United States: Putting the Hammer to Venezuela

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Trump press conference

Trump at a briefing on April 4th, 2020/ The White House/ Flickr/ Public Domain

The Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive actions to drive regime change in Venezuela – at a time that the already-desperate country, weakened by its incompetent government and U.S. sanctions, faces a potentially massive COVID-19 crisis – reflect Washington’s favoring of ends over means, with little concern for corollary damage. Regardless of whether President Nicolás Maduro survives the challenge, the country’s massive humanitarian and social disaster is likely to grow worse during the weeks and months ahead. At this point, there is no plausible scenario in which Washington can achieve what it claims is its desired outcome – a stable, democratic government – without a negotiated settlement.

  • The March 26 indictment of Maduro and other senior Venezuelan officials on charges of narcotics-trafficking and support for terrorism against the United States underscored the administration’s commitment to removing a government it calls a “threat to the hemisphere.” The U.S. Department of Justice asserted that Maduro “expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation.” The indictment forced an end to preliminary talks between Maduro and his opponents over a partial truce that would allow them to make a joint appeal for international aid to deal with COVID‑19.
  • On March 31, the administration announced a “Democratic Transition Framework” for Venezuela. The plan called for Maduro to step down immediately and yield to a “Council of State” to govern until new elections. National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, whom the United States and more than 50 other countries recognize as Acting President, would surrender his claim as well, but American officials made clear he had their full support in any upcoming campaign. Coming on the heels of the indictments, the framework was quickly rejected by the government.
  • The announcement on April 1 that the United States and 22 allies were launching “enhanced counternarcotics operations” in the Caribbean near Venezuela – with large-scale military assets rarely seen in such missions – was another prong of what U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien called “our maximum pressure policy to counter the Maduro regime’s malign activities.” Maduro cited these threats and indications of mysterious arms movements in Colombia – reported by a former Venezuelan general who some observers say turned collaborator with the U.S. DEA – as reasons for putting the country on military alert last weekend.

The U.S. actions appear to reflect a calculation that the Venezuelan government is so vulnerable that Maduro’s “former regime” will collapse and, somehow, a more sympathetic successor will emerge. U.S. sanctions over the past year-plus have effectively starved the economy, and the recent crash in oil prices has reduced revenues to a trickle. Observers in Caracas report that fear of COVID-19, in a country without medical supplies or even clean water in many parts, is intense.

  • The administration insists it desires a negotiated settlement, but these enhanced pressures, particularly the indictments, greatly complicate any effort to revive talks as Norway had configured them. Similar to last year’s efforts to provoke a coup against Maduro, this year’s “maximum pressure” seems premised on creating a collapse on a scale that forces the military’s hand. But the task of overthrowing Maduro would fall to an exhausted citizenry and field-grade officers not indicted or otherwise targeted by the United States government.

Whether Washington has a comprehensive strategy, is just taking ad hoc steps to force regime change, or is merely looking to wreak havoc at a time that its handling of the COVID‑19 crisis at home is falling under intense criticism, there is precious little historical evidence that its tactics will work in Venezuela. The movement of warships to the Venezuelan coast may only be a publicity stunt, with the support of some countries in the region, but it entails diplomatic and operational risks. It also is not beyond the pale to suppose that the administration, long frustrated in its regime-change efforts, will begin to believe its hyperbole about Maduro as a narco-terrorist poisoning drug-consuming U.S. youth, and be tempted to deploy measures even more drastic than those taken to date.

  • Negotiations, although difficult, are not impossible. When U.S. opposition to diplomatic efforts to resolve the wars in Central America reached a certain point, regional governments met behind Washington’s back and produced a historic plan – the “Esquipulas Accord” – that led to peace processes in each affected country. This situation is, of course, different, but Esquipulas showed that moving the U.S. to the side can work.
  • The indictments are reminiscent of U.S. tactics to overthrow General Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1988-89 – resulting in a massive invasion to arrest that one man. Venezuela is different in many ways, and all parties should heed the adage of former U.S. military commander and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said, “You break it, you own it.”

April 7, 2020

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

Prospects Dim for Better U.S.-Venezuela Relations under Trump

By Timothy M. Gill*

maduro-tillerson-face-off

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and U.S. President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson’s past dealings with Venezuela may lead to increased tensions between the two countries. / President of Russia website / Creative Commons / William Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons / Modified

U.S. President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team have expressed similar criticisms of the Venezuelan government and, while giving off contradictory policy signals, appear headed toward a policy focused on sanctions rather than continuing the dialogue that the Obama administration recently opened with its counterpart in Caracas.  As the U.S. Senate continues its confirmation hearings of Trump nominees, Latin America has featured very little in the discussion thus far, but passing mentions of the region suggest greater consensus among the Trump team than on other issues such as the threat of Russia and the Iran nuclear agreement.

  • In September, Trump expressed support for the Venezuelan opposition. He asserted that he will “stand in solidarity with all people oppressed in our hemisphere … [and] with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”  He blamed “the socialists” for running Venezuela “into the ground.”  He has also recently shown interest in the cases of Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López, two opposition leaders that respectively remain under house arrest and in a Venezuelan prison.
  • Several of Trump’s cabinet selections also seemingly harbor animosity toward the Venezuelan government. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, nominated to be Secretary of State, concluded a case against the Venezuelan government in an international court in 2014 involving the expropriation of his company’s facilities.  Venezuelan President Maduro accused ExxonMobil of inciting conflict between Venezuela and Guyana when it announced that it would work with the Guyanese government to drill oil in an area that both countries claim.  General Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has included Venezuela (and Cuba) in the “enemy alliance” that the United States faces “in a global war.”  General John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, has condemned the Venezuelan government for its alleged involvement in drug trafficking.

