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Elephants in the Room
Here’s How Trump Can Hasten Maduro’s Exit
Thoughtful U.S. policies could help restore Venezuela’s democracy.
The Trump administration has been lauded on both sides of the aisle for its approach to the crisis in Venezuela, leading a multilateral effort in backing the interim government of opposition legislator Juan Guaidó, offering substantial humanitarian assistance to the suffering Venezuelan people, while bringing maximum pressure on the government of Nicolás Maduro, which is widely perceived as illegitimate.
This week in Miami, U.S. President Donald Trump doubled down on his message to the military officers surrounding Maduro. “The eyes of the entire world are upon you today, every day, and every day in the future,” he said. “You cannot hide from the choice that now confronts you.
“We want to restore Venezuelan democracy, and we believe that the Venezuelan military and its leadership have a vital role to play in this process,” he said. “I ask every member of the Maduro regime: End this nightmare of poverty, hunger, and death for your people. Let your people go. Set your country free.”
As coherent as the administration’s policy have been, however, it remains unclear how long Maduro can hold out. With the support of his Cuban backers, he remains defiant, hunkering down and countenancing absolutely no recognition of the popular demand for fundamental change in Venezuela.
To hasten his exit—and bring about the peaceful restoration of the constitution, rule of law, and new elections—the Trump administration would do well to follow these prescriptions:
Maintain a multilateral and bipartisan consensus. The formation of the Lima Group, gathering 14 regional governments, in response to the Venezuela crisis was a significant achievement in a hemisphere not known for this sort of multilateral action. It must remain at the center of the struggle for democracy in Venezuela. At the same, the European Union has been slowing developing a consensus behind the interim Guaidó government. The Lima Group and the EU cannot become window dressing for unilateral U.S. action. While the United States, of course, brings unmatched capabilities to the table, the administration must make every effort to maintain a broad front with its democratic partners on Venezuela.
What Maduro wants most of all is to turn the crisis into a bilateral confrontation with the United States and, more importantly, with Trump. He must not be allowed to accomplish that. Besides, a coalition of willing democracies defending democracy presents a much more appealing contrast to a club of dictators defending one of their own.
Closer to home, U.S. policy toward Venezuela has enjoyed a bipartisan consensus in Congress through successive administrations. Democrats such as Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have been active critics of the breakdown in Venezuelan democracy over the years. It is important that this bipartisanship remains, as it demonstrates to Maduro and his Cuban advisors—and to anyone else interested in perpetuating Maduro’s rule—Washington’s commitment and unity of purpose in helping to return constitutional rule to Venezuela.
Keep a close watch. Events on the surface in Venezuela do not necessarily represent what is happening behind the scenes. U.S. policymakers need to recognize that internal politics play out there on many different levels. For example, opportunists who became obscenely wealthy under the late President Hugo Chávez and under Maduro—alternately known as “boligarchs,” “bolichicos,” and “boliburgueses” (all a play on Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution)—are widely rumored to have been hedging their bets for years by quietly spreading money throughout the opposition, for just such a time as this one.
U.S. policymakers thus need to keep their eyes wide open. This is not to disqualify anyone or sow suspicion; it’s only to point out that U.S. interests and those of some in the opposition may not always be in alignment. The Trump administration should simply focus less on personalities than on remaining true to core U.S. interests: helping the Venezuelan people restore their constitution and democratic institutions while defending U.S. regional security interests. Forcing Maduro out is only part of the battle—the war to uproot the Venezuelan mafia state will continue.
Pursue an inclusive transition. Stalin González, a top opposition lawmaker, suggested earlier this month that a transitional government should include representatives of the ruling “chavismo” movement and military leadership to guarantee the political stability needed to hold new elections. “We need to give space to the chavismo that is not Maduro because we need political stability,” he said. It is important to remember that not all officials who follow Chávez are crooks or human rights abusers. Some of them truly believe in a more inclusive Venezuela—that is, incorporating the poor more into the life of the country. In fact, the neighborhoods surrounding the major urban areas were the base of chavismo, and honest chavistas need to know there is a role for them in a post-Maduro Venezuela. The United States cannot afford for them to believe a transition means a return to the status quo before Chávez. (Human rights abusers and drug traffickers will have to be dealt with in other ways, such as a transitional justice system that has yet to be developed.)
The Trump administration has been clear it sees Venezuela’s current path as “irreversible,” meaning that “there is not a single scenario” in which Maduro remains in power. Venezuela is no longer a problem to be managed—it is to be solved. The courage shown by Guaidó and Venezuelans in the streets confronting armed paramilitaries demands nothing less. No one can predict the timing of Maduro’s exit, but thoughtful and tactical Trump administration policies can likely hasten that day.