US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo joins President Donald J. Trump for a working lunch on February 27, 2019. Photo Source: Ron Przysucha/ US State Department.
On September 10, President Trump relieved National Security Advisor John Bolton of his post within the administration.[i] Bolton had been appointed in March of last year[ii] and was among the administration’s most outspoken drivers behind the controversial and aggressive foreign policy approaches targeting Iran’s support of terrorist groups,[iii] North Korea’s nuclear weapons program,[iv] and the so-called ‘Troika of Tyranny’ — a reference coined by Bolton to describe the undemocratic governments of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.[v]
As part of the US effort to combat the ‘Troika,’ the administration enforced for the first time Americans’ ability under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act to pursue legal recourse against Cuban companies trafficking in expropriated property,[vi] launched a sanctions program targeting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s regime,[vii] and aggressively expanded the sanctions profile on Venezuela in an effort to oust President Nicolas Maduro in favor of National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó. Bolton reportedly pressed for an offensive US military posture in Venezuela[viii] and supported a failed coup d’état.[ix] Paired with the administration’s economic sanctions, Bolton maintained a hardline position which allegedly widened the policy divide between himself and the President.[x]
With Bolton gone, his position filled by Robert O’Brien, a figure presumed to possess less force of conviction than his predecessor,[xi] the question presents itself of what the future holds for the administration’s posture toward the linchpin of Bolton’s ‘Troika’: Venezuela. Despite the President’s recent claim that Bolton was “holding [him] back” on his agenda to oust Maduro,[xii] it has been widely reported that the President is increasingly frustrated by the political stalemate in that country between the rival governments.[xiii] President Trump has reason to be concerned. An aggressive economic sanctions profile has crippled the capacity of the country’s state-run petroleum company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), to export crude oil[xiv] and effectively closed the valve to its most profitable subsidiary, Houston-based CITGO.[xv] The Department of Justice has cracked down on embezzlement by Maduro administration elites of public funds laundered through US businesses and real estate investments, indicting senior officials in multi-billion dollar schemes.[xvi] Moreover, a bevy of European and regional governments have recognized Juan Guaidó as the rightful President of Venezuela.[xvii]
Yet, with the exception of a few notable administration defections,[xviii] most of Maduro’s inner circle remains by him and, more importantly, so do the armed forces. What then can President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and the incoming NSA O’Brien do to help stem the crisis in Venezuela and elevate Guaidó to power? They can begin with the adoption of measures aimed at strengthening not only the proverbial ‘stick,’ but also the ‘carrot’ of U.S. power in the region in a dual-track approach. To this end, the administration ought to ‘demilitarize’ official rhetoric, strengthen existing economic sanctions through enhanced enforcement, and offer amnesty to those in Maduro’s inner circle.
First, the administration ought to stop issuing thinly veiled military threats. Be it the insinuation of sending troops to Colombia,[xix] support of a failed coup attempt, or the repeated “all options are on the table” statements,[xx] the message has been clear: while the U.S. has not yet sent troops, it very well may. At the domestic political level, this rhetoric affords Maduro the ability to claim a direct military threat from a foreign adversary, thus galvanizing support from those who may oppose the Chavismo movement he leads but abhor the specter of foreign meddling in domestic affairs. More broadly, the approach simply lacks regional support. Despite the Organization of American States (OAS) overwhelmingly backing Guaidó and the current sanctions approach,[xxi] consensus does not yet exist for a US-led military action. The troubled legacy of US engagement in the region is still, for many, a recent memory.[xxii] A military attack on Venezuela may be conceivable and logistically plausible, but US policymakers should recognize it would most likely constitute a unilateral action and may fray relations with regional allies.
Second, any US policy agenda in Venezuela will stall without the support of Venezuela’s key financial and military backers: China and Russia. Both governments have issued billions of dollars in loan agreements to the Maduro administration and have aided in the regime’s evasion of sanctions through marketing its cryptocurrency and continuing to purchase its oil (as of August, Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft imported 66% of PDVSA product).[xxiii] In recent months, Russia has sent strategic bombers with nuclear payload capabilities, surface to air missile systems, hundreds of military personnel, advisors, and mercenaries to Caracas.[xxiv] Chinese and Russian aid has dulled the effects of US policy and allowed regime officials to continue to profit. Dislodging these critical Maduro allies will pose challenging in this tense political climate characterized by an ongoing trade war and an election interference investigation. Chinese and Russian actions in the South American country constitute, at least in part, a provocative gesture meant to challenge the traditional US sphere of influence. Limiting US encroachment on historically Chinese and Russian spheres – through circumscribing support to Taiwan and postponing entry of aspirants Ukraine and Georgia into NATO – would be conceivable, if extreme, bargaining measures available to the administration.
