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Venezuela: Neither Washington nor Caracas can Afford Further Escalation

Venezuela’s often-fraught relationship with Washington has plummeted to unprecedented lows after opposition leader Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself Venezuela’s interim leader—and the Trump administration swiftly recognized his claim. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s decision last weekend to back down on his deadline for U.S. Embassy personnel to leave the country defused what could have quickly disintegrated into a dangerous standoff.

The reprieve didn’t last long, however; tensions ratcheted up sharply after National Security Adviser John Bolton flashed a notepad Monday night reading “5000 troops to Colombia.” There was naturally furious speculation over whether Bolton intentionally let reporters glimpse at the ominous note as a bluff to intimidate Maduro, or whether the U.S. is genuinely intending to send troops to Colombia as a precursor for an armed assault on Venezuela.

American officials didn’t rush to clear up the situation. In response to journalists’ questions, a White House spokesman merely reiterated Trump’s statement that “all options are on the table.” To complicate matters, the news broke that Major General Mark Stammer, head of the U.S. Southern Command, will visit Bogotá soon.

Whether Bolton’s notepad malfunction was his attempt at deterrence or a stunning gaffe revealing U.S. plans to force Maduro’s hand, the Trump administration’s heavy-handed foreign policy in Venezuela may have disastrous consequences for Washington and Caracas alike.

A brutal conflict

The idea that Washington is considering sending thousands of troops to South America has to be taken seriously. Bolton, described as “the hawk’s hawk,” rapidly endorsed the Iraq War and advocated for pre-emptively striking Iran or North Korea. The recent announcement that Elliott Abrams, another hawk who was intimately linked with Reagan-era meddling in Latin America (and was even allegedly behind a 2002 coup attempt against Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez), would take the lead on Venezuelan policy has raised fears that Washington is gearing up for an armed intervention in Caracas.

What’s more, Trump himself reportedly stunned aides last August when he pressed them repeatedly on the possibility of invading Venezuela. Despite his advisers’ warnings that this would be disastrous, the president brought up the potential military initiative with the President of Colombia and other Latin American leaders.

Those leaders all made it clear to Trump that such intervention was unwelcome, but the American president may now be resurrecting the unpopular idea—if for no other reason than, as conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt suggested, to “bring America together” after the bruising 35-day government shutdown.

It’s hard not to overstate how catastrophic an American invasion of Venezuela would be, how gravely a military incursion could erode U.S. diplomatic credibility in Latin America, nor how severely it would harm the Venezuelan people. Trump has name-dropped previous American incursions into Panama and Grenada, but analysts have estimated that the U.S. would need a long-term force of 100,000 troops in Venezuela, who would face guerrilla warfare and fraying infrastructure. Given that the majority of Venezuelans—including a large portion of the opposition—do not support an American military intervention in their country, the conflict could very easily disintegrate into a prolonged civil war with thousands of Venezuelan and American casualties.

Bluffing off the cliff’s edge

Despite Bolton’s notorious hawkism and Trump’s repeated interest in invading Venezuela, it seems more likely that Bolton’s notebook “slip” was designed to ratchet up the already-substantial American pressure on Maduro to step aside. This would still be counterproductive if Washington’s goal is to alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people.

Paradoxically, insinuating that the U.S. is willing to use military force to install Juan Guaidó in the Miraflores Palace emboldens both Guaidó and Maduro, increasing the risk of a violent confrontation between the two factions. The “imperialist” U.S.’s plans to take Venezuela by force is one of Maduro’s favorite riffs, and Bolton has now given Maduro valuable fodder. Maduro has already incorporated the incident into his rhetoric, claiming in an interview that Trump and Colombia are conspiring to assassinate him. In fact, Maduro previously claimed—without providing evidence— that John Bolton was training mercenaries in Colombia: an assertion which he can now argue is bolstered by Bolton’s latest stunt.

Meanwhile, Washington’s promise to back Guaidó with “all options on the table” has significantly strengthened the self-proclaimed president’s hand, causing him to take risks and encourage prolonged protests—despite the fact that he lacks crucial support from the Venezuelan military and his claim on the presidency is shaky at best.

The U.S. only making things worse

Moreover, Guaidó is already struggling with legitimacy problems. The opposition leader’s youth and charisma work in his favor, but the fact that he was plucked from complete obscurity—until last week, less than 20% of Venezuelans knew who Guaidó was and has inspired critiques that he is too inexperienced to lead the country and wild conspiracy theories that Guaidó was trained by the U.S. to carry out regime change in Venezuela.

Ordinarily, such speculation would be easily put to rest—but the U.S.’s latest actions have added fuel to Maduro’s fire. Bolton’s threatening scribbles allowed Maduro to appeal to the American people not to allow Trump to turn Venezuela into a “Vietnam War in Latin America.” Elliott Abrams’ appointment resurrected the ghosts of disastrous American interventions past, from arming the Contras in Nicaragua to backing Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who led a brutal campaign against the indigenous Mayans. Trump’s own populism and embrace of bloodthirsty autocrats from Kim Jong-Un to Mohammad bin Salman has made him uniquely unsuited to push for democracy abroad.

The Trump administration’s vehement backing, then, is a poisoned gift for Guaidó. As NYU professor Alejandro Velasco commented, “a Venezuelan opposition movement that is seeking to promote human rights, democracy, and self-determination should not desire to align itself with” the likes of Abrams and Bolton.

Venezuela needs a stable government, frank dialogue between Maduro and the opposition, and a solution for the hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine which have plagued the country—an important first step would be to remove the bruising sanctions which a UN rapporteur warned last week are having devastating effects on the Venezuelan people. It doesn’t need to become the war Bolton has always dreamed of and Trump’s proving ground for foreign policy.