The simmering crisis in Venezuela has come to a boil. An opposition leader, 35-year-old Juan Guaido, declared himself president, defying President Nicolas Maduro’s authority. The Trump administration announced its recognition of Guaido as Venezuela’s interim head of state. It’s a move that dramatically raises the stakes for Washington and Venezuela.
Maduro, who replaced dictator Hugo Chavez in 2013, is slowly destroying Venezuela. Inflation is projected to reach 10 million percent this year. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans are starving. More than 2 million have fled the country. Maduro has stripped the nation’s legislature of its authority, and remains in power only through elections last year widely condemned as rigged.
President Donald Trump’s recognition of Guaido as Venezuela’s interim head of state is an aggressive move for a U.S. leader who has taken an “America First” approach and sought to extricate this country from trouble spots. But Trump’s in the right.
It’s easy to forget Venezuela is an important neighbor, after Washington paid so little attention to Maduro’s despotic rule. With a population of 32 million and the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela’s significance is heightened by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fervent interest in the place. Russia has invested billions, seeking to turn Maduro into a pliable ally just 1,160 miles from the U.S. coast.
Maybe that’s why, of all the reactions to Trump’s decision, Moscow’s seemed so histrionic. Guaido and his opposition allies, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, are “pawns in someone else’s very dirty and criminal game.”
If Venezuela’s going to reclaim stability and democracy, this may be the moment. Hundreds of thousands have hit the streets to protest for change. The opposition, which up until now has been fractured, has coalesced behind Guaido, head of the National Assembly. Trump’s support of Guaido has been backed by Canada, the Organization of American States and most Latin American nations, including Brazil, Colombia and Argentina.
But where does Washington take it from here? The administration plans to cut off from Maduro the millions his regime desperately needs — and gets — in oil revenue from the U.S. That money will instead go to Guaido’s alternate government, U.S. officials say.
Maduro still has Venezuelan security forces behind him. He could hunt down Guaido. He could act against the American embassy, which is why the U.S. has begun pulling out all non-essential staff. Trump’s goal, though, is to get Maduro to see no way out other than a quiet exit, without bloodshed. The fact that the U.S. isn’t acting unilaterally, but as part of a coalition of nations pursuing an end to Maduro’s corrosive dictatorship, makes that goal more attainable.
The above editorial was published Jan. 25 by the Chicago Tribune. its views are its own.