Spanish – The entire chapter on Venezuela from John Bolton’s memoirs was leaked, and the PanAm Post accessed it. It narrates, in great detail, how Venezuelans lost their best chance in twenty years to overthrow the Chavista regime: Trump wanted to intervene in Venezuela and put an end to the regime militarily, but his advisors dissuaded him.
“Trump insisted he wanted military options for Venezuela,” writes John Bolton at the beginning of the chapter titled Venezuela Libre in his memoir, The Room Where It Happened. “I explained why military force was not the answer, especially given the inevitable congressional opposition, but that we could achieve the same objective by working with Maduro’s opponents.”
The chapter on Venezuela is over 20 pages, and the former White House security advisor explains how U.S. foreign policy towards Venezuela was designed (especially when Juan Guaidó arrived at the scene).
According to Bolton, when it came to Guaidó assuming the interim presidency, the United States played no role in “encouraging or assisting the opposition. They saw this moment as possibly their last chance. It was now all on the line in Venezuela, and we had to decide how to respond. Sit back and watch?” said the American diplomat, who then instructed Mauricio Claver-Carone to support Juan Guaidó.
Initially, Trump did not like the plan to have Guaidó sworn in as interim president of Venezuela. His advisors, led by Bolton, then convinced him.
“We had a shot to overthrow Maduro now, and it might be a long, long time before we had another one as good. Half measures weren’t going to cut it. Pompeo agreed we didn’t want to replicate Obama in 2009, watching pro-democracy protests in Iran suppressed while the U.S. did nothing.”
Even as tensions were rising in Venezuela on the eve of Guaidó’s oath as interim president, Trump did not see the possibility of Maduro’s downfall. He considered Maduro a very “smart and tough” enemy. Bolton revealed that on January 23, “Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza had both already approached the opposition, tentatively exploring what the National Assembly’s proposition for amnesty would mean.”
“Trump agreed to unequivocally recognize Guaidó, which Pence, who was attending the meeting, was ready to do,” writes the former security advisor. “Then Trump added, ‘I want him (Guaidó) to say that he will be extremely loyal to the United States and no one else.'”
Bolton stressed on several occasions that Donald Trump, nevertheless, continued to insist on a military option for Venezuela and confirmed that Bolton was the one who mainly exercised restraint. He writes, “And it is proof of what some people thought was a joke, when Trump later commented that I had to hold him back. He was correct on Venezuela.”
Although Trump was thrilled by the recognition of Guaidó and saw everything as a historic event, within hours, he was skeptical.
“The first troubling sign from Trump came that evening (January 23) when he called to say, ‘I don’t like where we are,’ referring to Venezuela.”
“I’ve always said that Maduro was tough. This kid (Guaidó) – nobody’s ever heard of him,” the president said to John Bolton.
John Bolton and the other advisors focused on the strategy of mounting pressure with sanctions on Maduro while the latter was going through the political crisis with Juan Guaidó. Bolton pushed for oil sanctions but was met with reluctance and opposition in Washington DC.
Bolton also describes an episode that generated immense controversy in the U.S. and Latin America: “We were going to unveil the sanctions in the White House briefing, but I got diverted to the Oval first. Trump asked me if we should send five thousand troops to Colombia in case they might be needed, which I duly noted on my yellow legal pad.”
“I told Trump I would check with the Pentagon. ‘Go have fun with the press,” Trump said, which we did, when my note, picked up by cameras, produced endless speculation. (A few weeks later, the Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Trujillo brought me a pack of legal pads like the ones I had in the briefing room, so I didn’t run out).”
John Bolton writes that, in Washington DC, there was a broad sense of opposition to the harsh stance against Caracas and that this was, in some ways, a legacy of the Obama administration “which in eight years, did not see Venezuela, Cuba, or Nicaragua as adversaries.”
In the chapter, Bolton talks about the attempt to get humanitarian aid into Venezuela on February 23, 2019, and says that on the eve, there were rumors about the possibility that the then army commander, Jesús Suárez Chourio, would leave Maduro.
Bolton claims it was not a good idea for Guaidó to cross the border into Colombia by February 23, and says that the operation failed because of mistakes by the Venezuelan opposition.
“By the end of the Saturday (February 23), I thought the opposition had done very little to advance its cause. I was disappointed that the military had not responded with more defections. And I was amazed Guaidó and Colombia did not execute alternative plans.”
Bolton suggests an explanation for this: the Colombians cooled down because they feared a military confrontation for which they were not prepared. “Did it ever occur to anyone that this might happen?” Bolton asks himself.
As the chapter progresses, two things emerge recurrently: Trump’s mistrust and skepticism of Guaidó, and his willingness to resolve the Venezuelan tragedy by force.
“Trump said to me on March 3, ‘he (Guaidó) doesn’t have what it takes… Stay away from it a little; don’t get too much involved.”
“He (Trump) thought Guaidó was ‘weak,’ as opposed to Maduro, who was ‘strong.’ By spring, Trump was calling Guaidó the ‘Beto O’Rourke of Venezuela,’ hardly the kind of compliment an ally of the United States should expect,” writes Bolton.
At the end of the chapter, it is clear that John Bolton and several advisors were convinced that the strategy should be designed based on the possibility of a military breakdown in Venezuela. Bolton even welcomed the negotiations between the Venezuelan opposition and the regime because this showed that “the cracks we were looking for were emerging.”
“We wanted to show potential defectors that we were serious about amnesty. This was realpolitik. It was better to swallow a few scruples to free Venezuela’s people than to stand on ‘principles’ that kept them oppressed. That was why I tweeted to wish Maduro a long, quiet retirement on a nice beach. I didn’t like it, but it was far preferable to his remaining in power,” writes the former White House national security adviser.
It was clear, given the facts, that it was the wrong strategy. The military break that John Bolton had been waiting for never happened. Meanwhile, Trump is portrayed as a man who lacked character and the will to prevail over his advisors. Given his lack of knowledge about Venezuela, the president let himself be carried away by the advisors who designed the wrong strategy.