Although Donald Trump campaigned on a platform critiquing the unrestrained use of military warfare — most notably in Iraq — he has scrapped that posture since coming to office, favoring bellicose rhetoric over diplomacy. Trump has pushed to increase the military budget and demonstrated little interest in scaling back US intervention. In recent weeks, he approved the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian general, and committed more US troops to the Middle East.
As Iran and the broader region consume Trump’s foreign policy focus, the opposition in Venezuela is making a bid to attract his attention by tying President Nicolás Maduro to Iran and Hezbollah.
A year ago, Trump believed he could easily depose Maduro’s government and bring opposition leader Juan Guaidó into the Miraflores Palace. Trump recognized Guaidó as the official president of Venezuela and colluded on several schemes to push the Venezuelan military to side with Guaidó and remove Maduro. When these efforts failed, the US government continued to sanction the Venezuelan government and threatened countries and foreign businesses that worked with Maduro’s administration.
But Maduro hung on, and at this point, the United States has largely played its hand. Trump himself appears to have come to terms with the fact that Maduro is a “tough cookie” who might not leave office so quietly. Trump may sporadically rail against Maduro and issue sanctions, but the Venezuelan president maintains the loyalty of the military and has proven durable.
Thus the new strategy of linking Maduro to the Iranian government and Hezbollah. Last weekend, Guaidó traveled to Colombia to meet with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo at a counterterrorism conference. The express purpose of the trip was to allow Guaidó to present evidence to the United States that the Maduro government is conspiring with Hezbollah, a political party and military organization supported by the Iranian government but designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
In a January 20 press conference with Secretary Pompeo, Guaidó asserted that Venezuelans live under “a dictatorship with links with the ELN [a left-wing militant group in Colombia] and Hizbollah and who has not been ashamed to infiltrate the different organizations in murdering political leaders in Venezuela.” Pompeo sounded the same alarm, insisting that “whether it’s the ELN or the FARC, there are elements of Hizbollah throughout many countries in South America.”
Pompeo has long bought into such claims, asserting last February, in a Fox News interview, that “Hezbollah has active cells — the Iranians are impacting the people of Venezuela and throughout South America.” As early as under Hugo Chávez’s administration, US state, US military, and Venezuelan opposition members leveled unsubstantiated charges that Venezuela was actively working with Hezbollah and providing safe haven to its members. The goal was clear: give the United States a legal pretext to designate Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism and delegitimize Chávez’s government.
The Venezuelan opposition is now cribbing from the same playbook. Recognizing that Trump may be less interested in immediately deposing Maduro, the Venezuelan opposition is seeking to capitalize on Washington’s escalating tensions with Tehran. Just this week, Carlos Vecchio, Guaidó’s self-proclaimed ambassador to the United States, told the Washington Examiner that “we don’t have to wait for tragedy to strike to act” on Hezbollah’s alleged presence in Venezuela.
Much like with Soleimani and his alleged imminent attacks, both Pompeo and Guaidó offered no evidence to support any of their claims. It is unclear what “political murders” Guaidó was referring to in his press conference, and how and why Hezbollah might be involved. So, too, with Pompeo’s puzzling, unsubstantiated claim that Hezbollah is linked with the ELN and the FARC (another left-wing Colombian militant group).
At the same time, these muddled linkages are beside the point. Shaky claims have never stopped US leaders from assassinating individuals abroad or providing a pretense for military warfare. If US leaders and their allies can formulate a narrative to justify their actions abroad, they’ll do so. Drone striking an Iranian government leader visiting a sovereign country might have seemed inconceivable to some — yet it happened, and the news cycle has already moved on.
But we should be clear: what Venezuelan opposition leaders are pushing, aided by their conspiracy theorist ally Mike Pompeo, is brazen, desperate, and dangerous. Over the past year, they’ve encouraged military uprisings, external sanctions, and international isolation. US leaders in both parties have called on the Venezuelan military to defect and depose the Maduro government. Trump might not really care what happens in Venezuela, but many around him certainly do — people like Senator Marco Rubio and Trump adviser Mauricio Claver-Carone. They’d love to continue the United States’ history of overthrowing Latin American leaders.
The Venezuelan opposition has realized it has lost momentum. Its new play is a last-ditch effort to bring Washington riding back into the country. As desperation ensues, we shouldn’t put anything past either of them.