President Donald Trump’s provocative move to recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela is rich in symbolism but raises the question: What next?
Washington’s move was the latest in a series of escalating punitive measures taken against Nicolás Maduro’s regime. On Wednesday, the United States did not act alone; Canada and several Latin American countries also recognized Guaidó’s authority. Guaidó earlier swore himself in as interim president as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protested Maduro’s rule.
As significant as Washington’s announcement might be, it potentially puts the Trump administration in a difficult position: What happens if Maduro arrests Guaidó, 35, and crushes the protests? Also, how will—or will—the administration funnel support to Guaidó? If Guaidó names new ambassadors to capitals that recognize him as the new leader, how will the international community deal with two rival power centers in Caracas? (In a sign of the messiness to come, Maduro cut off all ties with the United States and gave U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded on Twitter, saying Washington did not consider Maduro to have the legal authority to do so.)
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.
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.
Nevertheless, the United States has had a spotty record in recent years of backing opposition and protest movements. The Obama administration supported the Arab Spring protests that ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, only to see Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was elected president, ousted in a subsequent coup that had wide popular support. (The administration subsequently backed the then–army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who carried out the coup and became Egypt’s president.) In Syria, the U.S. and its allies threw their weight behind the Syrian opposition coalition that was fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, calling him illegitimate. Seven years later, Assad is still Syria’s president, a situation that has the tacit acknowledgment of the West. It’s unclear whether U.S. support for Guaidó will play out differently.
Venezuela has one of the world’s largest oil reserves, but its industry, once the crown jewel of state-run firms, is now a shadow of its former self. Former President Hugo Chávez’s generous oil subsidies to his allies in the region were possible when the price of oil was high in the early 2000s, but Maduro, his chosen successor, was not that lucky. Oil prices crashed and so did Venezuela’s economy, leading to an exodus of its citizens to countries across Latin America. Maduro remains close to China and Russia, which both have substantial investments in Venezuela. Both support Maduro, who since his election in 2013 has steadily eroded democracy, choked the opposition, and stifled dissent. Two weeks ago, he declared himself president again following elections last year that were widely described as flawed. Moscow and Beijing both recognized the results of the vote.
Speculation that the Trump administration would recognize Guaidó had been mounting for days. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence declared “unwavering support” for protests to oust Maduro. Influential lawmakers have kept up pressure. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, said on Twitter that Maduro has “undertaken a fight with the U.S. & international community he has no chance of winning.” But as long as the Venezuelan president retains the support of the military, he has the ability to crush the protests against him and ignore the West, as he has done for years.
Venezuela’s military high command said on Twitter that it is firmly behind Maduro. It’s not clear if that support extends across all ranks of the armed forces.
“It will come down to the military as always,” Moises Rendon, an expert on Venezuela at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, told me. “The military are the only ones who are capable to use force and remove Maduro from office.”