American Intervention In Venezuela Would Be Counterproductive, Unwise, And Illegal

The ongoing apparent attempted coup in Venezuela is already leading to talk of American intervention in the event of a crackdown. That would be unwise and unjustified.

As James Joyner noted in an earlier post, there appears to be an ongoing attempt to overthrow the regime of Venezuelan being led by
Juan Guaidó, the self-proclaimed Acting President of Venezuela and at least some elements of the Venezuelan military. At this point, it’s still unclear what the reality of the situation on the ground actually is and whether
Guaidó is gaining support from the military, which would be essential for the success of any effort to oust President Nicolás Maduro from power. Indeed, as Daniel Larison notes, this move by Guaidó comes across as something of a desperate last-ditch gamble:

Guaido’s previous gambles to trigger large-scale military defections from the government have either not worked or backfired. The opposition’s attempt to weaponize aid deliveries and force their way in from Colombia failed. Guaido was able to reenter the country later, but his return did not appear to have any effect on military support for the regime. This one doesn’t appear any more likely to succeed. For all intents and purposes, Guaido is trying to launch a coup without having already secured significant support from the military. The most likely result is that some soldiers defect to Guaido’s cause, but not enough to force Maduro from power. Guaido may be hoping to provoke a crackdown that can be used as a pretext for outside intervention

The news out of Caracas today has led many top Administration officials, including the President, to take to social media with supportive statements:

President Donald Trump and his top aides on Tuesday publicly backed an attempted coup in Venezuela, where opposition leaders have teamed with a band of rebellious soldiers in an effort to oust strongman leader Nicolás Maduro.

Supporting the uprising is a risky proposition for Trump. Maduro, who retains the loyalty of many of his military generals, may survive and many Latin Americans resent America’s history of backing coups throughout the region. Russia and Cuba are also propping up Maduro.

But should Maduro fall, Trump can claim a political and even moral victory as the 2020 elections loom, saying that months of pressure from his administration — pressure that earned support from many Democrats — helped liberate starving Venezuelans from an autocrat who destroyed their country’s economy. Trump has been insisting that Maduro step aside since late January, when he recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader.

Toppling Maduro would be a particularly salient political talking point for Trump because the president is trying to paint Democrats eyeing the White House as socialists who want to mimic Maduro’s style of governance.

“I am monitoring the situation in Venezuela very closely. The United States stands with the People of Venezuela and their Freedom!” Trump tweeted Tuesday afternoon.

Guaidó is leading the coup attempt, dubbed Operación Libertad. As Guaidó and a group of activists and soldiers called on Venezuelans to take to the streets and more soldiers to defect, several Trump aides voiced their backing in even more specific terms than the U.S. president.

“Estamos con ustedes!” Vice President Mike Pence wrote on Twitter. “We are with you! America will stand with you until freedom & democracy are restored. Vayan con dios! #FreeVenezuela.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that “the U.S. Government fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy.” National security adviser John Bolton, meanwhile, tweeted that “Venezuela’s military has a choice: embrace democracy, protect civilians and members of the democratically-elected National Assembly, or face more man-made suffering and isolation.”

Ahead of Trump’s tweet, White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway also expressed support for Guaidó.

“We stand with the people of Venezuela and we stand with Juan Guaidó,” she told reporters. “Maduro has to go.”

The need to oust Maduro is a foreign policy issue that has united many Democrats and Republicans behind Trump, though some Democrats on the far left have opposed the notion of the U.S. backing any coups.

Bolton on Tuesday even retweeted words of support from Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, who praised Guaidó for “putting his life on the line.”

“The Russians & Cubans who are in Caracas to save Maduro must step back & let Venezuelans decide their own future,” Durbin further warned.

Here are some of the tweets from Administration officials, some Congressional Democrats, and the President:

With the exception of the President’s tweet, all of these tweets were sent out in English and Spanish with the obvious hope that they would be seen by Venezuelan civilians and members of the military and police. This is despite the fact that the government has essentially blocked all social media traffic in the country making it unclear if anyone there is seeing these messages and equally unclear how they might react to them if they did. All of this leads to the following comment from Larison:

Either the Trump administration is setting Guaido up for a fall, and they are urging the opposition on to get slaughtered, or they are trying to create an excuse for military intervention that would be a disaster for Venezuela. Guaido has been led to expect U.S. assistance, but there is no good reason for the U.S. to further escalate and militarize this crisis. The Trump administration blundered into this regime change policy with no consideration of the consequences, and one way or another the people of Venezuela are being made to pay the price.

