Venezuela: Washington Trying to Tighten the Noose

By Eric Hershberg

Two side by side images of Venezuela's territory comparing the electrical grid on March 7 and March 12, after six days of blackout

Satellite images of Venezuela. Left image taken on March 7, 2019; right image taken on March 12, 2019 during a blackout / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

As Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro completes 11 weeks in office since Washington and dozens of other countries recognized National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as “interim president,” the Trump Administration is ratcheting up the pressure. U.S. officials’ rhetoric and actions against both Venezuela and Cuba, which the State Department says is “propping up the former [Maduro] regime,” are escalating. A “senior official” told reporters last Friday that new sanctions would “tighten the noose of financial strangulation of Maduro and his cronies,” while U.S. Vice President Pence, speaking in Houston, reiterated that “all options are on the table.” Pence further focused U.S. regime-change policy on Cuba, citing Guaidó’s wife as the source of evidence that “the only way [Maduro] clings to power is with the help he receives from Communist Cuba.” Pence also said six U.S. businessmen arrested on corruption charges last year “are being held hostage by the Maduro regime,” suggesting another pretext for aggressive action.

  • Last Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department designated 34 vessels owned by PDVSA and two owned by non-Venezuelan companies for sanctions. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the move was to block Venezuelan oil exports and cut off supplies to Cuba under the two countries’ “oil-for-repression schemes.”.
  • Press reports on Venezuela’s oil shipments have varied, but Thomson Reuters specialists have reported that Venezuelan oil shipments, after a 40 percent drop in February, remained basically steady in March despite the crisis and electricity disruptions at oil facilities. PDVSA was shipping almost 1 million barrels a day in March, with the bulk going to India, China, and Russia. Reuters calculated that some 65,000 barrels a day went to Cuba.

Electricity blackouts and resulting water shortages have continued for three weeks. While conceivably the result of serious neglect of infrastructural maintenance by Maduro’s Administration, the outages have all the markings of covert sabotage operations. Venezuela has suffered from short power outages many times in recent years, but the latest blackouts have been by far the most extensive, longest, and most damaging. U.S. officials have denied any U.S. role, direct or indirect, in the blackouts. On March 8, Special Representative Elliott Abrams said, “So the United States did not cause those [electricity] problems, the international community did not; the regime caused those problems.”

The U.S. sanctions and related operations are having an impact, but Washington’s initial estimations of Maduro’s strength and the timeline for his collapse were not realistic. Meanwhile, denials of involvement in the blackouts are hard to take at face value. The phrase “all options” surely includes covert action. Turning out the lights is a common disruption tactic, and extraordinary neglect in system maintenance makes the power grid a particularly tempting target in Venezuela. Sabotage and disinformation operations have long been core components of American covert operations in the hemisphere. They were essential tools in successful efforts to depose Guatemalan President Arbenz in 1954 and Chilean President Allende in 1973. The CIA has also formed armed groups, such as the Bay of Pigs force in 1961 and the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s (where CIA also mined Corinto harbor). These historical precedents may provide some indications of next steps in the administration’s campaign to bring about regime change in Caracas.

April 11, 2019

From Washington to Brussels and Montevideo: No Common Plan for Venezuela

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Photograph of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs at the International Contact Group Meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay / EFE / Presidency of Uruguay / Creative Commons

A common feature of international efforts to deal with the years-long political crisis in Venezuela has been an inability to come up with a common approach – which, despite many countries’ agreement that it’s time for Nicolás Maduro to go, continues to hamper effective solutions. Three different and partly contradictory international approaches have emerged.

  • Regime change, supported by the United States, the Secretary General of the OAS, and the 13 Grupo de Lima states (without Mexico). It assumes that there is no exit from the political crisis without the immediate ousting of Maduro and his cronies. All international actions are “on the table,” including coercion through threatened military action, coercion through sanctions (implemented), international recognition of a parallel interim president (implemented), financial support to Maduro’s opposition (implemented), and delivery of humanitarian aid (being attempted).
  • Mediation with conditions, launched in Montevideo last Thursday by the Grupo de Contacto. Backed by member states of the EU, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Costa Rica, it proposes that the solution to the political crisis must be through peaceful means, namely national dialogue with international mediation. It imposes, though, a condition for dialogue and mediation to start: immediate presidential elections.
  • Mediation without conditions, sponsored by Mexico, Bolivia, Uruguay, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). The so-called Montevideo Mechanism also assumes that the crisis can be overcome only through a national dialogue, with international mediation and monitoring, but it does not impose any conditions on any of the parties before undertaking the dialogue and mediation.

