What to Do With Venezuela?

President Trump said he was considering a “military option,” but the best U.S. intervention may be none at all.

Venezuelan protesters carry a sign against President Trump
A pro-government supporter holding a sign that reads "Trump, get out! Venezuela is respected." (Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters)

Until last Friday, much of the conversation in Latin America was aimed at how to remove Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from office. The region is often only unified in its unwillingness to meddle, no matter how radical the politics. So it was historic when 12 countries met last week in Lima, Peru, and together denounced Venezuela’s “rupture of democratic order.” Such a large and unified opposition was a major blow to Maduro’s narrative that the country’s economic woes are the result of political sabotage led by the U.S. Then President Trump mentioned the possibility of a “military option.”

Earlier that week, Trump had threatened “fire and fury” if North Korea provoked the U.S., and Trump’s comments toward Venezuela were taken as another shoot-from-the-hip moment that should not be taken seriously (a problem in itself, as my colleague Kathy Gilsinan wrote).  But even with Trump’s inclination for braggadocio, the thought of U.S. military intervention in Latin America recalled a not-so-distant past—think Panama, and before that, nearly every country in South and Central America. It also struck a nerve because there is a feeling that international pressure might not be enough to convince Maduro to step down, or end his push to rewrite the country’s constitution, and that the U.S. might take the lead with a more drastic approach. The U.S. does have several options for intervening in Venezuela, though they will likely not come in the form of Marines dropping from helicopters. The best possible option, however, might be to do nothing at all.

Part of Trump’s effect has been to alter the conversation on Venezuela from one of what to do, to that of what will not be allowed. Vice President Mike Pence is on a tour of South America, and during his first stop in Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos said “every country in Latin America would not favor any form of military intervention.” But there is also the somewhat counterintuitive line that says Trump may have helped. Alejandro Velasco, an associate professor of modern Latin America at New York University, told me that by saying something fairly outrageous Latin American leaders can easily come out against Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the region.

“They see in Pence as an ally, and the U.S. as an ally,” Velasco told me, “but by being able to beat Trump like  piñata they can have their cake and eat it, too. They can perpetuate this idea of an independence, that we are not subservient to Trump or the U.S.”

Finding a balance in U.S. policy will be difficult because Venezuelans might be hypersensitive to any overly aggressive U.S. actions. The experts I spoke with dismissed the thought of  military intervention, and Geoff Ramsey, an associate for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, told me the idea of an invasion is beyond extreme. “It’s important to separate Trump’s recent remarks from the works the State Department has done,” Ramsey said. Much of the talk at the U.S. State Department so far, Ramsey said, has been focused on sanctions. And, at the most extreme level, a possible oil embargo, because Venezuela is still one of the top suppliers of oil to the U.S.

The Trump administration could also continue sanctioning high-level Maduro supporters, a continuation of the Obama administration’s tactics. These are done under executive order, and are specific to individuals. The sanctions block any property subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and prevents them from doing business with U.S. companies. Sanctions are somewhat limited in their impact, because in many cases top officials have already moved their business and accounts away from the U.S. What could be more effective, is if Latin American countries—like Panama—joined.

A step up from sanctions would be if the U.S. banned exports to Venezuela. Mostly, this has to do with oil, because though Venezuela has some of the largest reserves in the world, it depends on the U.S. for refined oil and light crude—some 120,000 barrels each day. About half that is used by the Venezuelan people, and the other is mixed with heavier oils and often re-exported back to the U.S. This gets at one of the most drastic options (short of boots on ground). What’s left of Venezuela’s economy depends heavily on the 2.1 million barrels of oil it exports each day. The U.S. accounts for one-third of that, and banning all Venezuelan crude imports would likely finish off what remains of the country’s broken economy and kill its moribund oil industry. This is sometimes called the “nuclear option” because it would not only devastate the Maduro government, it would equally ruin the powerful and the poor, supporters and the opposition. A move this drastic would likely strengthen Maduro, because it feeds into the historic narrative set up by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

In 2002, during a failed coup to remove Chavez, much of Latin America remained quiet because leaders didn’t want to intervene against a democratically elected official, whatever his politics. The U.S., however, was far from quiet in its support of the coup. And when Chavez returned to power, he claimed the U.S. had orchestrated it all so it could snatch up the country’s oil reserves.

“I was accused of having organized the coup,” Charles Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela at the time, told me. Shapiro, who is now president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, then jokingly added, “I am not that efficient.”

It didn’t matter that the U.S. wasn’t involved, Shapiro said, because Chavez was able to unify supporters around the narrative that at every moment the U.S. was focused on undermining his socialist movement—as it had done to other countries throughout Latin America during the Cold War. In the same way, Trump’s “military option” has likely helped Maduro. His popular support may be below 20 percent, but that doesn’t mean those people necessarily support the opposition, a coalition of groups who often argue among themselves. There is still the very real the risk that the U.S. will empower Maduro if it takes too aggressive a stance. The best option for the U.S. may be to give Latin American leaders space. Otherwise, any U.S. intervention could backfire.

Indeed, after Trump’s remarks, Maduro gave a speech behind a lectern with the words #FueraTrumpDeAmericaLatina, or “Trump get out of Latin America.” His military also conducted exercises and marched the streets, and among those who joined were Maduro’s remaining supporters, wearing red shirts, and pumping their fists in the air at the thought of Trump’s “military option.”