WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has intervened in an unusually forceful way in Venezuela’s political crisis, but whether the United States can force a change of power remains to be seen.
Trump — who has largely shunned democracy promotion overseas and is pulling troops from Syria and Afghanistan as part of an “American First” worldview — on Wednesday recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president.
Backed by most, but not all, Latin American powers, Trump said that leftist firebrand Nicolas Maduro was illegitimate, even as the military leadership continues to support him as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
“Venezuela is in our hemisphere, I think we have a special responsibility here, and I think the president feels very strongly about it,” Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said Thursday.
Bolton’s remark came in response to a question about why Trump had abandoned Maduro, when he has embraced other authoritarian leaders.
Trump has shown no reluctance in allying the United States with countries whose human rights records are questionable such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and has eagerly negotiated with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But Maduro, like his predecessor Hugo Chavez, has relished poking his finger in the eye of the United States and regularly rails against U.S. imperialism in Latin America.
A Trump administration official justified the recognition of Guaido by saying that Venezuela, whose elections last year were widely criticized as flawed, was bound by a commitment to democracy made in the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter.
Mariano de Alba, a Venezuelan lawyer and international affairs expert based in Washington, however, suggested that Trump was under pressure from Florida’s large and mostly anti-Maduro Venezuelan community, which includes naturalized U.S. citizens.
The Venezuela crisis also gives Trump a way “to highlight the effects of socialism and the importance of capitalism,” said de Alba, who works for the analytical news site Prodavinci.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has taken a lead on Latin America policy in Trump’s Republican Party and has pushed for a hard line both on Venezuela and Cuba. Bolton, of course, is a longtime hawk.
“His administration doesn’t pick and choose friends based on whether they’re authoritarians,” Stephen Pomper, director of the U.S. program at the International Crisis Group and an adviser on human rights to former U.S. President Barack Obama, said of Trump.
“It picks and chooses which authoritarians to criticize based on whether or not they’re friends.”
Bolton said that the key focus for the United States was “disconnecting the illegitimate Maduro regime from the source of its revenues.”
Venezuela is Latin America’s largest producer of oil, whose declining price has worsened the spiraling economic crisis in the country, where many residents lack basic foods and medicine.
Bolton said the United States is looking at ways for the United States to direct revenues to the “legitimate” government of Venezuela, although he acknowledged that the process is complicated.
Washington is also pushing for more countries to break with Maduro.
Britain said Thursday that Maduro is “not the legitimate leader of Venezuela,” although other European allies have been less explicit and Maduro enjoys Russia’s support.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States is preparing $20 million in emergency humanitarian aid which it will direct through the opposition-led National Assembly once it is “logistically feasible.”
The United States could also boost punitive sanctions, which have so far targeted Maduro rather than the broader economy.
Geoff Ramsey of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, said it is critical that sanctions do not worsen the economic toll on ordinary people, saying that an oil embargo could be counterproductive.
Ramsey also cautioned against “saber-rattling,” which he warned could divide Venezuela’s newly united opposition.
Trump has openly mused of military intervention and said that “all options are on the table.”
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue group, said that the Trump administration’s actions intensify pressure on Maduro — but also carry risks if the government clamps down.
The United States has ignored Maduro’s orders for its diplomats to leave within 72 hours, saying he is no longer president — presenting an early test on whether Washington can sustain its policy.
“The endgame is which entity is able to gather the strongest support to impose its statements and power in Venezuela,” de Alba said.
“As long as the Maduro regime has the control of the territory and cohesive support of the military, it will have the advantage,” he said.
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