When President Trump recognized Juan Guaidó, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as “the true and legitimate president of Venezuela” during the State of the Union address on Tuesday, Mr. Guaidó received two bipartisan standing ovations. The recognition included a commitment from Mr. Trump that Nicolás Maduro’s “grip on tyranny will be smashed and broken.” It was a unifying moment in a divisive address. Mr. Guaidó then spent a night at Blair House, reserved for foreign dignitaries, with the Venezuelan flag flying out front, and met with Mr. Trump at the White House on Wednesday.
The president’s shout-out and meeting capped an international tour, in defiance of a travel ban, meant to boost support for Mr. Guaidó’s coalition, in its effort to dislodge Mr. Maduro’s grip on power. The trip has included a state visit to Colombia, a meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, with President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, with European Union authorities in Brussels, with multiple leaders in Davos, Switzerland, and with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada in Ottawa.
Mr. Trump’s support will provide Mr. Guaidó with a new impulse within his coalition and make it more likely he will be let back into Venezuela without being arrested. However, it does not alter the current political context within the country, which has the opposition coalition on the ropes. The Maduro government’s crass attempt to grab control of the opposition-dominated National Assembly last month has left that body with two directorates — one controlled by Mr. Guaidó and one by opposition dissidents apparently bought off by Mr. Maduro. The impasse will probably be decided in the coming weeks by the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court — likely not in Mr. Guaidó’s favor.
In his mentions of Venezuela, Mr. Trump made no new announcements. Indeed the most important innovation was the fact that he did not mention a “military option.” Until recently his administration had consistently stated that “all options are on the table.” And it is this threat that has stymied opposition political efforts. Opposition radicals, who think military intervention is available for the asking, see those who want to engage in politics as naïve about the regime at best, as dangerously complicit with it at worst.
But Mr. Trump did emphasize United States leadership with respect to Venezuela, and that is where the problem is. The administration taking up the cause so explicitly a year ago effectively made Venezuela a geopolitical pawn. It is no coincidence that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will travel to Venezuela on Friday. The trip not only follows Mr. Trump’s State of the Union address, it comes a week after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
It is this Cold War redux that effectively undermined the series of negotiations sponsored by Norwegian diplomats from May to August last year. When the opposition, after two months, put the Maduro government on the spot with a concrete proposal, Mr. Maduro hedged in large part because he knew he could count on Russian support. Theatrical announcement of new sanctions by the national security adviser at the time, John Bolton, including a statement that “the time for dialogue is over,” gave Mr. Maduro the excuse he needed to pull out of negotiations. United States criticism of the negotiation process also emboldened opposition radicals who successfully pushed to end it.
Despite Mr. Trump’s show of support, at no time in the past year has Mr. Guaidó been in a worse position to unify the opposition around the type of political actions that have led to democratic transitions in authoritarian places as diverse as Poland, South Africa and Chile. Not only have opposition radicals with completely implausible plans been emboldened, United States economic sanctions have worsened an economic crisis and migratory exodus and thereby undermined the possibility of opposition street protests. Thus the Venezuela conflict seems destined to be a repeat of the long-term standoff over Cuba that for over 50 years has provided a solid base for South Florida electoral mobilization but has done little for democracy and human rights in Cuba itself.
The only way this trajectory could be altered would be through a significant realignment of international forces and policies surrounding Venezuela. The European Union is the only global power that could conceivably challenge the geopolitical confrontation that holds the Venezuela conflict in place. There is little chance that the Trump administration would seek such a change between now and November. By simply carrying on with the current policies toward Venezuela, he will likely secure the crucial Latino vote in Florida.
Democrats could begin to formulate an alternative Venezuela policy, however. Rolling back or significantly reformulating economic sanctions could provide relief to the population. Engaging the European Union and countries in the region to impose sanctions multilaterally on Venezuelan government officials could make them more effective. And engaging Russia, China and Cuba in the solution to the Venezuelan conflict could actually be fruitful. Perhaps most important would be a “golden bridge” that could encourage Mr. Maduro to give up power peacefully, as the former Colombian president and Nobel Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos suggested. Nobody in conflict offers their head on a platter. Only a plan that ensures a viable and attractive exit for Chavismo could provide them with a reason to let go.
David Smilde is a professor of sociology at Tulane University and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.
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