To maximize the chances of bringing about a much-needed regime change in Venezuela and minimize the long-term costs in U.S.-Latin American relations, President Donald Trump should immediately and decisively rule out a military intervention as a policy option for Venezuela. Because the United States needs to engage other Latin American democracies in the effort to restore democratic rule in Venezuela, keeping the military option on the table only dissuades democratically elected leaders from taking a stronger stance in support of the Washington-led effort. Moreover, the long-term consequences of threatening the use of military force to bring about regime change in Latin America would set U.S.-Latin American relations back decades.
President Trump is justifiably not well liked in most Latin American countries. His strong anti-immigrant rhetoric is widely—and understandably—interpreted as an anti-Mexican and anti-Central American—and by extension, anti-Latin American. Yet, when it comes to restoring democracy in Venezuela, Trump and most democratically elected leaders in Latin America have common objectives. Though I am not aware of any poll that has measured this, I would not be surprised to find that Trump’s favorability ratings in Latin America improve when he’s compared to Venezuelan president-turned-dictator Nicolás Maduro.
In working to bring about the restoration of democracy in Venezuela, Trump can build a substantial positive democratic legacy. When Trump calls for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela, most Latin Americans committed to defending and promoting democracy will agree with the U.S. president. Moreover, because several Latin American countries are suffering the impact of the Venezuelan crisis in the form of waves of refugees that have put an additional strain on already insufficient social spending, it’s in the interest of governments in the region to bring about an end to the Venezuelan social, economic and political crisis.
However, agreeing on the ends does not automatically mean that Latin Americans will agree with the means President Trump says are on the table. Latin American leaders will likely be in favor of tightening economic sanctions and strong-armed diplomacy to force Maduro—and/or the Venezuelan military—to secure a transition to democracy through the holding of free and fair competitive elections. Yet, there is far less popular and elite support in Latin America for a military solution. The idea that Maduro will be forcefully removed from power by a U.S.-led invasion triggers all kinds of negative reactions in Latin America.
One cannot ponder the pros and cons of a military solution to the Venezuelan crisis without considering the legacy of past U.S. interventions. Among the numerous U.S. involvements in bringing down governments in Latin America in the 20th century are the overthrow of democratically elected president Salvador Allende in 1973 in Chile and the occupation of Panama to oust strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega in late 1989. Though cases are never comparable—there is no Cold War now as in 1973 and Venezuela is a far more complex country than Panama was in 1989—those who want quick and decisive military action would like to think that removing Maduro will be like removing Noriega.
In both Chile and Panama, the U.S. achieved its policy objective of producing regime change, but there were significant long-term political costs, as well as the short-term costs in human lives. Moreover, there is no guarantee that military action will produce the desired results. Much earlier, the U.S. also sought to put an end to the Castro regime in the failed Bay of Pigs attack in 1961. Fifty-eight years later, the Cuban dictatorship is still in power.
A safer, more productive approach
Instead of threatening the use of military force, the U.S. should follow a more pragmatic approach. After all, President Trump has shown that he can sit down with authoritarian leaders who have put their people through suffering. This week, Trump will meet, for a second time in less than a year, with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
It is a bad precedent for U.S. presidents to only negotiate with dictators who have weapons of mass destruction or an advanced nuclear weapons project. In fact, Maduro might be thinking right now that, if he were to become the next “Rocket Man,” he could get a bilateral summit and, just maybe, exchange friendly letters and make the U.S. president fall in love. Fortunately for Venezuelans and for the rest of Latin America, the Venezuelan dictator is not even close to having the kind of weapons of mass destruction that have bought Kim Jong Un a seat at the negotiating table with Donald Trump. The Maduro government is at a critical juncture. The economic crisis has caused pain and suffering to millions of Venezuelans. People are frustrated with Maduro, and regime change is increasingly seen as the only way out. Maduro desperately needs to find an enemy to attempt to divert attention away from his own mishandling of the economy and human rights violations. The threat of a U.S. invasion is the excuse he needs to rally domestic support behind his inept and corrupt government while also splintering the international and regional coalition in favor of Maduro’s peaceful removal from power. Abandoning the military option is the best way to keep up the momentum to bring about the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.