The Hill | Mark Feierstein
President Trump's insistence at the U.N. General Assembly this week that "all options are on the table" to resolve the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela have raised alarms in U.S. policy circles and throughout Latin America about potential U.S. military action.
Adding to the concern is that Trump's comments were not made in isolation; they come on the heels of reports of meetings between an American diplomat and Venezuelan military officers scheming to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro, as well as suggestions by regional diplomats that a military invasion of Venezuela be considered.
Nevertheless, the exploration of non-peaceful means to resolve Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crises reflects more the frustration over dimming prospects for a peaceful democratic transition there than a revival of gunboat diplomacy or U.S.-backed military coups.
Over the past few years, as the regime in Venezuela has become more repressive and the humanitarian situation there direr, the United States and other countries have escalated pressure on Maduro and his associates.
The United States, Canada and European countries have frozen the assets of dozens of senior Venezuelan military and civilian officials and limited the government's access to foreign credit. Latin American governments have denounced the regime for its authoritarian practices and called for Venezuela to be suspended from the Organization of American States.
The international community is continuously seeking ways to apply additional pressure on the regime. This week, Canada and five Latin American countries urged the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged crimes against humanity committed by Venezuelan authorities, and Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) unveiled a bill to spur additional U.S. and regional pressure on the Venezuelan government.
The pressure to date, however, does not seem to have weakened Maduro's hold on power. U.S. officials have reluctantly concluded that simply applying more sanctions or further isolating Venezuela diplomatically is not likely to hasten a political transition.
If the targeted sanctions were designed to create fissures within the regime, they have thus far failed; few Venezuelan officials have broken with the government.
Broader economic sanctions, such as an embargo on oil, which accounts for 90 percent of Venezuela's exports, would not accomplish much when Maduro's policies are already reducing oil production to historically low levels and driving inflation toward 1 million percent.
The international efforts to advance a political transition in Venezuela have fallen short largely because of the absence of comparable internal pressure on the regime. During the past two years, anti-government protests over the scarcity of food, medicine, water and electricity have been limited to daily, but regionally scattered, small-scale outbursts.
Preoccupied with obtaining food and medicine, most Venezuelans have limited energy or time to protest. And in the wake of the killings of more than 100 protesters last year, the public is naturally fearful of repression by security forces.
The traditional opposition leadership is no longer able to mobilize people either; leading opposition figures have been unjustly jailed or forced into exile, and others are discredited after having failed to remove Maduro through a variety of attempted means over the years, from strikes to elections to negotiations with the government.
Potential conspirators within the armed forces, meanwhile, have been detected and jailed, while other disgruntled military members have deserted. With grim prospects at home, Venezuelans are leaving in massive numbers — 2 million have left in the past three years — further reducing internal pressure on Maduro.
It is not surprising then that there are increasing calls for more extreme measures, including a coup or foreign military invasion. Sen. Rubio has echoed comments by administration officials urging the Venezuelan military to act.
To the surprise of many, Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, said last week that he thinks no option should be ruled out to reduce the suffering in Venezuela.
Although 12 Latin American countries quickly issued a statement rejecting the use of force in Venezuela, Colombia, the destination of most Venezuelan refugees, did not sign the document, and the new Colombian ambassador to the United States reiterated Almagro’s statement that no options should be discarded.
As controversial as Almagro’s comments were among governments in the region, they were welcomed by many Venezuelans.
Three in 5 Venezuelan adults, including 9 in 10 supporters of the opposition and three-quarters of unaffiliated voters, would support the military removing Maduro from office, according to a national survey I conducted for GBA Strategies in June.
It is not that Venezuelans have favorable attitudes toward the armed forces — only 1 in 4 have a positive opinion of the Army or National Guard — but they believe they are the only institutions capable of ridding the country of Maduro.
That desperation also explains why about half of Venezuelans (47 percent), including 7 in 10 opposition supporters, favors a foreign invasion to remove Maduro. That is nearly as high as the share (52 percent) who supports dialogue between the government and opposition.
Again, it is not that Venezuelans are enamored of the United States these days — just over one-third (36 percent) have a favorable view of the country and fewer (29 percent) have a positive opinion of Trump — but many are open to almost any option that would relieve them of Maduro.
The danger of public discussion about military options, however, is that it could raise unwarranted expectations among many Venezuelans for an external savior and lessen their motivation to organize against Maduro.
Trump administration officials have had to tell opposition leaders that, notwithstanding Trump’s comments, the United States has no plans to invade Venezuela.
The most likely scenario in Venezuela for the foreseeable future then might be an especially undesirable one to most Venezuelans and the international community: Maduro holding on to power and a continued exodus of migrants fleeing political repression and economic deprivation.
The palatable policy tools that have helped advance democratic transitions around the world in recent years could very well fall short in Venezuela.