On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did something odd: Standing next to Colombia’s president at the Venezuelan border in front of a shipment of U.S. humanitarian aid, he publicly addressed a private Venezuelan citizen, demanding that he do things only a president can do.
“Mr. Maduro,” Pompeo said, “open these bridges, open these borders. You can end this today.”
Pompeo had to use a microphone because the United States no longer formally recognizes said private citizen, Nicolás Maduro, as president of Venezuela, so Washington has no diplomatic contact with his government.
Back in January, when the Trump administration decided to shift diplomatic recognition from Maduro to his challenger, National Assembly speaker Juan Guaidó, the writing was on the wall. If the policy succeeded in forcing Maduro out of power quickly, Pompeo and President Trump would be feted as visionaries who helped return democracy to Venezuela’s long-suffering people.
But the risks were clear. If the policy failed, there was no Plan B, and the United States would be stuck permanently in the ultimately untenable position of “recognizing” a president with no actual control in Venezuela. Worse, it would be left with no contact with the people actually running the show in Caracas, rendering diplomacy nearly impossible.
It’s no longer a fresh insight to say that the administration’s Venezuela strategy has stalled, or even that it’s now in grave danger of failing. As expected, U.S. oil sanctions have hit Venezuela’s export earnings hard. That shut off a major source of revenue Maduro was using both to keep Venezuelans alive (barely) and to fund the repressive apparatus that keeps him in power (lavishly).
With so little money now flowing in, it’s still just about possible to imagine military support for Maduro crumbling in the coming months. But optimism is hard to sustain. Worst-case scenarios are looking increasingly likely. Sanctions have worsened an already severe humanitarian crisis and accelerated the flow of refugees fleeing the country. They have also cemented Venezuela’s now-complete alignment with a rogues’ gallery of international actors. To be sure, Maduro had always been close to Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Cuba — but he had never owed his survival entirely to them. Today he does.
Pompeo’s weak pleading on the border suggests that he is only now awakening to the impossible corner he has painted American policy into. Having fired his biggest gun — sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports — too early, Washington is left without many options. Maduro’s plan to ride out the pressure and shift the costs onto everyday Venezuelans seems to be working.
Pompeo and Trump were repeatedly warned, back in January, that by switching diplomatic recognition to Guaidó, they could be heading into this kind of dead end. For hundreds of years, standard diplomatic practice has been to recognize governments on the basis of fact, not law. The question that diplomatic recognition answers is “who does control this country?” not “who should control the country?”
That’s why, through the decades, the United States has “recognized” even governments it was fully mobilized against. The United States recognized the Soviet Union during the Cold War, even if its foreign policy was organized entirely around the principle of countering its influence. Famously, through Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, it recognized the people actually in charge of China, not those the United States wished were in charge.
Recognition based on facts, not preferences, arose gradually precisely to prevent situations such as the one that has developed in Venezuela, where urgent diplomatic business needs to be conducted but can’t be, because countries have withdrawn recognition of those in power.
To Pompeo, and to his boss, flouting the diplomatic rule-book was a feature of this Venezuela policy, not a bug. But his speech on the Colombian border on Sunday lays bare the limitations of this approach. The diplomatic rule-book wasn’t written by a bunch of liberals on CNN to thwart the designs of the Trump administration. It developed gradually over a very long time to codify hard-learned diplomatic lessons. You ignore it at your peril.
Or, well, at Venezuelans’ peril.
Because the risks of this policy were never symmetrically distributed. As University of Pennsylvania professor Dorothy Kronick put it some weeks ago, “Washington has made a bet that’s safe for President Trump and dangerous for the Venezuelan people.” Trump stands to gain all the credit if the Maduro regime collapses, but he risks little of the blame for worsening a humanitarian disaster if it doesn’t.
She has been proved right. As Venezuelans sink ever deeper into their own private hell of hunger and disease, Pompeo lobs pathetic exhortations at a president he claims not to recognize. Just as he hurls attacks at Iran for stepping into a breach his policy created for them. And while the oil sanctions are clearly creating major problems for the Maduro regime, they’re doing so at the cost of pushing untold numbers of vulnerable Venezuelans into extreme destitution, even outright starvation.
It’s a miserable state of affairs. Those, like me, who supported the oil sanctions by reasoning that Pompeo wouldn’t be taking such risks without an ace up his sleeve are left to muse darkly on our own gullibility.
It seems more and more that all he had was wishful thinking — and this administration’s disastrous inability to distinguish that from an actual strategy.