President Trump earned a standing ovation during his State of the Union Address this year when he recognized Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó in the audience. For many, it was an electrifying moment – Guaidó is a symbol of courage and of freedom pitted against a bad and destructive anti-American dictatorship.
President Trump said, "We are supporting the hopes of Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans to restore democracy. The United States is leading a 59-nation diplomatic coalition against the socialist dictator of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro. Maduro is an illegitimate ruler, a tyrant who brutalizes his people. But Maduro’s grip on tyranny will be smashed and broken."
Trump added that Guaidó is "a very brave man who carries with him the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of all Venezuelans," and recognizd him as the "true and legitimate president of Venezuela."
Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood and applauded the man who free countries were backing as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.
This was a powerful message, but it raises an important question: If the most powerful country in the world, along with 58 other countries, favor President Guaidó, why is the dictator Maduro still in charge?
One of the current weaknesses in American national security planning is a failure to recognize how much the world has changed and how much we need new language and new strategies and structures to keep America safe in the new era.
Venezuela is a perfect case in point.
We keep taking on Maduro as though he were the key to defeating tyranny in Venezuela. Yet that is simply not true. If Maduro were the key, he would be gone and Guaidó would be leading a free country.
In fact, there is pretty good evidence that Maduro had at one point lost his nerve and was heading to an airport to flee when Russian President Vladimir Putin called and ordered him to return to Caracas and allow his allies to keep him in office.
Just as Bashar Assad has only survived in Syria because of Iranian and Russian backing, Maduro has survived in Venezuela only because of a widespread anti-American coalition.
Cliff May, the remarkable head of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, wrote a powerful column in the Washington Times explaining the dilemma of American policy in Venezuela.
As May pointed out, from the moment Hugo Chavez won the presidency in 1999, he began a reign of corruption. He put in place socialist laws that destroyed jobs and businesses. He embarked on a collaboration with communists in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Russia. And Chavez empowered a network of local militias – maintained by corruption and theft – who were prepared to harass and attack middle-class defenders of democracy.
The result has been an astonishing collapse of what was once the wealthiest country in South America. This once-successful country (with the world’s largest oil reserves) degraded into a system of deprivation. Millions of refugees fled the country, and almost 90 percent of the Venezuelans who remained live in desperate poverty.
When Chavez died in 2013, his successor, Nicolas Maduro, had a lot less charisma. Therefore, Maduro had a much greater need to rely on outside forces to survive.
The Russians – always looking for beachheads in the Western Hemisphere – have been loyal supporters of the dictatorship. They control 70 percent of Venezuelan oil production and earn an estimated $2 billion a year from it. They have a vested interest in propping up the Maduro dictatorship.
The Cubans have long supported Chavez, and now bolster Maduro. There are an estimated 25,000 Cubans propping up the regime – including some of the toughest internal security agents Cuba can mobilize. Cubans are scattered throughout the government providing spies and managers to block dissent and anti-Maduro subversion.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have loaned billions to the Maduro dictatorship and have a deep interest in his survival.
The anti-American coalition in the Middle East is also playing “an especially nefarious role” in propping up Maduro. As May reported:
Research conducted by Emanuele Ottolenghi, my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, reveals that the Maduro regime makes passports and travel documents available to Iranian agents.
Tehran’s regional propaganda headquarters is in Caracas. The two regimes collaborate in a disinformation war against the United States. Their Spanish-language television networks, Hispan TV and Telesur, respectively, share journalists across Latin America.
Hezbollah, a proxy of the clerical regime, is firmly ensconced within Venezuela’s large (about 200,000) Lebanese Shia community. ‘Simply put,’ Mr. Ottolenghi notes, ‘Maduro and his cronies use the trappings of a sovereign state to run a criminal syndicate involved in pillaging state resources and taking commissions from organized crime to use Venezuela as a staging ground for their global smuggling operations.’
Hezbollah supporters, concentrated in several areas of Venezuela and along the Venezuela/Colombia border, have, over the years, lent their businesses to trade-based money-laundering schemes designed to repatriate drug money for the cartels — minus a hefty commission for Hezbollah.
Given all the forces aligned to prop up Maduro, it should come as no surprise that the United Nations is on the side of the dictator. After all, the United Nations is dominated by the anti-American coalition and its willing allies.
President Guaidó has been recognized as the legitimate leader of Venezuela since he was elected by the National Assembly on Jan. 23, 2019.
For over a year, the United States and allies have been trying to drive Maduro out of power and replace him with the democratic leader recognized by 59 countries.
As May summed it up, "Trump administration efforts to bring about regime change in Venezuela have been principled, persistent and, so far, ineffective."
Driving Maduro out of power and helping Guaidó achieve power requires defeating the entire anti-American coalition. As of today, the United States simply does not have a strategy large and tough enough to achieve this big of a victory.
There is a lesson to be learned from the communist dictatorship in Cuba, which we have now opposed for 60 years (since 1960). Small steps against our enemies may make us feel virtuous, but they do not achieve large victories.