On Tuesday morning, President Trump faced a tough crowd at the United Nations General Assembly. His speech, a furious defense of his unique worldview written by his adviser Stephen Miller, was met with skepticism and, at times, laughter. Trump touted the apparent progress in negotiations with North Korea over the past year, lambasted Iran, and, of course, praised himself. Still, Trump managed to get one thing right in his sweeping interpretation of the global political scene: Venezuela’s crisis has become a “human tragedy.”
A nation blessed with the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela has been ruled for half a decade by Nicolás Maduro, the chosen successor of former strongman Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer in March 2013 at the age of 58. The Maduro regime’s astounding corruption and economic recklessness have thrown Venezuela into a spiral of hyperinflation, chronic shortages, and abject poverty. The country’s once prodigious oil production yield has sunk to a 30-year low while its fiscal deficit currently sits at an astounding 20 percent of its GDP. Since 2014, over 2.3 million people have fled the country, including many of Venezuela’s most capable professionals. Inside Venezuela’s borders, the tragedy has reached Dantesque proportions. Blackouts are a regular occurrence, diseases long thought eradicated have come back, and multitudes of children are dying of malnutrition. Caracas, the once bustling capital city, is now overrun by horrendous crime. Venezuela itself has begun to resemble a narco-state, with drug trafficking growing at an alarming rate. Even the country’s waters, once a tourist mecca, are now rife with modern-day pirates! As Moisés Naím, renowned intellectual and former Venezuela trade minister, puts it, Venezuela is facing “the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere during the 21st century and one of the worst in the history of Latin America.”
So, yes, Trump is right: Venezuelans need help and they need it now. What they don’t need is the kind of help Trump is currently offering.
On Tuesday, after the U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions on the Venezuelan regime, including First Lady Cilia Flores, Trump once again floated the idea of a military coup to bring Maduro down. “It’s a regime that, frankly, could be toppled very quickly by the military if the military decides to do that,” Trump said. This fits a pattern. On Monday, just a few hours before Trump’s swing at Venezuela at the General Assembly, an Axios report quoted Fernando Cutz, former National Security Council director for South America, who suggested the Trump administration has indeed worked on a “program of escalation” that could lead to American military action against the Maduro regime. According to another recent report in the New York Times, the administration has held “secret meetings” with former members of the Venezuelan armed forces determined to force Maduro out. Sen. Marco Rubio, a key voice on Latin America in the Senate, also seems open to the idea of military intervention as the only way to solve the Venezuelan nightmare.
The Trump administration should tread lightly. The United States has a long history of interventionism in the region, mostly with dire, sometimes despicable results. In some instances, it has given authoritarian regimes the opportunity to blame American sanctions (and actions) for the outcomes of their own disastrous policies. It is entirely possible that a unilateral coup attempt would strengthen the Maduro regime and sink America’s legitimacy in a region it has wounded many times in the past. Cutz acknowledged as much during his recent appearance at the Wilson Center, where he was quoted by Axios: “Will the United States be solely on the hook to fix Venezuela if we do that? Yes, absolutely, because then everybody in the region, everybody in Venezuela, will point to the United States and say, ‘This is your mess.’ ” He’s right.
Moisés Naím told me that any talk of American military action against the Maduro regime “can’t be taken seriously without having absolute clarity about who would be responsible for the work needed before and after such an intervention.” Naím thinks the Trump administration has not thoroughly considered what would happen in the immediate aftermath of Maduro’s downfall. “Once he’s gone and the military dissolves, the country would fall into the hands of lawless, heavily armed gangs,” he warns.
Hector Schamis, a Georgetown professor who writes about Latin America for the Spanish newspaper El País, agrees. Schamis told me the situation after a coup would be “unpredictable, since there’s so much malaise within the armed forces.”
What, then, can the Trump administration do to put pressure on Venezuela’s murderous regime without taking on yet another costly and potentially disastrous military intervention?
Naím believes the United States could ease Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis by “letting refugees into the country. Grant them visas and green cards.” Other countries in Latin America are already facing the consequences of Venezuelan mass emigration. Regional experts have recently suggested that Latin America should formally declare a “regional refugee crisis” under the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, offering Venezuelans who are literally fleeing for their lives a place to settle until they can return in peace to their ravaged homeland. Another multilateral effort involves a group of Latin American countries—plus Canada, in a first for Ottawa—that will request the International Criminal Court investigate the Maduro regime.
In the meantime, says Naím, the administration should continue to asphyxiate Maduro’s government. “Impose sanctions on the leaders and their cronies: henchmen, partners, frontmen, family members, lovers,” he told me. “They should go after the regime’s ecosystem.” Schamis agrees, but offers a sobering caveat: The Trump administration and the international community should “sanction and apply intense pressure until all diplomatic options run out.” If that doesn’t work, Schamis told me, all options should be on the table. “We should prevent a genocide before it comes to pass.”