U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to liberate Venezuela from Nicolás Maduro’s regime have stalled, despite some unusually favorable circumstances, including a spectacularly incompetent government in Caracas, a restive population, a regional consensus in favor of regime change, and the presence of a widely recognized and constitutionally legitimate successor. The Trump administration has followed the same playbook in Venezuela as in Iran and North Korea: maximal demands, tightened economic sanctions, and vague threats of military action. It hasn’t worked in any of the three cases, although all three countries are feeling the pain.

The centerpiece of the administration’s campaign has been sanctions on the Venezuelan regime and economy. But it’s difficult to starve out a leadership when the leaders are the last to go hungry. Sanctions can play a useful role in preparing the ground for a military intervention by softening up the regime and demonstrating that the intervening country has exhausted all options except force. This is how the United States used sanctions to prepare for its interventions in Haiti in 1994, Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, and Iraq in 2003.

If the Trump administration is serious about preparing for a military intervention, it will have to plan not only for U.S. troops to force their way into Venezuela and topple the regime, but also for the lengthier and usually more demanding post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction phases. The United States would need to build regional support for and, ideally, participation in the intervention; position its forces in order to show that it is serious; and create a legal basis for the use of force, such as a formal request from the internationally-recognized government of Juan Guaidó. 

Before invading, the United States would need to figure out how to maintain peace and restore normality throughout Venezuela after the fighting was over, perhaps by seeking the help of international peacekeepers. It would need a plan to get businesses up and running again, stabilize or replace the currency, install an effective administration, purge the military leadership and security services of Maduro loyalists, and begin longer term reconstruction efforts. The absence of well-considered and adequately resourced plans for post-entry stabilization badly complicated American efforts in Afghanistan and, less excusably, did the same in Iraq.

After a military intervention, Venezuela might well prove a more benign environment than Afghanistan or Iraq, and the successor regime might be more capable than the governments the United States installed in Kabul and Baghdad, but a principal lesson from the United States’ recent wars is not to base planning on best case scenarios. Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia, for example, has been fighting a civil war since the mid-1960s.  

There is no sign that the Trump administration set any post-conflict preparation in train before U.S. officials began issuing musing about military action, or even that they have now done so. Trump, who at one point indicated that military intervention was “on the table,” has since reportedly grown cold on the possibility, jokingly accusing John Bolton, his national security adviser, of wanting to get him into a war.


Even if the United States does not intervene, Maduro’s regime might still collapse, thanks to the efforts of the Venezuelans themselves. Should that happen, the burden of reconstruction will fall on the successor government, which will look to the United States for help. The first task will be to form an interim administration pending a new presidential election. How free Guaidó will be to staff his government as he wishes will depend on what deals he has to make with the current leadership to oust Maduro. He may have to agree to some form of amnesty and even a residual role for the current military leadership.

Before invading, the United States would need to figure out how to maintain peace and restore normality throughout Venezuela after the fighting was over.

Humanitarian relief will be the next priority. There should be no shortage of international donors. Restarting the Venezuelan economy will require lifting sanctions and removing the market distortions imposed by the Maduro regime while also protecting the country’s most vulnerable people. Stabilizing the now almost worthless currency and increasing oil production will present serious challenges. The new government will need to choose between introducing a new currency, as the United States did in Iraq or, as some Venezuelan experts favor, adopting the U.S. dollar, at least on an interim basis. Boosting oil production will require the new administration to reform the state-owned energy company and bring in a large influx of foreign capital, both tasks that will be complicated by the Maduro regime’s arrangements with China and Russia. Venezuela owes China some $20 billion, which it is currently unable to pay. Meanwhile, Russia has acquired exclusive export rights to, and part ownership of, several Venezuelan energy sectors, including the state  oil company’s U.S. subsidiary, CITGO.

To win power, Guiadó may have to strike deals with the army and other security institutions. Those deals may impede his attempts to reform the military, crack down on corruption, and impose accountability for past crimes. Several members of Venezuela’s current leadership are reportedly implicated in money laundering, drug smuggling, and other criminal activity. Whether those people can be extradited to the United States to face trial will likely depend on whether Guaidó and the National Assembly feel compelled to issue an amnesty and if they do, how broad it is.  


If the Maduro regime doesn’t collapse any time soon, the United States will have to decide what to do about the sanctions it has imposed on Venezuela. Washington has confronted this problem before. President John F. Kennedy abandoned attempts at forced regime change in Cuba after the failure of a U.S. backed invasion by anti-Castro Cubans at the Bay of Pigs. President Barack Obama similarly abandoned the idea of forced regime change in Syria after radical Islamist groups came to dominate the opposition. But in both cases, Washington left economic sanctions in place even after it had abandoned any real prospect of achieving its original purpose. That further impoverished an oppressed people while giving the regimes an external excuse for their economic mismanagement. The same could happen to Venezuela.

Trump has shown that he is willing to walk away from the negotiating table if the opportunity proves insufficiently attractive. He abandoned a potential agreement with North Korea in Hanoi when Kim Jong Un offered only partial denuclearization. He left the seven-nation nuclear deal with Iran. He may yet walk away from attempts to oust Maduro. In business one can always move on to other opportunities, no harm done. In statecraft, on the other hand, walking away from a problem may just allow it to grow worse. North Korea builds more bombs. Iran resumes nuclear enrichment. Venezuela hemorrhages more refugees.

So although Trump is right to be leery of the cost and risks of invading Venezuela, indefinitely adding to the misery of the Venezuelan people in the hope of bringing down their government isn’t an attractive option either. Should it become evident that Maduro is not about to fall, the Trump administration should revisit its panoply of sanctions and rescind those that fall most heavily on the people of Venezuela, while continuing to target and isolate the Maduro regime.

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  • JAMES DOBBINS is a Senior Fellow and Distinguished Chair in Diplomacy and Security at the RAND Corporation and former Special Assistant to U.S. President Bill Clinton for the Western Hemisphere.
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