White House

Big risks, ‘no silver bullet’ as Trump wades further into Venezuelan unrest

Lawmakers condemn Maduro but don’t call for U.S. military force as Pence dubs him a ‘tyrant’

People assemble in front of the consulate general of Venezuela in Miami on May 20, 2018, to protest against Venezuelan elections, which the U.S. and other western countries called a sham. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)

The Trump administration is continuing to ramp up pressure on Nicolás Maduro to relinquish his hold over Venezuela as political allies use the South American strongman’s socialist views as a bludgeon on political foes at home.

The White House dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to neighboring Colombia on Monday for a high-profile visit meant to boost Juan Guaidó, whom the United States and other allies have recognized as the country’s interim president. Following a private meeting, Pence stood with Guaidó and told him the U.S. would “stand with you until your ‘libertad’ is restored,” using the Spanish word for freedom.

Minutes later, in remarks at a conference in Bogota to officials from a dozen countries trying to find a solution to the Venezuelan unrest, Pence called Maduro the “tyrant in Caracas” and slammed him for dancing at a rally over the weekend “as his henchmen murdered civilians and burned truckloads of food and medicine destined for the people of Venezuela.”

“To support you … at President [Donald] Trump’s direction, effective today, the United States will impose sanctions on additional regime officials, including three border-state governors implicated in last weekend’s violence and a member of Maduro’s inner circle,” the vice president said.

Watch: Pence condemns Maduro, announces new sanctions on Venezuelan regime

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“In the days ahead, the United States will announce even stronger sanctions on the regime’s corrupt financial networks. We will find every last dollar they have stolen and return that money to the Venezuelan people,” Pence said before issuing another warning to senior military officials who continue to support Maduro. 

“As we continue to bring economic and diplomatic pressure to bear on the Maduro regime,” he said, “we hope for a peaceful transition to democracy, but as President Trump has made clear: All options are on the table.”

The vice president’s remarks were part of a White House push to pressure senior members of Venezuela’s military to drop their support of Maduro and back the interim president and a move toward free elections for a new government. “Yesterday, there were over 60 defections of Venezuelan military officials along the border, who accepted interim President Guaidó’s amnesty, and will work on behalf of democracy in Venezuela,” John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, tweeted Sunday.

Pence and other U.S. officials, echoing Trump, are refusing to take the use of American military force off the table after clashes over the weekend saw Maduro’s troops kill three protestors and wound 300 more. The fighting led Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to tweet Saturday that “grave crimes committed today by the Maduro regime have opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago.”

‘Peaceful efforts’

Lawmakers from both parties, so far, are applauding Trump for trying to compel Maduro to step aside and for being the first government to recognize Guaidó as the country’s rightful leader. But there is no loud call from Capitol Hill for him to send U.S. troopers to help get humanitarian aid into the country or try to forcibly remove Maduro.

“The U.S. will not tolerate any form of oppression or acts of violence against the Venezuelan people and the murderers responsible, including Maduro, must be held accountable,” House Homeland Security ranking member Michael McCaul said last week. Notably, the Texas Republican expressed his support for “peaceful efforts” to get aid “to the people of Venezuela,” not mentioning military force in a statement.

Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Benjamin L. Cardin used a recent television interview to call on Maduro to give up power so the country can “reinstitute its democratic procedures for [a] free and fair election and choose its leader.”

“It will never happen under Maduro. It won’t happen,” the Maryland Democrat said, adding that the U.S. would “oversee” an election process there with the help of the “Organization of American States as an independent umpire.” But, like McCaul, Cardin did not suggest it was time to send the U.S. military or even an international force to restore order after the weekend clashes.

Moises Rendon of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that a top challenge for the Trump administration and allies in the region is that “there is no silver bullet to resolve the Venezuelan crisis” despite a sense of urgency to step in because “the humanitarian conditions inside of a once-thriving country are in many ways similar to a war-like scenario.”

For Trump, doing something militarily or doing nothing both carry risks.

“Maduro’s worst-case scenario may be the escalation of conflict, as he has never before been in a weaker political position. Cash-strapped and desperate, Maduro himself is cornered on all sides, including pressure from both the Cubans and the deeper mafia state that operates within Venezuela,” Rendon said. “On the other hand, if the Venezuelan military lets the aid enter the country, Maduro could potentially use the food and medicine for his own benefit.”

“Perhaps of greater concern,” Rendon said, is that “the presence of regime-supported armed groups within the Venezuelan territory and its border with Colombia could propel and escalate conflict.”

What’s more, Trump must weigh how a deeper U.S. intervention would affect relations with allies who remain split over Maduro and his country’s future.

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“The deepening of Venezuela’s political crisis has accentuated the left-right divide: right-wing governments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia have supported Guaidó, whereas left-wing administrations in Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico and Nicaragua have defended Maduro and insist that it is Guaidó’s actions that are anti-democratic,” said Richard Youngs, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

‘America’s leading socialists’

Back home, the White House wants to be seen as standing up for the Venezuelan people and democracy. But that comes with a caveat: Trump’s political allies continue to use the standoff with Maduro and U.S. intervention to keep the president’s conservative base engaged.

“Maduro is purposely blocking humanitarian aid from helping Venezuelans. But guess who is essentially propping up his socialist regime by refusing to recognize Juan Guaidó?” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted Sunday. “America’s leading socialists: Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”

Sanders is making a second run at the Democratic presidential nomination and a chance to face Trump in 2020. The latter two Democrats are freshman House members who have rattled Trump’s cage and angered the right with their policy ideas and sharp-elbowed rhetoric.

Trump himself injected a 2020 feel into his Venezuela push during a Feb. 18 speech in Miami to Venezuelan exiles, saying Maduro’s government “engaged in massive wealth confiscation, shut down free markets, suppressed free speech, and set up a relentless propaganda machine, rigged elections, used the government to persecute their political opponents, and destroyed the impartial rule of law.”

“Socialism, by its very nature, does not respect borders. It does not respect boundaries or the sovereign rights of its citizens or its neighbors,” he said. “It’s always seeking to expand, to encroach, and to subjugate others to its will.”

Borders. Free markets. Rigged elections. Wealth confiscation. All are issues the president has used to attack Democrats at home and fire up his conservative base.

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