After recognizing Guaidó as the interim president, the United States is under fire for its political strategy with oil-rich Venezuela.
Over the past few weeks, Venezuela has launched itself into a full constitutional crisis that could result in a catastrophe unparalleled in the western hemisphere in the 21st century. When President Nicolás Maduro won reelection through authoritarian tactics, many Venezuelans refused to recognize his regime’s legitimacy, and over 100,000 of them took to the streets. This might not seem like much for a country that has been protesting en masse for over four years, but these recent demonstrations have more political potency in them than in the past.
This time, protestors are making two major claims: first, that Maduro unfairly achieved his second election win through undemocratic means, and second, that opposition candidate Juan Guaidó should be the interim president. With a restless popular movement amassing in the streets and the inhumane Maduro possessing the power to commit horrible acts, the Venezuelan conundrum has become an international crisis.
Like any divisive international crisis, the great powers of the world and relevant neighboring nations have all taken some sort of stance on the situation. The United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and most of Latin America all recognize Guaidó as the rightful leader of Venezuela. In the middle sits the European Union, whose stance currently calls for new elections, and Pope Francis, who has called for peace in the South American nation.
Finally, the stances of Turkey, China and Russia unsurprisingly all line up behind the dictator in Caracas. Russia has done more than just nominally support the repressive socialist regime and is providing Maduro with personal security as well. Like with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Russia likely supports Maduro for a variety of reasons, but access to Venezuela’s bountiful oil reserves and making sure illiberal regimes do not let power slip into the hands of democratically-elected leaders both top the list.
Unlike Russia, it would be hard to pinpoint America’s primary reason for backing Guaidó, though petroleum-produced motivations are never far away when the U.S. is involved. However, a deft handling of the situation by all three powers could produce the kind of result that does not just mitigate the current crisis in Venezuela, but one that helps the people of the country regain control of a nation that has been under socialist dictatorial rule for almost 20 years.
The E.U. has made a smart move in not claiming Guaidó as the rightful president so as to present themselves as a potential mediator, and the Vatican, with its immense cultural clout in a country that is 71 percent Catholic, should hold off on further involvement unless violence becomes inevitable. The U.S.’s position is equally important. Not only is America the most powerful country the world has ever known, but its firm belief that Guaidó deserves the presidency could keep allies such as the E.U. and the Vatican from shying away from confrontation and ceding a win to Maduro. Unfortunately, all signs point to this potential being squandered, since those currently in control of the American foreign policy establishment lack the knowledge and the expertise to handle a conflict with such high stakes.
If the United States was ill-prepared to handle the current strife in Venezuela when the big names in Trump’s foreign policy and military establishment were Rex Tillerson, James Mattis and H.R. McMaster, then it has almost no chance of success under the guidance of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. Bolton, the most hawkish voice in Washington, has called for military intervention in the United States’ handlings of both North Korea and Iran, and this week, he walked out of a meeting holding a notepad with what looked like an estimate of troops the U.S. could send to neighboring Colombia. That may have been one of the many ideas floated in the meeting, but it was literally the only thing written on the pad. Additionally, the Trump Administration’s intellectual blinders mean that it is likely unprepared for the rhetorical war that Venezuela, Russia and China will likely launch if diplomacy breaks down.
The U.S. will get labeled capitalist, interventionist and imperialistic before this entire crisis is over, and how we respond is vital to the outcome. It is easy enough to handle being called a capitalist country and an interventionist power. Objectively, both labels are mostly true, and it is not difficult to embrace these monikers as good things. Capitalism, when restrained, can yield incredible economic results, and interventionism, when applied deftly, can prevent genocide and war crimes.
However, the label of imperialist is not so easy to confront. Not only has the United States used its economic power to exploit Latin American countries in the past, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan meant to some that the U.S. never sought to give up its bullying tactics. Like those wars, any military incursion into Venezuela that does not have sound justifications could become the biggest foreign policy disaster since the presidency of George W. Bush, and a costly war would only increase the record number of refugees that the last two years has seen flee from their home countries. Trump and Bolton will likely push full steam ahead for a plan that is indifferent of past U.S. experience and one that continues the trend of this administration’s shaming of America on the global stage.