The Trump administration said Wednesday that the United States will soon bolster its year-long campaign to topple socialist Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro with even harsher measures against a Venezuelan government already effectively facing a U.S. embargo.
“We have given direction to the entire whole of government ― not just to the Treasury Department, but to the whole of government ― to use all of the tools at their disposal to further create and stress upon Maduro and his cronies and in support of democratic efforts of a transition in Venezuela,” a senior Trump administration official said on a conference call with reporters.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, repeatedly declined to elaborate on what steps the administration might take.
“There’s a lot of tools and a lot of targets at our disposal, and we plan to use as many of them as necessary in order to fulfill our goal of an end to this dictatorship and a democratic transition in Venezuela,” the official said, adding that any actions the United States takes will be announced in the next 30 days.
The call with reporters was the latest attempt to convince Venezuela’s opposition and the public that the White House remains committed to the campaign against Maduro after President Donald Trump’s decision to skip a Miami rally in support of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó last weekend set off a round of speculation that the White House had lost interest in the fight.
Trump invited Guaidó, the Venezuelan National Assembly leader the U.S. and nearly 60 other nations recognize as the country’s legitimate leader, to the State of the Union address on Tuesday. He also scheduled a Wednesday afternoon meeting with Guaidó at the White House, where the senior official said that Trump plans to reassure him that regime change in Venezuela remains a priority.
Trump made a show of recognizing Guaidó during Tuesday’s address, referring to him as “Mr. President” and telling him to return to Venezuela with the message that “all Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom.”
“Maduro’s grip of tyranny will be smashed and broken,” Trump said.
Trump has obsessed over bringing down Maduro since taking office in 2017, and his Tuesday night pronouncement that Maduro’s end was imminent echoed his promise last February that a “new day” would soon dawn in Venezuela, made just weeks after the United States became the first of nearly 60 countries to recognize Guaidó’s self-declaration as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
The move followed May 2018 elections in which Maduro claimed victory but that the U.S., European Union and United Nations refused to recognize, and occurred in the midst of an economic collapse in Venezuela that has sparked an international refugee crisis.
Since then, the White House has crafted and implemented an aggressive regime-change strategy that has relied primarily on increasingly harsh economic sanctions on Maduro, government officials and pillars of the Venezuelan economy ― including the effective embargo the U.S. put in place last August.
The strategy is being led by a cadre of veteran hard-liners on U.S.-Latin America policy, including senior White House adviser Mauricio Claver-Carone. A longtime lobbyist focused on Cuba, he has served as a prominent voice for Washington and South Florida’s hard-line, pro-embargo communities for nearly two decades. Claver-Carone has established the sort of aggressive strategy on Venezuela long desired by those who see Venezuela and Maduro as puppets of Cuba’s Communist government.
But the strategy has come under increasingly loud criticism from Latin America experts and foreign policy officials in Washington, especially as Maduro has remained in office and the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has worsened.
“It’s maximum pressure for the sake of maximum pressure,” Mark Feierstein, who oversaw Latin America policy on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, told HuffPost in January. “There’s no strategy behind it.”
The Trump administration has also faced criticism for pursuing damaging economic sanctions without taking steps to alleviate Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis — repeatedly refusing, for example, to offer temporary protected status to Venezuelan migrants to the United States.
Still others have criticized Trump’s White House for following the sort of well-worn “maximum pressure” strategy that has failed to achieve its ostensible aims in Cuba for nearly six decades.
Trump, though, may draw inspiration from the reaction to Tuesday’s speech, during which his recognition of Guaidó and pledge to oust Maduro marked one of the only instances when Democrats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, stood to applaud.
Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who, along with other progressive lawmakers, has bucked both Trump and Democratic leadership on Venezuela, remained seated during that portion of the speech.
Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, also criticized Pelosi and other cheering Democrats, insinuating that they had only helped legitimize Trump’s regime change approach in Venezuela. (Sanders has called Maduro “a vicious tyrant” but opposes Trump’s use of sanctions and threats of military action in Venezuela.)
The senior Trump administration official attempted to spin the reaction to the speech in Trump’s favor on the call with reporters, saying that after the press had tried to write Guaidó’s “political obituary” after Trump chose to remain at Mar-a-Lago during the Miami rally, “the only obituary that was written last night at the State of the Union was [for] the skeptics who continue to question our commitment.”
(Notably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement on the State of the Union did not mention Venezuela, despite its focus on foreign policy and Guaidó’s attendance at the address.)
The triumphant tone ― even as the White House appears no closer to achieving its stated goal of ousting Maduro, and even as Venezuela remains mired in a crisis ― made clear yet again that the Trump administration has no plans to alter or recalibrate its strategy. It will instead continue to cling to the notion that its strategy in Venezuela simply hasn’t had enough time to work.
“In the 12 months since President Trump recognized [Guaidó], we have accomplished more and put more pressure on Maduro than in the previous 12 years, frankly,” the senior official said. “We’re halfway through our maximum pressure campaign, and we’re only moving in one direction. And that is forward.”