Trump’s strategy in Venezuela: Domestic or foreign policy?

The Trump administration recently announced forceful moves against the Nicolás Maduro government. Could Trump’s strategy in Venezuela be a ploy to garner domestic support in an election year?


Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, a truth that seems incompatible with the country’s economic, political and humanitarian reality. The situation in the South American country is so dire that by the end of this year, an estimated 6.5 million people will have fled Venezuela, “a number rarely, if ever, seen outside of war.”

Although the crisis worsens, Venezuela has managed to lay low as the world focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last couple of weeks, though, the Trump administration has announced forceful moves against Nicolás Maduro’s regime, once again shining a spotlight on Venezuela and its perils. 

On March 26, the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled its first move: indictments against President Nicolás Maduro and 13 other current or former members of Venezuela’s government and military. In addition to the indictments, U.S. Attorney General William Barr offered a $15 million reward for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Maduro, as well as $10 million in rewards for information on Diosdado Cabello, president of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly; Tarek El Aissami, Vice President for the economy; Hugo Carvajal, former director of military intelligence; and Cliver Alcalá, retired general.

While many in Venezuela celebrated this as a triumph, it is unclear how or if the measures placed are sufficient enough to compel Maduro to step down, or rather, if this will have a counter effect and strengthen his grip on power.

As Director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, Geoff Ramsey, puts it in his Washington Post op-ed, “in bowing to pressure from the hard-liners, [Trump’s] move hinders rather than helps efforts to raise internal pressure on Maduro to enter into credible negotiations.”

Days after the news of the unveiled indictments, the Trump administration unveiled its second move: the U.S. Department of State proposed a “Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela,” offering to ease sanctions in exchange for Maduro’s regime and opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s team—recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate president by the U.S. and 50 other countries—to form a power-sharing government until the stipulated timeline within which free and fair elections are to be held.

This proposal is a reboot of unsuccessful negotiations in Barbados that ended in the fall of last year. The biggest difference this time around: the United States, instead of Norway, is the messenger. 

And while a negotiated transition is the ideal way forward, recall Ramsey’s take: indictments from the U.S. following an ultimatum toward power sharing is unlikely to yield the U.S.’s ideal outcome from Maduro. 

Francisco Toro of Caracas Chronicles further explains why the second move in the U.S. administration’s chess game to oust Maduro is likely to backfire, “Chavismo cannot be seen to acquiesce to a plan concocted by Washington, so any vanishingly tiny possibility of success this idea might have had is vitiated by the manner of its presentation.”

This leads to the third action by the Trump administration: the announcement of a U.S.-led anti-drug operation. Last week, the Trump administration moved tanks near Venezuelan waters in an effort intended to stop drug traffickers from “exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic” and prevent Venezuela from profiting off of drug sales. 

Kassandra Frederique, managing director of policy advocacy and campaigns at the Drug Policy Alliance, called the size of the Trump administration’s military fleet “an effort to distract Americans from his delayed response to the COVID-19 crisis—which at this point we know will likely cost hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Once mapped out, the reason behind the Trump administration’s actions these last several weeks becomes evidently clear: all paths point to Florida. 

It’s no secret that the Trump administration has been woefully underprepared in its handling of COVID-19. The United States is now the country with the largest number of deaths due to the virus, and Florida, the largest swing state in the 2020 election cycle, is amid the worst states affected by the outbreak.

Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is almost certain to be the deciding factor in the Florida race for the White House. As Trump confronts this reality, he and his administration are relying on one of their most powerful messaging tools to rally support in the state: their fight against “socialism” and pledge to save the U.S.from turning into…Venezuela. 

Latin American foreign policy is an important issue for Florida, given its large Latino demographic. Florida, and South Florida in particular, is home to Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, a diaspora made up of many who fled to Florida after having survived the trauma of abhorrent socialist regimes in their home countries. Trump’s continuous stoking of fear in the falsehood that the democratic party is lobbying for state control of goods and services, is working. Therefore, any moves that show he can be tough on dictators amid the threat of a deadly virus is comforting to the voters of this state.

As national political reporter Elaina Plott points out in the New York Times,“…if [Trump] can continue to increase his support among the disparate groups that make up South Florida, all while maintaining his hold on the rest of the state, the 2020 election cycle could be Florida’s final one as a battleground.”

In a live conversation with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) earlier this week, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams—who was in the State Department in 1987 and 1988 when the ousting of Panama’s Manuel Noriega was plotted—was pressed on the conditions of the “Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela.” His answers were murky, often pointing out that he wasn’t sure if this proposal was a viable path forward to truly reach a transition of power in Venezuela. According to Abrams, “it’s simply a proposal.”

The lack of strategic foresight unveils perhaps the most unsettling truth of the Trump administration’s “three moves” on Venezuela and their foreign policy writ large. There is no clear strategy. The unveiling of indictments, the transition plan and the anti-drug operation were reactionary decisions based on U.S. political priorities, and not on conclusive plans forward that would result in removing the Maduro regime from Venezuela. 

At the same CSIS gathering, when Abrams was pressed on military intervention being an option on the table, he said, “there are obviously lots of military options. When we said all our options are—exist, you know…that all options are on the table isn’t really a policy statement. It’s a statement of fact.” 

A military move of this caliber would likely lead to a post-COVID-19 plummeting economy in the United States. But, it would definitely be popular among Trump’s base. And it would most certainly favor him in November with swing Latino voters in Florida.

But the question that remains is if these U.S.-centered strategies will achieve the real goal of removing the cancer that is the Maduro regime from power and repair the damage it has sowed in Venezuela and the rest of the hemisphere. 

Los pueblos no tienen memoria. Let us not forget the long-term repercussions of U.S. military interventions and subsequent invasions of Latin America, and analyze if the region has actually benefited from such a course of action when applauding the Trump administration’s tactics toward Venezuela. Future generations of Venezuelans are depending on us to remember.

Liz Rebecca Alarcón is a Latinamericanist from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and Executive Director of Pulso. You can follow her on Twitter @LizRebeAlarcon.

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