Pressuring Venezuela?

In recent weeks the US has ramped-up pressure on Maduro.

The Trump administration has decided that now is a good time to increase pressure on the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. It all started with the announcement of indictments of Maduro and many of his allies on drug charges.

Via the LAT: U.S. indicts Venezuelan President Maduro on drug trafficking charges.

The indictments, described by Atty. Gen. William Barr at a news conference in Washington, allege that Maduro and members of his inner circle conspired with rebels from neighboring Colombia to create a vast and lucrative criminal enterprise in Venezuela “flooding” the United States with cocaine and generating billions in illicit dollars. Maduro and his allies pocketed profits, and the rebels received weapons, prosecutors allege — all while Venezuela descended into poverty and social collapse.

“The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” Barr said. It has “betrayed the Venezuelan people and corrupted Venezuelan institutions. While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and proceeds of the corruption. This has to come to an end.”

The indictment naming Maduro means he would be subject to arrest if he leaves Venezuela. The U.S. State Department immediately put out a $15-million reward for information leading to his capture.

Along those lines, CNN reported this week: US launches new effort to oust Venezuela’s Maduro

“The United States has long been committed to finding a solution to the man-made crisis in Venezuela,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “The urgency for this has become all the more serious in light of the Maduro regime’s failure to adequately prepare for and address the global COVID-19 pandemic.”

Speaking at the State Department, Pompeo outlined a plan to establish a transitional government and, “if the conditions of the framework are met,” lift sanctions on Venezuela. The Maduro government rejected it almost immediately.

The US hopes its newly proposed framework will facilitate a democratic transition in Venezuela, more than a year after initial attempts to force Maduro from power. Those conditions include “the departure of foreign security forces and elections deemed free and fair by international observers,” Pompeo said, an apparent reference to Russian forces.

The piece details a transition plan. There is zero chance that Maduro will accept this course of action and the odds others in the regime will force it strike me as minimal if not zero as well.

There was further escalation late in the week. Via the Miami Herald, U.S. expands Navy presence in Caribbean. Is military action against Maduro more likely?:

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, National Security Council Director Robert O’Brien and Attorney General William Barr all said during the press conference that the additional military is meant to crack down on “counternarcotics operations,” but is also aimed at denying funds to Maduro and his closest allies, who have been recently indicted in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges.


Esper published a list of the forces mobilized for the mission, including Navy destroyers, Coast Guard cutters, Navy littoral combat ships, helicopters, Navy P-8 patrol aircraft, along with Air Force E-3 AWACS and E-8 JSTARS to carry out airborne surveillance, control, and communications.

The operation includes security forces assistance brigades. At the press conference Wednesday, Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there were “thousands” of sailors, Coast Guardsmen, soldiers, airmen and Marines involved.

“There is some serious military hardware listed here,” said Adam Isaacson, the director of the Defense Oversight program at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“I can’t recall the last time there were U.S. Navy destroyers in the Caribbean or the eastern Pacific coast [on operations, not exercises]. And each E-3 AWACS plane costs more than a quarter-billion dollars,” he said on Twitter.

Odds are that this deployment is a combo of actual anti-narcotics operations and an attempt to rattle Maduro. It seems unlikely that there is more to it than that. Still, we are clearly seeing an escalation of pressure on the regime.

Let me be clear before I continue that I consider (as I am certain I have noted multiple times) the Venezuelan situation to be an unnecessary, man-made disaster of tragic proportions started by foolish policy decisions started by Hugo Chávez and deepened by Maduro. I consider the destruction of the Venezuelan economy to be criminal and the death of Venezuelan democracy to be devastating.

However, I have long argued against US intervention, seeing it as counter-productive and likely a help to Maduro (by giving him an internal rallying point). Beyond that, there is also the question of the wisdom of pushing an already horrible situation closer to total chaos. Venezuela is utterly unprepared to deal with a massive Covid-19 outbreak. If Maduro is more worried about US threats to his position then any chance of internal cooperation is likely to fall apart. And if the regime falls, the situation will be a disaster and it simply will not resolve itself in some neat package. Rather, an already horrible human rights and public health crisis will become an utter catastrophe.

