Handout picture released by the Venezuelan Presidency showing Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) flashing the V-sign next to Commandant of the Armed Forces Strategic Command Operations Remigio Ceballos (L) during a military rally with the personnel posted in the REDI Capital and the Superior General Staff of the FANB at Fuerte Tiuna Military Complex, in Caracas, on January 30, 2019. - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accused military deserters of having become "mercenaries" conspiring from Colombia to divide the armed forces and plot a coup. (Photo by Marcelo GARCIA / Venezuelan Presidency / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO - Venezuelan Presidency / Marcelo GARCIA" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTSMARCELO GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images
External opposition to Nicolás Maduro's regime includes most of Latin America and liberal Canada © AFP

When John Bolton this week presented Washington’s latest round of sanctions against Venezuela, a hand-written line on the US national security adviser’s yellow notepad caught the eye: “5,000 troops to Colombia”. 

Asked if US armed forces could get involved, Mr Bolton then did little to rule that out. “The president has made it very clear on this matter that all options are on the table,” he said. 

Such hints of military action against Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuelan regime, combined with Washington’s recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate interim president, have rekindled dark memories of US intervention in Latin America, such as the invasions of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s.

But analysts said such threats were likely to be bluffs designed to raise the psychological pressure on Mr Maduro and, alongside escalating financial sanctions, prompt the military to abandon the regime for the opposition. 

“Bolton’s yellow pad was pure psy-ops. For starters, the US has a tight cap on the number of troops it can deploy in Colombia, just 200,” said John Feeley, a former American ambassador to Panama who resigned from the state department early in Donald Trump’s administration. 

Colombian officials were also quick to swat down the idea that the US was getting ready to mass troops for a Venezuelan invasion across its border. When asked on Tuesday if Washington had raised the idea of sending troops, the foreign minister Carlos Holmes was emphatic: “They have not.” 

It is easy to caricature the US involvement in Venezuela as a rightwing, US imperialist coup — as Mr Maduro and allies such as Cuba, Bolivia and Russia have done — even though two dozen nations support Mr Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president and his push for free elections.

Opec member Venezuela has the world’s largest energy reserves, while Citgo, the US-based subsidiary of state-owned PDVSA, operates oil refineries in Louisiana and Texas.

Mr Trump made Venezuela a top foreign policy priority as soon as he became president, and later appointed the hawkish conservative Mr Bolton. The US president also hired Elliott Abrams, a cold war warrior convicted on two misdemeanours of withholding information from Congress during the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal but later pardoned, as special Venezuela envoy.

Yet external opposition to the Maduro regime includes most of Latin America and liberal Canada, which has often clashed with Mr Trump. If Venezuela’s president does not meet this weekend’s EU ultimatum to call free elections, which is likely, Europe will join the multilateral group as well. 

On Wednesday, as the opposition readied for a day of protests, Mr Maduro called for Russian-sponsored talks with Mr Guaidó. The opposition has so far branded such offers as thinly veiled attempts by the regime to buy time, following multiple fruitless talks in the past. 

“Everybody will be better off if this remains a multilateral effort, even if the US is currently playing the biggest role,” said a senior official from the Lima Group, which comprises Latin America’s biggest countries plus Canada. 

Perhaps the closest recent parallel is the western alliance that sought regime change via a similar parallel government in Libya — a move picked up this week by General Vladimir Padrino, Venezuela’s defence minister, who called the anti-Maduro alliance “a siege” copied from the “Libya format”. 

Libya’s descent into chaos after the violent death of the dictator Muammer Gaddafi provides a warning of how things could go in Venezuela. But others see clear reasons for the multilateral effort to force a transition from the Maduro regime. 

“It is hard to run out of reasons why Venezuela should move on from Maduro via free elections, and that is as true for the US as any other country,” said John Polga, political scientist at the US Naval Academy. 

The regime has produced the region’s largest-ever refugee exodus, 3m people having fled so far and another 5,000 leaving each day, according to the UN. That exodus has particularly affected neighbouring Colombia. 

The country’s security vacuum has allowed the generals in Maduro’s inner circle to become involved in international drug-trafficking, while the country has long been a safe haven for guerrilla forces, analysts say. 

The US has other strategic reasons to be involved, beginning with the Obama administration which started the pattern of targeted sanctions subsequently and aggressively expanded by Mr Trump.

Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk, a Bogotá-based consultancy, said: “The US does not want to shy away from its influence in the region but wants to show it is ready to intervene should the situation require.” 

The Trump administration also has reasons of its own. Marco Rubio, the Republican senator for Florida, and Mauricio Claver-Carone, the western hemisphere head of the National Security Council, are both Cuban-Americans who view Venezuelan regime change as a way of pressuring communist Havana, Caracas’s closest ally. 

Florida’s rising Venezuela émigré population could help swing the state for Mr Trump and the Republican party, Mr Polga suggested.

Venezuela could also provide Mr Trump with the elusive foreign policy win he has so far failed to deliver with North Korea, Russia or the Middle East. 

“What’s striking is how the Trump administration is engaging in the kind of multilateralism that it has long deplored elsewhere,” Mr Feeley said. “There are very few people in the US who currently think Trump is messing up with his Venezuela policy. If successful, multilateralism could even help lead to his single foreign policy win.”

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