As a Crumbling Venezuela Braces for Coronavirus, the U.S. Indicts Maduro. Is This Really a Priority Right Now? | Opinion

On March 26, the United States did something it typically avoids—it took legal action against a foreign head of state. In a 28-page indictment filed in the Southern District of New York, the Justice Department outlined a series of allegations against Venezuelan dictator Nicholas Maduro for drug offenses dating back to 1999.

The indictment claims Maduro received $5 million in drug profits from a guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), when he served as Venezuela's foreign minister in 2006. Federal prosecutors also named Maduro as head of the Suns Cartel, an organization whose purpose was to "flood" the United States with cocaine. Attorney General William Barr and Venezuela envoy Elliot Abrams—two officials who supported charging Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega for narcotics offenses more than 30 years ago—were reportedly the lead proponents of the legal strategy.

On the legal merits, the case against Maduro and his advisers is a solid one. But, U.S. policy is not a game of one-dimensional lens where other considerations are marginalized or ignored entirely.

There are a number of reasons why formal U.S. legal action against the Maduro regime is unwise, particularly at this moment.

The Maduro regime may be in dire straits economically, but it is not without ammunition. For more than two years, six oil executives—five of whom are American citizens—have been treated as criminals ever since they were arrested on spurious corruption charges. Caracas does not hesitate in using these detainees as bargaining chips. Almost immediately after President Trump's State of the Union Address this February, where he hosted Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as a guest of honor, Venezuelan security forces moved the six men from house arrest to El Heliocoide, a notorious hub in one of the world's worst prison systems. "The Citgo Six" will likely suffer even more extreme conditions now that the Trump administration has filed charges against Maduro and his lieutenants in federal court.

The indictment against Maduro will also have unforeseen humanitarian impacts for a nation already incapable of providing its citizens with the most elementary public services. Due in large measure to the Maduro regime's corruption and mismanagement, Venezuela's economy has experienced one of the worst economic contractions in the 21st century. Its GDP has declined every year since 2014, reaching an astounding 19.6% devaluation in 2018. The International Monetary Fund projects Venezuela's GDP will decrease by another 10% this year. The humanitarian situation in Venezuela is abominable, with life expectancy going down, poverty rising, hospitals scrounging for basic medical supplies, and children dying from hunger.

The situation is so dire that about 4.7 million Venezuelans—roughly 10% of Venezuela's entire population—have fled the country. Another 2 million people could leave by the end of 2020, which would further tax the resources of neighboring countries which have economic problems of their own. Further sanctions hitting the Venezuelan economy will compound the misery Venezuelans are experiencing on a daily basis, in turn worsening a migration crisis that has already overwhelmed neighboring Colombia's capacity to handle the crisis.

Indicting Maduro is also bound to complicate the region's efforts in finding a political solution to Venezuela's crisis.. Washington's sordid history of intervening in Latin American affairs could jeopardize ongoing regional efforts.

Last year, Maduro and the opposition spent six months arduously negotiating with each other on the island of Barbados in the hope of arriving at some sort of mutually agreeable political arrangement. Those negotiations, however, screeched to a halt immediately after the Trump administration announced additional sanctions on Caracas, a decision strongly supported by then-national security adviser John Bolton. Maduro pulled out of talks in retaliation, destroying the only existing diplomatic channel at the time.

In the months since, diplomacy has been nonexistent as Washington continues to increase its economic pressure campaign on Maduro despite little evidence whatsoever that his government is about to fall. And with the coronavirus epidemic now beginning to impact an under-resourced and unprepared Venezuelan hospital system, regime change in Caracas would serve no purpose other than introducing a greater degree of anarchy inside the country. That, in turn, would result in more refugee flows, more humanitarian disaster within Venezuela's borders, and more destabilization in the region at large.

Venezuela is a difficult problem to solve. The best way Washington can contribute is by getting out of the way, allowing its Latin American partners to take the lead in facilitating a diplomatic formula acceptable to both sides, and providing humanitarian aid to neighboring countries (like Colombia) that are in the unenviable position of managing the migration flows.

Filing criminal charges against Nicolas Maduro may be emotionally satisfying for the investigators and prosecutors who have been working on this case. But in terms of foreign policy, this action seeks to replace one problem with another, a mistake that will have unintended humanitarian, political, and diplomatic repercussions.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​