Read: Venezuela is falling apart
The uncertainty risks defanging U.S. policy, relegating the latest move to an empty gesture with Maduro still in power and ultimately weakening Guaidó. Alternatively, it could be the harbinger for an escalating showdown, putting Washington in a corner about what actions to take next.
The Trump administration was quick to use strong words, but provided little detail on what it would do. “If they [the Maduro regime] choose the route of violence and seek to usurp the constitutional order and democracy, let us be clear that … they have no immediate future. They will have no immediate livelihood. And therefore, one way or another, have their days counted,” said a senior administration official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Speaking to reporters later, Trump said, “We’re not considering anything, but all options are on the table,” using a favorite line of successive U.S. administrations to denote the possibility of military action. But it’s far from clear that this White House—whose president last month abruptly pulled U.S. troops out of Syria—has the appetite for any military intervention, as Trump himself indicated. (Nonetheless, Trump has made that threat in the past.) So far, the administration has mostly stuck to sanctions and other diplomatic censures.
Patrick Duddy, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, told me that Guaidó’s challenge is to keep the momentum going and capitalize on international support. “The international community needs to find ways to make Mr. Guaidó’s status as the interim president substantive and not just a symbolic gesture,” he said.
The United States and its allies should stop dealing with Maduro and pressure allies who have not yet done so to shun the Venezuelan leader, Duddy said.
Read: Why Nicolás Maduro clings to power
The administration official said the United States retained “a tremendous amount of leverage” with sanctions. He also said the United States would deal with Guaidó and the National Assembly on economic transactions. That would, in theory, include oil revenues, the lifeblood of the Venezuelan economy, but again, how the United States would take action is uncertain. Although the U.S. has previously imposed sanctions and travel restrictions on Venezuelan officials, the Trump administration has refrained from imposing sanctions on Maduro personally. Washington has also so far avoided going after the country’s oil industry—a step that would starve Maduro and his allies, but one that would also strangle the country’s citizens. (Reuters reported that the United States was considering imposing oil-related sanctions soon.)
Trump’s announcement comes amid the longest government shutdown in American history. In that time, the president has focused his attention mostly on trying to secure funding for a wall on the southern border with Mexico, railing on Twitter about Democratic opposition to such a barrier. But Trump’s break from that crisis to focus on Venezuela is a testament to how critical the administration views the situation there.