Trump’s strategy for Venezuela: is it working?

Trump’s strategy for Venezuela: is it working?

The US-backed opposition and sanctions have failed to push Maduro from office, leading to a stalemate.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

On August 5, President Trump signed an executive order to place Venezuela under what is nearly a full US trade embargo, putting the country under similar restrictions to Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria.

KEY INSIGHTS

– The military-backed Maduro regime and US-backed opposition have reached a costly political stalemate
– The Venezuelan economy continues to rapidly deteriorate under US sanctions escalating one of the largest humanitarian crises ever recorded in South America
– Trump provides a scapegoat for Maduro to deflect criticism and remain in power
– Peace talks in Barbados have been suspended, but secret meetings — recently confirmed by Trump and Maduro — offer a chance for dialogue

From the beginning of this year, President Donald Trump has taken a hard line on Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela. After wholeheartedly backing opposition leader Juan Guaidó and imposing strict sanctions in January, Trump turned up the heat by signing an executive order on August 5 to effectively quarantine Venezuela from the global economy. The order is the harshest measure to date, freezing Venezuelan government assets and imposing restrictions on any third party doing business in Venezuela.

While clearly the next move in an attempt to oust Maduro, the effects could be catastrophic for the civilian population, which is already experiencing a growing humanitarian crisis. The Venezuelan economy has been in a tailspin since 2014 and the regime appears to be passing the burden of increasing sanctions onto the population. To date, the US strategy has failed to produce any concrete progress towards regime change. It has been nearly seven months since Guaidó began his attempt to remove Maduro, and the protracted struggle has only pushed the country further into chaos.

The political crisis sprang from allegations that Maduro’s election victory in May 2018 was fraudulent. It was not recognised by the domestic opposition, the US or several Latin American governments. Regardless, in January, Maduro went through with his inauguration, which was met with immediate protest — Juan Guaidó emerged as the official leader of the opposition. On January 23, Guaidó declared himself interim president, citing emergency powers granted in the constitution, and the US was quick to recognise him as the legitimate head of state. Following suit, 47 governments in Latin America and Europe severed ties with Maduro and recognised Guaidó, assuming that under US pressure Maduro’s regime would quickly collapse. However, sweeping US sanctions have not yet done the trick, raising questions as to the effectiveness of this strategy.

MORE HARM THAN GOOD

Photo: Alex abello Leiva (Alexcocopro) / Wikimedia Commons

Trump has expressed frustration with the approach, claiming his advisers misled him as to how difficult it would be to topple the regime. Following a failed US-backed effort to oust Maduro in April, the outlook has been grim and the stalemate unyielding. It appears US sanctions are only making a bad situation much worse. Oil production has fallen to its lowest level since the 1940s, as the oil embargo imposed in January has deprived Venezuela of its largest source of hard currency. More than 4 million people have fled the country, largely to neighboring South American countries, citing gross human rights abuses and severe shortages of food and resources.

The executive order that Trump signed earlier this month is set to only exacerbate the crisis. The order allows exemptions for the delivery of humanitarian assistance but imports of food and medicine are still likely to diminish as third parties err on the side of caution in navigating the new US policy. According to the UN, 90% of Venezuelans live in poverty. The majority of these people rely on the government to subsidise food and necessities; as such, when the government runs out of money and supplies disappear, it is these people who will suffer the most. It is estimated that over 5,000 migrants are continuing to cross the border each day, with cases of malnourishment so severe that aid agencies are beginning to fear near-famine conditions inside Venezuela.

The economy was in shambles long before US sanctions took effect. Venezuela’s GDP has contracted more than 15% every year since 2016 and hyperinflation reached 10 million percent in 2019. The nearly bankrupt government has little left to lose, severely weakening any incentive to bring Maduro to the table. Furthermore, China and Russia remain powerful backers of the regime and it is unlikely that the US embargo will fully curb their support. The two countries have blocked every attempt by the US to pass UN resolutions against the Maduro regime and continue to provide much-needed cash flows to keep the government afloat.

THE TRICKY BUSINESS OF REGIME CHANGE

Photo: The Kremlin

Together with China and Russia, Maduro also receives support from Cuba, which serves as a role model in resisting regime change and surviving under a full US embargo. The embargo imposed on the Cuban communist regime in the 1960s did not bring down Fidel Castro; instead, it fuelled anti-American sentiment and provided a scapegoat to blame for all of the country’s problems. This in turn boosted Castro’s popularity. Maduro is using the same technique now to stay in power.

In addition to offering a scapegoat, the US administration’s explicit calls for regime change have damaged its reputation in the region, which has not forgotten its traumatic history of US intervention, from the Monroe Doctrine to the Cold War. This has ratcheted up anti-American sentiment — and the administration’s pro-Guaidó rhetoric has sapped legitimacy from the opposition movement. As Guaidó is now perceived to be dependent on the US, it will be difficult for him to govern if Maduro is indeed ousted.

The US has remained distant from the peace talks convened by the Norwegian government, which began in Barbados in early July. Following Trump’s executive order, Maduro suspended the negotiations. However, he has recently revealed secret meetings between senior regime officials and the US administration. Some experts believe Maduro is simply biding time, stretching out talks with the opposition and opening back channels in an attempt to exhaust international adversaries. The longer Maduro holds on to power, the likelier it becomes that the opposition will lose momentum until eventually regime change may no longer be a hard line for international cooperation.

The fate of Venezuela is far from certain and the long-term impacts of the embargo are yet to be seen. However, Trump’s strategy does not appear to be working. The opposition has demonstrated that it is not strong enough to overthrow Maduro and US actions appear to be doing more to undermine its strategy than advance it. Secret talks offer a glimpse of hope towards productive dialogue, but as both sides refuse to reveal any concrete proposals, the odds of a negotiated settlement remain slim.