The Trump administration slapped tough sanctions on Venezuela last month that for the first time aimed to restrict the teetering southern neighbor’s access to international financial lifelines.
And it raised a smoldering question: Is the United States gunning for regime change?
For some – including embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro – any doubts as to the answer were erased by President Trump himself. He punctuated the sanctions decision with a threat of US military intervention if Venezuela’s slide into what he called “dictatorship” is not reversed.
Mr. Trump’s reference to a “possible military option” conjured up the region’s memories of “Yanqui” interventions past, many of which had the sole purpose of removing a leader the northern power didn’t like. And the whiff of an old-style super-power play has also attracted the attention of a prominent regime-change opponent and US rival, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But few regional analysts equate the financial sanctions with a blatant stab at full-on regime change.
Rather, what some experts see in Trump’s actions are aggressive steps that, while perhaps aimed at reversing the course of Mr. Maduro’s government, will instead stiffen the resolve of both the government and the most obdurate factions of the anti-Maduro opposition.
That further polarization of Venezuela’s political camps, coupled with the economic hardships the financial sanctions are likely to exacerbate, will only make it harder for the government to maintain control and reverse the country’s slide.
And it’s that downward spiral that could feed pressures for regime change, some experts say.
“Regime change isn’t necessarily the intent of these latest sanctions, but when you put them together with other actions by the US government it becomes pretty clear they’re doing things to encourage the political transition they’d like to see,” says Alexander Main, an expert in US security relations in South and Central America at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
“The strategy,” he adds, “is to create so much economic pain that eventually the vast majority of Venezuelans are clamoring for political change to have some relief.”
Regime change as US policy carries heavy baggage, particularly since President George W. Bush launched the Iraq War to depose Saddam Hussein – resulting in a humanitarian disaster that is still playing out in Iraq (and widely debated) two presidents later.
Russian President Putin has emerged as the global defender against American regime-change designs. In Syria he came to the rescue of President Bashar al-Assad when the Syrian leader was under siege from the demands of President Barack Obama that he “must go.”
Now Maduro’s charge that US animosity and aggressive financial actions are destabilizing his government is drawing the attention of Mr. Putin, who appears to be expanding what might be called his “regime defense” ideology to the Western Hemisphere.
Putin has spoken out against what he sees as destabilizing US actions against Venezuela and is taking steps to prop up Maduro. He was one of the few world leaders to endorse Maduro’s recent dissolution of the National Assembly and efforts to write a new constitution concentrating powers in the executive.
And Russia (along with China, another global power opposed to what it sees as Western meddling in sovereign governments’ affairs) is increasingly putting its money where its mouth is: In April the Russian energy giant Rosneft loaned Venezuelan state-owned oil corporation PDVSA $1 billion, bringing recent Russian loans and credits to almost $5 billion.
The Maduro government needs to round up about $5 billion in loans in the coming weeks to avoid defaulting on its debt. And with the new US sanctions effectively cutting off Venezuela’s access to US debt markets, Russia is signaling it could deepen its support for Maduro – perhaps by expanding Rosneft’s stake in PDVSA and some of its profitable domestic and international projects.
Despite what Putin may see in US actions, however, a more accurate name than “regime change” for US objectives might be “behavior change,” some Latin America experts say.
“President Trump’s latest sanctions are qualitatively different in many ways. They are more institutional in nature than the earlier sanctions on individuals, including President Maduro, and they aim to penalize certain behaviors by the Venezuelan state,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society in Washington and a former White House adviser on Western Hemisphere policies.
“But I don’t see it being about regime change,” he adds. “It’s about raising the cost of behavior by the government in Caracas that the international community has clearly rejected.” Moreover, the objective is to “incentivize” the government “not to pursue certain actions, like violating demonstrators’ human rights, but to undertake others,” like dialogue with the political opposition, Mr. Farnsworth says.
The problem analysts like Dr. Main see is that, far from encouraging dialogue and political negotiations, the US actions are likely to send the Maduro government and the opposition deeper into their respective corners.
Indeed the intense debate that took place in the White House over the likely ramifications of shifting from individual to broad institutional economic sanctions on Venezuela indicates that not everyone favored such a significant step, at least at this time.
Trump’s decision is widely seen to represent a victory for hardliners – including Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, and some of the Maduro government’s most virulent expatriate opponents living in exile in Florida – over others, particularly in the State Department, who favored a quieter, diplomatic path.
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon argued for holding off on broad economic sanctions to allow the back-channel talks he had going with Venezuelan officials to continue, according to State Department and other informed sources.
Farnsworth says critics of the Trump administration’s actions should remember that the US has stood by for years with mostly rhetorical punishment as Maduro has taken steps restricting Venezuela’s democracy, monopolizing power, and deepening the country’s humanitarian crisis.
Still, he doesn’t foresee anything underway right now – including what he sees as growing consensus among other Latin American governments over the need for government-opposition dialogue and compromise – that will change Venezuela’s downward spiral any time soon.
“At this point I don’t see that what the US or anyone else does is going to have the impact of causing the government to change its course,” he says. “On the contrary, they [in the government] are going to continue doing whatever they can to keep themselves in power.”