Trump's Venezuela policy put to test in streets of Caracas

Trump's Venezuela policy put to test in streets of Caracas
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpFlorida GOP lawmaker says he's 'thinking' about impeachment Democrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort Kurdish group PKK pens open letter rebuking Trump's comparison to ISIS MORE’s push for leadership change in Venezuela is facing a key test in the streets of Caracas, where thousands of protesters are trying to topple embattled President Nicolás Maduro.

The Trump administration has thrown its weight behind opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s claim to the presidency, openly supporting an uprising that escalated on Tuesday when Guaidó called for the “largest march” in Venezuelan history in an effort to oust Maduro.

That change in government is a key component of the administration’s stated goal to weaken what national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonTrump job approval slips 2 points in Gallup poll Washington indecision compounded the Kurds' dilemma US Ambassador Sondland says Trump directed officials to work with Giuliani on Ukraine MORE called the “Troika of Tyranny” — the current leaders of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, all of whom rely on Venezuelan oil for funding.

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Trump’s foreign policy apparatus has invested much of its political and diplomatic capital in building a coalition of European and Latin American countries, as well as international institutions, with Guaidó’s legitimacy as their common ground.

That coalition has  somewhat bolstered Trump in a region where both he and the concept of U.S. intervention have been deeply unpopular.

But U.S. involvement in the Venezuelan crisis has exposed regional and geopolitical risks associated with taking sides in an internal conflict.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezPaul blocks Senate vote on House-passed Syria resolution House to vote on resolution condemning Trump's Syria pullback Rand Paul calls for probe of Democrats over Ukraine letter MORE (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said a weakened Venezuelan economy could lead to millions more refugees in neighboring countries, particularly U.S. allies like Colombia and Brazil.

“The consequences of just that one element alone are enormous to the national interest and security of the United States,” said Menendez. “Secondly, that Russia and Cuba can play such disproportionate roles in Venezuela with their nefarious activities is worrisome to me, because Russia is coming into our own hemisphere and trying to undermine the stability of our own hemisphere.”

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoEx-Watergate prosecutor says evidence in impeachment inquiry 'clearly' points to Trump Pompeo rejects idea that the United States abandoned Kurds Mike Pompeo's Faustian bargain MORE said Tuesday that Russia had played a direct role in persuading Maduro not to leave Venezuela for Cuba, a rare admission of foreign intervention in the Western Hemisphere.

Pompeo followed up with a phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday, when he asked Russia to cease its support for Maduro.

The U.S. “put a lot on the line when it comes to Venezuela, and it’s evident that despite the initial efforts not succeeding, they’re doubling down on regime change,” said Michael McCarthy, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “This is a new case of the geopolitical struggle in the Western Hemisphere. We knew eventually it was going to come down to the big three — the United States, Russia and China — with the other left-wing allies of Maduro in the mix.”

“What we’re seeing here is the U.S. is suggesting that it may be willing to put equities in its strategic bilateral relationship with Russia at stake,” he added.

While the Trump administration has used the threat of military action as a tool to keep pressure on Maduro, its regional goodwill could quickly dissipate if that threat comes to fruition.

“I don’t see that the current situation could get so bad there would be a cry for intervention on the part of Latin American governments,” said Paul W. Posner, a Venezuela expert at Clark University. “I can see someone like [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro supporting that, but I can’t see anyone else supporting military intervention.”

More than 50 countries worldwide support Guaidó, but U.S. sanctions have yet to be matched by allied countries. In Latin America, only Panama has followed suit, partly because many countries in the region lack the ability to enforce sanctions.

Menendez, who strongly supports Guaidó’s claim to power, said a more multilateral approach to sanctions could have achieved better results.

“Internationalizing those sanctions, creating such pressure upon the Maduro regime that there is nowhere for you to go, isolating Russia and Cuba as the bad actors in Venezuela, I think that would have changed the dynamics significantly,” said Menendez. “So yes, it was great to organize the recognition of Guaidó, but you needed to do much more.”

One thing that most observers agree is that the options for Maduro are dwindling.

“If Maduro wants to stay in power, increasingly he will have to use more repression. And to the extent that he does that, he will be perceived as more illegitimate,” said Posner.

“They are using a very modest carrot and a very big stick to keep people in line, but you can only do that for so long. There’s not a light at the end of the tunnel for the Maduro regime,” he added.