It’s been six weeks since Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, appointed himself the interim president of his struggling country. He did so after officially declaring the obvious: Last year’s presidential elections, when President Nicolás Maduro won reelection, were fraudulent.
Since then, Guaidó has achieved what the Venezuelan opposition had long failed to accomplish: He has assembled a broad international coalition against the authoritarian Maduro regime. The United States and more than 50 other countries now recognize Guaidó as the rightful leader of the once-wealthy South American country, which plunged into extreme poverty and hunger under its leftist regime.
Many assumed that Maduro’s exit was imminent. But it’s now becoming clear that the he won’t give up power so easily. Some experts in the region believe he won’t walk away without US military force. The many desperate Venezuelans who have turned to social media with the hashtag #IntervencionMilitarYA argue there are no other options left to fight the Maduro regime. But unilateral American military intervention would be a disaster. There are other steps the Trump administration can take to push Maduro out short of armed force.
For one, the administration can continue to tighten sanctions. Just last week, Vice President Mike Pence announced the latest round of sanctions while visiting Colombia. Six high-ranking members of Venezuela’s national guard and police were targeted. Access to any assets they have in US jurisdictions was blocked, and American businesses are now banned from conducting financial transactions with them. Altogether, the Trump administration has issued dozens of visa revocations against other key Venezuelans and placed strict sanctions on PDVSA, the country’s state-owned oil company.
Those sanctions have not yet moved the needle in a meaningful way, but there are indications that they’re working. Yes, Maduro still enjoys the support of the Venezuelan army. But there have been some lower-rank defections from the military. The bigger problem is the other layer protecting Maduro: the clandestine paramilitary groups called “colectivos” that operate on behalf of the government. These groups, who are also involved in many types of criminal activity, are also the reason why a possible foreign military operation could turn volatile almost immediately and, over time, into a lingering civil war. No one wants that.
Instead, Guaidó’s international allies must keep up the pressure on Maduro and his inner circle. The United States can also make clear to those targets what’s in it for them if they flip on Maduro. Pence also pushed for regional partners to freeze oil assets controlled by Maduro. The steady flow of refugees into neighboring countries is a reminder that those countries also have a stake in restoring democracy and stability to Venezuela, and should join the United States in imposing sanctions.
The good news is there’s fresh momentum. Guaidó returned to Caracas Monday, where thousands of Venezuelans rallied in his support. Guaidó is now urging Venezuelans to join in a major march on Saturday. “In Venezuela, we have tried everything,” Guaidó told a Washington Post editor who asked him if Maduro could be ousted without violence. He admitted he could see a scenario that uses force, “but it comes from within,” he said.
He’s right: Ultimately the people of Venezuela, not the United States, must determine their future.