Don’t blame John Bolton for Venezuela
President Trump is right to be miffed that Nicolás Maduro’s dangerous narco-regime is still in power in Venezuela. With the departure of national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday, that policy now is in the hands of U.S. diplomats who never really supported Trump and never really confronted Maduro. The very tough financial sanctions pushed by Bolton are being squandered on a woefully weak strategy that amounted to begging Maduro to cede power. If Bolton were the trigger-happy hawk he is said to be, he might have pushed for the decisive victory that Trump expected when he said, “All options are on the table.” Instead, a threat the president identified early in his term is growing and spreading on America’s doorstep.
The costs of complacent and misguided diplomacy continue to mount. America’s key foes Cuba, Russia, and China have fortified their foothold in Venezuela by helping the regime outlast U.S. sanctions and outflank U.S. policy. An emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin is reportedly considering whether to deploy troops to Venezuela, threatening the same terrifying tactics that cost a half-million lives in Syria. Meanwhile, the U.S. ally Colombia (already bearing the brunt of 1.5 million Venezuelan refugees) faces a new threat as narco-terrorist commanders declared last month that they will resume their war from the safe haven of Maduro’s Venezuela. The security and stability of Colombia, where the United States invested $10 billion over 10 years to bolster a stalwart friend, are in doubt.
Career U.S. diplomats have failed to recognize the central role the criminal regime in Venezuela plays in stoking a regional crisis that is spiraling out of control. They recommended a political and diplomatic challenge, rallying international support for the democratically elected National Assembly and its president, Juan Guaidó. This coalition expected Guaidó to mount an internal uprising, buttressed by tough U.S. sanctions intended to choke off revenue to the regime.
The Venezuelan people initially supported Guaidó because they hoped for a democratic transition and saw him as a harbinger of a decisive U.S. response. However, they have little confidence in the bosses of Venezuela’s withered traditional parties, who have thrown the regime a lifeline repeatedly in the last 20 years by participating in phony dialogues and rigged elections.
U.S. policy makers supported an opposition plan to empower regime financiers to organize an April plot to topple Maduro. It is bad enough that Washington blessed this power-sharing deal that would have left most of the corrupt dictatorship in place. Worse yet, according to a source with ties to the regime, this “plot” was phony, engineered by Maduro’s cronies and Cuban handlers to smoke out traitors and deceive the U.S.
After that debacle, with U.S. policymakers still ruling out the use of force, Guaidó and his entourage accepted Maduro’s offer of dialogue. Senior U.S. officials have delivered conflicting messages on the value of the dialogue and preconditions for elections. This ambiguity created space for the weakest players in the opposition to press for elections at any cost. For example, Acción Democratica boss Henry Ramos Allup, dogged by fresh evidence of his family’s lucrative oil deals with the regime, went so far as to claim Guaidó as his party’s presidential candidate — tainting Guaidó as corrupt and defying express U.S. wishes that he not seek the office.
The danger of the Trump administration’s hapless policy will be demonstrated dramatically in the coming weeks, when the Justice Department publishes an indictment against the retired Venezuelan Gen. Hugo Carvajal. The complaint will implicate the top officials of the regime and ruling party, including Diosdado Cabello and Tareck el-Aissami, in a massive drug smuggling network. These damning facts will make it inconceivable that any decent democrat would expect such thugs to respect an honest election or that any U.S.-backed government would share power with shameless, ruthless criminals.
For the past decade, conventional diplomacy failed to assess the nature of the Venezuelan narco-state, the significance of the Cuban invasion, and the interest of Russia and China in challenging Trump in the Americas. Diplomats failed to act effectively as Maduro stole a series of elections, as cynical opposition leaders sold out democracy, as narco-traffickers hijacked a government, and as economic destruction and brutal repression forced 4 million refugees out of Venezuela.
Now that Bolton has been sidelined, Trump will have to empower another leader to confront a well-funded narco-state that is destabilizing the Americas with drugs, terrorists, corruption, and refugees. Confronting this threat, forcefully and finally, is the only reasonable option.