime will finally bring about its collapse. Many autocrats are kleptocrats at heart, and if they lose their gains, so too will they lose their power as their craven supporters flee the sinking ship. If this happens and both democracy and economic revival return to Venezuela, Trump’s resolute and restrained moves will once again shock his critics by proving to be surprisingly successful.