A Station for Everyone
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

U.S. Confidently Backs Venezuela's Opposition, Inviting Possible Risks


Trump administration officials are sounding confident that the political crisis in Venezuela will end with a democracy. And, though Washington remains hopeful that the embattled President Nicolas Maduro will leave the scene, peacefully, President Trump has repeatedly said that all options are on the table. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the risks of the U.S. approach.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Trump administration has gone all in to support National Assembly President Juan Guaido's attempts to get Maduro out of the way and hold new elections. Vice President Pence went to Miami Friday to meet Venezuelan exiles.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Nicolas Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power, and Nicolas Maduro must go.


KELEMEN: How to get there is the topic of many meetings in Washington. The U.S. point person on Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, has been spending a lot of time with Guaido's representatives here.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: You know, we're all on what we call Team Venezuela, which is an effort to help the Venezuelans liberate their country from this regime.

KELEMEN: He's warning Venezuelan security forces it would be - in his words - extremely foolish to move against Guaido or U.S. diplomats. The U.S. is encouraging Venezuelan security forces to switch sides, though, David Smilde of the Washington Office on Latin America says the U.S. is underestimating Maduro's grip on power.

DAVID SMILDE: You know, this is a government that controls not only the institutions but, also, all of the guns and as well as the state oil company. And so it has sort of a full house of power, and it's not easy to dislodge. They're not going to just give up because they have U.S. against them. No. In fact, that fits very nicely into their ideology.

KELEMEN: Maduro and his supporters have talked for years about how the U.S. is trying to overthrow them. And current U.S. policy is reinforcing that narrative, says Smilde, who teaches at Tulane University. He also worries that the U.S. isn't looking closely enough at the other risks, including smaller armed groups.

SMILDE: They're leftist in orientation. They're anti-imperialist, and they undoubtedly would fight on behalf of the government. I don't think that they're any match for any kind of organized forces. But, as we see in Iraq, sometimes, it's the sort of disorganized small-scale resistance that can be the most damaging in the long run.

KELEMEN: Smilde isn't predicting an all-out civil war. The most likely scenario, he says, is a lengthy stalemate with Russia and China coming to Maduro's rescue. That worries Cynthia Arnson, too. She runs the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center for Scholars.

CYNTHIA ARNSON: Russia and China have very different attitudes towards Venezuela. But they have a similar position against intervention, in quotation marks, "against what the United States is doing." And U.S. policy I think is helping to drive them together closer and closer in opposition to what the United States and other democratic countries in the region want to do.

KELEMEN: So far, she says, the Trump administration has pulled out all the stops for National Assembly President Guaido, including blocking the accounts of Venezuela's state-owned oil company. But Arnson says the U.S. has played its hand for now.

ARNSON: So this has been a process of squeezing and squeezing and squeezing. And now the sense is this is the moment to go all out and topple the regime. If that doesn't happen, I'm not sure that the United States has too many other cards up its sleeve other than trying to get Latin American countries and European allies to mount a serious negotiation that is aimed at a transition.

KELEMEN: Vice President Pence, though, is holding a tough line.


PENCE: This is no time for dialogue. This is time for action.


KELEMEN: And he's warning Maduro not to test President Trump's resolve.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.