Every few months now, Vice President Mike Pence drops into Miami-Dade County to remind voters the Trump Administration is putting the squeeze on Venezuela’s dictatorial dimwit president, Nicolás Maduro.
Pence was at PortMiami on Tuesday saluting the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort as it left for a tour of Latin America and the Caribbean – a mission that includes treating the millions of refugees who’ve fled Venezuela’s economic catastrophe. And once again he told an audience of Venezuelan expats: “Nicolás Maduro must go!”
Pence’s Maduro-must-go speeches are of course laudable, but they’ve begun to fall as flat as Pence’s speaking style. That’s because the Trump Administration’s strategy for ousting Maduro – and seeing him replaced by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. and more than 50 other countries recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate president – is also falling flat.
At PortMiami, one expat reminded the evangelical Pence of a Bible verse on moral duty (James 4:17) and asked if the U.S. doesn’t have a moral obligation now to invade Venezuela militarily.
Pence assured the woman President Trump is keeping “all options on the table.” Only the most unhinged hawks seriously think U.S. troops should storm Caracas, though.
So where does that leave the Maduro-must-go crusade? The White House believed its anointment of Guaidó back in January would turn Venezuela’s military chiefs against Maduro. Didn’t happen. The administration assured us tough economic sanctions – including the cutoff of oil imports from Venezuela – would drive Maduro out. That may happen but may take considerably more time than the delusional, overnight expectations the administration raised.
Meanwhile, Maduro has regained a few inches of political ground. A poll released last weekend by the Caracas firm Datincorp shows 41 percent of Venezuelans consider him their constitutionally legitimate head of state. That’s up from 34 percent back in February, shortly after Guaidó declared himself interim president. The share who consider Guaidó the real presidente has dropped from almost half to just over a third.
Fortunately those numbers by no means reflect increased support for Maduro. The following for his socialist regime has fallen four points since last year, to 19 percent; backing for the opposition has leapt from 27 to 40 percent.
What the survey registers instead is a clearer sense of Venezuela’s on-the-ground reality than the Trump Administration or the Guaidó camp may have. Most said they expect Maduro to be in power next month; but they also believe it’s possible he’ll be forced to call new presidential elections by next summer – a vote the poll says he’d lose to Guaidó by 17 points.
LISTEN TO THE HOI POLLOI
That’s exactly the scenario the White House and the Guaido-istas stalwartly refuse to consider. At PortMiami this week I asked Guaidó’s ambassador to Washington, Carlos Vecchio, if he thought the path Venezuelans in the Datincorp poll envision should be contemplated.
“Impossible,” Vecchio told me. “There can be no new elections if Maduro is still in power.”
I respect Vecchio, and I appreciate the opposition’s utter lack of faith in the Maduro regime to stage a free and fair election. But on this point I think Maduro’s opponents need to listen more carefully to what we seem to be hearing from ordinary Venezuelans in Venezuela – the same hoi polloi the relatively affluent opposition has been so awful at connecting with in the past.
Instead of the more unrealistic goal of smoking Maduro out of the Miraflores presidential palace before elections are held, perhaps the aim should be smoking him into holding transparent elections he’d surely lose. It might even be the preferable choice because it would be a Venezuelan solution to the crisis (meaning a more credible one) than one seemingly imposed by los yanquis.
It would of course require the sort of gritty diplomatic work – like persuading Europe to squeeze Maduro harder – whose optics aren’t as sexy for Trump’s re-election as forcing Maduro onto a waiting plane into exile is.
But the truth is, it’s how we’ve usually gotten rid of Latin American autocrats in the past half century – and Trump’s point men know that better than anyone. His special representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, was a top U.S. diplomat for Latin America in the late 1980s when Chile’s right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet and Nicaragua’s left-wing dictator Daniel Ortega, under U.S. and international pressure, both accepted elections they lost.
Maduro must go. But maybe Venezuelans themselves are showing us a surer way to show him the door.