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What's Next For U.S. Involvement In Venezuela?


Venezuela continued to fester this week. The opposition leader, Juan Guaido, called for military leaders to turn on President Nicolas Maduro. That didn't happen. He continues in power despite enormous public dissatisfaction and opposition for the U.S. European Union and most countries in Latin America. We're joined now by Fernando Cutz. He's a global fellow with the Wilson Center, worked on Latin American issues at the National Security Council under the Obama and Trump administrations. Mr. Cutz, thanks so much for being with us.

FERNANDO CUTZ: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What do you make of the fact that Mr. Maduro is still in power? Is it an indication that he still has a lot of adherents?

CUTZ: Well, I think there's two ways to look at that question. No. 1 is the people of Venezuela, and No. 2 is the security forces. I think the people of Venezuela have pretty clearly turned on Mr. Maduro. If you look at the amount of folks who are showing up in the streets every day, if you look at polls that are credible that have been coming out recently...

SIMON: I mean, I saw a big demonstration for him also the other day.

CUTZ: Well, absolutely, there are still some who support him. It's important to also note that a lot of the folks who come out to support Maduro are government employees who are forced to do so and are literally, you know, held paychecks over their heads for not doing so. But the vast majority of the Venezuelan people - and I think there's credible, again, independent polls that would show this time and time again - are supportive of Guaido and certainly not supportive of Maduro. However, there is a second question, which is the security forces, the folks who actually control the realm of power. And I think there was an attempt this week obviously by Guaido that did not succeed in getting the security forces to turn against Maduro. And so effectively Maduro still controls the security forces and therefore is still in charge of the country.

SIMON: Is the best option for U.S. policy to do nothing?

CUTZ: There are some who would argue that the U.S. should stay out of this. I personally don't think so. I think the United States is a country that's always been involved when human rights abuses are going on, when humanitarian crises are going on. Doing nothing is certainly a policy option in and of itself. But if you look back at some historical cases where we've done nothing, for example in Rwanda during the genocide there and more recently in Syria, I think those are cases where a lot of folks in foreign policy will come to regret not having taken action.

SIMON: But that would suggest military action.

CUTZ: Not necessarily, and I certainly am no advocate of military action. I hope that we don't get to that. But I do think that there are more levers we can pull in the diplomatic space, in the economic space. We need to be doing it multinationally with the incredible coalition that has been built successfully right now by the United States and many other countries. There are over 50 countries in the world that recognize Guaido as president and who are working in lockstep to try to restore democracy to the people of Venezuela. But, again, it can't be done if the United States decides to take this on its own and certainly can't be done if the rhetoric that's coming out of the White House in the last few weeks continues to be as reckless as it's been.

SIMON: Out of the White House or out of Mr. Bolton, the national security adviser and maybe Secretary of State Pompeo? Because in President Trump's remarks to the press in the Oval Office yesterday, he sided with Vladimir Putin. He didn't sound like somebody who wants to get very active about Venezuela because he says that Putin doesn't.

CUTZ: That's right. I'd say ambassador Bolton has been the head of the rhetoric department at the White House, no doubt about it, when it comes to Venezuela and tweets as well, by the way. It's been a very, very heated. And unfortunately, I think that paints the United States into a corner where the more we talk about military options this openly and this earnestly from the perch of the White House, from the national security adviser, the more the expectation around the policy community and around folks on the ground in Venezuela becomes that the United States will involve itself militarily.

SIMON: But didn't the president, I thought, decisively knock that down? And we don't see any carriers off the coast. We don't see any preparations.

CUTZ: That's right. And Southcom, which is the military command that would be in charge of this operation, they do not have any kind of military assets on their own. So we'd actually have to see a massive buildup over time before any kind of military action was taken, and we're not there yet. So I think it's more rhetoric than anything else, but I think it's unhelpful rhetoric and certainly rhetoric that is starting to have an impact on the ground in a negative way.

SIMON: Fernando Cutz, a global fellow with the Wilson Center, thank you so much for being with us.

CUTZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.