IN CONCERT with European and Latin American nations, the Trump administration embarked on a new strategy for change in Venezuela earlier this year. The idea was to back opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the South American country’s legitimate interim president as an alternative to Cuba-backed President Nicolás Maduro. Given the desperate plight of Venezuela, where economic breakdown and human rights violations have caused as many as 4 million people, out of a population of about 32 million, to flee , it was a gambit worth trying. The move was particularly commendable for its rare (in President Trump’s tenure) reliance on multilateral support.
Alas, the strategy has not succeeded. To date, the administration’s diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and overtures to potential dissidents in the Venezuelan security apparatus have not brought Mr. Guaidó to power. Aided by Cuba and Russia, and fortified by revenue from gold sales and illicit drug traffic, Mr. Maduro is entrenched in power, his people still suffering unimaginably.
U.S. policy has now reached the point where Washington cannot squeeze harder on the Maduro regime without adding to the hardships facing the Venezuelan people. That is one import of a new executive order by Mr. Trump, which broadens existing bans on dealings with more than 100 regime officials and entities to encompass the entire Caracas regime, and freezes assets in the United States — including Venezuela’s U.S.-based oil company, Citgo.
Though not an outright ban on trade or humanitarian relief, the new measure comes closer to that than previous sanctions. It tightens the squeeze on Venezuela’s key export industry — oil — and extends the U.S. boycott to third-country entities that do business with Caracas. The main targets seem to be Russia and China, which have sizable stakes in Venezuela, but the impact could reach other trading partners in Europe and Asia. “We are sending a signal to third parties that want to do business with the Maduro regime: Proceed with extreme caution,” national security adviser John Bolton said.
Yet the wider U.S. sanctions sweep — and the longer they remain in force — the more plausible becomes the regime’s propaganda, which blames Washington for problems that originated with Mr. Maduro’s own corruption and mismanagement. Mr. Bolton and other officials argue that this is a risk worth taking, given the dire situation in Venezuela and the urgency of bringing it to a close. We agree that the situation is critical and unsustainable; the instability is in danger of spreading to neighboring Colombia, which faces both a flood of refugees from Venezuela and the threat of guerrilla violence sponsored by Caracas.
Mr. Bolton probably is also right that the Maduro regime is using negotiations with the opposition to buy time, not to seek a peaceful solution. Given the need for just such a peaceful transition to genuine democracy, and the failure of U.S. attempts to get it through other means, we are not inclined to dismiss the negotiations out of hand. A spokesman for Mr. Guaidó greeted the new sanctions as a means of pressuring Mr. Maduro to bargain in good faith. There aren’t too many foreseeable ways the new U.S. policy could pay off in the short run, but forcing serious talks might be the best hope.