After the latest push to oust President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela is facing crucial questions about its future — and the argument over whether President Trump was right to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president isn’t one of them.
The people of Venezuela are living through one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes, brought on by a government that no longer enjoys broad public support. A broad swathe of our allies and partners believe Maduro is illegitimate, and quite a few joined the Trump administration Wednesday in recognizing Guaidó as the country’s legitimate ruler. However, no one outside Trump allies, and a small group of Venezuelan exiles, supports the idea of a U.S. military intervention. Thus, Americans’ focus should be on how we can help the people of Venezuela, without allowing opportunists to create an even more terrible crisis.
Whatever you think about its leftist ideology, Maduro’s government has been both repressive and incompetent. The country’s income is steadily contracting, with a lack of access to basic equipment hurting everything from oil companies to hospitals. Hunger is so bad that the average Venezuelan has lost 24 pounds in the past year, and a baby born in Syria has better chances of surviving, according to the head of the Organization of American States. More than three million Venezuelans — something like one in every 30 people — have fled their country.
Maduro is the successor to revolutionary Hugo Chávez, whose rise to power in 1999 enjoyed considerable support among working-class Venezuelans. For years, they saw improvements to their material lives, even as wealthier Venezuelans resented both economic policies and infringements on political freedom. But Chávez’s ability to deliver economically slowed, and after his death in 2013 the country has spiraled toward chaos.
In recent years, protests have increased — and the regime has responded violently, with more than 100 protesters killed last year. Former prisoners and guards allege systematic use of torture. But even after an election in May that the European Union and others deemed illegitimate reinstalled Maduro for another term, observers thought the opposition lacked power to change anything.
In recent days that’s changed dramatically, with the National Assembly electing Guaidó, a young representative from a hard-line opposition party, as its president. Guaidó is a fresh face, but he is associated with longtime regime opponents. What seems to be different this time is a degree of popular anger among workers as well as more elite Venezuelans — demonstrations and violence have been reported all over the country this week, both before and after Guaidó declared himself, as president of the legislature, the legitimate leader of Venezuela on Wednesday.
Guaidó appears to have chosen this moment to challenge the regime in hopes of sparking widespread internal protest, and inducing some or all of the military to desert the government. But the military was remade by Chavez during his tenure, and remembers the painful aftermath of a 2002 coup it did support, only to reverse itself when it became apparent that society was intensely divided.
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s neighbors have become increasingly concerned about the crisis’s effect on them. More than one million Venezuelans have crossed into neighboring Colombia — the equivalent of six million people coming across our Southern border with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Brazil has talked about closing its borders to stem a similar flow. Both governments are now conservative, and see Maduro’s Venezuela as an ideological opponent. As much as these nations may like to see Maduro gone, they do not want to see U.S. troops ushering him out. It has been an open secret since President Trump took office that Americans claiming to be close to the administration have been discussing the idea of a coup or military intervention with Venezuelan exiles. Last fall, John Bolton, the national security adviser, gave a speech in with he called the regime, along with Cuba and Nicaragua, a “troika of tyranny,” and said the U.S. was “taking direct action” against it.
Although the speech was largely dismissed in the U.S. as Florida electioneering, the administration seems to be trying to move forward on several of its key points. Many in the region — especially among Maduro’s supporters in Bolivia, Mexico, and farther away, in Moscow — firmly believe that Washington is planning a military intervention. Given Bolton’s rhetoric it’s not hard to see why. “The United States will not tolerate Maduro’s undermining of democratic institutions and ruthless violence against innocent civilians,” he said.
The prospect of U.S. involvement divides both Venezuela and the international community. While many countries joined the U.S. in recognizing Guaidó, other important players — including Mexico and the European Union — have not. And Russia and Bolivia promptly denounced the effort as an imperialist U.S. plot.
Having made its stance on Guaidó clear, the best thing the Trump administration can do now is butt out, and support Venezuela’s neighbors and the Organization of American States in trying to help move, at long last, toward a nonviolent transition. There are a number of ways the administration could help suffering Venezuelans that do not involve the military— such as extending the temporary protected status that allows Venezuelans to remain in the U.S., and offering more humanitarian assistance to Colombia, Brazil, and other countries that are taking the majority of Venezuelan refugees.
The American left tends to denounce everything Trump does, but in this case, rather than arguing about whether Maduro should stay, they should focus on fighting for Venezuelan refugees. Demand that the GOP explain why its immigration proposals would make it nearly impossible for Venezuelans to escape to the U.S. Fight for the migration and refugee assistance that the administration has stripped out of its international affairs budgets.
Those are battles that would help real people, and promote stability. Anything else is risks falling into a fight over propaganda that Trump — and ironically, Maduro — both relish.