During the Coronavirus Is No Time for War Games with Venezuela – The New York Times


With last week’s significant deployment of United States naval assets in the Caribbean, the Trump administration upped the ante in its confrontation with the Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. For the past 15 months, the administration has applied “maximum pressure” on Mr. Maduro’s regime, with the hope that the upper echelons of the military — the regime’s main pillar of support — would fracture and trigger a return to democracy. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to replacing Mr. Maduro with a “legitimate, transitional government.” Yet as the coronavirus stalks the globe, the ill-timed deployment punctuates a series of consequential but erratic moves on the United States’ Venezuela policy.

The deployment came on the heels of two other major developments in this policy: the criminal indictment of Mr. Maduro and several close collaborators, and the launch of a democratic transition framework by Secretary Pompeo. Taken separately, they signal the administration’s commitment to toppling Mr. Maduro. Together, they betray confusion over how best to do it. The question now is how far the administration is prepared to go with a strategy that has so far yielded few tangible results and may be making matters worse for Venezuelans.

The naval deployment, whose stated purpose is to combat drug trafficking, aims to send a message to Mr. Maduro that his time is up. Its scale recalls the military buildup before the 1989 invasion of Panama that deposed the strongman Manuel Noriega. Fortunately, a similar action is improbable today. More likely, this is saber rattling and an expensive distraction for a domestic audience as much as a foreign one, and its utility was apparently questioned even within the Pentagon. Still, the deployment is sensitive and potentially risky; an accident or misstep could set off a violent escalation.

The show of military force in the Caribbean was part of the administration’s “stick,” coming shortly after the Department of Justice indicted Mr. Maduro and other senior Venezuelan officials on charges of drug trafficking. Mr. Maduro sits at the head of a criminal regime considered illegitimate by the United States and immensely unpopular in Venezuela. He has so far managed to hang on, despite a concerted campaign of diplomatic and economic pressure from Washington, including tough sanctions imposed on the oil-rich country in January 2019 and strong support for the democratic forces led by Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly. More than 50 governments join the United States in recognizing Mr. Guaidó as interim president.

Sandwiched between the indictments and the naval deployment, Secretary Pompeo’s framework for democratic transition (the “carrot”?) proposes a politically balanced council of state that would not include Mr. Maduro or Mr. Guaidó and would organize presidential and congressional elections within a year. The proposal, though biased toward the opposition-held National Assembly, addresses many key issues and resembles one put forward by Mr. Guaidó six months ago, which the administration failed to back at the time. Not surprisingly, the Maduro regime quickly rebuffed the proposal.

If this is indeed a carrot-and-stick approach, it is being carried out with little finesse or apparent coordination. It is inconceivable that Mr. Maduro would consider a U.S. proposal for peace after being indicted. The State Department’s Venezuela envoy, Elliott Abrams, acknowledged as much when he said the U.S. does not seek to change Mr. Maduro’s mind as much as convince others to change it for him.

Mr. Abrams presumably refers to the Venezuelan military. The United States’ transition framework contemplates some minimal accommodations for the armed forces. It promises an amnesty law consistent with Venezuela’s international obligation to prosecute the regime’s well-documented atrocity crimes, which is appropriate. And it would leave the military high command in place.

But the Justice Department’s criminal indictments include Vladimir Padrino, the current defense minister, an active-duty general. It is hard to fathom how he would buy into the proposed power-sharing arrangement a week after being indicted. Venezuela’s military brass, deeply involved in corruption and criminality, will most likely harbor similar doubts in light of the indictments. Convincing them otherwise will require serious negotiations leading to stronger guarantees, but the presence of Cuban counterintelligence officers in the barracks serves as a deterrent to such conversations. The military may not support Mr. Maduro, but sticking with him is preferable to ending up in jail.

Most bizarre has been the timing of recent United States moves, taking place in the context of the coronavirus. While China sends medical supplies to Latin America and the Caribbean, the Trump administration sends naval destroyers. Although Venezuela has reported only 167 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of April 9, the country is a catastrophe of unthinkable dimensions waiting to happen. Mr. Maduro’s corruption and neglect have bequeathed Venezuela a health care system that has virtually collapsed. Not only are there no medical supplies — there is no running water, electricity or soap. Oil prices have sunk below the cost of production, and there is a scarcity of gasoline. Over nine million people, or nearly one in three Venezuelans, go hungry.

Although the U.S. government has contributed over $21 million to the United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan in Venezuela, that modest plan remains severely underfunded and faces obstacles, including Mr. Maduro’s foot dragging. The U.N. is now appealing for additional resources to respond to coronavirus, and USAID helped fund a first shipment of medical supplies that arrived this week. As things stand, any effective Covid-19 response program will have to reckon with Mr. Maduro’s control over Venezuela’s territory and bureaucracy, as well as Mr. Guaidó’s recognition by most Western donor countries, leading many in Venezuelan civil society to clamor for a humanitarian truce. That is a tall ask given the mutual distrust and Mr. Maduro’s continuing persecution of the opposition, but these are exceptional times, and beating the coronavirus may be the one thing both sides and their respective foreign backers can agree on.

For its part, the Trump administration appears unlikely to revisit its approach. The administration has rebuffed growing calls to ease economic sanctions or allow Venezuelan oil to be exchanged for humanitarian aid. It argues justifiably that Mr. Maduro is wholly responsible for Venezuela’s economic cataclysm, and unconvincingly that sanctions aren’t making it any worse. Acting tough on Mr. Maduro may have political benefits for Mr. Trump, including ensuring the Venezuelan and Cuban diaspora vote in South Florida. But as long as the policy fails to achieve its objective of a political transition, Venezuelans will continue paying a high price.

American policy today should instead prioritize Venezuela’s looming humanitarian disaster. The need is urgent. A merciless pandemic is not the time for naval deployments. Rather, this is the time to reboot sanctions policy, provide aid through accountable channels, and press the country’s leaders to work together. For Venezuela’s national nightmare to end, Mr. Maduro must go. For now, saving lives must come first.

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank focused on Western Hemisphere affairs. Michael J. Camilleri is director of the Peter D. Bell rule of law program at the same organization.

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