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Trump's Venezuela policy isn't a case of right versus left. It's a case of right versus wrong.

As a former Obama-era diplomat, I can and should acknowledge when this president does diplomacy correctly.
Image: Women carrying babies wait as they try to buy diapers outside a pharmacy in Caracas, March 18, 2017.
Women carrying babies wait as they try to buy diapers outside a pharmacy in Caracas, March 18, 2017.Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters file

The people of Venezuela are being held hostage by Nicolas Maduro. For years, he has denied them food, medicine and basic supplies. More than three million refugees have fled the country. In 2017, more than 280,000 children were found to be malnourished and at risk of dying. The situation in the country has only declined drastically and the statistics are likely far worse now. Alarmingly, the government denies there are any problems; it doesn’t even allow health statistics to be officially kept.

Still, we know that newborns in Syria, which is still wracked by war, are more likely to survive than those born to Venezuelan mothers; maternal mortality rose 66 percent from 2015 to 2016. The average person in the nation lost 24 pounds in 2017.Reports indicate that nearly 80 percent of hospitals lack regular access to water, 53 percent of the nation's operating rooms are shuttered and more than 70 percent of emergency rooms cannot regularly provide services to patients

Maduro callously refuses to acknowledge, let alone address the suffering of his people. If America allows him to stay the course, the consequences will be catastrophic. This isn’t just a political crisis. There is a humanitarian imperative to act.

It's true that American hasn't always been a good neighbor; Our relations with Latin America have often oscillated between indifference and ill-advised interventions. And on Wednesday, during a House Foreign Affairs committee hearing on U.S. policy toward Venezuela, many Democrats focused on that past and the possibility that any intervention in Venezuela could turn out as poorly as past efforts in the region.

But they all but ignored the present perilous predicament of the Venezuelan people. Our past cannot hold us back from doing what is right, and required now. Inaction is not necessarily respect; in this case, it is morally wrong and reprehensible.

The question for lawmakers should not be if, but how, we act. We have already tried strong words and sanctions, for years; Maduro and those who back him were not fazed by such traditional tactics. The European Union called for new, fair elections to be held in the country; those kind of election a Maduro-run government did not hold last year and will not now solve the crisis.

We have already tried strong words and sanctions, for years; Maduro and those who back him were not fazed by such traditional tactics.

So far, I give the Trump Administration mixed, but passing, marks on their response to the crisis; many of the steps they have taken to pressure Maduro and the military — including the diplomatic, disaster response, and denial of funds — are the right ones.

That includes recognizing Juan Guaido as head of state: The Venezuelan Constitution calls for the president of the National Assembly, in this case Guaido, to temporarily assume the highest office in the land should there be an absence of a democratically elected head of state. Recognizing him as such in the wake of a sham election isn't a coup, it’s the constitution.

Forcing Maduro’s diplomats out of the United States and transferring the government’s American-held assets, like the oil company Citgo’s, to Guaido were also smart moves. This cuts off a key source of funding for the regime. And Trump’s team has assembled an important and impressive international coalition of over 50 countries to support Venezuela’s constitution and return to democracy.

Trump administration has actually emphasized the importance of human rights and democracy in this case. (The embrace of those principles has been largely absent from U.S. foreign policy toward other parts of the world recently.) And though I worked for Barack Obama, I can and should acknowledge when Donald Trump does diplomacy right. Indeed, there was a dangerous isolationist undertone in some Democrats’ comments this week.

There are, however, several areas of our Venezuela policy in which I differ with the administration. First, I believe that their rhetoric is far too aggressive: John Bolton continues to taunt Maduro with tweets, while Mike Pompeo and the State Department are trying to leverage the situation in Venezuela to get some traction on their hardline against Iran. It too often echoes an era during which the United States bullied and bulldozed its way around Latin America. Trump's comments that it was “socialist policies” that brought about this crisis in Venezuela during the State of the Union were not helpful either.

Rhetoric like that makes it too easy for Maduro to paint a picture of our actions being guided by malevolent motivations; he has already, by telling the BBC that Trump is a warmonger and accusing Bolton of planning to replace him with a puppet.

A stronger solution would be to let other countries, especially regional leaders, take more prominent roles in critiquing the Maduro regime and highlight the suffering of the Venezuelan people. We used this approach often when I was a diplomat posted to Africa, preferring to let the African Union play the role of chief critic (even if our performance as only a supporting actor was Oscar-worthy).

Beyond the optics, a massive amount of aid is needed to counter the Maduro regime's criminal negligence. Just $20 million has been put on the table by the United States in response to the country's crisis; we need to add several zeros to that figure. And, given Maduro's history of denying his people desperately needed assistance and the scale of the suffering in Venezuela, we ought to be creating massive aid centers on the border and offer jobs there to Venezuelan soldiers who leave their posts. That would create a stark choice for officers whose loyalties are already weakened by more paltry payoffs from Maduro and the prospect of perishing for an increasingly unpopular politician.

Then there is the prospect for a U.S. military intervention: Without question, we should not repeat the mistakes of the past, and thus it should be a last resort and absolutely done alongside other Latin American nations. But, as in Haiti, Panama and Kosovo, it must remain an option; we simply cannot stand idly by while parents lose their children to starvation and Pinochet-esque death squads can kill with impunity those suspected of acting against the regime.

Any one of us can disagree with Trump on some, or even most, of his policies. But, he is right that the people of Venezuela need our help now.

We should continue to encourage a multilateral, multi-dimensional strategy that emphasizes aggressive diplomacy and disaster assistance. But, we cannot let partisanship or past problems prevent us from protecting those in danger, especially the hundreds of thousands of malnourished children. That would truly be an immoral legacy.