Trump shouldn’t encourage talk of military action in Venezuela

President Trump, you deserve credit for escalating diplomatic and economic pressures against Venezuela’s dictatorship. Please don’t screw it up by encouraging speculation about a potential U.S. military intervention.

That is exactly what the country’s de facto President Nicolás Maduro wants: to turn Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crisis into a confrontation between the United States and Venezuela rather than what it really is – a confrontation between a dictator and the Venezuelan people.

Any talk of U.S. military troops near Venezuela threatens to weaken, and perhaps reverse, the most promising international diplomatic effort in recent memory to depose a Latin American dictator.

The region’s biggest democracies – including Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Perú, Ecuador and Chile, with the shameful exception of México – have taken unprecedented actions to restore democracy in Venezuela and have recognized National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

That’s a tectonic shift in Latin America’s diplomacy, which has traditionally been reluctant to team up with the United States on any regional political crisis.

But that widespread support for Guaidó could collapse if the Trump administration keeps tacitly encouraging talk of a military solution in Venezuela.

Speculation about U.S. military action resurfaced Monday when U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton was seen at a press briefing on Venezuela holding a yellow legal notepad with the handwritten words “5,000 troops to Colombia.”

It was not clear whether Bolton intentionally carried that notebook to send a subtle message to Maduro or whether it was an oversight that was caught by the cameras.

But the White House response to reporters’ queries added fuel to the fire. A spokesman said, “As the president has said, all options are on the table.”

The White House may think that raising the specter of a military intervention will prompt defections within Venezuela’s pro-Maduro military hierarchy, but that’s far from sure. More likely, it will embolden the Jurassic left across the world to claim that Maduro is an alleged victim of U.S. aggression.

Even some of Maduro’s staunchest critics in Latin, such as the leaders of Colombia, Argentina and Chile, told me in recent months that they don’t support a military intervention in Venezuela. Eleven of the 14 Latin American democracies that make up the Group of Lima signed a statement last year opposing a military solution in Venezuela.

Earlier this week, I asked México’s former president, Felipe Calderón, who is a vocal supporter of Guaidó, what would be Latin América’s reaction to a U.S. military escalation on the Venezuelan border. “It would be widely rejected” in the region, he told me.

Some skeptics say that Maduro will never leave power peacefully, and that without U.S. military pressure he will stay in office forever. I disagree.

The unprecedented international diplomatic and economic pressure on Maduro, coupled with a newly united Venezuela, could force a peaceful transition to free elections in Venezuela.

Guaidó’s request for international humanitarian aid can put Maduro against the ropes and prompt a military rebellion or a military demand for Maduro to call for free elections and restore democratic rule.

The Trump administration has already promised $20 million in humanitarian aid, and other countries are about to follow suit.

What if tens of millions of dollars in food and medicine are sent to the Colombian and Brazilian borders, or parked in ships near the Venezuelan coast? Would the Venezuelan military remain united behind Maduro if millions of desperate Venezuelans take to the streets – as they are doing – demanding that these food supplies be allowed to enter the country under Guaidó’s supervision?

So please, President Trump, stop this nonsense about “all options are open,” because such talk will backfire.

You deserve credit for having found an autocrat who you don’t like, after having had almost nothing but praise for the rulers of Russia, China, and North Korea. And your coordinated actions with Latin American democracies so far have been right on the mark.

Don’t spoil the best-ever chance to restore democracy in Venezuela by stoking speculation about a highly unlikely U.S. intervention. That only helps boost Maduro’s propaganda machine.