So it is worth noting that it happened again on Wednesday. The Trump administration announced that it no longer recognizes Nicolás Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela, choosing instead to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the “interim president.” The important thing is that the United States was hardly the only actor in this hemisphere to do so. Canada, Argentina, Chile and seven other Organization of American States members took similar action.
The motivation is pretty clear. Maduro is, in the words of the Economist, “arguably the world’s least successful president.” According to the Financial Times, hyperinflation is running rampant, and the economy has shrunk by 50 percent over the past five years. ThinkProgress’s Casey Michel offers up a brutal depiction of the Maduro regime’s kleptocracy. According to Transparency International, Venezuela is the most corrupt economy in the Western hemisphere. The IMF notes that the country has the second-highest rate of offshore wealth as a percentage of GDP.
So, let’s stipulate that Maduro is an illegitimate, kleptocratic despot and Venezuelans would be far better off if his illegitimate regime was no more. There is the tiny question of how this will happen, however. And this is the part where I start getting nervous about the Trump administration’s ability to handle an increasingly tense situation.
Politico’s Nahal Toosi summarizes the state of play:
A senior Trump administration official warned that “all options are on the table” when it comes to further punishing Maduro and his top aides. The official did not rule out U.S. military action, which Trump himself has floated before.
Maduro responded by saying he is breaking off diplomatic and political relations with the United States and giving U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the South American nation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo replied that the U.S. no longer recognized Maduro’s authority to make such decisions or demands, indicating U.S. diplomats will stay put....
The United States “does not consider former president Nicolas Maduro to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata,” [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo said, warning Maduro and Venezuelan security forces not to resort to dangerous measures.
“The United States will take appropriate actions to hold accountable anyone who endangers the safety and security of our mission and its personnel,“ Pompeo said
It seems pretty clear that the Trump administration believes the Maduro regime will fold like a piece of origami paper. Toosi quotes a senior administration official saying that the United States has “barely scratched the surface” of potential sanctions to impose on the Venezuelan government. That official goes on to say, “If they choose the route of violence and seek to usurp the constitutional order and democracy, let us be clear that we have a host of options.”
This is Guaidó's hope as well. Last week, he wrote an op-ed in this newspaper that included a plea to the armed forces. “We want to send a message to the military, a key actor in this process: The chain of command has been broken, and there’s no commander in chief — it’s time to get on the right side of history,” he wrote.
Is Trump right? There is no denying that the country is an economic basket case. Furthermore, there are at least some signs that the military is wobbly on Maduro. According to the Guardian’s Tom Phillips, there was a small-scale mutiny in the ranks last week. It is possible that some in the military break ranks and this brewing standoff ends peacefully.
On the other hand, as Dan Trombly explained on Twitter Thursday, the Venezuelan military has not been asked to engage in domestic repression, so it is not as compromised as the Bolivarian apparatus that backs Maduro. Sanctions will also hurt the U.S. economy, and the Trump administration has persistently exaggerated the ability of economic sanctions to trigger state collapse. Remember, Trump’s national security team also thinks that sanctions will cause the Iranian regime to collapse, and there is no evidence that is happening, either.
Venezuela is in far worse economic shape than its fellow OPEC members, but that has been true for years now, and Maduro is still in power. He is very likely to be in power 72 hours from now. Which raises a very ugly question: If the United States insists on keeping its embassy open, and Maduro controls all the territory surrounding the embassy, how does this play out?
If I had to guess — and that’s all this is — the Maduro regime would likely engage in the 21st century equivalent of siege warfare and wait for the embassy staff to run out of food and other basic necessities. They are likely to be low on provisions anyway, since Trump has, you know, shut down the State Department. At that point, things have the potential to turn very ugly very fast.
That other countries in the region have cooperated with the United States so far is a very good sign. But this is a president who excels at creating crises with no real plan on how to extricate himself if the other side does not acquiesce.
I have no idea how this will end. What disturbs me is that it seems like this is true of the Trump administration’s national security team as well.
[CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name ThinkProgress writer Casey Michel.]