I don’t know if President Donald Trump thought through his comment, whether it was written in a speech, jotted down in an outline, resting in a crumpled napkin in his pocket, or whether it was a tweet he forgot to send. But the only thing worse than an armed operation to free Venezuela is to threaten an armed operation to free Venezuela, as Trump did last Friday, causing consternation through the region despite multiple attempts by others to, well, nuance it.
The fact is, an empty menace may only fuel the Venezuelan regime’s Castro-style communist rhetoric against the very much oppressed political opposition. And an actual intervention would be, well, just about inconceivable.
The threat came as the world watched in dismay the doomsday clock ticking closer to midnight in the Donald Trump vs. Kim Jong Un showdown. Was the Venezuela ploy meant as a mere distraction? A bit of reality show fame for a long-neglected crisis until its 15 minutes are over and on to other things?
Venezuelans have been struggling for over four years to raise awareness of the abrupt fall of democratic values and the ransacking of the productive apparatus that have led the country straight to ruin under a shameless dictatorship. Thanks to the media blackout by the government, only the most terrible stories get out. It’s hard to sell the news to international media, you need death or unbelievable absurdity, but even that can come to seem monotonous.
Then, after the farcical election and installation of a constituent assembly last week, one that is meant to crush democracy, we suddenly surfaced on Trump’s radar.
On Friday, Trump gave that statement to the press voicing his concern over the crisis in Venezuela, a country of strategic importance to the U.S. He went on to say that Washington was exploring several options to handle the situation, and then added the bit that ignited an international media frenzy: “And, by the way, I’m not gonna rule out a military option.”
Many politicians of the Venezuelan opposition, as well as several countries in the region, rejected the idea of a U.S. military intervention. Given the long unhappy history of U.S. Marine landings in Latin America—and elsewhere—that makes sense.
The problem with the opposition’s reaction is that it came accompanied by an arrogant, “Venezuelans can fix their own problems.” Which is not true on two counts. First, after 18 years governed by the late Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, we have proven that we need help from the international community; and second, that it’s not “our own” problems, it’s our neighbors’ too.
In this case there may actually be premeditation in Washington—but what are they thinking?
Trump was standing next to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he spoke. And a week before, Tillerson, too had talked about weighing options to change conditions in Venezuela, “where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future and wants to leave of his own accord, or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.”
The Venezuelan government, for its part, reacted differently. Before going back to the classic response “váyanse al carajo, yanquis de mierda” (go to hell, damned yankees) coined by Chávez, it attempted to distort the news cycle. Almost simultaneously with Trump’s statement, Venezuelan Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino-López announced that the leader of the rebels who stole almost 100 weapons from the Paramacay garrison one week ago had been apprehended.
The first time Trump dove into the Venezuela issue was early this year, a few weeks after his inauguration, when, flanked by Sen. Marco Rubio and Vice President Mike Pence, he appeared in a photograph with Lilian Tintori, the wife of prominent political prisoner, Leopoldo López. As the Trump presidency was off to a limp start, it seemed as if his close associates had whispered in his ear that the Venezuelan conflict was an easy win. Which it isn’t.
Trump tweeted about his support to López and the Venezuelan cause as the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Maduro’s Vice President Tareck El Aissami for alleged connections to drug trafficking and international terrorism. After that, more than a dozen Venezuelan officials have been sanctioned for similar reasons or for violations of human rights.
Rubio has been very vocal about the Venezuelan cause, perhaps because of the deeply rooted influence of the Castros in the regime’s survival. As mentioned in a recent piece, he’s been locked in a Twitter feud with Diosdado Cabello, one of the heaviest men in chavismo. Cabello’s confrontational style of rhetoric is typical of Venezuelan children. He taunts, and makes up names for people. He’s been calling the senator: “Narco-Rubio.”
But the Twitter feud seems to have escalated. The Miami Herald reported it has a memo disseminated last month by Homeland Security to different agencies alerting them to a possible death threat against Rubio. The article goes on to explain that the memo names Diosdado Cabello, and it insinuates that the chavista bigwig may have gone as far as to contact Mexican hitmen to eliminate Rubio. This would explain why lately the senator has been followed by a larger security detail than usual.
Yet for all the confrontation Rubio has had with Cabello, it is odd that Cabello hasn’t been included in the sanctions list. Many have wondered whether this has anything to do with the U.S. government considering him the person they will have to negotiate with. If this report is accurate, and Cabello actually ordered a hit on Rubio, why haven’t we seen a strong measure against him? What’s in store for Mr. Cabello?
A more experienced politician than Trump or Tillerson, Mike Pence, spent a night in Cartagena, Colombia, with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to discuss, among other issues, the subject of Venezuela. Pence calmed the waters by saying that Washington is hoping for a peaceful solution and that Trump wanted to express determination. But he did not contradict Trump, even when Santos said bluntly that the military option should be ruled out.
Meanhwile that sense of determination Pence talked about is backed by statements of other U.S. officials, like CIA Director Mike Pompeo. On Sunday, while commenting on Trump’s statement, Pompeo said: “Venezuela could very much become a risk for the United States of America. The Cubans are there; the Russians are there, the Iranians, Hezbollah are there. This is something that has a risk of getting to a very very bad place, so America needs to take this very seriously.”
The feeling in Venezuela is that the political conflict is now stagnant. But the truth is that Venezuela’s most critical issues are still there. The dire conditions that people are living in are a time bomb. Sooner than later we’re going to be dealing with a humanitarian crisis, and every day that passes its solution gets further away from the hands of those who are looking for a peaceful outcome.
Trump may say unplanned things that come out in the spur of the moment. But he is known to stubbornly stick with them.
But hey, who cares about a skirmish in a Latin country by the Caribbean when nuclear winter is coming over the horizon from North Korea?