Business Insider sat down with John Maisto, the former US ambassador to Venezuela, to talk about what could be ahead for the crisis-ridden country. Maisto also served as ambassador to Nicaragua and the Organization of American States, and was the senior director for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You were US ambassador to Venezuela when Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, became president in 1999. Having seen the Bolivarian revolution firsthand, how does the economic and political backdrop then compare to now?
A: The sadness of Venezuela today is that the problems when Chavez came to power are the same problems there today. Corruption; the bureaucracy is unbelievable; and the poverty continues and it’s gotten worse.
I remember Chavez telling me, oh you’re going to see a first-class cabinet. The oil people at first were fine – they were professional – but then that gradually got politicized. But the price of oil kept going up, and the money kept coming in. And the regime kept using oil money for political purposes to make sure they got the support of people. How did they do that? Subsidize everything. Give away everything.
Q: Last year, President Donald Trump said the US has a “military option” in Venezuela. Senator Marco Rubio has also seemed to suggest going that route. What do you think of calls for armed intervention in Venezuela?
A: All you have to do is ask Colin Powell-type questions, like, oh really? And then what? How do you do this? What do you do? What comes afterward?
People say, oh we used to intervene militarily in Latin America – why don’t we just do that in Venezuela? Well, just how? We’re going to send an 82nd Airborne into Caracas? Is that what you’re going to do? And what happens when those who support Chavez come out? Are we going to have the Americans killing them? You’ve gotta think this stuff through.
Q: What about an internal military coup? Especially with reports of growing dissent within Venezuela’s armed forces. In September, for example, the New York Times reported the Trump administration met with Venezuelan military officers to discuss plans to overthrow Maduro.
A: Sure, there could be a military coup. At the same time, that’s one of those things that could happen tonight or not at all. There are some in the United States who said, oh, a military coup, that’s absolutely terrible. Well. Countries do what they have to do to solve their problems and who the hell are we to be telling them what to do or what not to do? The Venezuelan constitution has something that permits Venezuelans to do whatever they have to do to rid themselves of a government that is violating the constitution and human rights.
Q: The State and Treasury departments have rolled out multiple rounds of sanctions in attempt to pressure the Venezuelan government, which is accused of undermining democracy and engaging in corruption and human rights violations. What other options does Washington have here?
A: I also think we should use the public revelations part. You reveal information about some [officials] but not about others. The ones you haven’t revealed information on say, why haven’t they gotten me? The ones you have revealed information on say, why didn’t you mention him? So, they begin to look and each other and say what’s going on?
We have to not stop working diplomatically. But at the same time, and you may find this contradictory, telling the people in power that we’re willing to sit down and talk to you. You can’t just pull one out and say that’s the magic thread. That’s not how the world works. In my view, the United States should maintain the pressure but also let them know that we’re willing to talk. We don’t have to say what we’re willing to talk about – just say we’re willing to talk.
Q: What about internally? What do you think has to happen within Venezuela?
A: The first thing that has to happen is the Venezuelan opposition has to get itself together and unite for the purpose of presenting something that shows they are capable of leading the reconstitution of democracy in Venezuela post-Maduro regime. And they’re divided. They united four years ago for legislative elections and they won. But they haven’t been united since then. There are different leaders who want to do different things.
It has to show Venezuelans – many of them don’t believe them – and foreigners who are interested in this coming out the right way. That’s Latin Americans, ourselves, Europeans. The idea that there is some coherence in terms of the opposition to Maduro.
Q: What could a post-Maduro Venezuela look like?
A: As long as he was in power, [Chavez’s] support system was okay. The moment he left power, his support system disappeared. That’s the way it is with authoritarians. There are not going to be many Venezuelans who if Maduro leaves are going to want to the next day go out and want to give their lives for him. No, they’re going to adjust to the new reality. But at the time, they’re going to be impressed with the argument that the regime makes – that Chavez always made and that Maduro makes. And that is, if those white guys with money get into power, supported by the US government, you’re going to be screwed.
Q: The US has so far fallen short of directly targeting Venezuela’s oil industry, but there have been reports that could change. This is controversial because oil makes up nearly all of the country’s export earnings and PDVSA is already operating at multidecade lows. Do you think the Trump administration would target the energy market?
A: There are some who argue that the whole country has to feel more pain in order for there to be a solution. And others say absolutely not – people are suffering enough and you’re really going to make them suffer bad. So, all of these are questions. But nothing could happen too. You can have a continuation. If we were having this conversation one year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago, it would have been roughly the same.
Q: Some argue that Venezuela’s crisis cannot be stemmed without concessions from Cuba, accused of propping up the Maduro regime. Other than with sanctions, how might the US pressure Havana?
A: It’s very difficult to prevent Cuban intelligence operatives from flying from Havana to Caracas. What the United States can and should do, in my view, is to not only monitor that sort of operation but also to divulge it so people can see the role of the Cubans. With regard to the pressures in the international financial area, with regard to targeting individuals in the regime and exposing their international criminal activities.