The U.S. Can Help Solve the Venezuelan Crisis by Not Being a Bully

Jorge G. Castañeda

As the Venezuelan crisis worsens, nearly every country that backs Juan Guaidó as the interim president has come to agree that Nicolás Maduro’s resignation is the first step toward any type of negotiation. This is a departure from previous diplomatic attempts to establish a dialogue between the Maduro government and the opposition. The effort in Uruguay this week at the behest of the European Union opens up a new window for a peaceful resolution.

This means that Mr. Guaidó and the National Assembly would call for presidential elections as quickly as possible, under international supervision, with new electoral authorities, and overseen by a neutral government.

There is a consensus among European and Latin American nations that the Trump administration should play as understated a role as possible, even if Washington has helped orchestrate much of what has occurred in recent weeks. Still, many in Latin America and Europe believe that no matter how low-key Washington keeps its presence, its motives are questionable. If Mr. Trump is in, everyone else should be out, they say. The skepticism is understandable considering the United States’ track record in Latin America from Guatemala in the 1950s to Honduras in the 2000s.

If Mr. Maduro leaves office, it will be thanks to the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who took to the streets risking their lives, to the military officers who refused to fire on them, the Latin American governments who for the past year and a half have been pushing for this, and to the countries in the European Union that also want Mr. Maduro gone. The United States is one factor, but not a decisive one.

Some polls suggest that a majority of Venezuelans would welcome an American military intervention to remove Mr. Maduro and end their nightmare. But there have been too many instances of United States meddling in Latin America for the worst reasons, and with the worst outcomes, for there to be any enthusiasm for American interference.

Mr. Maduro’s backers in Russia, Cuba, Bolivia and North Korea and even in China would surely denounce “Yankee imperialism,” recalling the invasion of Bay of Pigs in Cuba, and appeal to the Venezuelan military’s patriotism.

Until now, Washington and the Trump administration have played their cards surprisingly well, with an orderly, well-thought-through rollout of initiatives. Outside of a few needless threats by the White House, the administration has proved remarkably discreet, and hopefully, this caution will last.

The United States will not attend the meeting on Venezuela organized by the European Union in Montevideo on Thursday. It shouldn’t. Nor should it directly deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela. It is one thing for Washington provide the aid, and another for it to get involved in delivering it inside Venezuela. Washington should simply encourage, organize and finance.

The sanctions it has imposed on Venezuela’s state-owned energy company Pdvsa are sufficient. According to Mr. Guaidó and other sources, $20 million in American medicines and food will be unloaded this week just outside Venezuelan territory in Cúcuta, Colombia; Brazil, and on a Caribbean island — either Aruba or Curaçao — near the Venezuelan coast.

Venezuelan military officials and troops in exile will then move these supplies into Venezuela, where if all goes well, army troops still loyal to Mr. Maduro will not stop their passage nor fire upon them. If they do, the Brazilian and Colombian governments may be willing to back the anti-Maduro soldiers. The threat of a firefight with their neighbors might just be the incentive the Venezuelan military need to jettison Mr. Maduro, making the reality of combat unnecessary.

Washington should mainly guarantee the contours of the necessary and desirable outcome. It must also play a key role in the amnesty that Mr. Guaidó has offered Mr. Maduro and the Venezuelan military leadership in exchange for relinquishing power and leaving the country.

Even in apparently safe havens like Havana and Moscow, they may be vulnerable one day to prosecution by the International Criminal Court or the American justice system. Washington must vow not to pursue them in court; absent this assurance, the chances that they will agree to exile are slim.

For the first time since Hugo Chávez took power 20 years ago, the Venezuelan opposition is united. Nearly every country involved in Venezuela, directly or otherwise — with the exception of Iran, Nicaragua, Syria, Bolivia, Russia and China, and to a lesser extent Mexico and Uruguay — subscribes to most of the points outlined above. But their support for Mr. Guaidó is conditional on the unity of the internal forces backing him. It is this bloc that is signifying the end of Chavismo as we know it.

Venezuela will either put this nightmare behind it and join its democratic neighbors in Latin American and Western community, or become a full-fledged ally and protectorate of Russia, Cuba, and to a lesser extent, China. This is the real choice Venezuela and its true friends face.

Getting the United States to work with Latin Americans and Europeans on solving crises in the region without throwing its weight around or bullying anyone would be a major achievement. Some would prefer that the United States stay out of the matter altogether. Neither is going to happen.

In any case, the Venezuelan people should be given the choice, through free and fair elections. That, ultimately, is what the entire affair is about.

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