All three strategies entail problems and challenges, although the first sets a precedent that by far is the most problematic. It establishes regime-change, including military intervention by internal or foreign forces, as a legitimate international action to solve political crises. In contrast to what OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has held in conferences at think-tanks, most experts assess that regime-change violates international law and, in particular, Inter-American Law. From an international perspective, such an action might be justifiable only under the strict observation of the criteria put forward by the UN Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which do not apply to the Venezuelan crisis as severe as it may be. The UN Secretary General has expressed his concern with the regime-change strategy, and some governments at the Lima Group also showed uneasiness with the military option at a summit in Ottawa on February 4. A main criticism is that it endangers civilians’ lives by making them potential targets in a confrontation, and it curtails any other alternative course of diplomatic action.

  • The second and third strategies could be the way forward, but they compete with each other, nullifying their potential leverage over the parties in conflict. The “Montevideo Mechanism” was launched by Mexico and Uruguay less than 24 hours before European representatives landed in Montevideo to discuss the Contact Group’s mission. That timing and Twitter politics suggest a leadership struggle between Mexico and the EU that undermines what should have been a common alternative plan. The apparent split has allowed Maduro to reject the EU-sponsored Contact Group and hold out for the “Montevideo Mechanism”. Guaidó has rejected both and suggested that the states supporting national dialogue and mediation are not “on the right side of history.”

International actors’ inability to agree on a common plan severely hampers diplomatic efforts – and plays into the U.S.-led push for regime change by non-diplomatic means. For the Venezuela crisis to have a resolution that sets positive precedents, international actors will need to abide by common international norms, including Inter-American Law, and set aside political interests and ideological visions that preclude the emergence of a unified, effective front that forces Venezuelans to get serious about ending a crisis.  Failing that, the opposition’s preference for military-style regime change and Maduro’s preference for buying time through unconditional negotiations allow them to suck international actors into their family feud – and only delay an end to the crisis.

February 12, 2019

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

Venezuela: When Will the Military Flip?

By Fulton Armstrong

venezuelan military marching

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó and his backers, including the Trump administration, are increasingly focused on swaying the country’s security forces to switch allegiance from Nicolás Maduro to the National Assembly President.  Guaidó has appealed to the military to support his efforts to “restore constitutional order” and is pushing through the legislature a law giving amnesty to cooperating officers for certain crimes committed since President Chávez took office in early 1999.  U.S. officials, apparently to shake up the armed forces, continue to say that “all options are on the table”; National Security Advisor John Bolton held a notepad at a press briefing referring to “5,000 troops to Colombia.”  Maduro, for his part, continues to orchestrate loyalty pledges from senior officers and preside over military exercises.

  • Several small units of the military have flipped, and Maduro’s military attaché in Washington – serving there for a number of years to get medical treatment – has declared loyalty to Guaidó. The vast majority of the officer corps, however, still maintain an appearance of commitment to Maduro.

The most common explanation for the military’s apparent loyalty cited by Maduro’s opponents is that the high command has been bought off by opportunities to engage in corruption.  Other factors, however, may better explain why the institution has stuck with him this long.

  • Ideological reasons? Most available information suggests that Madurismo – with its gross, incompetent mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and thuggery – is not attractive to the officer corps.  But they appear to know that Chavismo has deep roots; that the elites, including the more hardline opposition, don’t understand the significance of change since 1999; and that efforts to return to the pre-Chávez era would be destabilizing and bloody.
  • Financial reasons? Although historically and perennially corrupt, senior officers arguably have been able to do more corruption under Maduro than under another regime.  That said, in their heart of hearts, they probably know a lot of their activities will continue under any government.
  • Distrust of the opposition? The military traditionally has communicated better with opposition moderates, such as Henrique Capriles, and in recent years has shown no trust in the faction that Guaidó comes from and its leader, Leopoldo López.  Information is very limited, of course, but many officers may believe that this group’s obsession with overthrowing Maduro and its no-negotiation stance has contributed to the crisis.  Senior officers’ confidence in Maduro’s ability to hold the country together seems to have evaporated, but the opposition have not presented a viable, comprehensive alternative.
  • Concern about the López-Guaidó faction’s ties with Colombia and the U.S.? Good information is elusive, but senior officers’ posture suggests that they see Bogotá’s strategic objective to keep Venezuela weak and Washington’s objective to purge the country of Chavismo and themselves.
  • Concern that the “international community” will not give them a fair deal? Distrust of Washington seems obvious, but – within their logic – senior officers almost certainly are suspicious of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the Lima Group, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and others as intolerant and biased.
  • Belief that, in the face of total chaos and widespread bloodshed, they can force a last-minute peaceful solution onto Maduro? Senior officers presumably have good enough intelligence to know when and how to intervene – and persuade Maduro to accept a peaceful solution and fly into exile.  The bigger problem at this point is that they do not see a viable alternative to sticking it out.
  • Fear that Maduro’s people have deeply penetrated officer ranks, and their lives will be at stake if they move against him? As the scope of the crisis grows and the credibility of Maduro’s power begins to slip, this would appear now to be less important.  Officers talk among themselves more than outsiders think.

