Elephants in the Room

Trump Should Not Forget Venezuela

Even with the eyes of the world elsewhere, here’s how Trump can keep up pressure on Maduro.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Fabiana Rosales de Guaidó, the wife of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, in the White House on March 27.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Fabiana Rosales de Guaidó, the wife of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, in the White House on March 27. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Five months after the United States and a raft of other countries recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president, President Nicolás Maduro remains entrenched in power—and critics have voiced increasing doubts over U.S. President Donald Trump’s Venezuela policy.

Trump seems to have shifted his focus to China, North Korea, and Iran. Last month, Sen. Marco Rubio saw fit to rebut reports that the president had “lost interest” in Venezuela and moved on to other concerns. (Trump did say he discussed Venezuela with each head of state he met at the G-20 summit in Japan last month.)

The continuation of Maduro’s misrule is frustrating, but anyone who expected that the restoration of democracy in Venezuela would be neat, tidy, and timed to the cable news cycle grossly misjudged the facts on the ground. In a recent interview with the U.S. Spanish-language network Telemundo, Trump said he thought he hadn’t been “tough enough” on Venezuela. Rather than moving on, he should dial up the pressure on the Maduro regime and his military enablers.

Here are some policies the Trump administration could pursue to ramp up the ongoing campaign to force Maduro’s ouster.


Unseal more indictments against Venezuelan officials

Unlike the individual Treasury Department sanctions already in place, which can be reversed, Justice Department indictments are lasting and far more consequential. To date, the Justice Department has handed down nearly two dozen indictments against Venezuelan officials, almost all on corruption charges. A handful, however, have been indicted on charges related to drug trafficking, including Tareck El Aissami, the current minister of industries and national production, and Hugo Carvajal, the former military intelligence chief, who after breaking with Maduro was arrested by authorities in Spain and is now fighting extradition to the United States. Another two dozen Venezuelan officials and some 27 companies have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for narcotics trafficking.

Steadily increasing the number of indictments against Venezuelan officials would raise the stakes considerably among those surrounding Maduro who may be considering an off-ramp. As they see their compatriots losing their futures to the long arm of U.S. law, it could spark the kind of regime fracture the United States and its regional allies are anticipating.


Step up counternarcotics operations

Venezuela under chavismo has become a major transshipment point for illicit drugs to the United States. It stands to reason that as its oil revenues collapse as a result of declining production, the Maduro regime is relying more and more on illicit profits from its criminal activities to sustain power. The United States needs to oppose this development by increased counternarcotics operations and law enforcement activity, including more interdiction efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard and more resources for the Drug Enforcement Administration to disrupt drug smuggling networks that pass through Venezuela. The Treasury Department needs more personnel and resources as well to focus on disrupting the Maduro government’s pervasive money laundering efforts.

The United States should also consider a shootdown policy for suspected drug planes leaving Venezuelan territory. This tactic has been effectively employed in the past, until a tragic accident in 2001—when a Peruvian jet fighter shot down a civilian plane, killing its occupants—led to its shelving. However, considering the present circumstances, that should not prevent its reconsideration for confirmed Venezuelan drug flights.


Develop information operations

Over the past decades, the U.S. Defense Department has developed significant capabilities in waging information operations—or in Pentagon language, Military Information Support Operations, or MISO—which can be deployed in combat or noncombat situations. MISO are planned operations that employ propaganda, disinformation, or misinformation to confuse, misdirect, and otherwise disrupt and stress the decision-making of adversaries. They are a nonviolent means to shape political outcomes in uncertain situations. Rather than using force to compel, they rely on manipulating logic, fear, or other mental factors to accomplish strategic objectives.

While the Maduro regime may still maintain a monopoly on force and the ability to instill fear and terror in its citizens, it is psychologically weak. Maduro and other top leaders are paranoid, uncertain, distrustful of one another and their own people, and petrified of spending the rest of their lives in U.S. maximum security prisons. That means they are ripe for this sort of manipulation.


Authorize covert action

Covert action in Latin America is freighted with historical baggage, but these are not ordinary times. In fact, covert operations are a requisite option in facing any international crisis when military force is not advisable yet economic and diplomatic sanctions are not enough. A humanitarian and migration crisis unseen in the Western Hemisphere in modern times has put an enormous strain on Venezuela’s neighbors, and it is likely those governments are less concerned about history than about the United States doing whatever it can to end the disaster.

Covert activities should be directly targeted at undermining regime cohesion, putting stress on its ability to maintain control, and convincing minds within the military that the status quo is no longer tenable.

Venezuela’s meltdown may not negatively impact U.S. regional interests to the degree that would merit a military intervention, but it does demand that Washington consider the full range of other options in the U.S. toolkit. Now is not the time to panic or decree a U.S. policy a failure. Instead, Trump should call for all executive branch departments and agencies to come to the table with strategies to undermine the Maduro regime using law enforcement, information operations, and other covert means. Allowing a ham-handed, inept autocrat like Maduro to defy the United States in its own neighborhood by remaining in power indefinitely is simply unacceptable, for Venezuelans’ sake—and America’s.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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