Donald Trump gets good grades for his handling of the Venezuela crisis, says former US envoy Patrick Duddy. Duddy, who knows Nicolas Maduro, also explains why the embattled president will likely be forced to resign.
DW: You know Nicolas Maduro personally. How would you characterize him?
Patrick Duddy: He is both less charismatic and less flexible than his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. I first met him when he was a diputado, a member of the assembly, before he was foreign minister. I then got to know him somewhat better later as foreign minister. He is fairly reserved in private. I think he could be characterized initially as a faithful subordinate to Hugo Chavez. He has certainly shown himself to be much more inclined to authoritarianism since he became president.
Do you think he could be convinced to step down?
I don't think it will be a matter of argument. I think it will be a matter of circumstance, which is to say he has largely lost public support to such an extent that his continuation in office may not be possible. And I am not entirely convinced that the military's support for him is unconditional, not withstanding statements by the minister of defense. Pressure from inside and outside may well combine to convince him that he needs to both resign and probably leave the country.
From his personality, do you think he would be willing to use the military if necessary to squash the opposition even if that would mean killing people?
In the last five years they have dealt with the street demonstrations in a very ruthless way. There have not been mass killings, but there have been episodes of real brutality in dealing with opposition demonstrators both in 2014 and in 2017.
What's your stance on the Trump administration's approach towards Venezuela?
I think it's a natural evolution from the policy approach of both the Obama and the Bush administrations. Our engagement has become more intense because the humanitarian crisis has become, I think, critical — with 3 million refugees flowing out of the country, continuing problems with the availability of food and medicine. What we are looking at in Venezuela is a country which is essentially on the brink of the being a failed state. And as in the case of all failed states, the problems within a failed state generally can't be contained by the borders. And that is what we are seeing with the refugee outflows — 10 percent of the population has already left the country and it is widely predicted that if there is no change inside of Venezuela, another 2 million Venezuelans at least will leave this year.
The way the administration has handled things to date has actually been correct and, relatively speaking, quite skillful. We are working with partners in the region to support the democratic opposition and encouraging support for [self-declared interim leader] Juan Guaido from others. The administration has regularly expressed its concern for the deterioration of both the political situation and the developing humanitarian crisis over the last couple of years. But we have increased sanctions only very gradually and generally speaking only at times when there was something approaching a real consensus in South America that the situation in Venezuela was getting out of control.
And I think the administration continues to make clear that for the United States there is a strong preference for a peaceful political solution which restores democracy and the observation of human rights and permits the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
So on the one hand, the administration has said all options are on the table. But all options are always on the table, I think. And perhaps there are some circumstances, particularly if our embassy or our embassy personnel were affected, when the administration might look at other options. But [Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] and others have said repeatedly that the US is supporting democracy. We are now part of an increasingly global group of democracies which recognized the legitimacy of the opposition leader and I think the administration has been categorical in its insistence that we are interested in a peaceful solution.
You are essentially giving the Trump administration a good grade on Venezuela so far. Are you surprised that they have been acting basically as part of an international coalition?
I definitely think that they have proceeded in a way that is both correct and careful. It is nuanced and the administration is working with its partners in the region, many of whom have been very directly affected by the chaos in Venezuela. There are a million Venezuelan refugees now in Colombia. There are estimates of over 400,000 in Ecuador, more than 600,000 have arrived, even if they have not all stayed, in Peru.
We are seeing in South America right now a refugee problem the likes of which, arguably, the region has never before experienced. And inside Venezuela we are seeing levels of inflation never before recorded in South America, a hemisphere which has experienced multiple episodes of hyperinflation.
And finally, what's your prognosis, will the efforts to oust Maduro succeed, when will we know or could this turn into a Syria situation?
One hopes it is not like Syria. At the same time it would be fair to say there are already stories in the international press that would suggest that both China and Russia are trying to calibrate their responses. They certainly have, to date, supported Maduro. But it is not at all clear to me that their own interests will be best preserved by propping him up past a point where there is any hope that he would be able to finish this second term in the face of so much international opposition. I think that he will eventually be forced to resign, but I would not be comfortable with making a predication when that would happen.
Patrick Duddy (pictured at top) served as US ambassador to Venezuela for both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He was expelled during the Bush administration by President Hugo Chavez in 2008 and reinstated during the Obama administration in 2009. Duddy now directs Duke University's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.