Trump’s Limited Options on Venezuela

A version of this op-ed first appeared in the SCMP on 4/22/19. Since publication an uprising led by opposition leader Guaidó against Maduro’s rule began..

Opposition leader Guaidó rallying against Maduro.
Credit: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

The U.S. announced enhanced sanctions against Venezuela in April targeting the Bank of Venezuela, cutting off its access to the U.S. financial system. The move, intended to further isolate Nicolás Maduro’s regime, comes after months of tough talk to end his grip on power. More sanctions are expected in May to further curtail Venezuela’s trade in oil, their main export and foreign currency earner.  

President Trump and his National Security Adviser John Bolton have continued to call for Maduro’s ouster, repeatedly saying that “all options” are on the table. While grandstanding for adoring crowds may be Trump’s specialty, Maduro’s generals and allies have not been moved by the threat of armed conflict, especially Russia and China, who continue to back him despite the increasing risk of defaults on tens of billions of dollars in loans.

Trump has very limited, if any, “hard” military options due to both conditions on the ground and domestic and international political constraints. Invasion, blockade, or arming an alternate military force of defectors are extremely unlikely. If the administration is truly interested in supporting Venezuelan democracy, they are going to have to abandon their go-it-alone strategy and build strong alliances to assist in ending Maduro’s destructive rule. That means toning down the war-like rhetoric.

In a reversal of goodwill shown for decades, perceptions of the U.S. among countries around the world have plummeted during Trump’s tumultuous presidency. According to a February, 2019 Pew Research Center report, forty-five percent of nations surveyed regard U.S. power and influence as a “major threat.” The highest percentages, and largest changes in negative sentiment, came from Germany, France, Mexico, and Brazil. 

Trump also targeted major trading partners and allies with unilateral tariffs including Canada, Mexico, the EU, and Japan. Most recently he’s rescinded aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador over illegal immigration concerns. For the past two and a half years the White House has done nothing but excoriate Latin America on immigration issues. That’s done little to endear the region to U.S. concerns about democracy in Venezuela.

Photo credit: Reuters

Any military intervention is complicated by Russia reportedly sending troops and material to help prop up Maduro’s failing government. While their numbers may be small compared to the U.S. Southern Command, their presence hampers potential military options with the threat of direct U.S. – Russian conflict in Latin America.

Trump has very limited, if any, “hard” military options due to both conditions on the ground and domestic and international political constraints.

In addition, there’s been little sign that Maduro’s generals will defect. Hopes rose when Air Force General Francisco Yanez switched his support this past February to Juan Guaidó, the main opposition leader.

Since then there’s been limited signs of military support for the opposition save for rank and file soldiers complaining about harsh economic conditions. Along with Maduro’s political elites, top members of the armed forces remain one of the greatest beneficiaries of government largesse while the rest of the population struggles to survive. Cuba is reportedly assisting Maduro as an additional military wing to keep his troops in line.

Even in the U.S. there’s questionable support for military intervention after decades of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Trump’s “America First” rhetoric is founded on unwinding U.S. involvement overseas, not starting new ones. With the U.S. presidential election cycle about to kick off in earnest, Trump will be preoccupied with campaigning. A controversial military conflict unpopular with his isolationist base would likely drag on his re-election efforts.

While the U.S. has targeted Venezuela’s oil exports, its main source of revenue, the campaign has met with limited success. State-run Venezuelan oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) continues to export almost one million barrels per day, with most going to China, Russia, and via Singapore to other destinations.

China, which lent heavily to Venezuela with oil-backed loans starting in 2007, is still due an estimated $20 billion. If sanctions curtail oil production, those loans are at increasing risk of default.

The next round of sanctions are expected to target companies and financial institutions involved in the oil trade, cutting them off from the U.S. banking system. That’s significant leverage on Venezuela’s sales of oil. Some countries, including Russia, are willing to barter refined fuel for the oil, subverting the global financial system. There’s little to stop that trade from continuing.

Still, a further tightening of Venezuela’s access to hard currency will have some effect on the economy, but will it be enough to turn the political tide? In principle the lack of cash should weaken Maduro’s ability to pay his generals, fomenting unrest and eventually leading to defections. That hasn’t worked so well against North Korea. Largely cut off from the international system, the Kim regime is still able to import luxury goods and supply its expanding missile and nuclear arsenal. 

On the diplomatic front, fifty-four countries now recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate President of Venezuela, after an election widely considered illegitimate by western countries. Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and Cuba continue to back him.

While the U.S. has tried to engage UN support for new elections, allies including France, the UK, and Germany objected to including security concerns in the resolution. Russian and Chinese vetoes, as permanent members of the Security Council, killed the proposal.

Despite the limited external political support for Maduro’s ouster he still holds on to power. Riots over food, electrical outages, and shortages of medicine along with an inflation rate of over one million percent that forced millions to flee the country, have not been enough to end his reign. The UN expects 5.3 million Venezuelans displaced by the end of 2019, nearly one-fifth of the population.

Which leaves the Trump administration with few options. 

If the White House wants democracy restored, then threats about military action, which alienate allies, don’t serve that purpose well. Rather, a focus on brightening Venezuela’s future and curbing the plundering of the country’s resources might bring an end to the suffering sooner rather than later.