null: nullpx

5,000 Troops to Colombia: The Dangers of Disinformation in Venezuela

The Trump administration should be wary of fueling fake news predictions about an imminent American invasion which unrealistically raises expectations about Maduro's removal.
John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision consultant.
Default image alt
John Bolton Crédito: Reuters

For a White House and National Security Council that exist by careening from crisis to chaos, there is currently a rare reason to smile: Venezuela policy.

Recent events have witnessed a Made in Venezuela constitutional gambit elevate a heretofore obscure democrat to the position of interim President. The passionate, long distance runner’s face of Juan Guaidó, virtually unknown outside of Venezuela on New Year’s Day, has now appeared on the covers of magazines and tweets around the world. And more than one observer has noted that hungry and downtrodden Venezuelans are whispering among themselves, “This time it’s different.”

However, the fight to remove the dictator Nicolás Maduro and his drug and oil trafficking cronies is far from over. To find the definitive off ramp, restore democracy, and begin to repair the manmade disaster that chavismo and 21 st century Bolivarian Socialism have visited upon the nation, many things have to go right. Guaidó must retain the consolidated support of the famously fractured and internecine Venezuelan opposition. He must resist the siren call of yet another dialogue sponsored by Mexico, Uruguay and others who still naively believe that cutting a deal with Maduro is a more valid way to end the two-decade nightmare of a failed autocracy than via the ballot box.

Finally, the star supporting international actor in this drama, must stick to the script and not improvise. I am referring, of course, to the Trump Administration.

As I have previously expressed, the Trump Administration did not write this screenplay, but it has had the most important supporting role after the lead Venezuelan cast of characters. To date, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Elliott Abrams have dutifully read their lines, hit their marks and been successful in elevating Guaidó and his brave democratic colleagues to the brink of a peaceful, constitutional resolution to Venezuela’s suffering.

But worrisome bits of amateurish improvisation are beginning to appear.

First was Bolton’s ostentatiously scribbled note on a legal pad that read “5,000 troops to Colombia.” That press conference wasn’t the National Security Advisor’s first rodeo, and his message was pure psyops – a psychological operation intended to send a message to Maduro that “ we’re comin’ to git you.” Mind you, there is nothing wrong with deception, deceit, and propaganda in the conduct of hot or cold war. The key, however, is to do it only after a thorough examination of context, options and consequences – intended and unintended. I seriously doubt that Bolton’s magic marker trick was anything more than his own idea. It tracks with his career modus operandi as a smug and self-appointed crafty Cold Warrior and neocon.

The problem is that neither Bolton, nor anyone in the U.S. government, can control the message or narrative in a Venezuela where the free press has been so badly weakened and Twitter is the primary means of information receipt and transmission. In the past several days since Bolton’s cagily repeated “ All options are on the table” mantra, all manner of memes, short videos and blog posts have purported to show U.S. troops massing in Cucuta, Colombia just across the border with Venezuela, or in Aruba and Curacao, the Caribbean islands where thousands of Venezuelan refugees have been smuggled to find food or employment.

One internet offering showed U.S. Southern Command’s Admiral Fallon inspecting the troops in Colombia. The only problem is that they were photos of U.S. and Salvadoran troops taken during the commander’s visit to El Salvador just prior to elections. Other examples of this social media disinformation campaign that follows from Bolton’s cute maneuver include photos of U.S. soldiers and Marines assaulting beach heads or escorting large caravans of humanitarian assistance. Who might be behind this internet flotsam and jetsam is anyone’s guess, but bad English spelling and grammar seem to be consistent elements of their style.

As a retired American Ambassador and Marine Corps officer, I can spot the anomalies in these amateurish, FAKE.NEWS! productions pretty easily. Not so, an out of work Venezuelan father whose family has lost an average of 20 pounds over the past two years, and whose daily preoccupation is finding food for his family, or whether to join the three million other Venezuelans who have fled their misery. To that archetypical Venezuelan wretch and millions of others, a psyops campaign about an imminent American invasion unrealistically raises expectations.

When desperate people truly believe the 'gringos' are at the gates with chicken parts and pampers, aspirin and powdered milk, eggs and rice and beans, emotions rather than reason will dictate the street reactions to this promise of bounty that will likely be a long time in actually arriving, and even then, only once the Maduro regime has been irrevocably removed from office.

And that is bad for Venezuelans and Guaidó – purportedly the very people Bolton and the U.S. government claim they seek to assist.

So why hasn’t the Trump Administration denied that it has 5,000 troops along the land and maritime borders of Venezuela? My suspicion is that the pleasure of seeing the Maduro government squirm is too great. For an Administration that stands at the front door of its first potential foreign policy victory the giddiness of petty vengeance wrought upon ghastly human rights abusers is too great to resist.

My unsolicited advice: Use the President’s State of the Union tomorrow evening to make clear that no U.S. invasion force is coming to liberate the Venezuelan people a la D-Day. They will liberate themselves - constitutionally. Explain what we may be doing to pre-position humanitarian assistance in concert with friendly nations who support Venezuela’s return to democracy and a long recovery. Most importantly, continue to stress that the primary actors in Venezuela’s emerging new chapter are Venezuelan, not American.