How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On January 23, the Venezuelan National Assembly swore in 35-year-old Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president. In the hours and days that followed, the United States and more than 50 other countries recognized Guaidó, declaring the regime of President Nicolás Maduro illegitimate. At the time, it seemed that Maduro’s government might collapse within days. It didn’t. Now, almost three months later, Venezuela has become even more of a failed state than it was before. Devastated by economic and humanitarian crises and a predatory government and military, the country is now locked in a standoff between two men claiming to be its rightful president.
Responsibility for the tragedy in Venezuela lies squarely at the feet of Maduro and his predecessor, former President Hugo Chávez. But the United States’ attempts to force regime change risk making things worse. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has tried to pressure Maduro through tough talk, threats, and sanctions, including an oil embargo and an attempt to force a caravan carrying humanitarian aid across the Colombian-Venezuelan border. These tactics have failed to provoke a collapse of the Maduro regime or a significant defection of military personnel to the opposition. Not even the countrywide blackouts that have recently struck Venezuela have undermined Maduro.
Washington’s strategy—backing Guaidó against the deeply corrupt and fraudulently elected Maduro—is compelling, and no doubt plays well in Florida, with its Cuban and Venezuelan American diasporas. But the Trump administration’s belief that it can place enough pressure on segments within the government (particularly the armed forces) to force a quick and easy democratic transition is flawed. To make progress, the United States will have to work with its international partners to find a more moderate path forward.
Since January, the United States has worked hard to isolate Maduro. Washington has sanctioned more than 600 of Maduro’s friends and associates, prevented the Venezuelan government from selling oil to the United States, and worked with other governments in Latin America and beyond to extend international diplomatic recognition to Guaidó.
The Trump administration’s Venezuela policy has, commendably, involved close cooperation with other countries. This cooperation has led the United States to moderate some of its rhetoric. Previously, Trump and other U.S. politicians, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, had insisted that a military option was on the table in Venezuela. But putting U.S. boots on the ground would splinter the international coalition supporting Guaidó. In late February, Vice President Mike Pence walked back previous U.S. threats, saying that the United States would “continue to isolate Maduro economically and diplomatically until democracy is restored.” He pointedly left out the possibility of U.S. troops coming to the rescue.
But although the Trump administration has done well to secure international cooperation, its strategy for ousting Maduro—exerting maximum pressure on the regime in the hope of sparking widespread military defections to the opposition—has failed. The military has remained loyal. This should come as no surprise: with the assistance of Cuban advisers, Maduro has politicized and corrupted Venezuela’s military high command. The country has over 1,000 generals, more than the United States, and many have been allocated plum posts that allow them to traffic arms and drugs or extort those who do, making them an integral part of what Insight Crime has called Venezuela’s “mafia state.” They see their own fates as tied to that of the regime and are unlikely to defect no matter how much pressure the United States brings to bear.
Worse, the Trump administration’s policy toward the Maduro regime is part of a larger strategy for Latin America—one that recalls previous periods of American unilateralism and that is likely to alienate U.S. partners in the region. This strategy was first laid out by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton in a November 1, 2018, speech in Miami. Speaking before a group of Cuban American Republicans, Bolton proclaimed the Trump administration’s opposition to the “Troika of Tyranny”: Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, all authoritarian governments with warm relations with China and Russia. “The United States,” Bolton declared, “looks forward to watching each corner of the triangle fall.” Since June 2017, the White House has incrementally tightened the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and earlier this month ended a program granting Cubans five-year visas that allowed them to visit relatives in the United States. The Trump administration has also sanctioned leading government officials in Nicaragua. As a pretext for these moves, Bolton has invoked the Monroe Doctrine, which the United States has historically used to justify intervention in the Western Hemisphere.
Although the U.S. pressure campaign has failed to oust Maduro, there is a moderate path forward. On February 7, 11 of the 13 members of the International Contact Group, comprising states from Europe and Latin America, called for dialogue between the regime and the opposition to prepare for a “free, transparent, and credible” new presidential election. This proposal was initially met with derision by elements of the opposition and by U.S. Special Envoy for Venezuela Elliot Abrams, who called on the international community to “question the purpose and likely outcome” of dialogue with Maduro. Past efforts at mediation have only allowed Maduro to stall for time, consolidate power, and divide the opposition.
