More than half a year after the United States intensified its threats toward the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, the usurpation—a term coined by Juan Guaidó—continues and the author and spokesman of that get-tough rhetoric, John Bolton, is out.
From his position as National Security Advisor, Bolton was the administration’s leading public figure on all things Venezuela. His speeches, however, frequently hinted at the threat of an eventual invasion or armed action by the United States to break apart the armed forces’ support of Maduro, a support that is today the ultimate life-blood for the dictator to remain in power.
Bolton’s relevance increased considerably after the emergence of the National Assembly’s young president, Juan Guaidó, who on January 23 of this year was declared interim president.
With massive popular support for Guaidó, Maduro’s rising unpopularity, and the support of more than 50 western democracies recognizing the National Assembly as the only legitimate power in Venezuela, a democratic change in this South American country—plunged into poverty and widespread human rights’ violations—seemed imminent.
However, we are not dealing with a “traditional” dictatorship. In this case, the combination of key actors and the urgency to solve the serious economic and humanitarian crisis, has not automatically resulted in a transition to democracy. The Gordian knot continues to rest on the support that the military keeps showing to Maduro.
The armed forces, and especially its high command, are involved in cases of corruption, drug trafficking and human rights violations. They have no real incentive to leave power as they realize a change in power could leave them vulnerable to prosecution. At the middle and lower levels, the glue that holds the armed forces and the regime together includes a combination of control over “small businesses” (extortion and robbery), the possibility of carrying weapons in a highly violent society and complicity with their superiors in the murky management of the country.
The military is also complicit with the violent and repressive actions of armed civilian groups, the so-called “colectivos,” a very serious issue as evidenced in the report and oral interventions of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. These groups enjoy total impunity in the country.
The military has also coordinated with the FAES, a police group tasked with carrying out the most extreme of measures. The FAES today is responsible for the most egregious extrajudicial executions. Last July, immediately in response to Bachelet’s report calling for the dissolution of this body, Maduro responded by including—for the first time—FAES troops in a military parade commemorating the country’s July 5th national holiday.
The military breakdown that President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the other two key men envisioned—Elliot Abrams, special representative for Venezuela, and of course Bolton—never arrived. Now, Bolton is out but Nicolas Maduro’s dictatorship remains, and with that the United States must rethink its strategy urgently.
The “all options on the table” threats did not yield any results. On the contrary, rather than breaking the military, it created a naive idea among a sector of the population—including some political leaders—that an arrival of Marines to the country would save Venezuela at last.
Guaidó’s January 23 proclamation as interim president passed. The promised entry of humanitarian aid on February 23 and the failed military-civic rebellion on April 30 also passed. By May, as the Washington Post noted, Trump had come to realize that Bolton’s advice was divorced from reality on the ground. Our biggest—yet not surprising—fear was confirmed: Maduro’s fall was far from over.
Bolton’s exit symbolizes a failed strategy. It also symbolizes how a policy—or the absence of one—can trap politics into rhetoric. Now, with Bolton out of the picture, the most logical thing to happen would be to return the crafting of U.S. policy toward Venezuela where it belongs: the State Department. However, upon announcing Bolton’s departure, Trump risks repeating the same mistake. By announcing that he wished to act more strongly in the cases of Venezuela and Cuba and that it was Bolton who held him back, Trump is falling into the same failed policy.
Turning the page on Bolton’s high-profile discourse, the United States must find a way to positively influence and contribute to unleashing democratic change, a clear demand from the vast majority of Venezuelans. But that won’t seem to happen anytime soon.