President Trump’s bold decision to throw U.S. support behind a self-declared opposition government in Venezuela carries risks for a president whose foreign policy is staked on prizing American interests over others and keeping the country out of foreign quagmires.
In support of the government declared by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, U.S. officials refused to rule out military action or far-reaching economic measures, including an oil embargo that would harm U.S. business.
“I think that speaks for itself,” national security adviser John Bolton said when asked Thursday what Trump meant by saying “all options” are available to him.
The administration is betting that it will not need to spell it out further. But it was unclear whether it has fully mapped out a strategy in the event that President Nicolás Maduro refuses to budge, serious violence erupts or foreign supporters of Maduro’s government — including Russia and Turkey — decide to intervene on his behalf.
For now, the hope is to use the newly declared interim government as a tool to deny Maduro the oil revenue from the United States that provides Venezuela virtually all of its incoming cash, current and former U.S. officials said.
Bolton suggested as much in comments to reporters at the White House on Thursday.
“What we’re focusing on today is disconnecting the illegitimate Maduro regime from the source of its revenues. We think consistent with our recognition of Juan Guaidó as the constitutional interim president of Venezuela that those revenues should go to the legitimate government,” Bolton said.
“It’s very complicated. We’re looking at a lot of different things we have to do, but that’s in the process,” he said.
While the United States has increased its own oil production, many Gulf Coast refineries are geared to process heavy Venezuelan crude into gasoline and diesel, and would probably have to shut down at least temporarily if imports were stopped. In a conundrum for the administration over the past two years, oil sanctions would deprive Venezuela of most of its cash income but could also result in an increase in energy prices in the United States.
The administration is already adjusting existing sanctions to protect the alternative government Guaidó has begun erecting, a White House official said, and is expected to levy new sanctions against Maduro-connected entities. The sanctions in place now were designed to have as little effect on the Venezuelan public as possible, the official said, leaving room for new measures that would apply only to the entities the United States considers illegitimate.
“We have been patient, we have been cautious, so we didn’t overburden the Venezuelan people with our sanctions policy,” said the White House official, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the swiftly moving events more freely.
In Guaidó, the Trump administration found a figure on which to hang hopes for a peaceful ouster of Maduro from within, or by Maduro’s own choice, current and former U.S. officials said.
The Trump administration would support safe passage to exile for Maduro if he chose it, one official said.
“We are not trying to arrest everybody; this is not about revenge,” the official said. “If that means Mr. Maduro and a few of his family and friends would want to spend time in another country, we would be happy to pay for the airfare.”
The U.S. pressure campaign is aimed partly at convincing Maduro that he cannot continue to govern, and partly at building up Guaidó.
“We have been engaged with the same strategy: to build international pressure, help organize the internal opposition and push for a peaceful restoration of democracy. But that internal piece was missing,” the official said. “He was the piece we needed for our strategy to be coherent and complete.”
Control over oil revenue — and $20 million in humanitarian aid Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised Thursday — would give Guaidó both international legitimacy and practical help.
But such a maneuver is easier said than done, as President George H.W. Bush found out when he tried a similar tactic to oust Panama’s then-President Manuel Antonio Noriega in 1989. As long as Maduro controls the Finance and Treasury ministries and the country’s central bank, alternative mechanisms would have to be established.
Diversion of economic resources would also fail to address what U.S. officials said is the biggest obstacle: Maduro maintains control of the army and police, and could attempt to crush street protests, arrest or harm Guaidó, or interfere with the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.
Late Thursday, the State Department ordered nonessential employees working at the embassy and U.S. family members to leave the country. They did not say how many, or when they would leave.
The departure order was made on what a State Department spokesman said was its “current assessment of the security situation in Venezuela.” There are no plans to close the embassy.
Asked whether Trump would intervene militarily if diplomats were at risk, Pompeo said in an interview with Laura Ingraham that he “didn’t want to speculate or create a hypothetical situation” but that “we’re prepared to do what it takes to make sure that we do everything we can do to keep our people safe.”
The Trump administration hopes Venezuela’s armed forces switch allegiances, but there is no clear road map for what Trump would do if that does not happen, or if blood is spilled.
