We should accelerate positive changes in Venezuela without using our military

Venezuela was once a developing democracy and an economic bright spot in Latin America. But 20 years after the ascent of Castro-aligned populist leader Hugo Chavez — and six years into the reign of his anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro — the country is a failing state.

It has seen inflation rates at 225 percent, second only to South Sudan; mass human flight akin to that of Libya; and the assimilation of cocaine trafficking into the country’s governing structure. Though a substantial opinion survey in Venezuela would be difficult to manage, interviews with locals point overwhelmingly to Maduro’s unpopularity, widespread resentment of the government he runs and rage at his brutal security apparatus.

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There is little doubt that if the political system were opened up, Maduro's rival and National Assembly President, Juan Guaidó would beat Maduro in a landslide. The White House rightly recognizes Guaidó, who was denied his right to govern after rigged elections.

The question is how to help Guaidó take his due place at the helm — a hoped-for first step in helping the enormous country hold together and recover.President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE has indicated that he would consider using military force to do so — “an option,” he told an interviewer. Further indications that the administration is seriously considering this choice have been reported, including a photo of national security adviser John BoltonJohn Robert BoltonSchumer joins Pelosi in opposition to post-Brexit trade deal that risks Northern Ireland accord Why President Trump must keep speaking out on Hong Kong Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE holding a note with the words “5000 troops to Colombia.”

The Trump administration should listen to the advices of the U.S Intelligence services. Otherwise, to exercise the military option would probably be a serious mistake for the United States. It would incur an obvious popular reaction in Venezuela, whereas there is strong evidence that other forms of support for Guaidó can succeed. But the administration’s floating of its options, in triggering a range of responses from U.S. allies and adversaries, has proved clarifying.

On the one hand, a range of U.S. allies are coming together in support of Guaidó. France, Germany, and Spain have also recognized Guaidó as interim president, and issued an ultimatum to Maduro to call a presidential election by midnight on Sunday. The most important countries in Venezuela’s more immediate vicinity stand with Guaidó.

Farther afield, the Israeli government has made its own clear statement in support of Guaidó. And Morocco has given voice to the beginnings of an Arab establishment push along similar lines: On Jan. 30, in a phone conversation initiated at Guaidó’s request, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita praised the young leader and signaled that he was now Morocco’s destination for engagement with Venezuela. There are meanwhile grounds for reasoned hope that the U.S.-allied Gulf states — major oil producers, like Venezuela — will help Guaidó as well.

On the other hand, rejectionist and irredentist forces spanning a similar stretch of the globe are standing with Maduro — and in several cases exploiting American indications of potential military action to serve their larger anti-American policies. In Tehran, President Rouhani played to nativist anti-American sentiments in any number of countries, "The Americans are basically against all popular revolutions and independent countries and seek world hegemony by suppressing them.” 

The Russian government similarly used the occasion to warn against “destructive meddling from beyond [Venezuela’s] borders.” In Hamas-run Gaza, a protest by activists for the hardline Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine affirmed their solidarity with Maduro. In other words, a range of hostile actors are united in their support for the Venezuelan kleptocracy.

Thus a clear dividing line has emerged across the Americas, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. A potent pro-American coalition wants to help rescue Venezuela and its people, while rogue states and various trans-state actors are betraying both in deference to a thug. The U.S.-allied group is clearly a winning team. It therefore behooves Washington to test to the utmost the possibility of accelerating positive change in Venezuela without resorting to military measures.

The U.S. can build a campaign of economic pressure and incentives with confidence that an expansive community of nations will uphold it. (Indeed, a first wave of powerful U.S. sanctions has already struck). It can build a plan for joint political action to support Gaudio in consort with Venezuela’s neighbors, in addition to CIA intelligence support and other measures. And it can turn for various forms of assistance to its Middle Eastern partners, including Israel, Morocco and potentially the Gulf states. It is crucial for global security and the world's conscience to get this right.

Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan publisher. He is on the board directors of the Atlantic Council and an international counselor of the Center for a Strategic and International Studies in Washington.