Finally, while the US has offered amnesty to Maduro, it must go further and encourage the National Assembly to provide the same security guarantees. Elliot Abrams, the U.S. Special Envoy to Venezuela, extended amnesty to Maduro in August,[xxv] providing a formal guarantee to bolster Bolton’s past comments encouraging Maduro’s “long, quiet retirement” on a Cuban beach.[xxvi] Similar offers put forth by Guaidó have been met with stiff resistance in the opposition-controlled National Assembly, where many lawmakers balk at the notion of offering immunity to the perpetrators of human rights abuses, public corruption, and drug trafficking.[xxvii] But despite the ethical challenges involved in offering clemency, those closest to Maduro lack the incentive to support a new government without a guarantee of their safety. Just across Venezuela’s border in Colombia, the offer of amnesty to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas in exchange for disarmament was a key component of the former Santos administration’s landmark accord with the rebel group. As a result of the deal, thousands of rebels handed over their arms to the government and a tentative peace was reached in a country ravaged by a half century of civil conflict.[xxviii] While aspects of the Colombian peace deal (which faces its own challenges today) are not directly analogous to the crisis in Venezuela, it demonstrates the potential appeal of that particular “off ramp” for a group prepared to leave power under the right terms.
The need to
strengthen U.S. policy in Venezuela has become increasingly urgent as Maduro
has taken the offensive against Guaidó’s last political stronghold: the
opposition-led parliament. On September 16, Maduro declared a “peace deal” had
been reached with several opposition parties unaffiliated with the Guaidó
coalition. Under the deal, Maduro intends to re-seat allied lawmakers in the
opposition-controlled National Assembly by January 2020 in exchange for minor
concessions. Those lawmakers had left the National Assembly in protest of an
opposition majority in 2015, forming their own illegitimate body – the
Constituent National Assembly – which has since stripped the National Assembly
of much of its authority. Maduro’s attempted end-run around Guaidó’s coalition
may court European support. Like President Trump, their leaders have also grown
frustrated by the political quagmire formed since Guaidó’s installation of a
With Bolton’s departure, a powerful voice has been
lost in the administration’s campaign to unseat Maduro, yet the President’s
national security team cannot afford to lose its momentum. Focusing on
strengthening the ‘stick’ of US policy – economic sanctions – through limiting
evasion and courting Chinese and Russian cooperation will be critical. However,
military action ought not be threatened unless the administration is willing to
face the costs of conflict alone. Along a parallel course, the ‘carrot’ of
amnesty for Maduro’s inner circle must be fully embraced not just by the U.S.
but by the Venezuelan opposition and the people more generally. Without a dual
track approach to Venezuelan policy, the best possible outcome is a
continuation of the current stalemate between Maduro and Guaidó. At worst,
there will be a return to a Maduro regime characterized by widespread
corruption and human rights abuses, this time obscured from the watchful eye of
the international community.
[i] Shannon Pettypiece, Carol E. Lee, Peter Alexander, Adam Edelman, “Trump Fires Bolton as National Security Adviser,” NBC News, September 10, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-fires-national-security-adviser-john-bolton-n1051986.
[ii] Greg Jaffe and Josh Dawsey, “Trump names former ambassador John Bolton as his new national security adviser,” The Washington Post, March 22, 2018,
[iii] Keith Johnson, Elias Groll, “Bolton Is Gone, but Tensions With Iran Remain High,” Foreign Policy, September 12, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/12/bolton-is-gone-but-tensions-with-iran-remain-high-rouhani-jcpoa-oil-sanctions-trump/.
[iv] Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korean Envoy Hails Bolton’s Ouster and Trump’s Talk of a New Approach,” The New York Times, September 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/20/world/asia/north-korea-us-nuclear-talks.html.
[v] Julian Borger, “Bolton praises Bolsonaro while declaring ‘troika of tyranny’ in Latin America,” The Guardian, November 1, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/01/trump-admin-bolsonaro-praise-john-bolton-troika-tyranny-latin-america.
[vi] Lioman Lima, “Helms-Burton Act: US firms face lawsuits over seized Cuban land,” BBC News, May 3, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-48113549.
[vii] United States Department of the Treasury, Executive Order 13851: Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Nicaragua, November 27, 2018, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/nicaragua_eo.pdf.
