President Donald Trump likes to boast about his disruptive foreign policy style—calling North Korea’s leader “Little Rocket Man” or announcing plans to pull troops from Syria without notifying his top generals.
But with Venezuela, Trump is playing it uncharacteristically straight, using textbook diplomacy that he usually shuns in seeking the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro.
Instead of going it alone, Trump has leaned on a patient mix of sanctions, behind-the-scenes diplomacy and a ratcheting up of public pressure that has bolstered —for now —National Assembly leader Juan Guaido’s claim to the presidency. That’s helped lure more than 30 nations to Guaido’s side, making it harder for Maduro to call it all one big “Yankee” plot to overthrow his regime.
“The Trump administration has got this one right,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, who directs the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “This is a dictatorship presiding over a humanitarian disaster and economic collapse. Latin America and the rest of the world simply have many practical reasons to be concerned given the 3 million refugees that have fled Venezuela since 2014.”
Trump hasn’t silenced his Twitter account entirely when it comes to Venezuela, but he has deferred much of the public campaign to top aides, including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. And he’s benefited from sweeping political changes across much of Latin America: Recent elections have propelled conservative and maverick leaders to power over leftists in countries including Argentina and Brazil.
As a result, instead of going out on a limb to push a new foreign policy strategy, Trump finds himself surrounded by dozens of countries in agreement that Maduro’s rule should come to an end.
“The stars aligned in a way that, except for Mexico, you have unusual rightist governments across Latin America,” said Francisco Monaldi, a fellow at the Baker Institute in Houston who’s on the board of directors of Mercantil, a financial institution in Venezuela. “These governments are very much ideologically opposed to Maduro. And you have this massive refugee crisis in those countries which has made them more forceful.”
Isaias Medina, a former Venezuelan diplomat at the United Nations who broke with Maduro in 2017, seconded that thought. “It’s a coalition of countries, it’s a Latin American countries’ initiative,” he said. “They have very clearly expressed that Maduro’s regime is a threat to the economic system and to the security of Latin America.’’
Among the administration’s allies is Colombia’s President Ivan Duque, who is backing Guaido and is scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House on Wednesday.
There are still doubts about whether the approach will work. Guaido has struggled to win over key military leaders, stymieing opposition efforts to funnel humanitarian aid into the country. That’s raised questions about whether opposition efforts to oust Maduro are losing steam. If the effort does succeed, the case of Venezuela could become a rare example of effective multilateral diplomacy in the Trump era. Beyond the public political pressure, the administration has worked with allies to deprive Maduro of much-needed foreign exchange to pay his troops: The Bank of England blocked his attempt to move more than $1 billion in gold out of the country and many European nations moved to recognized Guaido as interim president.
The US moves in recent weeks followed dozens of meetings about Venezuela between senior administration officials and their Latin American counterparts since Trump took office.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Vice President Mike Pence, as well as hawkish administration figures like Mauricio Claver-Carone at the National Security Council, have long been in close contact with Venezuelan opposition figures.