There’s a video Venezuelan expats are sharing on WhatsApp like a bottle of Cacique rum at a beach party.
It’s got a guy dressed as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, shackled in a small cage, being paraded around a plaza in Spain by an effigy of Donald Trump. “Maduro” is dressed in one of his garish Venezuelan-flag track suits, making vulgar gestures to the crowd, as a smiling “Trump” takes the captured despot on a perp walk.
It’s also fantasy.
And the sooner that dawns on everyone who wants democracy restored in Venezuela – not to mention basics like food and medicine – the sooner the country might be on a path to the long overdue exit of Maduro and his catastrophic socialist regime.
The Trump Administration wants the world to see the conquering aura radiating from images like that video. That’s why the White House leaked this week that it has go-betweens meeting secretly with high-level Venezuelan officials to discuss Maduro’s departure. The disclosure was meant to make folks believe Trump’s tightened economic sanctions on Venezuela are making Maduro buckle and plead for a safe escape.
Now Maduro has actually confirmed those covert conversations. But what he says he and the U.S. are negotiating, and what the U.S. says he and the U.S. are negotiating, are two different things.
Trump and his people say the talks – which they claim involve Diosdado Cabello, the Venezuelan regime’s Darth Vader – are just ironing out the terms under which Numbskull Nicolás boards a plane for exile in Havana.
Maduro and his people – as well as diplomats I spoke with in Caracas who are in contact with regime officials – say it’s about when and how to hold a special presidential election that would most likely pit Maduro against opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Guaidó, who heads the National Assembly, declared himself Venezuela’s legitimate president this year, and the U.S. and more than 50 other countries recognize him as such.
Guaidó would surely trounce Maduro in any credible vote. Maduro has presided over the worst economic collapse in the world today as well as what the U.N. calls “grave” human rights abuses – and the most desperate refugee crisis in modern South American history. But Guaidó’s camp as well as Trump’s keep insisting there can be no election until Maduro leaves power.
Problem is, that could be a long, long time. The seven months since Guaidó’s admittedly courageous but ultimately ineffective claim to Venezuela’s presidency – which his supporters said would spark Maduro’s downfall virtually overnight – suggest that very likelihood: Maduro has retained the support of Venezuela’s military and the formidable backing of Russia, China and Cuba.
Which means it’s time to give up the fantasy of an imminent Maduro overthrow – and concede that the more realistic and eventually more expeditious strategy is to call Maduro's bluff instead of letting him call Trump's.
It’s time to realize that the economic sanctions are indeed effective leverage – but that they’re just that, leverage, to get Maduro to agree to an election on terms both sides can accept. For Maduro that will mean some sort of amnesty – that plane out to Cuba once the ballots are counted. But it’s also got to include blanket international observation; a revamped election council that’s not a regime lap dog; more equitable opposition access to media; and, most important, an assurance the regime – and the military – will accept the results.
Those of course aren’t easy conditions to lock in, especially with a regime as notoriously underhanded as Venezuela’s. That’s why getting as much international diplomatic muscle as possible behind the effort is crucial – especially from Latin America, Canada and the E.U.
It means the Trump and Guaidó camps will have to drop their ideological visions of overthrowing Venezuelan socialism solely through their heroic will – much the way Miami Cubans always thought they’d topple Castro – and do the harder work of persuading the hemisphere and the world to persuade Maduro.
They have other Latin American models to follow – the most important being the late 20th-century electoral ousters of right-wing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and left-wing Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega. Each case required winning over militaries which, while maybe not as criminally corrupt as Venezuela’s, had as much to lose with regime change.
And in each case, the images of those militaries giving way to democratically elected leaders were worth more than any viral video of a tyrant getting perp-walked by a U.S. president.