[viii] Michael Wilner, “Trump grew weary of Bolton’s push for military force against Venezuela,” McClatchy DC Bureau, September 11, 2019, https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/politics-government/white-house/article234982442.html.
[ix] Nahal Toosi, “Trump team jumps to support Venezuela uprising,” Politico, April 30, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/30/venezuela-coup-trump-1293235.
[x] Michael Wilner, “Trump grew weary of Bolton’s push for military force against Venezuela,” McClatchy DC Bureau, September 11, 2019, https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/politics-government/white-house/article234982442.html.
[xi] Jonathan Stevenson, “Trump’s National Security Yes Man Is In for a Bumpy Ride,” The New York Times, September 18, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/18/opinion/robert-obrien-nsa.html.
[xii] Donald J. Trump, Twitter Post, September 12, 2019, 1:22 PM, https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1172198767627526151.
[xiii] Anne Gearan, Josh Dawsey, John Hudson, Seung Min Kim, “A frustrated Trump questions his administration’s Venezuela strategy,” The Washington Post, May 8, 2019,
[xiv] Luc Cohen, “PDVSA partners fear reach of latest U.S. sanctions on Venezuela: sources,” Reuters, August 14, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-oil-sanctions/pdvsa-partners-fear-reach-of-latest-u-s-sanctions-on-venezuela-sources-idUSKCN1V4222.
[xv] “U.S. judge confirms Citgo directors appointed by Venezuelan congress,” Reuters, August 21, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-usa-citgo/u-s-judge-confirms-citgo-directors-appointed-by-venezuelan-congress-idUSKCN1VB298.
[xvi] United States Department of Justice, “Former Venezuelan National Treasurer Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison for Money Laundering Conspiracy Involving Over $1 Billion in Bribes,” November 27, 2018, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/former-venezuelan-national-treasurer-sentenced-10-years-prison-money-laundering-conspiracy.
[xvii] “Greece recognizes Venezuela’s Guaido as interim president,” AP News, July 12, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/37112e5116fc47cd95173f78c1f020b9.
[xviii] Conor Finnegan, “US lifts sanctions on Venezuela spy chief who defected as incentive for others still loyal to Maduro,” ABC News, May 7, 2019, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/us-lifts-sanctions-venezuela-spy-chief-defected-incentive/story?id=62884293.
[xix] Eli Rosenberg and Dan Lamothe, “‘5,000 troops’: Photo of John Bolton’s notes raises questions about U.S. military role in Venezuela crisis,” The Washington Post, January 28, 2019,
[xx] Ellen Mitchell, “Bolton says ‘all options are on the table’ in Venezuela as protests intensify,” The Hill, April 30, 2019, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/441426-bolton-says-all-options-are-on-the-table-in-venezuela-as-protests.
[xxi] Andrés Oppenheimer, “OAS resolution against Venezuela is important — but not for the reason you think,” Miami Herald, June 6, 2018, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/andres-oppenheimer/article212686404.html.
[xxii] Manuel Rueda, “OAS chief threatens military force against Venezuela,” AP News, September 15, 2018, https://www.apnews.com/b7c41edb7d5042c8a60e3bfffcc1ecff.
[xxiii] John E. Herbst and Jason Marczak, “Russia’s intervention in Venezuela: What’s at stake?,” Atlantic Council, September 12, 2019, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/russias-intervention-in-venezuela-whats-at-stake/.
[xxv] Lara Jakes and Anatoly Kurmanaev, “U.S. Offers Amnesty to Venezuelan Leader, if He Leaves Power,” The New York Times, August 28, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/28/world/americas/us-amnesty-venezuela-maduro.html.
[xxvi] John Bolton, Twitter, January 31, 2019. 12:58 PM, https://twitter.com/AmbJohnBolton/status/1091032929562775552?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1091032929562775552&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Ffreebeacon.com%2Fpolitics%2Fbolton-to-maduro-flee-venezuela-while-you-still-can-retire-on-a-nice-beach%2F.
[xxvii] Alex Vasquez, “Guaido Amnesty for Venezuelan Army Stalls in His Own Legislature,” Bloomberg, February 20, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-20/guaido-amnesty-for-venezuelan-army-stalls-in-his-own-legislature.
[xxviii] “Colombia: President Santos grants Farc members amnesty,” BBC News, July 11, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-40564577.
[xxix] Anatoly Kurmanaev and Ana Vanessa Herrero, “Venezuela’s Maduro Trains Sights on Opposition’s Last Bastion: Congress,” The New York Times, September 16, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/16/world/americas/venezuela-maduro-congress.html.