Trump keeps suggesting an invasion of Venezuela, and the government there keeps taking advantage of it

Spencer Platt/Getty ImagesVenezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
  • President Donald Trump has reportedly mentioned military intervention in Venezuela several times.
  • Trump reportedly views Venezuela as one of the US’s foremost threats, along with Iran and North Korea.
  • But while many share Trump’s concern about Venezuela, few support anything like the intervention he’s suggested.

When President Donald Trump said on August 11, 2017 that he was “not going to rule out a military option” in Venezuela, observers in the US and throughout the region were surprised, but the idea was one Trump had already mentioned to advisers, who discouraged it, and one he would later bring up to other world leaders, who rejected it.

Venezuela’s rapid deterioration and the spillover of its many crises were, in Trump’s mind, reasons to consider such an action, according to an Associated Press report. Trump reportedly cited what he considered successful past interventions, including the invasions of Panama and Grenada, as justification.

Venezuela Nicolas Maduro rifle army militaryMiraflores Palace/HandoutVenezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro takes part in a military drill in Charallave, Venezuela, January 14, 2017.

But Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled president, made hay of the remarks and got a short-term boost despite popular unrest over food shortages and hyperinflation, among other issues. Within days of Trump’s remarks, Maduro loyalists filled the streets of the capital, Caracas, condemning Trump and chanting “Yankee go home!” Maduro also ordered nationwide military exercises.

Maduro, who has long railed against perceived US interference in Venezuela to boost his own standing and blamed what he’s called an “economic war” for his country’s struggles, again seized on the AP report detailing Trump’s repeated mention of military force, calling on the military to remain on alert.

“You cannot lower your guard for even a second, because we will defend the greatest right our homeland has had in all of its history, which is to live in peace,” Maduro said on Wednesday during a military ceremony.

Maduro said the report underscored his accusation that the US was planning an invasion to access Venezuela’s oil reserves, which are the largest in the world. (Venezuela’s oil production has atrophied amid underinvestment and mismanagement.)

“A military intervention on the part of the US empire will never be a solution to Venezuela’s problems,” Maduro said, condemning what he called the “supremacist and criminal vision of those who govern the US.”

Venezuela has been a point of focus for Trump during his first year and a half in office, departing from the more hands-off approach taken by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump reportedly views Venezuela as one of his top three national-security priorities, alongside Iran and North Korea. The intensity of the turmoil there is why Trump has taken a harder line against Maduro than he has against other autocrats and illiberal governments, White House officials said earlier this year.

Trump is not the only one outside of Venezuela who has called for such action, and the prospect of foreign intervention has grown more appealing to members of the political opposition inside the country, who have been worn down by constant government pressure and internal disputes.

But foreign action or intervention by Venezuela’s own military to dislodge Maduro are widely considered as likely to be ineffective and counterproductive.

“Some American officials have hinted at the desirability of a coup, but it seems misguided to view as a democratic saviour a security service indoctrinated in socialist and anti-American thinking, armed and trained by Russia, China and Cuba, active in drug trafficking, and responsible for killing Venezuelan citizens,” Mark Feierstein, who was senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, wrote in May.

In addition to ties to countries like Russia and China and accusations of human-rights abuses, the military is widely viewed as intertwined with the Maduro government, because the government has lavished benefits on the military – like control of food distribution and the state oil company – and because many in the military rely on the Maduro government to prevent their prosecution for misdeeds.

Venezuela Nicolas Maduro soldier military promotion armyMiraflores Palace/HandoutVenezuelan President Nicolas Maduro changes the epaulette of a soldier during a promotion ceremony in Caracas, July 2, 2018.

On July 3, the same day that the Associated Press report Trump’s repeated interest in military action, Maduro promoted 16,900 soldiers for being “loyal to the constitutionally elected president,” the defence minister said.

Among the promotions were 183 officers promoted to the rank of general or admiral, bringing the total number to attain those ranks over the past six years to 1,061, far exceeding the number of general officers in the much larger US military, which is capped at 652, according to John Polga, a professor of comparative politics at the US Naval Academy who focuses on Latin America.

Many in the military are exposed to the same hardships that Venezuelan civilians are dealing with, and Maduro has also moved to quash unrest within the military. A small rebellion was put down in April, and in mid-May, dozens of senior officers from all four military branches were arrested and accused of plotting to overthrow Maduro.

In recent months, Maduro has repeatedly called on the military to “close ranks against treason.”

Many leaders in the region have condemned Maduro and his government, but they have also strongly rejected the action proposed by Trump.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a major US ally and fierce critic of Maduro, said an invasion would have no support in the region, and the Mercosur trade bloc repudiated “any option that implies the use of force.”

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