In one of the great New Orleans Funk songs, Dr. John sang that he “…said the right thing but… must have used the wrong line.” This lyric encapsulates the Trump administration’s challenges in articulating and implementing its foreign policy regarding the ongoing political and economic crisis in Venezuela. Although some of the administration’s initial actions were a clear step in the right direction, the subsequent rollout and the messaging surrounding its implementation risk alienating potential allies. International, regional, and domestic allies will be necessary to carry out policy objectives of the administration and promote the return of democratic governance in Venezuela.
The Trump administration’s policy towards Venezuela tends to take one step forward, but two back. On one hand, the Trump administration was right to quickly recognize Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela. As other countries voiced their support of Guaido, the Trump administration amped up pressure on the Maduro regime by placing targeted sanctions on particularly corrupt and criminal regime officials. The administration is also expanding aid to Venezuela. However, in order to increase pressure on the Maduro regime, the Trump administration must garner support from the international community, specifically from within the Western Hemisphere, and from across the aisle. The Trump administration’s approach and rhetoric towards Venezuela stifles potential gains and risks estranging the very allies that the administration needs to pursue its policy. While they speak on the need for humanitarian assistance in Venezuela, much of the Trump administration’s rhetoric smacks of domestic political opportunism and historical errors rather than supporting a coalition that can create meaningful change in Venezuela.
At a February rally at Florida International University, Trump’s 2020 campaign was in full swing, from John Bolton discussing the “Troika of Tyranny” to Trump’s claims that the United States will never be a socialist country. If the administration can manage to divert its attention from the 2020 election, the United States will be in a better position to help Venezuelan citizens. While many of the actions taken by the administration receive bipartisan as well as regional and international support, President Trump and his coterie need to pay closer attention to the rhetoric and optics of their actions as they may lose the allies necessary to address the ongoing democratic crisis in Venezuela.
Although much of the international community was quick to recognize interim President Guaido, the Trump administration has not done enough to seek international support for addressing the crisis. Even though many European and Latin American states are calling for Maduro to step down, there has been little consensus among these states on how this should look. And while the Trump administration has threatened military action, the European Union and Latin American states are taking a substantially more cautious role and are calling for new elections in the country. Not finding a common voice among these nations creates room for the Maduro administration to operate and less international pressure than may otherwise be realized.
Additionally, the single most non-regional actor in Venezuela is going to be China. For the past decade, Beijing financed the Venezuelan government. China provided over $60 billion in loans to Venezuela between 2007 and 2016, of which Venezuela still owes nearly $20 billion. However, rather than seeking to develop a better working relationship with China and jointly pressuring for change in Venezuela, the Trump administration continues to bash the Chinese government over several issues. If the United States wants Maduro to step down peacefully, it will require the support of China in pressuring the administration and finding exit options. If the Trump administration continues to refuse to work with China on the issue however, the Maduro regime is likely to continue receiving funding and being able to retain the support of key domestic supporters despite mounting domestic and international pressure.
The administration’s unwillingness to work with China in the region relates to its continued invocation of the Monroe Doctrine, a policy initially outlined in 1823 that sought to limit the influence of extra-Hemispheric powers in the Americas. This approach and the invocation of the Monroe Doctrine risks losing the support of regional allies. The Monroe Doctrine was frequently used to justify U.S. intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean, making it a much-despised policy in many parts of the region. Despite this, multiple members of the Trump administration have made direct reference to the Monroe Doctrine in public statements about the administration’s policy towards Latin America. Given Maduro’s claims about U.S. Imperialism, the administration’s mentions of the Monroe Doctrine and threats of invasion bolster the regime, as well as alienates potential allies in the region. The administration’s appointment of Elliot Abrams further exacerbates this perception. Whether fair or not, Abrams’s reputation in the Americas is problematic given the role that he played in destabilizing the region during the Cold War. Abrams’ appointment is a statement towards the isolationist role the United States is currently taking.
Furthermore, recent comments from Miami Republicans, notably Marco Rubio, contradicts this goal. Rubio tweeted a side-by-side picture of notorious Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, before and after his death. He also tweeted out similar images of other dictators removed from power by the United States. Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Jorge Arreaza, used this as an example in front of United Nations Security Council as example of U.S. interventionism and of U.S. plans to intervene in his nation. Therefore, the United States should allow the Organization of American States and other nations in the region to take the lead in addressing the crisis in Venezuela and provide support to these efforts where it is appropriate. The United States needs to dial back on claims of being the region’s hero and find ways to work with others, such as Mexico who is acutely cognizant of U.S. interventionism. This will lend legitimacy to the actions taken by regional organizations and not smack of imperialism, as Maduro claims.
It is far easier for a U.S. President to successfully implement his foreign policy when he has bipartisan and Congressional support. However, despite the fact that prominent Democrats have voiced their support for Juan Guaido and Trump administration’s decision to act in Venezuela, Trump has sought to use the crisis for domestic political gain. He is tying the problems in Venezuela purely to “socialism” in much the same way that he ties the Democrats to “socialism” domestically. Furthermore, Trump’s claim to care for human rights and rule of law in Venezuela diverges from his position on human rights in other countries. This leads some pundits to question whether the Democrats should view Trump’s Venezuela policy through a purely domestic political lens. In fact, neither Donna Shalala, a staunch supporter for Venezuelan exiles, nor any of South Florida’s other Democrats were in attendance despite being in Miami at the time. This should not be the case and the United States should seek to speak for human rights around the world. Trump’s desire for domestic political gains and using the crisis to gain political points domestically risks undermining the administration’s policy and ensuring the longevity of the Maduro regime.
Written on the screen above Trump during a Miami rally in February, the words “Estamos con el pueblo Venezolano en su noble busqueda de libertad” were written, but chants of “USA” and “Trump” rang through the crowds. This visual highlights precisely what is wrong with Trump’s approach in Venezuela: despite claims that the administration is with the people of Venezuela, Trump’s rhetoric around the crisis highlight his own domestic political desires. These messages and optics of the rollout of the administration’s Venezuela policy risk alienating those domestic and international audiences that the administration needs to court in order to support the people of Venezuela in their quest for liberty.
About the authors: Adam Ratzlaff is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at Florida International University (FIU) and Staff Writer for the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy’s Charged Affairs. Prior to coming to FIU, he conducted research on Latin American public and foreign policy for a number of groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds an MA from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Wazim Mowla is a graduate student in History at Florida International University. His research interests include Guyanese public and foreign policy, U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, addressing immigration crises, and identity politics.
Photo caption: President Donald Trump holds a rally on Venezuela at Florida International University. Photo Credit: Wazim Mowla