Venezuela Is at a ‘Tipping Point’

The former head of U.S. Southern Command says, despite the failed uprising, Maduro’s regime is crumbling.

U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis speaks at the re-establishment ceremony for the 4th Fleet at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida, on July 12, 2008.
U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis speaks at the re-establishment ceremony for the 4th Fleet at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida, on July 12, 2008. U.S. Navy photo

As Tuesday, April 30, dawned, the U.S. administration believed the tide was finally turning against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. But by the end of the day, it was clear that an elaborate attempt by U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó to seize power had failed miserably, leaving U.S. officials scrambling to save face.

But don’t count Guaidó out quite yet, according to retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who led U.S. Southern Command from 2006 to 2009. Stavridis said the failed uprising was merely a setback in the broader attempt at regime change in Venezuela, where a deepening humanitarian crisis has forced more than 3 million people to flee the country.

Stavridis chatted with Foreign Policy about the attempted uprising, the tough rhetoric coming from U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security team, and the likelihood that the United States will follow through on its threats of military action.

Foreign Policy: Do the events of the last few days reflect a failure for Trump’s administration?

James Stavridis: I wouldn’t categorize it as a failure at this point. I’d categorize it as a near miss on a success. From where we were a year ago, the trends continue to diminish the chances of Nicholás Maduro remaining in power. The country is spiraling downward. The opposition clearly has gained momentum in the strategic sense over the last year, and I for one find credible the reports that Maduro was about to fold. I think the Russians stiffened his spine, and I think the presence of thousands of Cuban military and intelligence personnel was decisive.

Despite all that, I think this one was right at a tipping point. I don’t think Maduro has been emboldened—he’s not rounding up people and putting them in prison, at least at this moment—and I think the situation more or less continues as it is. A failure would have been the imposition of armed troops in some kind of military action that failed on the ground. We are not there.

FP: So you think there is still a chance to achieve a peaceful transition of power?

JS: I think the Trump administration has handled this one reasonably well using diplomatic and economic pressure, political alliance structures, and regional support. I think on this one they are playing a reasonable long game and I think their chances of success over time are still quite credible

FP: National Security Advisor John Bolton publicly claimed that several senior Venezuelan officials had agreed to defect—but in the end that never happened. Is this a fumble by the administration?

JS: I think that the nature of any high-stakes political situation like this, when you insert human nature in the center of it, as in all of those senior Venezuelans, it becomes somewhat unpredictable. So you make bets. My advice would be to continue to bet on the opposition. Sooner or later, this regime is going to crumble.

All of those senior people—again, I find the reports very credible—were wavering. They will waver again if they wavered once. Again, I think the long play is the smart play.

FP: So how do you see this playing out in the coming weeks or months?

JS: With the caveat that it is entirely unpredictable, I will say I think that it will be months not weeks before the end of the Maduro regime. But I think the scene of action is shifting to Cuba. We have significant cards to play there. I think the next logical move for the Trump administration is applying pressure to Cuba, continuing to push the Russians back in the broader sense, and putting tactical pressure on Cuba.

FP: How likely is direct U.S. military intervention in Venezuela?

JS: Extremely unlikely, and I would not advise it. I commanded U.S. Southern Command for three years in Miami, so I can picture pretty much what is happening there. They are working very hard on a wide variety of contingency plans that runs from increased and intense surveillance to preparation for a humanitarian exodus to working with regional partners on both of those elements.

The most aggressive contingency plan they are looking at would be one that would protect American citizens if for some reason there were a backlash against them. That would be the only circumstance in which I could see U.S. troop presence.

There are probably close to 100,000 American citizens in Venezuela, so Maduro would be very well advised to avoid any kind of program that harassed or arrested American citizens. I think that would be a red line. I don’t think the Maduro administration, as befuddled as it is, would be willing to cross that kind of a line because I think that would invite a military response.

In the end, this, I think, will play out politically and diplomatically, not militarily.

FP: If the United States is not going intervene militarily, why are senior U.S. officials, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, suggesting otherwise?

JS: I think it serves to put pressure on the regime. Pompeo’s statement that “all options are on the table” is a different statement than “if you do x, we are going to use military force against you.” I think it’s always legitimate to say there are military options available to the United States, because that is simply a statement of fact. I would be more concerned if I heard Pompeo say something like, “If Maduro doesn’t leave the country, we’re going to send in the 82nd Airborne,” but that’s not what he’s saying.

FP: Short of an outright invasion, what military action is likely being considered?

JS: Protection of American citizens and evacuation of American citizens. That’s a pretty significant level of effort for the U.S. Department of Defense. To do an evacuation of tens of thousands would require control of an airfield, control of ports—all of that would require a military effort. I suspect those kinds of options are being looked at very strongly.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for publication. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman