At the Colombian-Venezuelan border on Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered a weak imitation of former President Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech, delivered over three decades ago in West Berlin.
Standing alongside President Ivan Duque of Colombia, Pompeo stated somberly, “to paraphrase a president who faced similar circumstances, ‘Mr. Maduro open these bridges. Open these borders. You can end this today … change your ways, leave your country.'”
As with Mikhail Gorbachev’s collapsing Soviet regime in June 1987, Nicolas Maduro’s regime is under immense pressure. But Pompeo’s words don’t work, because Maduro’s calculations and U.S. actions aren’t the same as with Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987. Maduro won’t care or bother to listen to Pompeo in the manner that the Soviets had to listen to Reagan.
By 1987, Gorbachev recognized his government’s system was in full collapse. He was doing all he could to reform it: opening Soviet citizens to new political rights, media coverage, and innovation. Gorbachev also realized the USSR was no longer able to compete in an arms struggle with the United States. Reagan also knew this. In turn, Reagan’s wall call wasn’t so much a rebuke of Gorbachev as it was a riposte to the Soviet hardliners who would later attempt to overthrow Gorbachev in 1991, the ones who criticized the U.S. as an intractable, existential enemy. Reagan was showing U.S. recognition that detente was the Soviets’ only option. And he knew Gorbachev already knew it.
Maduro, in contrast, plainly will not see Pompeo’s words as forceful or compelling. Unlike Reagan’s matching of sustained escalation (arms buildups, countering Soviets in Afghanistan) alongside continuous offer of compromise (nuclear arms controls), Pompeo offers only words. The secretary of state has consistently pledged that Maduro has to leave office or U.S. pressure would force him out. But it hasn’t happened, and the U.S. has not escalated in turn.
This is President Trump’s failure of action more than it is Pompeo’s. But Pompeo doesn’t seem to realize that the Venezuelans view him as just another Yankee voice box.
Consider Maduro’s calculation. He’s seen steady declines in his capital reserves, oil exports, and political support. And he’s seen repeated U.S. pledges that his time has come. But he’s also seen U.S. hesitation.
Has the U.S. accepted interim president Juan Guaido’s request and embargoed Maduro’s oil supply to his security enabler, Cuba? No. Has it sanctioned brigade commanders who form the meat of Maduro’s military? No. Facing a looming humanitarian catastrophe of Maduro’s making, has the U.S. airdropped aid into Venezuela? No. Has the U.S. seized Venezuelan assets abroad? Only somewhat. Has the U.S. sanctioned Russia for its enabling of Maduro’s illegitimate regime? No. Has the U.S. reinforced its previous threats that any Maduro action against interim president Juan Guaido would result in major U.S. escalation? No, it has not.
At the same time, Colombia, Brazil, and Latin American states are reluctant to take bolder action, for fear that the Trump administration lacks the commitment to see the mission through. But Maduro sees Vladimir Putin taking tentative, but significant, steps to reinforce his regime. And he knows Russia succeeded in saving Bashar Assad in Syria. All of this gives the possibly insane presidential pretender the confidence that he might, just might, pull through and survive.
And so like former President Barack Obama, Mike Pompeo is learning that words are impotent unless matched to commensurate action. This was not at all a Reaganesque moment for the Trump administration.