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Venezuela Chaos Fuels Proxy Battle Between United States and Russia

Political Science Professor Russell Crandall
Prof. Russell Crandall offers his take on the tenuous situation in Venezuela and its implications for the United States

Venezuela is in crisis. Inflation has raced past one million percent while food supplies have dwindled, leaving 80 percent of citizens without access to adequate nutrition. And though Venezuela has been sliding for years, the South American nation might have finally reached an inflection point in the past couple of weeks with the leadership struggle between Juan Guaidó and incumbent president Nicolás Maduro.

Political Science Professor Russell Crandall, an expert on Central and South American politics, shared his perspective on the unfolding crisis, which has now reached beyond Venezuela's borders and expanded into global politics.

Venezuela has been facing economic crisis for several years now, with hunger and unrest forcing citizens to leave the country. How has Nicolás Maduro been able to hang on to power? 
There are two reasons: Until now, there has not been a unified, legitimate opposition. That seems to be changing.

Second, the military -- with the help of seasoned intelligence operatives from Cuba -- has continued its institutional fidelity to the regime despite Maduro's decaying political support. At this point, only about 10 percent of Venezuelans appear to support Maduro.
 
The military's loyalty is more crucial than ever because civic opposition is clearer and bolder than ever. National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó's recent declaration that he is the nation's legitimate president is a huge, direct challenge. One press account described him "vowing to hold free elections and end Maduro's dictatorship," a move endorsed widely by dozens of regional and Western capitals, including, not surprisingly, the Trump White House.
 
How has the Trump administration attempted to address the issue? What about other global powers like Russia?
Trump immediately recognized Guaidó as president. That prompted Maduro to sever diplomatic ties with Washington, ordering the gringo officials to leave Venezuela within three days. However, when U.S. diplomats disregarded this directive, the Venezuelan ruler shifted the departure cap to 30 days to give room to a "dialogue window."

That allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to insert himself. He cheered Maduro's offer and the Russian ambassador to the United Nations alleged that Trump was attempting to "engineer a coup" against Maduro.

A trio of Washington Post correspondents aptly concluded that the diverging Washington-Moscow responses "highlighted how the fight for power in the South American country has taken on the overtones of a superpower rivalry." Maduro has even attempted to reach out directly to the American people, posting a Facebook video where he explained how Washington wanted "to put their hands on our oil like they did in Iraq, like they did in Libya."
 
What do you see as the end game for Trump's Venezuela policy?
The Trump administration recently enacted sanctions that target Venezuela's oil industry, the foundation of the economy. That suggests the Trump administration is doubling down on a policy of escalating pressure to expedite regime change.

However, images of National Security Advisor John Bolton holding a note pad with language that seemed to say, "5,000 troops to Colombia" has complicated matters. Taken singularly, such a move would not necessary be imprudent since the Colombian government would likely agree to this, if not outright support it.

But the very fact that Bolton made such a rookie mistake is a stark reminder of how improvisational and impetuous this administration's foreign policymaking has been.

But, for the sake of Venezuela's unfolding horror, we can only hope that Bolton and his colleagues in the executive branch and senate are successful in helping expedite the end of Maduro's heinous dictatorship.

Russell Crandall has served as principal director for the western hemisphere at the Department of Defense and director for Andean affairs at the National Security Council. He also has held posts as a national security aide at the National Security Council; special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and consultant for the World Bank, Andean Development bank and the United Nations. He is the author of several books and a contributing editor at the London-based journal of international security, "Survival: Global Politics and Strategy."

Jay Pfeifer
japfeifer@davidson.edu
704-894-2920