- President Donald Trump made Venezuela one of his top national-security priorities, alongside adversaries like North Korea and Iran.
- The Trump administration has kept up the pressure on the country's isolated government.
- Turmoil there has triggered a massive exodus of Venezuelans, who've fled to neighboring countries.
President Donald Trump spent much of his first year in office focused on North Korea and Iran, seeking to counter the threats his administration believed they posed to the US.
Alongside those two states was Venezuela, where the government has cracked down on unrest and dissent and conditions made it one of Trump's top three national-security priorities, even as the Pentagon cast the military powers, Russia and China, as the prime threats to the US.
That was "absolutely" the Trump administration's view of the South American country, said Fernando Cutz, who was a member of the Obama and Trump administration National Security Council staff, in the latter case as South America director and senior adviser to former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.
The socialist-led and authoritarian Venezuela has been a foil for Trump to attack from the political right throughout his time in office.
His administration's assessment of the country as a risk stems from its potential for collapse after years of political and economic turmoil — marked by crackdowns on protests and the political opposition by the government of President Nicolas Maduro and a mass exodus of Venezuelans.
During 2017, "Venezuela was one of three major priorities for [Trump] on topics of foreign policy. He came on board very early on, already asking about Venezuela, and ... I think it was second workday in the office that I got pulled in [by him] to brief him on Venezuela," Cutz told Business Insider this month. "It wasn't an issue that I had to push. It was he wanted to know more about what we were doing."
"Whatever prior experience or knowledge he had on the topic, which honestly I don't know what it was, but it drove him to want to engage fairly quickly and strongly," he added.
Cutz — who left the White House in spring 2018 and is a senior associate at business advisory the Cohen Group — said there was some continuity between Obama and Trump on Venezuela.
"I think what we saw under President Trump is an ability for us to do a little bit more than we were doing under President Obama, but it was following a very similar path that we had kind of set out for ourselves under President Obama," Cutz said.
Trump's focus on Venezuela contrasts with what appears to be indifference toward the region, characterized by the cancellation of bilateral meetings and early departure from the G20 summit in Argentina.
Maduro has been criticized for authoritarian measures and called a dictator, but Trump's repudiation of him differs from the president's attitude toward other countries with authoritarian or dictatorial governments, like Russia or China.
Asked about that seeming discrepancy, White House officials said this spring that Venezuela warranted attention because the region had never seen such economic and humanitarian turmoil, which threatened other US partners.
Cutz echoed that assessment.
The hemisphere lacks threats present elsewhere in the world, like nuclear weapons or terrorism, he said.
"But I don't think you can underestimate the threat of a failed state very close to our borders. The Venezuelan regime has really been deteriorating rapidly. The economy is almost nonexistent at this point. Any kind of resembling of a democracy is basically gone now," Cutz said. "It's become a full-fledged dictatorship."
"We're already seeing the first-order effects of [worsening conditions in Venezuela] in Colombia and Ecuador and Peru and Brazil with the mass-migration crisis that's going on right now," he added. "I think that's minimal compared to what we still might see in the next year or two or three, depending on how this keeps going."
Some 3.3 million of Venezuela's roughly 30 million residents have fled, most since 2015, according to the UN.
Most have sought relief from widespread violence, spiraling inflation and rampant shortages in neighboring countries, mainly Colombia, which has strained under the massive influx. The UN said in December that another 2 million could leave in 2019.
"That could really destabilize our friends and allies in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and cause some much more significant problems for us, not to mention eventually some of these refugees could start making their way up to the United States, and that could pose its own kind of new migration crisis," Cutz said.
Foreign governments have added to their criticism of Maduro in recent days, saying they would not recognize his new term after he was sworn in for another six years in office, won in an election decried as fraudulent. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the government "illegitimate."
Since that inauguration, the frequently divided opposition has rallied around Juan Guaido, president of the opposition-dominated National Assembly. Guaido, briefly arrested earlier this week, has begun maneuvering to unseat Maduro. Brazil has recognized Guaido as president, which the US is also considering. (China and Russia remain two of Venezuela's biggest backers.)
The Trump administration has offered aid to countries taking in Venezuelans, and Pompeo has met with leaders from the region to express support for confronting Maduro. But the administration has been reluctant to take special immigration actions for those migrants, despite a 21% increase in arrivals in the US between 2016 and 2017.
Trump himself has struck a more aggressive tone, saying in August 2017 that the US had "many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option" — a remark Cutz has said "wasn't in the script."
The Trump administration had several clandestine meetings with rebellious Venezuelan military officers in 2018 but ultimately rebuffed their requests to support a coup.
At Wilson Center event in Washington, DC, in September, Cutz said the White House "never debated supporting a coup" or providing support for a coup while he worked there but was always open to listening when a player in Venezuela wanted to talk.
Cutz also said at the event the administration had escalatory steps for developments in Venezuela, including a military response, for which he specifically mentioned the killing of US citizens or a massacre of Venezuelans as potential triggers.
The steps also included "a full-fledged oil embargo," he said.
Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves, and oil accounts for about 95% of its export revenue. Experts warned an embargo would significantly exacerbate Venezuela's turmoil by slashing income used for things like food and medicine imports. Analysts have said it would ripple through global markets.
The White House has in recent days reportedly told US refiners it's considering sanctioning Venezuela's oil exports to the US, though it remains wary of the impact, particularly on US oil prices.
Deliberations about such a move where tinged by concerns about what effect it could have, Cutz said in September: "If we destroy Venezuela, and we make the situation worse for the people of Venezuela, what comes next?"