At one stroke Trump made a Libya of Venezuela

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 4, 2019

The first thing to say about Donald Trump’s recognition of Venezuela’s opposition leader as president is this: America is not alone in this move. Canada and all of South America (except Mexico) are on the same page. As of January 28, European countries were also insisting Nicolas Maduro hold fresh elections. This, Mr Maduro seems inclined towards.

The second thing to say about Mr Trump’s actions on Venezuela is how ugly it looks. Washington appears to be up to its old tricks – meddling in foreign countries and moving the pieces around at will on the diplomatic chessboard.

This is not to say Mr Maduro was a wise or competent leader. He was not and lacked his late mentor Hugo Chavez’s charisma besides. On Mr Maduro’s watch, Venezuela has suffered terribly, its economy shot to pieces, its people starving. It’s true that Venezuela badly needs a fresh start – the question is should Washington be the one to decide when and who.

Though Russia can hardly be called a champion of democracy and human rights, its ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, sounded pretty credible when he accused the United States of trying to “engineer a coup” in Venezuela.

But more to the point, the US tactic seems basically to be premised on the Venezuelan army changing sides. By recognising Juan Guaidó, head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s lawful president, the US is effectively creating a Libya-like situation. In Libya, it is one country, three ‘governments’. In Venezuela, it is two.

US politicians deny baleful intent but it’s hard to believe them. Who could listen with a straight face when Marco Rubio, Florida senator from Mr Trump’s Republican Party, assured the US is simply “supporting the people of Venezuela, who want their constitution and democracy followed”?

Then Mr Trump appointed prominent Washington neoconservative Elliott Abrams as special envoy to Venezuela. Mr Abrams is infamous for cheering the 2003 invasion of Iraq and supporting regime change in Latin America. As Daniel Larison of the American Conservative has noted: “It is a measure of how completely hard-liners now dominate Trump administration foreign policy that a vocal Trump critic can be brought on to lead a high-profile foreign policy initiative.”

America may yet win through on Venezuela but that doesn’t make it right. Pressure is mounting on Mr Maduro’s regime and he is already making concessions – giving US diplomats a further 30 days to leave Caracas and agreeing to meet Mr Guaidó. The Venezuelan military attache in the United States has announced his defection to the other camp and others may follow once they see which way the wind blows.

That said, it’s worth noting Mr Maduro’s strength at the head of an entrenched political class. The Washington Post says he leads a class “accused of immense corruption and narco-trafficking.” That group of entitled folks will probably fight hard to stay in place.

It really will hinge on the army, but that too is part of the system. As Javier Mayorca, a local investigative journalist, has said, the military controls food distribution but also the process of importing food. “They buy the food from abroad and budget it as much more expensive than it is, earning a lot of money. The government created a structure where conditions [allow] for corruption to be easy for loyalists.”

It may come down to which side offers more – and seemingly, for longer.

Hardly a recipe for rule of law?