Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee want to take a tough line against the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, and plan to introduce a resolution next week addressing the crisis. But with the specter of military intervention looming, members are wary of giving President Trump the pretext for action.
The details of the resolution are still in flux, and it’s not clear that Democrats will formally endorse opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president. “We’re still working on the language,” said a Democratic Foreign Affairs Committee aide. Trump formally recognized Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela on Jan. 23.
Senior committee members want the United States to take a strong stance. Committee chair Rep. Eliot Engel said Maduro has “relinquished any right” to be leader of Venezuela and that he supports the Trump administration’s sanctioning of its state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela. Ultimately, Engel said he wants the U.S. to work with international groups like the Organization of American States to hold new “free and fair” elections.
Like other members of committee, Engel rejects the deployment of troops. But he believes that the U.S. should play a leading role in handling the crisis. “We have an interest in the people, we have an interest in their oil … there’s lots of interests we have there,” Engel said.
Rep. Albio Sires, who now chairs the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said he supports any mechanism designed to oust Maduro, short of military force. Sires and Engel are drafting the resolution, which they hope to introduce next week.
“I’ve been on [the Foreign Affairs committee] for so long that I think I have a pretty good handle on the region,” Sires said. “I mean, I don’t want a military intervention, but I want [Maduro] out.”
Behind the scenes, Democrats are concerned about the prospect of U.S. military intervention, which party members universally reject, and are focused on crafting language that could not be used by the Trump administration as an endorsement for the use of military force. Trump’s volatile decision-making process, and the U.S. history of interventionism in Latin America, make drafting the resolution even more delicate, aides said.
“Given the unpredictability of this president, the comments [Trump] has made on military intervention in the past, [National Security Advisor John] Bolton’s yellow-notepad notes—there’s a series of things that lead Democrats to have serious concerns about potential U.S. military intervention in Venezuela,” said another Democratic aide.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is pushing for a negotiated solution to the crisis that would not require the U.S. to back an interim leader. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who also sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has been the most vocal critic of what she calls Trump’s “interventionist” policy in Venezuela. On Twitter, she blasted the imposition of sanctions as “nothing more than economic sabotage designed to force regime change by starving the very people we claim to be helping.” She opposes the recognition of Guaidó as interim president.
Omar is backed by other members of the party's progressive wing, including Reps. Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna. Both have spoken out strongly against the Maduro regime, but believe that sanctions will only make the situation worse.
“The progressive voice of restraint and nonintervention needs to be clearer and bolder to prevent some of the mistakes that we’ve made over the past 20 years,” said Khanna, who also does not support the recognition of Guaidó.
Venezuela’s 2018 presidential elections were marred by fraud and deemed illegitimate by international observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States. The opposition, led by National Assembly president Guaidó, has seized upon those reports to argue the office of the president is legally vacant. Under the Venezuelan constitution, the leader of the National Assembly should act as interim president. Practically, Guaidó's success likely hinges upon winning the army’s support, which has thus far remained publicly loyal to Maduro.
The Trump administration has refused to rule out military action in Venezuela. Bolton said last week that “all options are on the table,” and was spotted holding a legal notepad with “5,000 troops to Colombia” written on it.
Trump, meanwhile, has tapped Elliott Abrams as his envoy to Venezuela, which spooked members hoping for a diplomatic resolution. Abrams is best known for his involvement in the Iran-Contra scheme, an illegal Cold-War era covert program that facilitated the sale of arms to Contra death squads in Nicaragua.
“What seems to trouble many of us is the military option,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who sits on the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. “The military option could solidify support for Maduro, throwing him a lifeline … because of the history, many will perceive this to be us going back to our bad old ways.”
Espaillat said he would have to see Engel’s resolution before rendering judgment, but that the U.S. shouldn’t be “in the business of selecting who is in and who is out.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks, another member of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, did not immediately endorse Guaidó’s claim to the presidency, and said that he would need to study the Venezuelan constitution further.
"I think the Venezuelan people would feel more comfortable with Lima leading, as opposed to the United States, based upon our past history,” Meeks said, referring to the Lima Group, a multinational coalition that does not recognize Maduro's presidency.
But other members of the Foreign Affairs committee support a hard line against Maduro and are personally endorsing Guaidó as interim leader. Rep. Brad Sherman said Guaidó leads “a legitimate caretaker government pursuant to the Venezuelan constitution.”
“I’m not usually a fan of the Trump administration's foreign policy, but on this one they have actually mobilized allies from the very beginning,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a new member on the committee and a former State Department official. “They got the European Union to recognize the new government, so I think they need to continue to work this multilaterally while putting as much pressure on Maduro.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that "we are hoping that they will either have another election, or there will be the transfer of power in Venezuela,” but that she would “take [her] lead” from Engel on the resolution.