For reasons good and bad, Trump may intervene more in Venezuela
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On Sunday, 7 million Venezuelans congregated outside ad-hoc polling stations to cast votes they knew would be symbolic. The reason: The country’s dictator-in-training, Nicolás Maduro, plans to complete the transition to a full-blown autocracy by rewriting the constitution through proxies “elected” on July 30.

For years, we’ve heard repeated calls for multilateral action on Venezuela. Will the Trump administration now act unilaterally? It might. Relations with Venezuela could easily become combustible. The key challenge will be to control the unintended consequences emanating from the inevitable rising strain between two easily-offended presidents. Both Donald Trump and Nicolás Maduro undoubtedly believe that each will garner domestic political benefits from heightening tensions with the other. 

There are two main reasons for the administration to act; one good and one bad. First, Venezuelans need a champion. Their country is coming apart at the seams thanks to a government that is increasingly off-kilter and extreme. Second, with special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation accelerating and an uncertain future for Trump’s domestic agenda after the Senate’s healthcare failure, a muscular foreign policy initiative to focus the country’s attention elsewhere could look politically attractive. 

There is a plethora of conflicts in the world, but engaging in most of them would skate too close to a war among superpowers. However, a number of new factors make the Bolivarian Republic a compelling case right here in our own hemisphere.

What are those factors?

Venezuela has become a narco-state, a full-fledged criminal enterprise. The government’s factions are involved in deep corruption and illegal activities ranging from drug and human trafficking to illegal agriculture, mining and logging. These sparring blocs are unified by a single fear: avoiding any settlement that would make extradition of former government officials to the United States more likely. 

Crumbling fast, Venezuela is becoming a national security threat. This trend toward Soviet-style dictatorship relies on outside actors, almost all of them U.S. adversaries. The free-falling economy depends more each day on China for billions of dollars to prop up the regime. Cuban intelligence runs the security services. Russians and Iranians are discussing arms deals.

Venezuela is also a humanitarian catastrophe. Venezuelans spend hours every day in line to scavenge grocery shops with empty shelves and pharmacies bereft of medicines. Malnutrition is rampant. The humanitarian catastrophe comes in the context of the world’s highest crime rate and the world’s highest inflation rate.

The Trump administration has already pointed to the national security and humanitarian concerns when it imposed targeted sanctions on Venezuela’s government officials. But recently, there are indications that Washington could go further. 

President Trump vowed on July 17 to take “strong and swift economic actions” if the July 30 vote takes place. A Reuters report in June cited undisclosed White House sources hinting at possible sanctions against Venezuela's oil sector, which accounts for 95 percent of the country's export revenue, and for which the U.S. is the number one customer.

Here, we enter dangerous ground. While the national security and humanitarian reasons for tougher policies against Venezuela are enticing, President Trump would do well to move forward with his eyes wide open.

Oil sector sanctions would cripple the country, worsening the already grave humanitarian conditions. Any actions, whether prohibiting Venezuelan oil imports or freezing Venezuelan-owned CITGO gas stations, would ratchet up the suffering. We would likely have to accompany sanctions with covert or overt humanitarian intervention.

All this would provoke an outsized — and probably mistaken — response from Caracas.  Erroneously believing that the Americans would never engage militarily, the Venezuelan government could lash out at U.S. interests to show its still-existing muscle.

Broader engagement with Venezuela will not be a cakewalk. From a military angle, Venezuela is an armed state, with Cuban-trained paramilitary militia hidden in population centers. Politically, many of Venezuela’s feckless opposition leaders would support a U.S. intervention.

Further, the U.S. administration should not misunderstand a deep Venezuela fatigue among the continent’s democratic leaders for a green light. Faced with the choice of supporting either Venezuela’s government or unilateral action by Trump, huge swaths of Latin Americans will side with Venezuela. U.S.-Latin American relations would go into a tailspin, nowhere more than in Mexico, which is already the target of Trump’s ire.

As Trump’s domestic agenda sputters, the need for an immediate distraction might prove irresistible. The Trump administration should move carefully. Conflict with Venezuela may be attractive for a whole host of reasons, but expanding beyond sanctions will bring no winners for the hemisphere. 

Peter Schechter is the former and founding director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and now the co-host of the foreign policy podcast Altamar. He is on Twitter at @PDSchechter.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.