Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on a tour of South America in mid-September, but the countries he visited — Brazil, Colombia and Guyana — weren’t the focus of his visit as much as their shared neighbor: Venezuela.
It was the Trump administration’s latest show of support for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, and it was a gesture that did not escape Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who in a televised response called Pompeo’s visit a “guerrilla tour” to wage a war against him.
“Pompeo’s [Latin America] tour was news because it was obvious that it had a lot to do with Venezuela.”
“It was news here and all over Venezuela,” said Andres Cañizalez, a political scientist and journalism professor at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. “Pompeo’s tour was news because it was obvious that it had a lot to do with Venezuela.”
More than 5 million people have fled the country’s economic and social collapse in recent years. The Trump administration and reelection campaign have put Venezuela's human rights crisis at the center of their Latin America foreign policy agenda ahead of US elections.
But US elections in November will be of little consequence to Venezuela, according to Cañizalez and other observers in and out of the country.
The Trump administration has targeted Venezuela with oil and economic sanctions, and in recent months Venezuelans have had little to no access to gas necessary to transport food, medical patients, or even cadavers, Cañizalez said. The Maduro administration has blamed the shortages on the US sanctions, and Cañizalez said that’s partially true.
But it also has to do with how Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, mismanaged Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-owned oil and gas company, he said.
“The rest of the story has to do with how Venezuela’s crown jewel was destroyed,” Cañizalez said. “If Venezuela’s oil industry was as strong as it once was, it could weather the sanctions. The sanctions simply hasten the industry’s collapse.”
Yet, Trump’s foreign policy against Venezuela may have less to do with humanitarian interests abroad than with electoral politics in the US.
Trump’s campaign is courting American voters of Venezuelan and Cuban backgrounds who oppose undemocratic governments in Venezuela and Cuba — and who could tip the scale in the battleground state of Florida, said Frank Mora, a political science professor at Florida International University in Miami.
“Miami is probably one of the very few places where a foreign policy issue is a domestic political issue."
“Miami is probably one of the very few places where a foreign policy issue is a domestic political issue,” Mora said. Trump’s foreign policies “are really about trying to keep that Venezuelan and Cuban vote on his side. That’s a calculation he’s making. I’m not sure it’s going to play itself out that way, but that’s clearly what he’s planning.”
Which may be a miscalculation for both the Trump administration and the Trump campaign, Mora said.
“When you do foreign policy, you do things in the national interest, and yes, to help the Venezuelan people. But when you’re making decisions based on domestic political calculations, you start making mistakes,” Mora said. “That’s why the policy has been a failure.”
Venezuela has an election of its own in December. The Maduro administration will hold a vote for parliament, and members of the opposition have already said they will not participate. Whether or not the US recognizes the winners of that election will be up to whoever wins the White House in November.