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How the Trump administration has courted hardliners and failed the Venezuelan people

The Trump administration has said it had “no direct involvement” in the recent failed incursion into Venezuela led by ex-Green Berets and Venezuelan military deserters, but in some ways the operation itself is the perfect metaphor for this White House’s Venezuela policy. Both the mercenary episode and Trump’s approach to Venezuela have been heavy on bravado, saber-rattling, and wishful thinking, and light on pragmatism and strategic focus — despite the best efforts from career-level diplomats to put together some semblance of a realistic strategy.

By now the facts are well known: Silvercorp USA, the private security firm linked to the failed operation, oversaw a botched raid into Venezuelan territory with the objective of toppling Venezuela’s authoritarian leader, Nicolas Maduro. At least eight members of the expeditionary force have been killed, and the rest have either been captured or are in hiding. Jordan Goudreau, the company’s Instagram-savvy grifter CEO, has begun to decline media requests as the full extent of the operation’s failure has come out.

But the most alarming elements of the incident involve a confirmed contract between Silvercorp and two representatives of National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, who the United States and some 50 countries recognize as interim president of Venezuela. The Washington Post has produced this contract, and also confirmed that opposition representatives met with “a handful” of other private security contractors in late 2019. The Wall Street Journal has reported that “an opposition figure” even visited one of the group’s training camps in Colombia, and that U.S. and Colombian intelligence were at least aware of some of the group’s plans.

In short, the failed incursion may seem lifted from a C-list action film but it raises serious questions about opposition representatives’ confirmed conversations with multiple private security contractors — and whether the U.S. government knew about them. The incident has also fueled dissatisfaction among sectors in the opposition who object to their leadership flirting with violence. While the two Guaidó representatives implicated in the contract have resigned, the largest political party within Guaidó’s coalition has called for an independent parliamentary investigation into the matter and for a change in the coalition’s decision-making processes. Civil society groups in Venezuela, including the country’s best-known human rights organization PROVEA, have also demanded that Guaidó clearly and explicitly renounce the use of force in the struggle for a return to democracy.

To date, Guaidó has made none of these concessions. Instead he thanked the two disgraced aides for their “support for the democratic cause” while accepting their resignation, and insisted that while his team had nothing to do with the failed raid, he will continue to evaluate all legitimate options to confront Maduro.

Guaidó’s failure to explicitly reject the use of force is likely a result of internal pressure from hardliners in his camp, who are egged on by White House rhetoric. President Trump has repeatedly insisted that “all options” are on the table in responding to Venezuela, including a potential military intervention. Speaking to Fox News in the aftermath of the raid, Trump went as far as to describe how he would carry out such a military intervention, saying, “I wouldn’t send a small, little group. No, no, no. It would be called an army. It would be called an invasion.”

His statements perfectly illustrate the cardinal sin of the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy: the White House has consistently deluded hardline elements of the Venezuelan opposition with the possibility of a quick and easy military solution. Some in the administration say these threats, while obviously hollow, are part of a larger “psy-op” campaign to keep Maduro guessing. Others in the opposition insist they are essential to threatening the Venezuelan military into jumping ship.

The problem with this logic is that from the beginning, the wrong audience has taken this saber-rattling seriously. It has been over two years since Trump’s first bluff, and no U.S. marines have materialized on Venezuelan soil. Maduro’s hold on the armed forces, and the loyalty of his inner circle, appear to be consolidated. Meanwhile, opposition elements remain locked in a stale debate over the merits of an invasion that — in addition to being unavoidably bloody, reckless, and costly — will almost certainly never happen.

The Trump administration’s threats have not only fueled magical thinking among the opposition, but have also distracted from pragmatic efforts to reach a political solution to the crisis. When the State Department unveiled a Democratic Transition Framework on March 31, U.S. diplomats characterized it as an effort to kickstart negotiations. U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams called the Framework “a proposal,” said he could think of “a million variations” to it, and insisted that Venezuelans themselves would have to negotiate the details.

This apparent flexibility, though, was drowned out by counterproductive noise before and after the framework was announced. Whatever remaining incentives Maduro or other political and military elites may have had to negotiate were greatly reduced by March 26, when the U.S. Justice Department announced that the head of every branch of government controlled by Chavismo had been indicted for narco-terrorism charges. For these figures, any transition could now mean spending the rest of their lives in U.S. prison. And on April 1, Trump excited hardliners by highlighting new deployments of ships and aircraft to the Caribbean. But again this announcement was more bark than bite. The U.S. government’s own counterdrug data shows Venezuela is a minor transit country, and that around 90 percent of northbound cocaine flow occurs not in the Caribbean but in the Eastern Pacific — which was also targeted in the U.S. Southern Command deployment.

This pattern is not new. Time and again, the Trump National Security Council has undercut efforts to encourage the opposition to reach a political solution, sometimes actively undercutting the efforts of career U.S. diplomats in doing so.

In August 2019, for instance, the State Department had for weeks been monitoring serious negotiations between the Maduro government and the opposition. A careful process led by Norwegian mediators had led the opposition to successfully present a draft accord to their counterparts. European and Latin American diplomats had insisted on negotiations for months, and by presenting an offer the opposition could demonstrate both their willingness to negotiate and that Maduro is the main obstacle to any negotiated agreement.

This moment was swiftly derailed by national security adviser John Bolton, who announced new secondary sanctions on Venezuela and issued a statement to reporters claiming “the time for dialogue is over,” at a moment when the Guaidó camp was still engaged in dialogue. The sanctions provided the Maduro government with the perfect excuse to suspend its participation in talks, and led the opposition to announce the negotiation mechanism had been “exhausted.” Immediately the government began parallel negotiations with a minority opposition faction — effectively undercutting Guaidó’s message.

Today the State Department’s transition proposal, as well as renewed interest in talks from Europe and Latin America, have once more raised the prospect of negotiations. Any talks will require both the opposition and the Maduro government to see negotiations as the only option available, which will also require careful engagement with Maduro’s enablers in Russia, China, and Cuba. It is unlikely that there can be such a solution unless these geopolitical stakeholders receive certain economic and national security guarantees from the United States. But whether the Trump administration will give such incentives, and risk the ire of the pro-Cuba embargo lobby in Miami during an election year, is another question. So far all signs point to a continuation of the current stalemate, fueled by hardline rhetoric that has captured the White House’s attention but failed the Venezuelan people.

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