The Venezuelan military’s threshold for intervening against civilian governments of any stripe has always been high, amplified by the embarrassment of the reversed coup against Chávez in 2002.  None of the factors that, on balance, still appear to favor sticking with Maduro is unmovable.  Distrust of the United States, OAS, and the Lima Group – the outside forces that legitimized Guaidó’s claim to power – leave the military with no reliable allies; Cuban, Russian, and Chinese friends can provide no solace.  A credible negotiation proposal from someone like Mexican and Uruguayan Presidents López Obrador and Vázquez, especially if backed by Pope Francis, could conceivably give them a credible direction in which to push Maduro.  But at this moment – subject to rapid change – the balance still argues in favor of the military fearing a new course.

Venezuela: Is Guaidó the Knight in Shining Armor?

By Fulton Armstrong

Guaidó and Maduro image

Guaido and Maduro / Wikimedia Commons

The OAS, United States, and a number of Latin American governments are pinning high hopes that newly inaugurated National Assembly President Juan Guaidó will lead Venezuela out of its crisis and “back to democracy,” but the opposition needs much more than foreign support to achieve its goal of ousting President Nicolás Maduro.  The 35-year-old Guaidó, an engineer with eight years of political experience, proclaimed last Friday that “we will oust Maduro and his gang from power” and that he had the right to call new Presidential elections and to serve as Interim President while they are prepared.  He called on the military, which has shown some small fissures but so far appears to remain overwhelmingly loyal to President Nicolás Maduro, to “assume its responsibility … and remove the usurper [Maduro].”  He is organizing a national march on January 23 that, according to observers, he hopes will show the military the strength of his support.  (Maduro’s party, the PSUV, has announced its own demonstration that day.)

  • International reaction came fast and strong. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who calls the Maduro government a “narco-dictadura,” immediately started referring to Guaidó in Tweets and public statements as “interim president” of the republic.  Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s son sent a congratulatory message also recognizing Guaidó in that capacity.  The dozen predominantly conservative governments speaking as the Grupo de Lima have declared Maduro illegitimate and embraced Guaidó’s leadership if not the title.  President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, praised the leader’s “courageous decision” to challenge the Maduro government without explicitly recognizing him as Interim President.

Inside Venezuela, reactions to Guaidó’s power play reflected longstanding political alignments.

  • Maduro, who refers to Guaidó as un muchacho, has ridiculed his statements as a “Twitter coup,” and his political machine has followed with the usual attacks. Maduro has reiterated his call for negotiations with leaders of the opposition.  He has distanced himself from the embarrassing arrest of Guaidó last Sunday, claiming that it was made possible by “the corrupt and traitorous cooperation of a group of officials” in his intelligence service, SEBIN.
  • Guaidó’s party, Voluntad Popular (VP), is solidly behind him. Its founder, Leopoldo López, who is under house arrest, has led the charge in his defense, and their key allies – including María Corina Machado (Súmate), former Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, and many leading Venezuelans in the United States – are supporting him too.
  • The party’s splits with opposition moderates remain deep, however. Henrique Capriles (Primero Justicia) issued a scathing critique of Guaidó’s strategy.  He accused VP of sponsoring violence that will use “the people of Venezuela as cannon fodder,” and he has called them “saboteurs” blocking serious talks and feeding the people unrealistic expectations.”  Other moderates have also recoiled from Guaidó’s approach and are reportedly bewildered by the OAS Secretary General and others’ support for direct confrontation.

As the political class engages in yet another cycle of struggles, the military, once again, is seen as the ultimate arbiter that all sides want to influence.  Maduro’s punishment of seemingly disloyal officers recently has probably been a double-edged sword – feeding resentment while instilling discipline – but unhappiness with Maduro does not translate into support for the opposition.  There appears to be no love between the military and the Voluntad Popular leadership, whose confrontational tactics almost certainly concern the military and whose political program and popular base remain unclear.  Despite deep corruption in the officer corps, moreover, most officers probably see themselves as nationalists and might chafe at the idea of the OAS or regional governments trying to be the kingmakers.  Strange things can always happen, but celebration of the Interim President seems premature and even counterproductive.

 January 17, 2019