The World

Trump Needs to Tread Carefully in Venezuela

The White House has handled the crisis well so far, but the risks of overreach are huge.

Juan Guaidó speaks in front of a Venezuelan flag.
Venezuela’s National Assembly head Juan Guaidó speaks to the crowd during an opposition rally against leader Nicolás Maduro in which Guaidó declared himself the country’s acting president in Caracas on Wednesday. Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has formally recognized Juan Guaidó, leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as interim president of that country, which is mired in a calamity of truly brutal proportions after nearly six years of President Nicolás Maduro’s disastrous rule. Guaidó has questioned the legitimacy of last year’s elections, which saw Maduro returned to power amid blatantly fraudulent interference and malfeasance. Earlier this month, after Maduro ignored widespread protests to his inauguration for a second term, Guaidó, the 35-year-old opposition leader, declared himself Venezuela’s rightful transitional president, per the country’s constitution.

He has since stated his intent to negotiate new elections in a process that would need to begin with Maduro’s removal. The Maduro administration responded by dismissing Guaidó’s legal challenge and intimidating him with the same predatory tactics it has used against other rivals, including Leopoldo López, the former mayor turned opposition leader who is a political prisoner to this day. Guaidó claims he was himself briefly detained 10 days ago. Still, Guaidó hasn’t budged, earning a large following and praise from other relevant opposition figures. On Wednesday, millions of people flooded the streets of Venezuela in support of Guaidó and the country’s right to free and fair elections.

Trump’s decision to recognize Guaidó, announced hours after the release of rare video on Twitter by Mike Pence in which the vice president labeled Maduro a dictator and publicly supported Guaidó, will have far-reaching consequences. In the first few minutes after the administration’s statement, 10 other nations across the Americas followed suit and recognized the young Venezuelan opposition leader as the country’s interim president, among them Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, countries that have been on the frontlines of a crisis that has seen more than 2 million Venezuelans flee their famished country just in the past couple of years. Brazil’s backing of Guaidó under new far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is a significant reversal: Under previous administrations, Venezuela’s massive neighbor to the south had mostly resisted condemning either Hugo Chávez or his successor. Maduro reacted furiously to the international backlash and particularly to Trump’s gesture, breaking off diplomatic relations with the United States and giving American diplomats three days to leave Venezuela. (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later denied the administration had any intention of complying with Maduro’s demands, as the United States no longer identifies him as president of Venezuela.) While Maduro was trying to expel foreign diplomats, Guaidó took to Twitter to thank the long list of countries that had recognized his legitimacy as interim president.

And yet, the countries that were not on Guaidó’s list could also reveal something of what lies ahead for Venezuela and the region. While most Latin American governments chose to back Guaidó, three countries were glaring exceptions. Both Cuba and Bolivia vehemently supported Maduro. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel warned of “imperialist intentions to destabilize and discredit” what Chávez, Venezuela’s previous strongman and Maduro’s political mentor, called the country’s “Bolivarian revolution.” For good measure, Díaz-Canel added a couple of illuminating hashtags: #WeAreCuba and #WeAreContinuity. Bolivian President Evo Morales also took to Twitter to strike a similar chord, calling his followers’ attention to “the long claws of imperialism that once again try to fatally wound democracy.” Mexico’s government also chose not to recognize Guaidó as interim president. This should come as no surprise. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the country’s new president, has long sympathized with the Venezuelan government. He once told me Venezuelan democracy was superior to Mexico’s, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In early December, López Obrador invited Maduro to his swearing in. Maduro reciprocated with a warm “¡Qué viva México!” during his own, controversial inauguration.

Mexico’s government has tried to explain its support of Maduro throughout his recent ordeal with a debatable and anachronistic reading of Mexico’s noninterventionist tradition of foreign policy. It’s a cop-out. Mexico’s silence—briefly interrupted by a timid call for negotiations—is not an expression of diplomatic neutrality but rather a shrewd way to validate Maduro’s antics. Lopez Obrador’s personal ideological predilections are his to have but are also a rather poor replacement for a coherent or courageous foreign policy, especially when faced with an atrocity such as the current state of Venezuela.

The next few weeks will surely bring more uncertainty. Through it all, the Trump administration must tread lightly. Ideally, the solution to Venezuela’s crisis should indeed begin with Maduro’s resignation and proceed toward a new and fair electoral process that could bring about the country’s much needed healing process. What it does not need is saber-rattling of any kind. Any suggestion of U.S. intervention in Latin America will open old wounds that trigger resentment and mistrust, not without merit, one might add. In the case of Venezuela, Trump and his foreign policy team (including Sen. Marco Rubio, who has clearly been one of the strategy’s masterminds) have shown diplomatic imagination and judiciousness. Their bold support of Juan Guaidó has gained the backing of most countries in Latin America, the Organization of American States, and other crucial voices in the region and elsewhere. They should not ruin it by yielding to that old American temptation: military might.