What is the Trump administration’s next move in Venezuela?


Venezuelans continue to struggle under a blackout that has been one of the worst and longest in recent memory, in a country already suffering from serious shortages of food and medicine due to economic crisis.
Video provided by AFP

WASHINGTON – Looting is rampant. Clean water is running low. Mass blackouts continue. And the potential for political violence is ever present.

That is the quickly deteriorating situation in Venezuela – where Nicolas Maduro is clinging to his presidency despite massive American and international pressure for his ouster.

In Washington, meanwhile, top Trump administration officials have sharpened their rhetoric and hinted at a more aggressive posture. And Democrats in Congress are readying a proposal that would bar President Trump from any military intervention without their authorization – fearing that such a step is in the works and that it would be disastrous.

“The situation in Venezuela has gotten considerably worse in the last week,” said Brett Bruen, a former foreign service officer stationed in Venezuela and a global engagement adviser in the Obama administration. “It’s gone from alarming to catastrophic, so that requires a reassessment of what our policy is.”

Thursday marked the seventh day of Venezuela’s mass power outage – which has exacerbated the crisis for Venezuelans already coping with food and medicine shortages. Without power, hospitals have been unable to help the sick and dying, water pumps have stopped working, and vandals have ransacked stores and other businesses, according to media reports.

With Maduro’s socialist government seemingly unable to fix the power grid and Venezuela increasingly isolated internationally, China has now offered to come to the rescue.

“China is deeply concerned about this,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said in Beijing on Wednesday. “China is willing to provide help and technical support to restore Venezuela’s power grid.”

Citing the dire conditions, the State Department withdrew all its American embassy staff from Venezuela this week. American officials expressed particular alarm at Maduro’s call on Monday for armed gangs, known as “colectivos,” to rise up and fight the opposition. The Trump administration has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Veneuela and labeled Maduro a corrupt usurper.

“I call on the colectivos,” Maduro declared on Monday, according to a Washington Post account of his remarks. “The hour of resistance has arrived.”

Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, said Maduro’s statement was cause for concern.

“That’s calling for armed gangs to take over the streets, and it is obviously going to be a great worry to Venezuelans,” he told reporters during a State Department briefing on Tuesday. “Perhaps it is a sign of Maduro’s lack of confidence in his own security forces. But it is by definition a breakdown of law and order.”

Both Pompeo and Abrams suggested this week that the Trump administration was preparing to increase pressure on Maduro. In his announcement that all American diplomats would be leaving Venezuela, Pompeo said their presence on the ground was a “constraint on U.S. policy.” The secretary of state did not elaborate on what he meant by that, but the remark has fueled fresh speculation of possible military intervention.  

Abrams said the administration would be imposing “significant” new sanctions on Venezuela in the coming days. He declined to say whether the Trump administration had asked the Pentagon to draft possible military options.

“The President has said all options are the table. They are,” Abrams. “Further than that it would be foolish for me to go, and I’m not going to do it.”

Michael Dobson, a former senior sanctions policy adviser at the U.S. Treasury Department, said the U.S. is running out of economic tools it can use to squeeze Maduro. The administration has already slapped sanctions on the country’s oil sector, which is by far its largest source of revenue. Dobson said the Treasury Department could now look at restrictions on Venezuela’s gold industry and possibly some other minerals.

“But beyond, that there isn’t much left,” said Dobson, now an attorney in Washington. “So it’s largely a waiting game to see, will the military recalculate and see that it’s no longer worth having Maduro in the chair.”

Democrats fear the Trump administration isn’t interested in waiting. On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee heard testimony about the possible implications of U.S. military intervention in Venezuela.

“Military intervention would be much more difficult than many believe,” Rebecca Bill Chavez, a former deputy assistant defense secretary for the Western Hemisphere, told the committee. “It would not be quick. And it would involve engagement with the Venezuela military, armed civilians andido non-state actors.”

Democrats used the committee to warn against any military action without congressional authorization.

“We all agree the Maduro regime has destroyed Venezuela’s economy, starved its people, and engaged in widespread corruption and repression,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., the lead sponsor of legislation that would bar the administration from spending any money on military action in Venezuela.

“Not only would military intervention be illegal, it would also come with serious consequences that I fear would not only hurt the Venezuelan people, but also the prospects for democracy,” he said.

More: Americans should consider fleeing Venezuela as new sanctions loom, State Department says

More: John Bolton’s notes on ‘5,000 troops to Colombia’ spark speculation about military intervention in Venezuela


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