Trump’s Affinity for Strongmen Has a Big Exception

Trump campaigned against overseas interventions, and he has a reputation for being friendly with some authoritarian rulers. Now he wants Venezuela’s Maduro gone.

Juan Guaidó talks to members of the press with his wife and daughter outside their home.
Juan Guaidó talks to members of the press with his wife and daughter outside their home. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters)

It all seemed so sudden. Venezuela’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro, had made yet another power grab, one of many over years of democratic decline in the country. Yet what followed from Washington wasn’t the usual condemnations and expressions of concern. Within days, the Donald Trump administration declared Maduro illegitimate, and more than a dozen other countries did the same, recognizing instead the National Assembly’s president, Juan Guaidó, as the constitutionally legitimate ruler.

But if the crisis has moved quickly in the past week, culminating in the U.S. imposing a de facto oil embargo on the country and vowing to clamp down on the Maduro government’s assets and gold trade around the world, it’s been building for much longer. The president, emotionally invested in the issue from the get-go, has proved receptive to the arguments of an array of advisers—from Florida Republicans opposed to Cuban influence on Venezuela, to freedom evangelists like Vice President Mike Pence, to hard-line interventionists like National-Security Adviser John Bolton—who have now made their influence felt at a critical moment.

The result is that a U.S. president who campaigned in part on opposition to American interventions overseas, and has earned a reputation as friendly to authoritarian rulers, has come to embrace the idea of regime change in Venezuela.

The concept of regime change, so sullied by the Iraq War and the U.S. overthrow of unfriendly Latin American governments during the Cold War, is suddenly back—this time with a mission of restoring democracy, a more multilateral bent, and for now, a less militaristic posture. Its comeback seems so complete that it is now spoken of casually. “I wish Nicolas Maduro and his top advisors a long, quiet retirement, living on a nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela,” Bolton tweeted on Thursday.

The administration got to this point after two years of escalating pressure on Venezuela and deteriorating conditions within the country. Trump took a personal interest in the issue almost from the beginning. It started somewhat small in February 2017, with focused sanctions —followed that summer by Trump’s sudden, open speculation about a military option. It escalated sharply in 2018 with a call from Pence for Venezuela to return to democracy, and his suggestion that it could not do so with Maduro in charge. It culminated in the drama of this week, when over a period of about six days the Trump administration recognized a new Venezuelan president, slapped on crippling oil sanctions, and loudly called on Maduro to go.

If anyone in the administration knows what the consequences will be, that person isn’t saying so in public.

Within his first weeks in the White House, Trump designated Venezuela’s then–vice president a drug kingpin and called for the release of the prominent political prisoner Leopoldo López after meeting with his wife in the Oval Office. He’s frequently pointed to the country as a prime example of socialism’s failures and a cautionary tale of what will befall the United States if his opponents come to power (a popular talking point on the American right).

Fernando Cutz, who as director for South America on the National Security Council was summoned to brief Trump on the issue during the first days of his presidency, told The Atlantic that the president has, in private, focused on the humanitarian emergency in Venezuela. Maduro’s reign as Hugo Chávez’s anointed successor has brought severe political repression, hyperinflation, acute food and medicine shortages, and an exodus of millions of desperate Venezuelans—now the largest refugee and migrant crisis anywhere in the world outside Syria.

Trump “would ask, ‘Why are [the Venezuelan people] suffering so much? They’re all going hungry … They have everything to be a rich country. How is this happening?’” Cutz recalled.

Cutz, who left his post in April after Trump replaced then–National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster with Bolton, helped design a series of escalating measures to respond to various contingencies. The most severe step under discussion was an oil embargo rather like the sanctions that the United States finally imposed on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company this week. The administration nearly resorted to it in the summer of 2017, when Maduro moved to sideline the opposition-dominated—and democratically elected—National Assembly.

This week’s sanctions, which will divert the proceeds of Venezuelan oil sold to the United States to the opposition and starve the regime of funds, are “the last tool in our diplomatic or economic arsenal,” Cutz said. “When you unleash this thing, essentially you bring about chaos in Venezuela.”

Cutz explained that during his tenure, the administration was primarily deterred from such a measure by the harm it could cause the Venezuelan people. “We were very close,” he noted, but “we didn’t think we had enough of a guarantee of [what] the outcome would be to merit the chaos we’d be unleashing, the humanitarian consequences.”

Yet the administration kept pressing the issue in other ways, and adding Cuba and Venezuela hawks to its ranks. Trump was also getting advice from outside, with the Florida Republican Marco Rubio, a vehement anti-Castro figure in the Senate, speaking with the president frequently on the issue: He helped arrange the Oval Office visit of López’s wife, and encouraged the appointment of anti-Castro hard-liner Mauricio Claver-Carone to the National Security Council, according to The New York Times. Rubio only gained more allies in the administration when, in the space of just over a week in the spring of 2018, Trump chose Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and Bolton as national-security adviser. The senator tweeted his approval of the  successive appointments: “Trust me when I say the last 8 days have not been good ones for #Venezuela dictator Nicolas Maduro.”

Pence, whose broadsides against Maduro’s repression have won him the nickname “poisonous viper” from the repressor himself, escalated the confrontation later that spring by calling on regional states to raise the pressure on Venezuela, and all but called for Maduro to go. “The truth is,” he said in a speech to the Organization of American States, “the Venezuelan people would choose a better path if they could. But under Nicolás Maduro, they will never have that chance.”

