No one should be worried about American military action anywhere in Latin America. The notion is risible.
But President Trump’s cavalier remark last week referring to a “possible military option” to deal with the increasingly dictatorial regime led by President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela has real consequences. Such bluster could adversely affect the United States’ relations with its closest neighbors and make it even more difficult to resolve the hemisphere’s worst crisis.
Although White House officials have said “all options are on the table” when it comes to Venezuela, Mr. Trump’s comment seemed to come out of nowhere. The administration had been pursuing a different approach: It expanded targeted sanctions on top Venezuelan officials — including Mr. Maduro — that began under President Barack Obama. Broader economic sanctions, possibly even cutting off oil imports, are reportedly being reviewed. Predictably, Mr. Trump’s warning set off a uniformly negative reaction both in the United States and across Latin America.
Especially in Latin America, the remark evoked the Cold War era, when the United States sent troops to Central America and the Caribbean (though never to South America, where Venezuela is), often with unhappy results. The last time the United States used military forces in Latin America was in Panama, nearly three decades ago. Mr. Trump seems unaware that the hemisphere has fundamentally changed since then.
Moreover, no senior official or political figure in the United States, neither Republican nor Democrat, has embraced or even hinted at a military option in Venezuela. Days before Mr. Trump’s remark, his national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, asked by The Washington Post if he thought there would be military intervention in Venezuela from any outside source, said: “No, I don’t. I don’t think so.”
The timing of Mr. Trump’s statement was particularly infelicitous. First, Latin American governments, whose response to Venezuela’s dramatic deterioration had been disappointingly slow and tepid, have recently ramped up diplomatic pressure on Mr. Maduro to adhere to the constitution and restore democratic rule.
Earlier this month, the Peruvian government convened a special meeting of foreign ministers from around the Western Hemisphere. Twelve of the largest and most influential governments signed a declaration calling Venezuela a “dictatorship.” The foreign ministers also agreed to work together on more concrete actions, including restrictions on arms shipments and blocking any Venezuelans nominated to international organizations.
The absence of the United States from the meeting reflected concerns that the conferences’ decisions would seem to have been dictated from Washington. It is also a measure of the declining good will between the United States and the region. Referring to a possible American military option in Venezuela surely did not sit well with governments whose opening paragraph in their declaration emphasized the principle of “nonintervention.” Mr. Trump’s remark is likely to produce even greater resentment and distrust between the United States and Latin America — which is already aghast at the rhetoric and policy toward Mexico — and will complicate efforts for effective action on Venezuela.
The timing of Mr. Trump’s statement also undermined his own administration. It came just before Vice President Mike Pence’s four-country visit to Latin America to discuss options and marshal support to deal with Venezuela. On Sunday, Mr. Pence, while referring to Venezuela’s “tragedy of tyranny” on his first stop to Colombia, had to reassure that country, a close ally, and he had to try to explain the administration’s policy on Venezuela. He will devote more of his visit to damage control than planned.
Most crucially, Mr. Trump’s remark about a military option could backfire in giving a political lifeline to the increasingly desperate Maduro government and in further dividing Venezuela’s opposition. Hugo Chavez, the charismatic leader of the Bolivarian revolution who took office in 1999 and ruled until his death in 2013, repeatedly referred to the “imperio,” or empire, in his attacks against the United States. It was a powerful rallying cry.
But over the years the “imperio” line has lost traction with the Venezuelan people. This is, in part, why Mr. Maduro has responded to a collapsing economy with heightened repression. Today, few people in Venezuela believe that the United States is to blame for their widespread misery and hunger. Yet Mr. Trump may have inadvertently boosted Mr. Maduro and given credence to Mr. Chavez’s favorite boogeyman. Predictably, Mr. Maduro and other senior Venezuelan officials have reacted defiantly, invoking the principle of national sovereignty. On Monday, Mr. Maduro asked Venezuelans to prepare themselves “to defend the peace, with tanks, planes and missiles.” He also ordered the armed forces to carry out exercises throughout the country later this month.
Mr. Trump’s mention of a military option also puts Venezuela’s opposition in a tough spot, just when it is trying to regroup following the Maduro government’s egregious power grab that installed a new congress, removing any trace of democratic order. Mr. Maduro, and Mr. Chavez before him, have always accused the opposition of being puppets of the United States. Some in the opposition, which is already divided by personality and policy differences, are concerned that their ranks could fracture even further as they respond to Mr. Trump’s reference to military action.
It now looks like the president has confused United States policy and given Mr. Maduro a gratuitous gift. Mr. Trump has thrown the opposition off balance, further alienated regional allies, and made his vice president clean up after him. Venezuelans will be the ones to suffer.
Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs.