Venezuelans are not getting their hopes up. They have tried many times to oust the regime now led by Nicolás Maduro, only to see protesters killed in the streets and Maduro entrenched in power despite the country’s social and economic collapse. Still, they turned out by the hundreds of thousands Wednesday, responding to a call by the opposition — under new leadership — to execute a risky new strategy.
As marchers in Caracas and other cities swarmed the streets, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, declared himself interim president. President Trump, the Organization of American States and almost a dozen other countries promptly recognized him as the legitimate president, putting more international pressure on Maduro.
The Venezuelan people deserve international backing and they are receiving it more abundantly than at any time since chavismo came to power two decades ago. But in order for the United States to support the people in their quest to remove Maduro’s boot from their neck, the Trump administration needs to act with caution.
Trump should do something he finds particularly challenging: Watch what he says and proceed prudently. Instead of going with his gut, he should stick to the script from people who understand the region. This is one time when the United States should help lead the international response, but not alone.
The United States should work in close coordination with Latin American leaders who are deeply committed to helping. This is not Washington’s battle. This is the Venezuelan people’s struggle. Their neighbors, as a unified bloc, should stand firmly in support, leading the international response. As Colombian President Iván Duque has said, the international response should be “taken by all in unison.”
Conditions in Venezuela have become utterly untenable. Despite holding the world’s largest oil reserves, the country that was once one of the wealthiest in Latin America has become a wasteland of poverty, hunger and crime. Inflation is the highest in the world, making salaries worthless. A recent minimum wage increase by Maduro raised it to less than $7 per month. The economy is shrinking, and crime is exploding. Some 3 million Venezuelans have left the country, placing enormous strains on surrounding countries and making Venezuela’s neighbors almost as eager to see the end of the Maduro regime as most Venezuelans.
And yet, two weeks ago Maduro was sworn in to a new six-year term after “winning” fraudulent elections. Democracy in Venezuela has ceased to exist. The courts and most institutions are subservient to the president.
The last valid election happened in 2015, when the opposition won control of the legislature. Since then, Maduro removed all powers from the National Assembly, but its members remain the only legitimately elected representatives of the Venezuelan people.
Early this month, the Assembly chose the 35-year-old Guaidó to lead the body and moved to reject Maduro’s legitimacy on constitutional grounds. Guaidó declared that he was prepared to enact constitutional provisions that allow him to assume the presidency temporarily and call for new elections.
Latin American leaders threw their support behind him. The Lima Group, a bloc of Latin American nations seeking to restore democracy in Venezuela, announced it did not recognize Maduro as president.
The United States has joined those supporting Guaidó, but U.S. help, if not well modulated, could backfire.
Maduro, as he has in the past, is trying to undercut the opposition’s legitimacy by accusing them of being agents of the “empire.”
“No more interventionism,” he railed on Wednesday from the Miraflores presidential palace. “We don’t want to return to a 20th century of gringo coups.” He then gave U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.
Maduro’s base has eroded. The regime’s mismanagement has brought misery to everyone. Now the opposition needs to persuade the military to abandon it. The legislature has offered amnesty to military members who defect, and Guaidó has appealed directly to their patriotism and sense of duty.
But a harsh move from Washington could turn them away, and Trump has a disturbing track record of misfiring on Venezuela. During his first year in office, he unexpectedly declared, “I’m not going to rule out a military option.” Then-ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, standing by his side, tried unsuccessfully to hide her consternation.
Later, we learned that Trump had “stunned” top administration officials when he asked why the United States shouldn’t simply invade Venezuela. Apparently, when his chief security aides explained why invading a Latin American nation was a bad idea, they were not completely persuasive.
A few weeks later, when the U.N. General Assembly was meeting, Trump invited a group of Latin American presidents to dinner. The presidents were reportedly “in shock” when Trump again brought up the idea of an American military intervention. Ministers from three of the four countries invited were struck by how uninformed Trump was about the region, finding him dangerous and unpredictable.
Twenty months later, Venezuelan leaders and their regional allies are trying a new strategy. Officials in the Trump administration are joining the effort, but a false step, especially from the president, could prove devastating.
Millions of Venezuelans deserve to see their country return to democracy. They desperately need a functioning, competent government that can restore growth and improve their lives.
The United States remains the world’s most powerful country, with the ability to greatly influence the course of events, but it should play a supporting role, lending its voice to a regional chorus of democracy, acting for once as a humble superpower.
Frida Ghitis is a former CNN producer and correspondent who writes about world affairs for the Washington Post, CNN.com and World Politics Review.