Give Donald Trump credit. On Wednesday the U.S. president recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president. At least a dozen other countries in the Western Hemisphere have since followed suit.
There were signs that such a move was in the works. Senior U.S. officials had declared as illegitimate the 2018 election that gave President Nicolas Maduro a second term. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence released a video pledging U.S. support for popular protests against Maduro. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Latin American heads of state earlier this month to further isolate Maduro’s regime.
However chaotic Trump’s foreign policy might be in other areas, the president has always been consistent on Venezuela. One of the first actions of his administration was to sanction and freeze the assets of former Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami. Since then, the Treasury Department has placed more and more of Maduro’s inner circle on the financial blacklist.
Trump’s policy is also apparent in recent diplomacy. Guaido’s announcement on Wednesday that he would assume the powers of the presidency was coordinated with the White House. Last week, Pence spoke by phone with Guaido. Before that, administration officials tell me, U.S. diplomats worked with Venezuela’s fractured opposition to unify behind a single leader, while U.S. military officers contacted their Venezuelan peers to make the case that there is no future with Maduro.
Trump has also worked closely with Senator Marco Rubio to plan for Venezuela’s transition. According to one source familiar with their discussions, Rubio has pressed for a plan to flood Venezuela with economic relief once Maduro is out of power. He has also stressed the importance of providing Maduro with a way to leave office cleanly, by traveling to a third country.
Since Trump recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s leader, Maduro loyalists and a few American leftists have argued that the U.S. has endorsed a coup. Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, put forward a softer version of the argument Wednesday on Twitter, saying the U.S. action amounts to regime change.
For some on the left, Trump’s Venezuela policy raises uncomfortable memories of America’s Cold War interventions in Latin America. But there is an important distinction. During the Cold War, the U.S. supported dictatorships and juntas as a bulwark against international communism. It was a foreign policy that prized alliances over democracy.
In Venezuela, Trump is trying to help restore democracy. Guaido’s claim to power has a legal basis under Venezuela’s constitution. He has also made clear he is not calling on the armed forces to arrest Maduro (though he is asking them not to shoot demonstrators).
It’s also important to recall some history. Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, gradually strangled Venezuela’s democratic institutions since Chavez first came to power in 1999. Over the past two decades, leading opposition figures have been jailed, news outlets have been shuttered and the courts have been packed. In 2015, the Maduro regime responded to the opposition winning two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly by stripping the legislature of its power and creating a new one. It’s no mystery why so many countries in Latin America did not recognize Maduro’s snap election last year.
It’s not clear what happens next. For now, Maduro has shown no signs that he intends to leave. But that may change, especially as Venezuela’s military leadership assesses both the political situation and their own futures. Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs now at the American Enterprise Institute, speaks regularly to former military officers. They say Maduro’s days are numbered. He has made a terrible enemy, they tell him. His name is Donald Trump.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.