Bolton’s not-so-subtle note about sending 5,000 US troops to Colombia may have just been a bluff to spook Venezuela’s embattled Maduro

Sailors aboard the US Navy destroyer Michael Monsoor while leaving Cartagena, Colombia, on November 27. US Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 1st Class John Philip Wagner, Jr
  • The Trump administration has repeatedly alluded to military action involving Venezuela.
  • On Monday, the US national security adviser, John Bolton, appeared at a news conference with a note hinting at sending US troops to the region.
  • That note and other comments may be part of an effort to undermine Venezuela’s president.

The US national security adviser, John Bolton, seemed to add weight to the Trump administration’s musings about military action in Venezuela on Monday when he appeared at a White House briefing carrying a legal pad bearing the phrase “5,000 troops to Colombia.”

But the note – a suggestion the US could deploy troops to one of the countries hit hardest by Venezuela’s crises and the mass migration they have caused – may have just been part of a ruse to spook Venezuela’s embattled President Nicolás Maduro and undermine the military support he needs to stay in power.

President Donald Trump mentioned a “military option” for Venezuela in August 2017 and reportedly brought it up several times during 2018. Administration officials also met with Venezuelan military officials looking for help to oust Maduro but ultimately rebuffed their inquiries.

But when pressed, Trump administration officials have repeated the refrain about “all options” being on the table.

Read more: Trump leaves ‘military option’ on the table for Venezuela, which he calls as threatening as North Korea

At the end of 2018, a US Navy hospital ship visited the region, where it assisted many of the Venezuelans who’d fled their homes and settled in Colombia.

Deploying 5,000 troops to Colombia, a staunch US ally, would be a much more dramatic move, but there don’t appear to be any signs that it’s actually about to happen.

US Navy hospital Colombia height measurement
The US Navy hospitalman Jerusha Hainsworth measuring the height of a young patient at a medical site in Riohacha, Colombia, on November 30. US Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 3rd Class Pat Morrissey

Such a deployment would be overseen by US Southern Command, which is responsible for everything south of Mexico.

“Southcom would be aware and tracking any movement,” a US official told Business Insider. Discussions between the White House, the Pentagon, and Southcom about that deployment could take place, but “we’re not seeing anything that these have been occurring,” the official said.

Read more: ‘Different shades of utter resignation’: Venezuelans fleeing hardship at home are finding more struggles abroad

Colombian military officials have responded similarly.

“We have no knowledge of that – you’d have to call” the Americans, a Colombian Defence Ministry source told Karla Zabludovsky, BuzzFeed News’ Latin America correspondent.

US troops Colombia explosive ordnance disposal
US Navy explosive-ordnance-disposal technicians and Colombian troops discussing EOD disposal techniques in Coveñas, Colombia, on August 21. US Army/Pfc. James Whitaker

In a video message in response to the “controversy” sparked by Bolton’s note, a Colombian Foreign Ministry official said Colombia was with the Lima Group, a bloc of Latin America countries seeking to resolve the situation in Venezuela, and recognised Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, as Venezuela’s rightful leader. (Trump has recognised Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president.)

Colombia was continuing to act “politically and diplomatically” to restore democratic order in Venezuela and would continue talking to and cooperating with the US on issues of mutual interest, the official said, but he indicated that Colombia’s government did not know the significance or reason behind Bolton’s note.

Read more: ‘Truly just devastating stories’: The bleak outlook from inside Venezuela’s deepening crises

“Basically without saying they support the idea, they agree with the ‘all options on the table’ approach,” said Sergio Guzman, the director of the Bogotá-based political-risk consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis.

“Colombia’s government has said they’re not aware of any kind of deployment,” said Geoff Ramsey, the assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Even Colombia’s government has no real appetite for war, and I doubt [it] would be interested in accepting any American troop deployment of this size.”

‘This is a psy-op’

Maduro has tried to emphasise the support he has from Venezuela’s military, recently appearing alongside Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino to watch demonstrations of Venezuelan military hardware.

Venezuelan generals and senior military officials have benefitted from Maduro’s efforts to keep their support – profiting from control over the country’s oil industry and food-distribution networks.

Read more: The US and Russia are trading shots after Moscow sent 2 bombers to visit the US’s biggest foe in the hemisphere

But lower-ranking officers and rank-and-file troops are often exposed to the same hardships regular Venezuelans face, like food and medicine shortages, spiraling inflation, and rampant insecurity.

At his press conference on Monday, Bolton indicated the US was also trying to exploit that divide.

“Our assessment, based on numerous contacts on the ground, is that the rank and file of the Venezuelan military is acutely aware of the desperate economic conditions in the country,” Bolton said, adding: “We think the junior officer ranks and the mid-level officer ranks are the same. And we are also aware of significant contacts between general officers of the Venezuelan military and supporters of the National Assembly.”

“You may have seen a statement last week by the defence minister, Vladimir Padrino, flanked by a number of generals in uniform,” Bolton added. “What they didn’t know was how many of them were already talking to the National Assembly.”

Read more: After a spat with the US, Russian bombers in Venezuela carried out drills over the Caribbean

In addition to controlling resources, many Venezuelan military officials are believed to be involved in criminal activity, including drug trafficking, that would cause them to commit to Maduro to avoid prosecution.

They may also be betting against US action, Ramsey said.

“This is a psy-op, meant to maximise pressure on the Maduro regime,” Ramsey told Business Insider. “The truth is that the Venezuelan intelligence apparatus is far too sophisticated to fall for this kind of empty saber rattling. They know that military intervention would lack international support and are happy to sit and call Bolton’s bluff.”