Indeed, it has always been best to let a Venezuelan solution emerge. The current pandemic may have actually been creating an internal shift. Note the following from The Economist:

With disaster looming, the regime and the opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, the head of the democratically elected National Assembly, had begun to talk to each other. On March 25th three opposition mayors appeared with Héctor Rodríguez, the pro-regime governor of Miranda state, which includes parts of Caracas, at an event to promote joint public-health measures. Henrique Capriles, who ran against Mr Maduro in an election in 2013, called on the opposition and the regime to face facts: Mr Maduro controls the country while Mr Guaidó, who is recognised by the United States and dozens of other democracies as Venezuela’s interim president, has international support. “This pandemic has to create an opportunity to seek an accord,” he said. Mr Maduro, who has repeatedly said that he is open to “dialogue” with the opposition even as he persecutes it, renewed the offer on March 25th. If the opposition did not want to recognise him as president he would participate “just as Nicolás Maduro”. There was talk of forming a unity government to deal with the pandemic.

Along those same lines (from the LAT piece linked above):

“For the first time in a long time, Maduro needs the opposition” for access to international aid to fight the pandemic, said David Smilde, a Tulane University professor who is a fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. Indicting Maduro now will make him feel cornered and less likely to cooperate.

“This ups the pressure, but it ups Maduro’s exit price even more,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine he would not hunker down. Why negotiate now if you have an indictment hanging over your head?”

The best chance in a long while for some sort of internal political shift appeared to be happening in Venezuela due to Covid-19 and the Trump administration and its hardliner fantasies about how politics work, may well be undoing it.

In regards to these fantasies, back to the LAT piece:

Barr said announcing the indictments during a pandemic could help further motivate Venezuelans to jettison Maduro from power.

“It’s good timing, actually,” Barr said. “The people in Venezuela are suffering, and they need an effective government that responds to the people.”

“The regime feeds at the trough, blocking supplies and help to the Venezuelan people from coming in,” he added. “This is the best way to support the Venezuelan people: to rid this country of this corrupt cabal.”

There is a lot of wishful thinking here that the people of Venezuela, as well as current political actors of consequence (such as within the military), will aim their ire at Maduro alone and that this will magically lead to the solution that the US wants. Such scenarios, despite repeated attempts at creating them over the years in different places, never work out that way.*

But I cannot help but think that further destabilizing the situation in Venezuela will not produce a neat, happy outcome, but instead will simply ratchet up the misery.

But, of course, efficacious policy appears not to be in the cards. For one, it is being directed by people like Eliot Abrams, who seem not to learn the lessons of intervention in either Latin America or Iraq.

It also appears that crass electoral considerations are in play.

First, the LAT notes:

Electoral politics have long been at the core of President Trump’s focus on Venezuela, former officials say, and, with the voting seven months away in the U.S., he may be eager to topple the government in Caracas to energize conservative voters in southern Florida.

And the Economist echoes:

Many observers suspect that the Trump administration cares less about dislodging Mr Maduro than about winning Florida, home to many Venezuelan and Cuban exiles, in the American presidential election this year.

So, sure, let’s make a terrible situation worse without any chance of creating a solution because it has a potential electoral upside fort he GOP in Florida.

* Two examples spring to mind. One is the long-term attempt to sanction Cuba into giving up the Castro regime. A second is perhaps more on point: the demand in March of 2003 that Saddam Hussein leave office to avoid an invasion.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Sleeping Dog says:
  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Electoral politics have long been at the core of President Trump’s focus on Venezuela, former officials say, and, with the voting seven months away in the U.S., he may be eager to topple the government in Caracas to energize conservative voters in southern Florida.

    Only the trumpsters could think toppling a govt during a pandemic and unleashing chaos would be a winning issue in an election. I would bet donuts to dollars he would lose far more votes from those of Venezuelan descent than he would gain, especially among those with relatives still there.

    “Vote trump! He killed Tia Maria!”

  3. Gustopher says:

    The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” Barr said. It has “betrayed the Venezuelan people and corrupted Venezuelan institutions.

    Do they really want to set this as a precedent for removal?

    Also, we are not going to do well in a pandemic war. No one will.

  4. Kathy says:


    “[..]we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”

  5. Paul Montagu says:

    The naval vessel that sunk itself after ramming a cruise ship is a sign of Venezuelan belligerence, and it may be a sign of economic desperation with oil at $26 per barrel.

  6. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    The issue with Maduro is that he has the support from the Military. The generals are not willing to let him go down, and it was incredibly naive to think that Guaidó could call for a military coup coming from the lower ranks of the Military.

    And it would be very difficult to mount any type of military operation in Venezuela. It’s too close to the Caribbean, and I would probably see a soldier reading a piece of paper on TV if Bolsonaro allows the Brazilian Amazon to be used by American troops against Venezuela.

  7. Gromitt Gunn says:

    In this, as in so many other things Trumpian, projection abounds.

    They don’t care about what this would do the people of Venezuela, nor the pressures Veneuelan misery would put on Colombia. These people are utterly feckless.