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Opinion By indicting Maduro, Trump is kneecapping a transition in Venezuela

Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro speaks in February during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas. (Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images)

Geoff Ramsey is the director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an independent research and advocacy organization.

On Thursday, the Trump administration unsealed indictments against Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro and more than a dozen political and military elites in his government. They are accused of crimes ranging from money laundering to bribery to facilitating a “narcoterrorism conspiracy.” In a statement, the Justice Department alleges Maduro sought to “flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation."

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There’s no question that organized criminal elements, including drug-trafficking organizations and Colombian guerrilla groups, have penetrated state institutions in Venezuela. The allegations are not surprising given the clear corruption and authoritarianism of the Maduro regime, and they are serious. But the Trump administration’s rhetoric clearly isn’t.

Venezuela is not a major transit country for drugs bound for the United States. As we at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) note in a recent report, previously unpublished U.S. government data show that while the amount of cocaine trafficked from Colombia through Venezuela is significant, it is just a fraction of the cocaine that makes its way through other transit countries. According to the U.S. interagency Consolidated Counterdrug Database (CCDB), 210 metric tons of cocaine passed through Venezuela in 2018. By comparison, in the same year about 10 times as much cocaine (2,370 metric tons) passed through Colombia, and seven times as much cocaine (1,400 metric tons) passed through Guatemala.

Both in terms of recent trend lines and the overall scale of cocaine flow, the U.S. government’s own data show that Venezuela is a comparatively small player in the cocaine trade. So why is the Trump administration now raising the alarm about Venezuela “flooding” the United States with cocaine, especially when the White House allowed anti-corruption efforts to die in more significant transit countries such as Honduras and Guatemala?

The answer lies in Cold War history. The Justice Department has come under heavy pressure from hard-liners in the Venezuelan opposition and the exile community to unseal these indictments, some of which have been in place for years. They are pulling from the same playbook that the George H.W. Bush administration pioneered in Panama, where U.S. indictments against Manuel Noriega led to the 1989 invasion. This is not lost on Attorney General William P. Barr nor Special Envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams, both of whom played important roles in the pressure campaign that led up to the Panama invasion.

Unlike Panama in 1989, however, there is no appetite for military intervention in Venezuela, and this might be more about Florida politics than sound policy. Even hard-liners know that U.S. military action there could lead to a decades-long insurgency that could destabilize the region. Instead, the White House believes this is a useful pressure tactic, the latest in the administration’s failed attempts to create fractures within the Maduro regime.

The reality is that only a peaceful, negotiated and orderly transition offers any chance of paving the way for the judicial reforms needed to address organized crime, drug trafficking and corruption in Venezuela. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged as much in January when he remarked that “a swift negotiated transition to democracy is the most effective and sustainable route to peace and prosperity in Venezuela.”

But in bowing to pressure from the hard-liners, this move hinders rather than helps efforts to raise internal pressure on Maduro to enter into credible negotiations. Three shadowy power brokers who could apply such pressure — Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, Supreme Court Justice Maikel Moreno and Socialist Party chief Diosdado Cabello — are among those indicted. This is a significant departure from previous U.S. strategy, which has openly sought to drive wedges between them and Maduro. Now, whatever incentive these key power brokers might have had to support a transition has been wiped out. They are each more likely to decide that they’re better off sticking with Maduro, even if it means going down with the ship.

Ultimately, the indictments amount to the Trump administration finally giving up on any strategy that might lead to negotiations between Maduro and the opposition. For purely political reasons, it is embracing the hope of wishful thinkers in the hard-line opposition: that if they just saber-rattle hard enough, the Maduro regime will collapse under its own weight. This baseless optimism seems to sell in Washington, but it has failed the Venezuelan people. Unless the White House actually commits to a negotiated solution in Venezuela, the country will not see a return to democracy anytime soon.

Read more:

Juan Guaidó: Maduro is a usurper. It’s time to restore democracy in Venezuela.

Jackson Diehl: Can Latin America handle Venezuela’s collapse without the U.S.?

Francisco Toro: The power struggle in Venezuela has created a dangerous governance vacuum

Anne Applebaum: Venezuela is how ‘illiberal democracy’ ends

Chris Murphy and Ben Rhodes: Democrats should stand for democracy in Venezuela — and democratic values in America