The issue of American military intervention in Venezuela isn’t a new idea, and the fact that the Trump Administration not only recognized Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela but also apparently consulted with him prior to his declaring himself President is not surprising and is largely consistent with the policy that has been in place since George W. Bush’s Administration. At the same time, though, it is somewhat concerning given the fact that Trump has, as is his habit, upped the rhetoric since taking office and suggested far more radical action than his predecessors. In August of 2017, for example, Trump suggested that a ‘military option’ was on the table with regard to American policy toward the Maduro regime. Last September, we learned that American representatives had met with Venezuelan coup plotters. Although nothing came of those talks, as I suggested at the time the news was nonetheless significant due to the uptick in confrontational rhetoric from the Trump Administration. More recently, National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was spotted at the White House after a meeting about the situation in Venezuela carrying a notepad that made reference to “5,000 troops” being sent to Colombia, has said that a military option was on the table but that nothing was imminent. Because of this, how the U.S. responds to these latest developments bears watching, especially if the President becomes tempted to lash out at a new target as his situation at home becomes more and more politically perilous.

Additionally hoping for or appearing to advocate in favor of outside military intervention also seems like an unwise move on Guaidó’s part because it has the potential to undercut the possibility of his receiving support from the one institution in Venezuela that could bring a quick end to the Maduro regime if it wanted to, the Venezuelan military. So far, the military continues to stick with the Maduro regime in no small part because he has been sure to stock the leadership with people who owe their place in power to him. Calling for, or appearing to advocate for, outside intervention by the United States or any other nation gives those leaders more incentive to stick by Maduro’s side both to ensure their own continued place in power and to avoid being cast as traitors conspiring with foreign powers to overthrow the government. Additionally, as we’ve seen in the past, Maduro has been quick to crack down on rebellious members of the military. In that context, it seems unlikely that many Generals who already owe their place in the chain of command to Maduro will stick their necks out for a man who appears to be welcoming the idea of the American military in internal Venezuelan affairs.

Apart from the issue of whether or not appearing to welcome outside intervention in the situation in Venezuela is a wise move for the anti-Maduro opposition, there are. as I noted when this idea first came up several months ago, reasons why the United States ought to stay out of this regardless of what happens:

Another against American intervention, of course, is the fact that it would be a significant step backward in terms of the manner in which the United States has interacted with Latin America. For the better part of the 20th Century, of course, the United States engaged in what can only be described as a policy of colonialism toward its Central and South American neighbors, overthrowing governments at will, intervening in civil wars, backing dictators over democratically elected leaders, and allowing corporations to essentially take control of entire nations, especially in the agriculture field. In other words, the United States was fully earning the title of “Ugly American” often directed against us. Over the course of several decades, and especially since the end of the Cold War, we’ve managed to move past that era into one where the United States has become more of a partner with its neighbors to the south. Intervening in the internal affairs of a Latin American nation like Venezuela risks ruining all of the work we’ve done to move past those bad old days.

Finally, American intervention against the Maduro government would be unjustified on two grounds. First of all, as of now, there is no Congressional authorization for such action. Absent that, any military action the President would take would be illegal and unconstitutional. If President Trump really wants to intervene militarily in Venezuela, let him make his case to Congress and let the people’s representatives have their say. This is what the Constitution requires, and it should not be ignored. Second, the simple fact of the matter is that the Maduro regime does not pose a threat to American national interests sufficient to justify military intervention, and the United States certainly cannot afford either a war in South America or the prospect of having the political future of that nation on our hands for who knows how long. In the meantime, along with much of the rest of the western world, we have recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of the country. Our job now should be to find a way to bring an end to the current political crisis and, of course, to get the people of Venezuela the food and medical aid they are being deprived of by a regime that cares more about its hold on power than it does the suffering of the populace. Beyond that, we need to stay out of this situation.

