Does Bolton’s ‘Tell-All’ Tell Us Anything at All About U.S. Venezuela Policy?

After a period in which Venezuela appeared to have fallen out of the mainstream U.S. news cycle, the country is back in focus thanks mainly to John Bolton’s new book. The book has leaked online and includes a 39-page chapter on Venezuela that has raised alarm bells in Washington and Caracas alike, putting pressure on Trump himself to respond to Bolton’s allegations. After reading through the chapter, we thought  it would be interesting to discuss our main takeaways here. 

Geoff Ramsey: There’s a lot in this book to chew on, and it’s easy to get sidetracked by some of the anecdotal gems that have been covered in the press (like Putin’s Juan Guaidó-Hillary Clinton comparison, or Trump describing Guaidó as the Venezuelan Beto O’Rourke). 

But once you sift through that, what’s striking to me is how many basic facts Bolton gets wrong, and how unreliable his narrative is. If you add his factual errors to his clear personal agenda here, I think it’s clear you have to take what he writes with a grain of salt.

David Smilde: Totally agree, here are a couple that caught my eye:

  • He says Venezuela intercepted a Guyanese oil exploration ship because Guyana would be a “competitor” (not sure that even makes sense given that oil markets are global). It was actually because Venezuela and Guyana have a long-standing border dispute including the territorial waters where the oil fields are located.
  • He suggests the U.S. Embassy said the January 23, 2019  crowd was the biggest during the Chavez-Maduro period. If they did they’re really misinformed. It was big, but there were bigger crowds in 2017 and even bigger in 2002-03, not to mention when Hugo Chávez and other candidates filled the Av. Bolivar for campaign rallies.
  • Finally, he said the “poorest people don’t have Visa and Mastercard.” But in fact at that time the only way to pay anything in Venezuela was with debit cards and many, perhaps most, payment systems ran through Visa and Mastercard networks.

These mistakes are not huge issues in themselves, but they provide a context for understanding how the Trump administration was able to repeatedly misjudge the situation.

GR: Yes, the book also provides a sense that the U.S. government lacks good information from on-the-ground sources. At multiple points, Bolton refers to relying on internet videos as evidence, or on accounts from opposition politicians that later proved inaccurate–like the case of early accounts of the failed April 30th uprising.

But factual errors aside, I do think the book confirms a lot of what we have long suspected about this White House’s approach to Venezuela.  It makes clear that Venezuela is simply not a top priority for Trump. At least not one that he’s willing to stake his presidential legacy on. It also confirms  divisions within the administration between the National Security Council, the State Department and the Treasury Department.  

DS: And Bolton’s neoconservative mindset! His writing is motored by a highly emotional conviction of success, is completely lacking in reflection, and sees the world in binary terms. As if quoting Dick Cheney he says: “We had only two choices in Venezuela: win and lose.” Of course a long term quagmire never quite fits in this view of the world. And Bolton’s vocabulary is strikingly basic, not moving much beyond: strong vs. weak, resolve vs. vacillation. Over the course of the chapter, Bolton manages to make Trump look thoughtful and capable of changing direction; whereas for Bolton, charging ahead no matter what happens seems to be a point of pride.  

GR: There’s a typical neocon lack of contingency planning, almost like a belief that the righteousness of the cause alone will guide it to success. He describes an administration that knew very well that recognizing Juan Guaido as interim president was a serious gambit, but which didn’t see the need to develop a detailed Plan B if that failed. 

Bolton ends his chapter with a vague optimism that the regime will fall eventually. He’s nostalgic about the Cold War and it shows in his actions. At one point (page 254) he remarks that Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino is “one of many Latins with Russian first names, from Cold War days,” and you can almost sense his excitement at the possibility of returning to the glory days. For him, Venezuela is Cuba—it’s a long term battle now. Of course this suits many U.S. political actors just fine, as this kind of framing has helped win votes in Florida even as it has failed to lead to democracy in Cuba for 60 years.