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John Maisto, former US ambassador to Venezuela, discusses what’s next for nation



john maisto
Ambassador John Maisto speaks on the phone during the opening of
the InterAmerican Convention Against

AP Photo/Esteban

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

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

Q: Last year, President Donald Trump said the US has a
“military option” in Venezuela. Senator Marco Rubio has also
seemed to 


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

Q: What about an internal military coup? Especially with

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

Q: The State and Treasury departments have rolled


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

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

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.

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