Venezuela’s descent into dictatorship is destroying the country. Its natural and human resources should make it among Latin America’s wealthiest nations, but instead it’s in economic, political and security ruin because of the brutal rule of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
The good news is that, in contrast to the situation with other global hot spots, there’s actually regional cohesion on the extent, source and solution to this problem.
The bad news is that in one unwise, and likely unscripted, threat about a “military option” to address the crisis, President Donald Trump put regional and Venezuelan allies on the defensive while at the same time emboldening Maduro.
Trump’s counterproductive comment seemed to come as news to regional leaders and even administration officials. And as usual the second-highest-ranking leader of the U.S. government had to clean up his boss’ rhetorical and diplomatic mess.
“You hear in President Trump’s words the resolve of the United States of America to see this through, to restore democracy and constitutional government in Venezuela,” Vice President Mike Pence said, standing next to a pensive-looking Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
Said Santos: “I told the vice president that the possibility of military intervention in Venezuela shouldn’t even be considered.”
Latin Americans, long wary of U.S. intervention in the region, are united on that point. They also seem in agreement that Trump’s threat dented the regional unity on the need to pressure Maduro to end his power grab and pursue a peaceful end to a spiraling crisis that has cost more than 120 lives and threatens to inspire a refugee exodus to Colombia that could destabilize that nation as it tries to implement a historic peace accord within its own borders.
Trump was already deeply unpopular in the region because of his questioning of the Cuban diplomatic breakthrough under the Obama administration and for his shoddy approach to Mexico. But most leaders were willing to give the U.S. president the benefit of the doubt due to the severity of Venezuela’s situation. But that may be more difficult since the regional focus has shifted to Trump’s threat.
“I don’t think anybody should really worry that there is going to be a military invasion, but words have consequences and I think this latest bluster from Trump has unfortunate effects on several levels,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank that focuses on Latin American issues, told an editorial writer. “It creates some distance between Washington and other Latin American capitals that precisely were willing to take a greater initiative on the Venezuelan crisis.”
That initiative must not be lost, lest desperate Venezuelans lose their best hope of ending Maduro’s repression. Trump should mend fences in order to rebuild the tenuous consensus that’s essential to help Venezuela.