National Security Advisor John Bolton caused a stir in both Washington and Caracas on Monday by getting himself photographed with a notepad that read, “Afghanistan -> Welcome the talks. 5,000 troops to Colombia.”
Various observers either denounced Bolton as foolishly telegraphing administration strategy on Venezuela, and possibly violating national security protocols, or applauded him for finding a novel way to send embattled Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro a message.
Maduro certainly got the message, whether or not it was transmitted intentionally by Bolton.
“So now John Bolton openly calls for a coup from Washington, he did so desperately today, with his wild eyes, full of hate, and I tell you John Bolton: John Bolton, in Venezuela what we will have is democracy and respect for this constitution. In Venezuela our armed forces are not coup-mongers,” the dictator raged in a televised address on Monday, while his defense minister proclaimed Venezuela’s soldiers “ready to die” defending Bolivarian socialism.
Bolton carried his notepad right past a swarm of reporters to join Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in announcing sanctions against Venezuela’s national oil company PDVSA. Bolton’s remarks included a call for the Venezuelan military to side with the people against the Maduro regime, provoking the bombastic response that Venezuelan troops are prepared to die defending Maduro’s rule:
We have continued to expose the corruption of Maduro and his cronies, and today’s action ensures they can no longer loot the assets of the Venezuelan people. We expect – and Secretary Mnuchin will go into this in more detail – that today’s measure totals $7 billion in assets blocked today, plus over $11 billion in lost export proceeds over the next year.
We also today call on the Venezuelan military and security forces to accept the peaceful, democratic, and constitutional transfer of power. And to a certain extent, this has already begun. We have seen Venezuelan official and military personnel heeding this call. The Venezuelan defense attaché here in Washington recognized President Guaidó a few days ago. And just within the past hours, the first consul of Venezuela’s consulate in Miami, Scarlet Salazar, has also declared for Interim President Guaidó.
I call on all responsible nations to recognize Interim President Guaidó immediately. Maduro has made clear he will not recognize Guaidó or call for new elections. Now is the time to stand for democracy and prosperity in Venezuela.
I reiterate that the United States will hold Venezuelan security forces responsible for the safety of all U.S. diplomatic personnel, the National Assembly, and President Guaidó. Any violence against these groups would signify a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response.
Treasury Secretary Mnuchin added that sanctions against PDVSA are intended to “help prevent further diverting of Venezuela’s assets by Maduro and preserve these assets for the people of Venezuela.”
The question is what Venezuelan troops will do when Maduro inevitably orders them to arrest or slaughter demonstrators on a massive scale. CNN noted that soldiers are already raiding homes and dragging away peasants in poor communities that Maduro once courted for support with government handouts.
The well-fed military brass seems loyal to Maduro – with exceptions such as Venezuela’s defense attache to the United States, Col. Jose Luis Silva, who announced on Saturday that he no longer recognizes Maduro as president – but rank-and-file soldiers are beginning to complain about corruption and starvation. One soldier told CNN he would refuse an order to open fire on protesters and estimated “80 percent of the army is against the government.”
As for Colombia and the role of Bolton’s hypothetical 5,000 U.S. troops, CNN touched on the significance of Venezuela’s neighbor in its report:
Over a decade ago, Colombians would walk into Venezuela for well-paid work in the oil-rich nation. Now Venezuelans are the cleaners, the beggars, even the sex workers trudging across the border into Colombia, where food is suddenly available everywhere.
Crossing the Simon Bolivar International Bridge from Colombia into Venezuela, we passed a steady stream of Venezuelans walking in the opposite direction. The United Nations estimates 2 million people will leave Venezuela this year, joining the more than 3 million already scattered around South America.
Stopped cars line the road toward the capital. Petrol remains cheap and plentiful in Venezuela, but in this border area, it’s reportedly being smuggled to Colombian buyers. This has caused a shortage for locals; some Venezuelans told us they slept in their cars for days, waiting to fuel up.
Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes said on Monday evening he was uncertain of the “importance and reason” for Bolton’s note. The Defense Department said it had no plans for increasing the U.S. presence in Colombia, while Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said he has not discussed such a deployment with Bolton. The White House, on the other hand, responded to questions about Bolton’s notepad by repeating that “all options are on the table.”
The incongruity of Bolton walking into a press conference with his “5,000 troops to Colombia” notepad – the message perfectly displayed over his arm on an otherwise blank sheet of paper, labeled as point number “3,” which implies at least one other page was torn off to make this particular page visible – struck some observers as a foolish mistake, while others assumed the note was intended to be seen and passed along to Maduro by the American press, escalating the pressure against him to step aside. Bolton is surely well aware of the Maduro regime’s paranoia about a U.S. land invasion or bombing campaign coming from Colombia.
EuroNews speculated Bolton’s note was an implied promise of a strong American response to any attack on U.S. diplomatic personnel in Venezuela, noting that Bolton warned the Maduro regime against assaulting American staff or Venezuelan opposition politicians the previous day.
“A U.S. military force in Colombia would be well positioned to respond if Maduro attempts to forcibly evict the remaining American diplomatic presence, or if he arrests or otherwise takes action against [interim president Juan Guaidó],” Bloomberg News agreed.
Another possibility is that Bolton scribbled his note while discussing the potential U.S. response to a massive wave of refugees from collapsing Venezuela into Colombia. Colombia has already taken in over a million Venezuelans, with another two million spread across Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil.
A Syria-style refugee stampede into Colombia would probably trigger an emergency request for the kind of assistance only the U.S. military can rapidly provide. There would be good reasons for answering that call beyond humanitarian compassion, as a wave of up to eight million refugees could destabilize the entire region.