President Trump has embarked on a risky but calculated diplomatic gambit. On Wednesday, he announced the United States would switch official recognition away from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to the main opposition leader, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó. The scheme was weeks in the making, but the real work has just begun.
Somewhat uncharacteristically, the Trump administration is attempting to make limited use of American non-military power, in conjunction with allies, to defend democratic values and encourage a peaceful transition of power from within. Looming over their machinations is the real danger that widespread violence could erupt at any time, damaging the Venezuelan opposition and threatening the lives of American diplomats in the country.
It all began in late December, when the newly united Venezuelan opposition under Guaidó began talking to U.S. officials about their plan to wrestle power from Maduro, whose May 2018 reelection was marred by widespread allegations of fraud, according to a senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Guaidó’s team told the Trump administration that after Maduro’s Jan. 10 inauguration it planned to invoke Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which provides a legal basis for declaring Guaidó interim president and calling for new elections. Guaidó’s team asked for the United States’ public support.
The Trump team, which had already been discussing new ways to sanction the Maduro regime, now shifted its focus to the question of official recognition of the opposition. Internally, the State Department’s Western Hemisphere bureau opposed the move, the senior administration official said, out of concern for diplomats’ safety.
But on Tuesday, Jan. 22, according to the senior administration official, national security adviser John Bolton convened what has come to be called a “small group National Security Council meeting," a restricted top-level meeting including only certain officials — not the full National Security Council. In attendance were Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who supported recognizing the opposition despite his regional bureau’s concerns, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. and Pentagon official John Rood.
Bolton, Pompeo, Mnuchin, Ross and Kudlow then presented Trump with the option of switching diplomatic recognition in the Oval Office on Tuesday afternoon and Trump decided to do it, the senior administration official said. The Wall Street Journal reported Vice President Pence, who strongly supported the move, discussed Venezuela with Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) in a separate meeting Tuesday.
On Tuesday night, Pence called Guaidó and told him that if he invoked Article 233 the following day, Trump and the United States would back him. Pence and Pompeo then took the lead in coordinating with leaders of the Lima Group and other allies.
On Wednesday, Guaidó declared himself the interim president of Venezuela, publicly recited the oath of office and began a dramatic standoff with Maduro. Trump promptly endorsed the move, throwing America’s credibility in with Guaidó. Now, the Trump administration is trying to figure out how to help Guaidó’s side with the limited but substantial diplomatic and economic tools at its disposal.
“We’re focused on making sure that having supported the constitutional effort of the National Assembly that now we’ll provide the backup for them to succeed,” the senior administration official said.
A few days into this stage of the crisis, the Trump administration genuinely doesn’t know which side will win. The United States wants Maduro to go and would be happy to see him choose exile in a third country. But the Trump team is not committing the United States to enforcing that wish.
A lot depends on what the Venezuelan military does. The senior administration official speculated that lower-level military officers — unlike their politically connected leadership — might not want to kill for Maduro, and that Maduro might not want to test that proposition by ordering them to do so.
There’s public speculation that Trump might try to use the U.S. military to depose Maduro, as he once suggested. Officials I spoke to played down those concerns, pointing to Pompeo’s statement, which explicitly warned of retaliation in the specific situations where U.S. facilities or personnel are directly threatened.
After Maduro ordered U.S. diplomats out of Venezuela within 72 hours, U.S. officials in Caracas presented their credentials to Guaidó based on his “official” recognition, and declared they have no intention to leave. The administration doesn’t think Maduro would dare attack U.S. diplomats, but it can’t be sure.
Contingency plans are in place and regional assets have been repositioned in case emergency evacuation is needed. Late Thursday, the State Department said it had ordered the departure of nonessential staff and their families.
Meanwhile, Mnuchin and Ross are reaching out to international financial institutions and corporations, asking them to deny Maduro access to any Venezuelan national assets in their possession. Mnuchin and Ross are also warning governments and corporations that more U.S. economic sanctions on Maduro and his clique are likely coming, although no final decisions have been made.
“What we’re focusing on today is disconnecting the illegitimate Maduro regime from the source of its revenues,” Bolton told reporters Thursday. “It’s very complicated. We’re looking at a lot of different things we have to do, but that’s in the process.”
The State Department delivered a notice Thursday to the Federal Reserve informing it that Guaidó is now the official representative for Venezuela. That means only he can access whatever funds Venezuela has in U.S. possession, a largely symbolic move.
The Trump team knows that using limited diplomatic and economic pressure tools will have limited effect on the ground. There’s also a risk that the administration’s actions will feed Maduro’s claims that the entire scheme is a U.S.-led regime change operation. But officials said the United States was following the opposition’s lead and was operating in conjunction with several regional actors.
It’s true that Trump’s new Venezuela policy — based on diplomatic coordination in defense of democracy, rule of law, human rights and principled opposition to authoritarian corruption — is somewhat inconsistent with this administration’s approach to countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, etc.
“Our support for Venezuela’s democratic hopes and dreams is in sharp contrast to the authoritarian regimes across the globe who have lined up to prop up former President Maduro,” Pompeo told the Organization of American States on Thursday.
Hypocrisy aside, this seems to be one moment when the Trump team is attempting to use diplomacy, alliances, economic pressure and public advocacy to leverage its limited influence to advance American and regional interests and values. For the sake of the suffering Venezuelan people, let’s hope it works.