(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Venezuela’s travails have become a cause célèbre. For a land inured to international indifference or fly-by celebrities, the sudden wash of attention is odd but welcome. Where else might you see rival camps weaponizing aid meant for the sick and desperate to the tune of dueling concerts planned on opposite sides of the Venezuela-Colombian borders? What’s less clear is how the Western hemisphere’s worst humanitarian disaster in memory will play out once the music stops.
A good deal of the recent commotion over Venezuela has to do with the exhortations of a top partisan barker with an agenda of his own. U.S. President Donald Trump made Venezuela’s crisis the centerpiece of a lengthy speech Monday to Venezuelan exiles in Florida. For a man who for decades saw that country mainly as a stable of beauty pageant contenders, the sudden compassion seemed passing strange -- or worse.
U.S. Democratic Congressional Representative Ilhan Omar, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and graying rocker Roger Waters all weighed in recently from the hard left, warning of a reprise of 20th-century U.S. imperialism pushing regime change in Venezuela disguised as a call for democracy. They’re the latest in a long queue of fellow travelers, from Oliver Stone to Noam Chomsky, willing to overlook Venezuela’s thuggish regime because Hugo Chavez’s self-styled Bolivarian revolution was a candle in the neoliberal gloom.
Sure, Trump had his own motives: He painted Venezuela as a billboard for the ravages of socialism -- a term he used more than a dozen times in his 31-minute Florida speech and which he’s parlaying into a 2020 reelection mantra. Never mind that Maduro’s dysfunctional regime is more kleptocratic than ideological, or that opposition leader Juan Guaido’s National Will party is part of the Socialist International. “Nicolas Maduro is no socialist. He’s a tin-pot dictator,” as Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, who teaches on Latin America at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, put it to me. “Some of the biggest fortunes in Venezuelan history were made under his government.”
Nor did Trump initiate the global political campaign on Venezuela. That effort owes to the tireless Venezuelan opposition through waves of street protests and international lobbying. Their call to end Maduro’s “illegal” tenure and to hold new elections found resonance among nearly all of Venezuela’s democratic neighbors (glaringly, minus Mexico) through the Organization of American States and the Lima Group, and eventually won over advocates in Washington.
While Trump tweeted, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Vice President Mike Pence led the way, pushing the U.S. to double down on sanctions first issued under Barack Obama, widening the penalties to hit scores of Venezuelan companies and government higher ups. The Venezuela escalation may be one of the rare instances in which Trump’s penchant for headline surfing and using the world as his stump may actually be doing some good. “The U.S. didn’t start this, but they had the muscle and the money that Latin America lacked,” said Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales. “That has not gone unappreciated.”
That paradox has kept Trump’s foreign critics at bay and domestic rivals off balance. While many senior U.S. Democrats also support Guiado and oppose Maduro, they are loath to give Trump a free pass. A new intraparty spat over Sanders’ reluctance to endorse Guaido and call Maduro a dictator points to other divisions. “The Democrats are in a bind,’ said Corrales. “They’re afraid of repeating what happened in the Iraq war, when they gave authority to the Bush Administration to invade and it blew back on them. Besides, they just won an election, so they’re looking to obstruct, obstruct, obstruct.”
The view from Latin America ought to be more pragmatic. “Trump, by being Trump, anything he does prima facie is reckoned to be evil or reckless,” said Lansberg-Rodriguez. “True, he’s motivated by self-interest, but denying him at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan lives is foolish. If you’ve been poisoned and you’re given an antidote you don’t question the motives of why.”
The problem may not so much be why the U.S. is pursuing such an aggressive agenda but what comes next. “Plan A is great. If Maduro is forced out in a month, how wonderful,” Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist at Torino Capital LLC, told me. “But we’re one month into this since Guaido was sworn in as interim president. If the transition fails, what’s the alternative strategy: Military action? Cutting off Venezuela’s access to foreign revenue? In his speech, Trump said he had plan B, C, D and E, but didn’t say what they were.”
That thought is not lost on Venezuela’s opposition, which is gambling on broad international support across the political spectrum to rebuild if and when Maduro is gone. “Venezuelans are desperate, and anyone who gives them a bit of attention is very welcome,” said Venezuelan Dany Bahar, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “But in the medium and long term, it’s important to try to keep this as a non-political policy issue. The Venezuela crisis is an opportunity to build consensus across the political aisle. The problem is, Trump gave an electoral speech.”
One idea that Rodriguez has floated would be to swap Venezuelan oil for food. “You need some kind of mechanism like that. You can’t just let the country starve.”
Or can you? If Maduro clings to power and the standoff persists, famine and even bloodshed might be in the cards. Thanks to international pressure, Maduro is bleeding credibility and losing lifelines. Russia, until now one of Venezuela’s closest allies, reportedly is losing faith in the Maduro government, while its biggest investor and creditor China has reached out to Guaido and the opposition.
And yet Maduro has shown no signs that he appreciates the danger, let alone that he’s standing down. As aid workers prepared to ferry stockpiles of aid into the country, he shut down the country’s borders with Brazil, threatened to do the same with Colombia, and detained opposition members from traveling to the region, Guaido among them. Friday morning, Venezuelan soldiers fired on civilians attempting to keep a stretch of the Brazilian border open to aid, leaving one dead and several injured. The Bolivarian show goes on.
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Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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