That moment, however, lacked the confluence of circumstances in Venezuela and the wider region that led to the overt push for Maduro’s ouster this past week: the election of right-wing governments in regional powers such as Brazil and Colombia that are prepared to challenge the leftist regime in Venezuela; Maduro’s inauguration in January for a second term after presiding over a sham election; Guaidó becoming head of the National Assembly that same month and uniting the opposition by declaring the president a usurper and claiming the mantle of leadership under the country’s constitution; and the persistence of mass anti-government protests in Caracas and other Venezuelan cities.“The regime that is holding to power in Venezuela should be changed” and democracy restored in the country through new elections, Gonzalo Koncke, chief of staff to the secretary general of the Organization of American States, told The Atlantic, reflecting the prevailing mood in the region at the moment.

The administration official perhaps most closely associated with the idea of regime change is Bolton, who in recent days has served as a vocal spokesman of Trump’s Venezuela policy. (His aggressive reputation was only further burnished when he was spotted with the note “5,000 troops to Colombia” scrawled on his legal pad. Cutz said that an imminent U.S. invasion is “highly unlikely” and speculated that the national-security adviser could have been engaging in psychological warfare against Maduro or exploring a humanitarian operation on Venezuela’s borders.)

Bolton has called for the toppling of U.S. enemies since at least 1998, when he signed a letter urging President Bill Clinton to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. (Another signatory, Elliott Abrams, is now Pompeo’s newly minted point person for Venezuela.) He helped implement that policy as an official in the George W. Bush administration and later argued for ousting, through a range of coercive measures including military force, the leaders of Iran, Libya, and North Korea to similarly prevent them from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

As recently as a couple of years ago, Bolton was advocating for the U.S. to do no more than quietly convey its support to the Venezuelan opposition. But in the months before joining the Trump administration, he warmed to the goal of uprooting the government in Caracas, noting how unseating Maduro could also bring down the Castro regime in Cuba and how a failed Venezuelan state could become a haven for international terrorism and drug trafficking in the Western Hemisphere.

When he first joined the administration, though, Bolton was much more focused on Iran—and Trump duly pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal within a month of his appointment. Yet for someone who has advocated preventive strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities and vowed that there would be “hell to pay” for Iran’s continuing deception, Bolton has softened his tone. He’s stated that the Trump administration is seeking to change Tehran’s “behavior” rather than its regime. He’s backed off of previous calls for regime change in North Korea, too, while his boss conducts sunny, strung-out nuclear diplomacy with Kim Jong Un. But in recent days, he’s come far closer to realizing his regime-change reveries in Venezuela, which last year he included in a Latin American “troika of tyranny” that recalled Bush’s infamous “axis of evil.”

In playing up the military option, “Bolton adds an edge” to the Trump administration’s approach that wasn’t present when he worked at the National Security Council, Cutz said, even if McMaster likely would have pursued similar policies to those implemented under Bolton so far.

What remains a mystery, at least publicly, is what comes next, and what the plan will be if Maduro refuses to step down. “Dictators don’t go out peacefully,” remarked Manuel Cáceres, the Paraguayan ambassador to the U.S., at an event on Wednesday with the interim Venezuelan government’s envoy to Washington. Paraguay was the first country to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. But Cáceres warned that autocrats often get violent if cornered. They don’t, to paraphrase John Bolton, tend to jet off to a faraway beach for some R & R.

“The only world in which [Maduro] steps down—and this is I think the best-case scenario for him—[is] a world where he finds out the military has turned on him before he’s killed” and “immediately tries to flee the country,” Cutz said. “A worst-case scenario for him would be for him not to find that out before it happens.”

“If there are any cracks within the regime, if there are any cracks within the military leadership, this is how you smoke it out,” he added. If not, however, the administration’s bet could prove a reckless one.

Unilateral U.S. military intervention, he said, would be the worst of all outcomes because it would antagonize many Venezuelans and others in the region, and once again potentially place Washington in the position of spending decades rebuilding a shattered nation. (Koncke, the OAS chief of staff, told The Atlantic when asked about the possibility that the OAS “does not support unlawful military interventions.”) The Trump administration has never disavowed the military option, with Bolton intoning again this week that “all options are on the table.”

Yet thus far, despite a couple of government officials stationed in Washington, D.C., and Miami shifting their support to Guaidó, military and government officials back in Venezuela are standing by Maduro. Venezuela’s Supreme Court has gone so far as to freeze Guaidó’s assets and bar him from leaving the country. On Thursday, Guaidó said that special-police agents had visited his home to intimidate him and his family.

Patrick Shanahan, the acting secretary of defense, provided no clarity on the U.S. military’s plans this week except to say that it would continue to provide options to policy makers. Officials working on the issue at the National Security Council did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Paraguay’s own transition from dictatorship is instructive; it took a bloody military coup to bring it about. But this weekend, the country will mark three decades of democracy. In an interview on Wednesday, Cáceres, the Paraguayan ambassador, wouldn’t speculate on where Venezuela goes from here. But he did describe what it means when the transition finally comes. “I read about democracy when I was growing up in books,” he said. “Now my kids read about dictatorship in books, and that’s a great thing.”