Yet the United States should not respond to these past failures by rejecting dialogue. Rather, Washington should work with its European and Latin American partners to back any new round of negotiations with the threat of sanctions should Maduro fail to meet certain preconditions for successful talks, such as releasing political prisoners, sticking to an established timeline, and stepping down in favor of an interim government once a date for elections has been set. Any possible agreement for fresh elections between Maduro and the opposition must also allow for the reconstruction of Venezuela’s corrupted state institutions in collaboration with moderate Chavistas. Necessary reforms include the restructuring of the armed forces along less partisan lines and the disarming of the two paramilitary groups that answer to Maduro, the special action forces and the groups of armed civilians known as colectivos. An interim agreement would also have to reconstruct Venezuela’s Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council, currently packed with Maduro supporters, by appointing independent, consensus candidates to those bodies.
Until now, only a handful of the more than 50 countries that back Guaidó—Canada, Panama, and a few European countries—have tightened the diplomatic and economic screws on Maduro. Rather than unilaterally seeking regime change, the United States should focus on coordinating international pressure on Maduro in order to compel him to participate in a process that will ultimately lead to free and fair elections.
The Trump administration should also reconsider its strategy not only toward Venezuela but toward Latin America more generally. Bolton’s moral absolutism does not play well there. For many in the region, invocations of the Monroe Doctrine are an ugly reminder of U.S. interventionism. In a perfect world, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela would voluntarily transition to democracy. Yet by focusing on regime change in these countries to the exclusion of other issues—including climate, trade, and the problems posed by right-wing autocrats in Honduras and Guatemala—the United States risks losing allies across the hemisphere.
A more productive approach would be to focus on the economic and political needs of the 93 percent of Latin America not included in the so-called Troika of Tyranny. The first step should be to fully staff up U.S. embassies across the region. Currently, the United States has no ambassador for Belize, Brazil, Chile, Honduras, and Panama, and only this week nominated an ambassador to Mexico. In a number of other countries, the U.S. embassy is run by a sitting ambassador waiting for a replacement.
From there the United States should turn to deepening its economic ties with Latin America. Except for Mexico, countries in the region have been spared the consequences of Trump’s trade skepticism, and the United States has trade agreements with all of Central America as well as Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Peru. Yet by abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump lost an opportunity to harmonize those agreements and improve their effectiveness. The United States should now make such fine-tuning a priority. Countries such as Argentina and Brazil, which have traditionally resisted U.S. overtures because they are locked into Mercosur, will be more likely to cooperate with the United States if it creates a smooth, functioning, cross-regional market with its current trading partners. Doing so will in turn help curtail China’s growing economic influence in Latin America.
An effective Latin America strategy would require Trump to show the people of the region that his administration respects and shares their primary concerns—some of which the U.S. president has explicitly disregarded. Take climate change. According to Vanderbilt University’s 2017–2018 Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), 75 percent of Latin Americans are worried about climate change, which suggests that joint initiatives in this area would be welcome ones. Next year, Costa Rica and Chile will play leading roles in the next round of UN climate change talks, with the latter hosting the 25th Global Climate Change Conference in December. The Trump administration should commit to supporting these efforts. Latin American governments also care about how their citizens are talked about and treated in the United States. The Trump administration loves to praise democratic governments in the Western Hemisphere, but these same governments are deeply alienated by Trump’s dehumanizing rhetoric about Mexican and Central American immigrants to the United States. Such rhetoric makes it difficult for elected leaders to work with the Trump administration in other areas.
Finally, political change requires engagement, even with unpalatable actors such as the Maduro regime. Bolton’s comments about the Troika of Tyranny suggest that the United States may attempt to do to Cuba and Nicaragua what it did to Venezuela—isolate a government in the hope of sparking a popular uprising. The most immediate problem with this strategy is that autocrats in these countries can now rely on support from China, Russia, and others. China, for example, has lent $50 billion to the Venezuelan government, and while this might not be enough to support an entire economy, it can help a corrupt government stay in power.
In the long term, however, a scorched-earth U.S. policy—one that relies on economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation without engaging with the moderate elements within these governments—risks transforming these countries into failed states that will be difficult to rebuild if and when democratic change comes.