In Panama, the U.S. decision to intervene came only when Panamanian security forces killed a U.S. military officer at a roadblock, and Bush sent 10,000 U.S. troops into combat.
The Pentagon did not buy into Trump’s previously implied threats of using military force in Venezuela. Former defense secretary Jim Mattis had argued that with major wars and deployments underway in the Middle East, along with possible conflict with North Korea, any discretionary use of force in the hemisphere was irresponsible.
Rather than preparing for a possible use of force in Venezuela, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, Adm. Craig S. Faller, is on an extended tour of Central America this week and on Thursday was visiting Guatemala.
“It’s kind of a giveaway, that [the Defense Department] or Southcom was not part of this process or wasn’t given a heads-up,” said one former senior administration official.
“One could argue that we are on, if not an inevitable path, certainly a path toward intervention because of the dramatic nature of what we’ve done,” the former official said. “Telling a sitting president he is no longer president and recognizing somebody else. Next question: Okay, what comes next? To what extent are we actually prepared to continue to march down this road?”
For the moment, however, the administration is enjoying a rare outpouring of hemispheric — as well as bipartisan — approval. In a speech at the Organization of American States, notoriously reluctant to support what it sees as U.S. aggression, Pompeo drew applause Thursday when he declared Maduro’s government “illegitimate” and “all of its declarations and actions illegitimate and invalid.” The United States, Pompeo said, “stands solidly behind” Guaidó.
Most officials there echoed the U.S. decision to break relations and recognize a new government, although Mexico was conspicuously not among them.
The administration also plans to put its case before the U.N. Security Council at a special meeting Saturday morning, although the prospects for united action are slim. Among the five permanent members with veto power, France and Britain have condemned Maduro but not followed U.S. actions, China has called for calm and remained neutral, and Russia has denounced the administration.
Overall, those who have spoken out for Maduro have been few and far between. Russia is Maduro’s main benefactor and has substantial investments in Venezuela, including control of at least five oil fields and two natural gas fields, as well as 49.9 percent ownership of Citgo, Venezuela’s U.S.-based oil refining and distribution operation. It has supplied most of Venezuela’s military arsenal and its billions in outstanding loans, many of them extended as prepayment for oil deliveries to Russian customers.
China also has billions in outstanding loans to Venezuela. Nicaragua and Cuba, who have also denounced the U.S. moves, are ideologically attuned to the Maduro government and have received cut-rate oil in return.
Trump’s declaration of support for Guaidó keeps faith with conservative Republican foreign policy hawks, including Vice President Pence, for whom the leftist dictatorship is a long-standing target on ideological and human rights grounds.
“By standing with the people of Venezuela, President Trump stands for freedom,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted after the U.S. announcement Wednesday.
Many Democrats praised the decision, too, including Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a frequent Trump critic, who called it “an appropriate step.”
“The Administration should continue to work with other nations in the region towards a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and take every precaution to safeguard our diplomatic personnel,” Schiff said in a statement Thursday. “We must also remember that America’s support for democracy and human rights must apply universally if it is to be credible.”
That was a reference to what some other Democrats and Trump critics saw as a double standard, in which the White House tolerates or embraces some dictators and right-wing authoritarians but calls leftist and socialist authoritarians illegitimate.
“Let me get this straight. The US is sanctioning Venezuela for their lack of democracy but not Saudi Arabia? Such hypocrisy,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) tweeted Wednesday. “Maduro’s policies are bad and not helping his people, but crippling sanctions or pushing for regime change will only make the situation worse.”
Khanna also responded to an expression of support for the policy from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill) by saying, “US should not anoint the leader of the opposition in Venezuela during an internal, polarized conflict.”
The diplomatic move made common cause with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose relationship with Trump nose-dived last year over trade issues, and drew support among many Latin American nations. Among 19 nations that have lined up behind the United States, 16 are in the Western Hemisphere, the White House official noted.
Asked why the response to Maduro is different from that toward many other authoritarian leaders, Bolton rejected the premise.
“The fact is, Venezuela is in our hemisphere,” Bolton said. “I think we have a special responsibility here, and I think the president feels very strongly about it.”