The Trump administration showed commendable leadership in Latin America this week by recognizing Juan Guaidó, the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as the country’s legitimate president, in a repudiation of the Nicolás Maduro regime. It was a rare foreign policy move in the right direction by an administration that has been marred by one blunder after another. The move — and the global coalition behind it — offers reason to be cautiously optimistic that the leadership crisis in Venezuela might be approaching a resolution.
Venezuela has deteriorated fast from a nation in economic distress to one facing a full-blown and unprecedented humanitarian crisis. In recent years, more than 2 million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries due to a severe shortage of food and medicine. Venezuela is led by a repressive government that has ordered arbitrary arrests of dissidents, among other human rights abuses, and one that refuses to accept any humanitarian aid.
Presiding over the slow collapse has been Maduro, the country’s president since 2013 and now de facto dictator, who has been systematically stripping away existing democratic protections to consolidate power.
Then came Jan. 23. On the 61st anniversary of a coup d’etat that brought modern democracy to the country, thousands of Venezuelans poured to the streets to protest Maduro. They also marched in support of Guaidó, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, the lone democratic body left in the country. Citing the constitution and calling the last presidential election a sham rigged by Maduro, Guaidó on Wednesday declared himself the rightful president. Then, a pronouncement from the US government: “The citizens of Venezuela have suffered for too long at the hands of the illegitimate Maduro regime,” President Trump said in a tweet. “Today, I have officially recognized the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido[sic], as the Interim President of Venezuela.”
Maduro has dug in, and appears to have the military’s support for now. But the United States isn’t alone in withdrawing recognition of Maduro’s government. So far, Canada, Britain, and all of Latin America except for Mexico, Bolivia, Uruguay, Nicaragua, and Cuba have moved to recognize Guaidó as the legitimate Venezuelan leader.
Haven’t we seen this movie before? Yet another US-backed “regime change” in Latin America? Understandably, that was one immediate reaction. But in this instance, the US government got it right, and avoided the kind of unilateral, heavy-handed intervention of years past. “The moves by Trump in Venezuela have been uncharacteristically deliberate and have been done in a coordinated fashion in a way this administration has been apprehensive to do in other parts of the world,” said Jason Marczak , director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “This knee-jerk rejection of everything just because it’s Trump does a disservice to the people of Venezuela,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and former State Department official under President Clinton. “Guaidó’s moves are bold but also according to Venezuelan law.”
Marczak’s fear is that in a “hyperpolarized Washington, Venezuela becomes a partisan issue.” Perhaps because we don’t pay much attention to the region in general, and because of the lack of consistent and nuanced coverage by the US media, we might have missed important context. There has been intense and robust dialogue in the region. The Lima Group was formed more than a year ago by a dozen countries in the Americas to condemn the breakdown of Venezuelan democracy. Groups like the Organization of American States have been pressuring Maduro for a peaceful solution to the crisis.
As for the United States, the Trump administration has been methodically ramping up sanctions on Maduro and other high-ranking officials. It’s unclear what happens next. Guaidó has offered Maduro amnesty if he steps down peacefully, but if history is any predictor, Maduro probably won’t go easily.
Yet this is as close as Venezuela has gotten to regime change in years. And for the first time since Trump assumed office, the United States has been a leader on a significant foreign policy issue. On this the administration deserves credit and, crucially, domestic support. The last thing needed right now is to make the suffering of Venezuelans a partisan issue.