Is Maduro’s Indictment Anything More Than an American Bluff?

Venezuela’s leader will use the charges against him to bolster support.

Jorge G. Castañeda

By Jorge G. Castañeda

Professor Castañeda is a contributing writer.

  • March 30, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

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MEXICO CITY — On Thursday, in the midst of the world’s most serious health and economic crisis since perhaps the Great Depression, the Trump administration charged President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela with narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering. The State Department offered a $15 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Mr. Maduro and also indicted other senior officials, including the country’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, who is charged with conspiracy to smuggle narcotics.

There are different ways of interpreting this turn of events. Mr. Maduro may well be guilty, but it’s also possible that Donald Trump is playing politics in an election year.

The first question is whether the facts hold up, which is not always the case when the United States is involved. American claims notwithstanding, its purported exceptionalism regarding democracy and the rule of law is always open to question. In my forthcoming book, “America Through Foreign Eyes,” I take a critical look at the U.S. latent insularity against my own background as a foreigner, at a critical moment whenthe belief that the nation is immune from developments abroad has once again resurfaced and is simultaneously being called into question.

The fact that federal prosecutors in New York and Miami have pressed charges against Mr. Maduro and his cohorts, in itself, is not enough reason to suppose those charges are valid. Washington’s record on such accounts is hardly reliable. The United States has a long history of intervention in Latin America, from its actions involving Manuel Noriega and Hassan Hussein in recent times, to Augusto Cesar Sandino in Nicaragua in the 1930s and Pancho Villa in 1917. Still, the gist of these damning accusations against Mr. Maduro have been floating around for years; it would surprise no one — certainly not me — if he is in fact proven guilty.

The teams in Florida and New York handing down the indictments, including Brian Allen Benczkowski, the assistant attorney general who indicted Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the notorious Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, are not easily dismissed as Trump pushovers. And this is not a purely legal issue involving charges of drug trafficking to be resolved in an American court. Under Mr. Maduro, the Chavista regime has perpetrated egregious human rights violations and destroyed Venezuela’s economy, leading to the largest humanitarian crisis in the region.

The Trump administration’s new offensive against him and his associates is essentially of a diplomatic and political nature. The issue is not whether the charges are true. To wit, the United States maintains cordial diplomatic relations with governments in Afghanistan and Honduras, which are known to be complicit in drug trafficking. The new accusations have probably been in the works for years, during which Venezuela sold the United States billions of dollars worth of oil. The question is whether the indictment will hasten Mr. Maduro’s downfall — which is surely the United States’ goal — or if it will merely fuel the anti-American nationalism ever-present among certain sectors of Venezuelan society.

If the Trump administration is betting on the devastation the coronavirus will wreak in Venezuela, the brutal impact the collapse in oil prices will have on its economy, and on Mr. Maduro’s increasing isolation in Latin America — as shown by the Organization of American States’ recent re-election of Mr. Maduro’s nemesis, Luis Almagro, as secretary general —, it might prove effective despite its cynicism. Especially if those high-ranking Venezuelan military officers not included in the indictment feel tempted by the changing circumstances and the substantial rewards offered for Mr. Maduro’s head. This is a long shot, but certainly not an absurd hypothesis.

Conversely, the indictment may be nothing more than the usual American bluff and bluster, with no strategic calculation beyond pandering for votes in November’s presidential election. After hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, many resettled in Florida. A poll conducted by Univision early this month found that Puerto Rican voters in that state overwhelmingly back Joe Biden and could be crucial for winning this battleground. Mr. Trump needs his Cuban-American and Venezuelan turnout to be strong in order to remain competitive. The charges against Mr. Maduro may provide the push he needs to capture those votes.

Mr. Maduro is already using Mr. Trump’s move to bolster his support domestically and internationally. Countries including Mexico and Argentina, which are sympathetic to the Venezuelan regime, may call the charges exaggerated and cite international law to defy Washington. Mr. Maduro will keep denying the accusations, and claim the action against him is typical American interventionist meddling and extraterritorial application of its domestic legislation, which no country in the region backs, much like the Helms-Burton act of 1996 that unilaterally strengthened the embargo against Cuba. And the actual, practical, effects of the United States’ decision may be minimal. After all, Mr. Trump has already been seeking to dislodge Mr. Maduro for months, if not years. So far, fruitlessly.

Manuel Noriega was a U.S. toady before the George H.W. Bush’s administration turned on him. Saddam Hussein bore the brunt of two American invasions before his execution. It does not seem likely that Mr. Trump would be willing to pay such a steep price for Mr. Maduro’s demise. The Cubans, who play a crucial role in supporting the Maduro regime, have some experience in dealing with American hostility, warranted or not. The Castro brothers have outlasted 12 American presidents; Hugo Chávez and Mr. Maduro have outlasted four, if we include most of Mr. Trump’s first term. The new measure, however valid on its merits, is not likely to alter the scoreboard.

Jorge G. Castañeda (@JorgeGCastaneda), Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, is a professor at New York University and author of the forthcoming book, “America Through Foreign Eyes.”

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