Venezuela is a major gamble for Trump administration

Russia and Turkey are watching how the US handles the crisis.

May 1, 2019 14:48
4 minute read.
Venezuela is a major gamble for Trump administration

Juan Guaido, President of Venezuela's National Assembly, holds a copy of Venezuelan constitution during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 20. (photo credit: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/ REUTERS)

The US has supported Juan Guaido in his attempt to remove Nicolas Maduro from power. Guaido was declared president in January and is backed by the National Assembly along with up to fifty countries. Maduro’s regime is backed by Russia, Turkey, Iran and others. Throughout Tuesday, there was a complex crisis in Caracas, as Guaido announced that some in the military backed his attempt to remove Maduro. 

Now the Trump administration is increasing its verbal backing for Guaido. It is a major gamble and test for Washington. “If Cuban troops and militias do not immediately cease military and other operations for the purpose of causing death and destruction to the Constitution of Venezuela, a full and complete embargo,” would follow, warned US President Donald Trump. He called on Cuban soldiers to leave Venezuela. Russia and Turkey are watching how Trump handles this crisis.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton also indicated that Venezuelan military units would need to decide on Tuesday night what comes next, after a day in which it was unclear how many soldiers actually supported Guaido. According to report, Trump was woken up early in the morning with news of the crisis. Reuters reported that the administration believed Maduro was ready to step down but Russia had urged him to stay. This has global implications, since the US and Russia are on opposing sides in Syria, Ukraine and other places. Clearly, Russia doesn’t want Maduro to fall which would be an indication of its losing influence.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Fox News on Tuesday afternoon and accused Cuba and Russia of backing Maduro, singling out Cuba for having troops in Venezuela. “If that’s what it takes to restore democracy, the option to use military force is available,” he said, adding that he hopes Maduro will leave without violence. Trump has made it clear that “democracy will be restored,” Pompeo said. US Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Marco Rubio and others have also supported Guaido.

“We’ve been working to restore democracy for months. You can never predict which day events will happen; we always knew there would a day that would look like today,” Pompeo said. “We have planned out lots of options,” he said. He hinted at options and responses and warned about Cuba maintaining its presence in Venezuela. He emphasized that regional states from the Lima Group and many other countries support Guaido. The Lima Group includes 12 countries, such as Canada, Argentina, Chili and Colombia.

With the Trump administration working closely together, it appears they have coordinated their views on the Caracas crisis. This shows how serious they take the situation. Pence spoke about the “freedom-loving people of Venezuela” and tweeting in Spanish about “Operation Libertad”, the freedom operation designed to bring Guaido to full control of the country. “Estamos con ustedes,” he wrote: We are with you.

Pompeo and Bolton have been pushing for a full-court press, but it’s not clear what comes next. The US is also dealing with a crisis in Idlib in Syria between Turkey, Syria’s regime and Russia. The US is discussing labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, a huge decision if it would happen.  Venezuela appears to be a crisis that landed a few days early. Maduro had recently sought to withdraw from the Organization of American States, isolating his country. But he was also calling for a major rally on May 1.

The National Guardsmen that joined Guaido on Tuesday morning didn’t seem clear regarding their orders. Tens of thousands flocked to support Guaido, but there wasn’t a clear plan on what to do next. Momentum appeared to slow throughout the day. The comments of Trump, Bolton, Pompeo and Pence were meant to bolster this. Hints that the US will do more is also meant to show how seriously the Washington cares.

Protests have taken place in many places in Venezuela, even as the government cracks down on social media. Dozens have been reported wounded. Video shows one vehicle running over protesters. But there have not been any massive clashes. Instead, video shows some police and National Guard exchanging shots with pro-Maduro militias and other groups. Massive protests in Caracas appeared relatively peaceful. But with nightfall on Tuesday Maduro’s regime will seek to strike back.

The US has warned that Guaido must not be harmed. On Tuesday, Leopoldo Lopez - another opposition leader - apparently took refuge in the Chilean Embassy with his wife, at least temporarily. Lopez had appeared earlier with Guaido after being freed from house arrest by soldiers.

Washington now faces a major question on what it can and should do next. One false move could conjure up stories of “regime change.” Trump has generally been skeptical about increasing US foreign military missions. He wanted to end the war in Syria and Afghanistan, not start new conflicts. The administration has a special envoy for Venezuela in Elliot Abrams. He is the point person on some of what is taking place.

As night falls on April 30, the crisis is reaching a denouement after Guaido crosses his own Rubicon by seeking military support. But is the Trump administration really ready for its own denouement on the Venezuela crisis, or is it just rhetoric? Other countries are watching, including Turkey and Russia. If the US blinks, they will know Trump will back down on other issues - such as Syria.

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