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The dangerous game Donald Trump is playing with Venezuela

Demonstrators rally against Trump administration interference in Venezuelan politics in front of the White House on Jan. 26. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

President Trump has chosen a side in the conflict in Venezuela, where opposition leader Juan Guaidó has named himself interim president after challenging the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro’s recent reelection. Trump, along with other international leaders, has formally recognized Guaidó, effectively promoting regime change in Venezuela.

Yet although international support will bolster Guaidó’s claim, Trump’s decision to insert himself into a struggle for democracy, now mainly driven by protesters in the streets of Venezuelan cities, will help neither Venezuela nor the United States. As a populist who uses, and abuses, democratic rules to undermine democracy, Trump is incapable of leading a transition to democracy in Venezuela. And his interference is likely to make things worse.

The United States has participated in the overthrow of dozens of Latin American governments since the late 19th century. These interventions have taken the form of direct military attacks, covert operations (often involving the CIA) and aid to internal actors bidding for power. By appointing Elliott Abrams as its point man in Venezuela, the Trump administration embraces that history of interventions. During the Reagan presidency, Abrams was central to U.S. actions that resulted in human rights violations in Central America. He was also convicted of lying to Congress in the Iran-contra investigation.

Venezuela’s opposition in talks with military and civilian officials to force out Maduro, Juan Guaidó says in interview

Trump’s threats to invade Venezuela, along with his appointment of Abrams, show that even though he ran against the idea of democracy promotion and military adventurism, Trump has been unable to resist the U.S. government’s interventionist reflex. That reflex, based on the idea that the hemisphere is still an area of U.S. hegemony and that U.S. armed forces can “teach democracy” to lesser countries, has characterized the long history of the relations between the United States and Latin America. As a reflex, it operates regardless of evidence about its effects. Venezuela is a case in point: In 2002, the George W. Bush government, using the services of Abrams, supported a failed coup against then-President Hugo Chávez. Chávez soon consolidated his power as an anti-imperialist hero.

So what does this history suggest about the probable outcomes of U.S. intervention in Venezuela today?

One outcome is that Trump’s pro-Guaidó strategy fails: The Maduro government violently suppresses the rebellion in the streets, and the country returns to the quagmire of mismanagement and misery that in recent years has created a flood of refugees from Venezuela. This seems less likely than the last time Maduro quashed rebellion, in 2017, given the unified front now offered by the opposition in the National Assembly and the lukewarm attitude of the armed forces.

This might suggest a second possibility, which would also represent a failure for Trump: that the armed forces remove Maduro and secure the continuity of their privileges and mismanagement of the national economy. Post-Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is a good example of this type of “transition.” No free elections; repression and economic misery remain as before. The current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was for decades Mugabe’s hatchet man and had led some of the fiercest attacks against political opponents, which continued this past week when his government’s repression led to 12 deaths, 78 gunshot casualties, hundreds of instances of assault or torture, and enough arrests to fill prisons beyond capacity. The dictator is gone, but his former cronies still rule the country without true democratic change.

A third option in Venezuela has opened up with the United States' entrance into the fray. The aggressive statements and threats of intervention coming from the Trump government could result in armed conflict. For the Maduro government, the threats from Washington and its recognition of Guaidó are a precious gift: They will allow him to claim renewed legitimacy and consolidate the support of the armed forces in the face of an external threat. In this context, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and other self-declared followers of Trump in Latin America would significantly contribute to a new Latin America that would look like that of the Cold War years, when authoritarian regimes undermined the rule of law and violated human rights with the endorsement and support of the United States and, in the case of Cuba, the Soviet Union.

There’s a fourth option as well, one that would be welcomed by most parties. Although several Latin American and European countries have withdrawn their recognition of Maduro’s government, Mexico and Uruguay have not. As such, they could establish a public negotiation with the different parties, preventing both a civil war and foreign intervention.

The experience of Central America shows that regional and multilateral negotiations can end conflicts. The mid-1980s Esquipulas agreements helped steer the peace process in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The accords were in part the product of the Contadora initiative, which involved Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela as brokers, and eventually led to the end of civil wars in the Central American region. In the current situation, brokering a peaceful outcome can be done only by intermediaries that recognize Maduro’s government as a party, withholding judgment about the ways he has been able to hold on to power.

The authoritarian nature of the current leadership in Venezuela and the United States militates against that solution, however. In Maduro’s rhetoric, all the problems in the country have been caused by the imperialists from Washington. There is a considerable sector in the left in Latin America and the United States that agrees with this assessment, as well as with the notion that political oppression and the suffering it has caused are justifiable tools for an all-powerful leader — first Chávez and now, to a lesser extent, Maduro — who can uniquely express and mobilize the feelings of the people. This position is now being endorsed by the Russian government. President Vladimir Putin recently deployed two bombers to Venezuela while warning the United States not to intervene.

Venezuela’s crisis in 5 charts

For Trump, gut instinct determines whether an authoritarian regime is good or bad. Although he is attracted to the likes of Putin, Kim Jong Un and Rodrigo Duterte, he is also susceptible to the demonization of other authoritarian figures because of the encouragement, in this case, of John Bolton in his Cabinet and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the Senate. Besides a multilateral effort of mediation, the only impediment to Trump turning threats into action would be pushback from Congress. Because Latin America is not a high priority in Washington, intervention could become a reality. It would buttress Trump’s beleaguered image as a strong leader and could prop up his slipping polls as he heads into 2020.

The internal situation in Venezuela is becoming a contest of global implications: extremist right-wing populism and its authoritarian interventionism vs. the dictatorial remnants of Chávez’s regime. Whether democracy has a place in this battle has yet to be seen.