Those words ring true today as much as they did when I wrote that back in February. The future of Venezuela must be decided by the Venezuelan people most of all, and most immediately by the members of the military who must decide whether they will remain loyal to Maduro or side with Guaidó and his claim to power, a claim that is no more legitimate at this point than Maduro’s. Along the same lines, while I suppose it’s fine for the Administration and American politicians to voice support for Guaidó and his actions, they ought to be more careful about it. If these words create the impression that Guaidó is being guided by outside forces, especially the United States, then this coup attempt is likely doomed. If Maduro is going to be overthrown, it will be crucial for it to be clear that it happened because the Venezuelan people and military brought it about. Any appearance of American involvement is likely to make a bad situation worse.

Update: President Trump is now using the crisis in Venezuela to threaten Cuba:

The last time the United States imposed a blockade on Cuba, of course, was during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

And there’s more from John Bolton:

This is headed down a very dangerous path.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Latin America, Military Affairs, National Security, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Mister Bluster says:

    American Intervention In Venezuela Would Be Counterproductive, Unwise, And Illegal

    Sounds like a mission for Supreme Leader Kim Jong Trump!

  2. Mister Bluster says:
  3. Neil J Hudelson says:

    Opposition leader Lopez–and now according to some unconfirmed reports, Guaido himself–have taken refuge in the Chilean embassy.

    Brazil has granted asylum to 25 military leaders who rose up.

    The coup appears to be fading fast.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    As I wrote the last time this subject came up, if things really start to go oblong, Venezuela’s neighbors should be the first recourse. The United States is far, far down on the list. I mean, what’s the objective? Give both sides in whatever conflict emerges someone to shoot at other than each other?

  5. Kathy says:

    “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” Nevertheless, this looks like one more in the long list of failed coup attempts, including one against Chavez in Venezuela years ago, and one by Chavez in Venezuela decades ago.

    It also looks like the moment where the US is faced with two very unpleasant alternatives: 1) give material support to a failed coup, which will result in recriminations and criticism domestically and internationally regardless of the ultimate outcome, or 2) don’t provide material support for the coup, which has the same results, with the added bonus that failure to support the coup will be seen as the reason for why the coup didn’t succeed.

    In a coup you need to have the army on your side, at least most of it, I mean like 90% of it at a minimum. With a smaller percentage you may unleash civil war. With a much smaller percentage, you’re courting suicide. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but that’s the way to bet. The army can repress opposition and control the country. They can also force the reluctant incumbent to leave.

    At this point you might think that a few airstrikes on Venezuelan army bases by the US Navy would change lots of minds. They might. But look at what happened in Libya. Also, it might give rise to a whole different coup, led by the military for the military. Look at what happened in Chile. That’s the problem when a long-standing order collapses, look what happened to Francisco Madero in Mexico.

  6. I just noted in an update to this post that President Trump is threatening an embargo and blockade of Cuba if they continue to assist the Maduro regime.

    This is insane.

  7. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Are there even Cuban troops in Venezuela?

    Insane is par for the course for Dennison.

  8. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    Okay. Counterproductive, unwise, and illegal. That makes three reasons to intervene by Trumpomboltese logic. How many more will trip the balance? Will “insane” trip the lever by itself or will it need help from “futile” and “pyrrhic?”

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: The best answer that I could find on the interwebs thingie was this article from Univision dated earlier this month: I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Additional information is from Vice, dated March 20:

  10. Gustopher says:

    Isn’t this just how Trump flirts before falling in love?

    First he rattles his saber, and then there are a few guttural sounds on Twitter, and then… it’s love.

  11. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    As I wrote the last time this subject came up, if things really start to go oblong, Venezuela’s neighbors should be the first recourse.

    The problem is that in some sense Venezuela is Caribbean country more than a South American country. Part of the Netherlands(Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao) is closer to Venezuela than most of Brazil and Colombia.

  12. Kathy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:


    So there are Cuban intelligence agents, perhaps paramilitaries and actual military elements, plus some doctors and nurses. It seems they’re keeping an eye on the military. That makes sense. Dictators depend on the military, and must watch their loyalty at all times. So Maduro hired Cubans, whose loyalty can be paid for.

    I don’t see it as a reason to blockade Cuba.

  13. de stijl says:

    We are at a point in American history where a guy like John Bolton is in charge of policy. Preserve us.

  14. wr says:

    Counterproductive, Unwise, and Illegal. Isn’t that the name of one of Trump’s law firms?