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With last week’s significant deployment of United States naval assets in the Caribbean, the Trump administration upped the ante in its confrontation with the Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. For the past 15 months, the administration has applied “maximum pressure” on Mr. Maduro’s regime, with the hope that the upper echelons of the military — the regime’s main pillar of support — would fracture and trigger a return to democracy. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to replacing Mr. Maduro with a “legitimate, transitional government.” Yet as the coronavirus stalks the globe, the ill-timed deployment punctuates a series of consequential but erratic moves on the United States’ Venezuela policy.
The deployment came on the heels of two other major developments in this policy: the criminal indictment of Mr. Maduro and several close collaborators, and the launch of a democratic transition framework by Secretary Pompeo. Taken separately, they signal the administration’s commitment to toppling Mr. Maduro. Together, they betray confusion over how best to do it. The question now is how far the administration is prepared to go with a strategy that has so far yielded few tangible results and may be making matters worse for Venezuelans.
The naval deployment, whose stated purpose is to combat drug trafficking, aims to send a message to Mr. Maduro that his time is up. Its scale recalls the military buildup before the 1989 invasion of Panama that deposed the strongman Manuel Noriega. Fortunately, a similar action is improbable today. More likely, this is saber rattling and an expensive distraction for a domestic audience as much as a foreign one, and its utility was apparently questioned even within the Pentagon. Still, the deployment is sensitive and potentially risky; an accident or misstep could set off a violent escalation.
The show of military force in the Caribbean was part of the administration’s “stick,” coming shortly after the Department of Justice indicted Mr. Maduro and other senior Venezuelan officials on charges of drug trafficking. Mr. Maduro sits at the head of a criminal regime considered illegitimate by the United States and immensely unpopular in Venezuela. He has so far managed to hang on, despite a concerted campaign of diplomatic and economic pressure from Washington, including tough sanctions imposed on the oil-rich country in January 2019 and strong support for the democratic forces led by Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly. More than 50 governments join the United States in recognizing Mr. Guaidó as interim president.