I get why President Trump’s political opponents are skeptical, to say the least, of his policies in Venezuela. His purported concern for the suffering of the Venezuelan people stands in stark contrast to his utter indifference to the suffering of people in places such as Russia, China, the Philippines, Yemen, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In Hanoi this week, the president cozied up to his “friend,” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, even though Kim’s rule is harsher than Nicolás Maduro’s in Venezuela.
Clearly, something other than idealism motivates Trump’s opposition to Maduro. Jonathan Swan of Axios reports that “Trump often talks about his fondness for the Venezuelan expats who frequent his golf club in Doral,” and that he is also keen to win the votes of Venezuelan immigrants in Florida.
But who cares if Trump is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons? The proper response to Trump’s hypocrisy is not to castigate him for opposing the strongman in Caracas but to urge him to do more to oppose other despots. Instead, some on the far left seem to hate Trump more than they hate Maduro. They are de facto siding with a dictator who has turned a once prosperous and democratic country into an oppressive and impoverished hellhole.
“A U.S. backed coup in Venezuela is not a solution to the dire issues they face,” tweeted Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), writing in The Post, compared “the Trump administration’s embrace of the self-proclaimed new leader of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó” to the “U.S. blunders in Iraq, Honduras, Syria, Libya and elsewhere.” (Honduras?) Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would not label Maduro a dictator or call on him to step down, but even he went too far for some when he tweeted that “the Maduro government must put the needs of its people first, allow humanitarian aid into the country, and refrain from violence against protesters.” He was instantly deluged with outraged responses from progressives who accused him of providing cover for the administration and colluding “in the destruction of Venezuela.”
Repeat after me, progressives: The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. You cannot wax indignant about human rights abuses committed by U.S.-backed regimes in Latin America (see, e.g., the controversy over Trump envoy Elliott Abrams for supposedly supporting death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala) and at the same time condone the human rights abuses committed by an anti-American regime supported by Cuba, China, Iran and Russia. At least not without revealing that you are as hypocritical as Trump is.
That said, progressives are right to warn, as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) does, against a military intervention in Venezuela. This is not Panama (population 3.8 million) or Grenada (population 112,000), small countries where a surgical strike could take down a regime. Venezuela is an oil-rich nation of roughly 30 million people that is awash in guns and militias. Sound familiar? We saw in Iraq — as well as in Afghanistan and Libya — that it’s much easier to crush a government than to restore peace and stability afterward. Launching air strikes against the Maduro regime would likely lead to the disintegration of the army, the only institution capable of keeping order once he is gone.
But my sense is that the Trump administration is aware of the difficulties and won’t take military action, despite pro forma rhetoric about “all options” being on the table. Trump’s isolationism is trumping his bellicosity: He is eager to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, and he is unlikely to send them into Venezuela. The humanitarian aid gambit — trying to send aid trucks into Venezuela in the hopes that the army would refuse to follow Maduro’s orders to stop them — was an alternative to military intervention, not a prelude to it. Now that this strategy has failed — the army repelled the aid convoys and only a few soldiers defected — the administration has little alternative but to give sanctions a chance to work.
Unfortunately, history suggests that dictatorial regimes can withstand years, even decades, of economic sanctions. Look at North Korea and Cuba. There is a real danger that sanctions will simply inflict greater misery on the people of Venezuela without freeing them from the scourge of Maduro. But what choice is there? Lifting the sanctions now would hand a victory to Maduro’s dysfunctional dictatorship, and that wouldn’t be good for the people, either.
Venezuela is one of the few places on Earth where Trump is pursuing a pro-human rights agenda in concert with U.S. allies. The U.S. approach has the support of most of Venezuela’s neighbors and of Guaidó, who has been recognized by more than 50 nations as the rightful president of Venezuela. Trump’s critics would be well advised to praise him on the rare occasions when he does something right rather than act as the mirror image of the Trump zealots who laud him no matter how shamefully he acts.