Trump Gives Diplomacy a Chance in Bid to Oust Venezuelan Leader


(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump likes to boast about his disruptive foreign policy style -- calling North Korea’s leader “Little Rocket Man” or announcing plans to pull troops from Syria without notifying his top generals.

But with Venezuela, Trump is playing it uncharacteristically straight, using textbook diplomacy that he usually shuns in seeking the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro.

Instead of going it alone, Trump has leaned on a patient mix of sanctions, behind-the-scenes diplomacy and a ratcheting up of public pressure that has bolstered -- for now -- National Assembly leader Juan Guaido’s claim to the presidency. That’s helped lure more than 30 nations to Guaido’s side, making it harder for Maduro to call it all one big “Yankee” plot to overthrow his regime.

Trump Gives Diplomacy a Chance in Bid to Oust Venezuelan Leader

“The Trump administration has got this one right,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, who directs the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “This is a dictatorship presiding over a humanitarian disaster and economic collapse. Latin America and the rest of the world simply have many practical reasons to be concerned given the 3 million refugees that have fled Venezuela since 2014.”

Trump hasn’t silenced his Twitter account entirely when it comes to Venezuela, but he has deferred much of the public campaign to top aides, including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. And he’s benefited from sweeping political changes across much of Latin America: Recent elections have propelled conservative and maverick leaders to power over leftists in countries including Argentina and Brazil.

As a result, instead of going out on a limb to push a new foreign policy strategy, Trump finds himself surrounded by dozens of countries in agreement that Maduro’s rule should come to an end.

“The stars aligned in a way that, except for Mexico, you have unusual rightist governments across Latin America,” said Francisco Monaldi, a fellow at the Baker Institute in Houston who’s on the board of directors of Mercantil, a financial institution in Venezuela. “These governments are very much ideologically opposed to Maduro. And you have this massive refugee crisis in those countries which has made them more forceful.”

Trump Gives Diplomacy a Chance in Bid to Oust Venezuelan Leader

Isaias Medina, a former Venezuelan diplomat at the United Nations who broke with Maduro in 2017, seconded that thought. “It’s a coalition of countries, it’s a Latin American countries’ initiative,” he said. “They have very clearly expressed that Maduro’s regime is a threat to the economic system and to the security of Latin America.’’

Among the administration’s allies is Colombia’s President Ivan Duque, who is backing Guaido and is scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House on Wednesday.

There are still doubts about whether the approach will work. Guaido has struggled to win over key military leaders, stymieing opposition efforts to funnel humanitarian aid into the country. That’s raised questions about whether opposition efforts to oust Maduro are losing steam.

If the effort does succeed, the case of Venezuela could become a rare example of effective multilateral diplomacy in the Trump era.

Beyond the public political pressure, the administration has worked with allies to deprive Maduro of much-needed foreign exchange to pay his troops: The Bank of England blocked his attempt to move more than $1 billion in gold out of the country and many European nations moved to recognized Guaido as interim president.

The U.S. moves in recent weeks followed dozens of meetings about Venezuela between senior administration officials and their Latin American counterparts since Trump took office.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Vice President Mike Pence, as well as hawkish administration figures like Mauricio Claver-Carone at the National Security Council, have long been in close contact with Venezuelan opposition figures. As early as February 2017, a month after Trump’s inauguration, the president was joined by Pence and Rubio in a meeting with Lilian Tintori, a democracy activist and wife of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

Not everyone has joined the U.S. lead. In addition to the expected opposition from Moscow and Beijing, which have become significant financial benefactors to the Maduro regime, and Cuba, U.S. allies like Turkey and Italy have balked at supporting Guaido. Mexico and Uruguay have sought to establish a dialogue.

“We don’t think the right way to bring about change in Venezuela is by picking sides,” said Juan Jose Gomez Camacho, Mexico’s ambassador to the UN. “We need to let the Venezuelan people decide what’s best for them and present neutral grounds for talks to prosper.”

The support for Maduro has been more muted and less organized. Offers at mediation by the Vatican and some Latin American nations have been rejected with little political blowback. Behind the scenes, even allies like Russia question how long the Venezuelan leader can hang on, frustrated by the disastrous state of an economy in a country with so much oil wealth.

The disarray gives the White House time to win more support for its side, and for those close to Maduro to rethink their alliances. But if the pressure on Maduro doesn’t keep building, there could be a sense that momentum for Guaido is weakening.

So far, the Trump administration continues to find ways to ratchet up the pressure, seeking to starve Maduro’s regime of funds and lure more military leaders over to the Guaido side.

“We need the U.S. to keep pushing on this not only because it’s the right thing to do but it’s the moral thing to do,” said Medina, the former Venezuelan diplomat. “The U.S. is right in its actions because Maduro is a clear and present danger, and a risk to the national security of the region and the U.S.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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