While the Trump team is obviously unhappy with Caracas, their statements so far shed little light on what they’ll concretely do differently from the Obama Administration.  Obama designated the Venezuelan government “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security of the U.S. in 2015 and sanctioned a handful of state security leaders.  But there has also been renewed interest in recent months on the part of both governments to dialogue.  In late 2016, Maduro met with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary Tom Shannon.  Despite disparaging Trump during the campaign season, Maduro extended his congratulations to him on November 9, and publicly reiterated his hope for better relations.  On January 16, Maduro stated that he was “surprised at the brutal hate campaign against Donald Trump,” and he welcomed the Trump administration, saying that Trump “won’t be worse than Obama.”

Aggressive rhetoric from Trump is a given, but his true position on Venezuela – as well as many other countries – is not entirely clear.  Businessman Trump undoubtedly grasps that strategic relations are founded on Venezuela’s role among the United States top five international suppliers of crude.  He has at times been dismissive of the concept of “democracy promotion,” which drives much of Washington’s advocacy in places like Venezuela.  He shows a penchant, however, for the sort of double-standard that most irks Latin America – criticizing Cuba and Venezuela’s political systems but praising Kazakhstan and Russia.  Moreover, he may be tempted to throw a sop to U.S. politicians who have led the effort to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan government.  During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, Senator Marco Rubio – with whom Trump had bitter exchanges during their party’s primaries last year – made criticisms suggesting continuing tensions, but Venezuela would be an easy issue for Trump to throw Rubio’s way as a peace offering to the lawmaker from Miami.  Indeed, while it’s far too early to make concrete predictions, it seems safe to say that Obama’s late-game efforts to reset the relationship with Venezuela will not continue under the new Administration – and we might expect Trump to more intensively target the Venezuelan government in the coming years.

January 23, 2017

*Timothy M. Gill is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy Research at Tulane University.

U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela: To What End?

By Michael M. McCarthy

Common Cause -Embassy of Venezuela DC / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

President Obama plans to sign the “Venezuela Defense of Democracy and Civil Society Act” into law, but its lack of clear objectives seems likely to muddle Washington’s desired outcome.  The bill, approved last week by voice vote in the Senate and House, calls for punishing Venezuelan government officials involved in human rights abuses, an authority the White House already has.  It includes national security waivers that allow the President final say on which officials will have their visas revoked – denying them entry into the United States – and have any U.S. assets they own frozen.  After initially voicing skepticism about the wisdom of such measures, the Obama administration came around to supporting them.  Senators Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pushed the bill hard in May after episodes of violent suppression of anti-government street demonstrations painted a grim picture of the human rights situation.  The Venezuelan foreign ministry’s reaction to the legislation has been strident, and President Maduro said, “If the crazy path of sanctions is imposed, President Obama, I think you’re going to come out looking very bad.”

President Obama wasn’t alone in switching positions over the bill.  Senator Bob Corker, who’s expected to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new Congress that begins next month, had embraced the State Department’s earlier view that sanctions would undermine international talks engineered by UNASUR and the Vatican.  The Caracas government’s refusal to make concessions in the talks undermined that argument, however, and a three-way diplomatic dustup between the U.S., Aruba, and Venezuela over another issue – Aruba’s refusal to extradite Venezuela’s designated ambassador, a former Venezuelan army official, to the United States on narco-trafficking charges – further frustrated Washington players.  Corker asserted that the incident showed that Venezuela’s “complicity with criminal activity” could not go unchecked since it directly undermined U.S. interests.  Immediately after the extradition episode, the Obama administration imposed unilateral sanctions – travel and visa bans – on a dozen unnamed Venezuelan officials, laying the groundwork for Menendez and Rubio to reintroduce their legislation and drive it home before Congress adjourned for the holidays.  Corker endorsed the bill, although he highlighted that a “regional dialogue” remained the best option for finding a “negotiated, democratic way forward” to address human rights issues.

Other than punishing reported human rights offenders and making an example of them the new bill is unclear on how it could help resolve the deep political crisis that has given rise to the protests and subsequent abuses.  With Maduros popularity plummeting to new lows, strident rhetoric condemning U.S. intervention could give him a modest boost by bolstering his claim that Washington is part of an economic war against Venezuela.  It is far too early to tell whether that nationalistic narrative will work in the governments favor as the countrys dire shortages have become permanent and economic suffering is increasingly blamed on Maduros policies and declining oil prices.  If human rights really are the U.S. top concern, Washington might want to be more sensitive to the positions of PROVEA and other Venezuelan human rights groups, which have denounced the legislation despite its inclusion of funding for Venezuelan civil society groups. If punishing rights abusers is Washingtons way of pressing for sustainable change in Venezuela, then it needs to state the case that penalizing measures imposed since 2008 have made a difference.  Another option, contained in Senator Corker’s observation about a “negotiated, democratic way forward,” could be to renew support for talks sponsored by South American countries, as these are more likely to reduce tensions, improve rights, and give moderates space to promote electoral solutions.

December 18, 2014

Update: Venezuela-U.S. Tensions Rise

By CLALS Staff

Photo credit: andresAzp / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: andresAzp / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

AULA BLOG lets policymakers’ own words characterize the state of relations between Washington and Caracas.

Venezuelan Government Statements

I have ordered the Foreign Minister of the Republic … to declare persona non-grata y to expel from the country these three consular officers from the United States Embassy in Venezuela. We have been watching them for two months already, holding meetings in universities. The story is that they’re offering visas. … Well, let them go and conspire in Washington. …

The demands [made in a statement delivered by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Lee to Venezuelan Ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton] are unacceptable, insolent. I ordered a diplomatic response. In Venezuela, we are willing to accept all consequences in defense of democracy. I take orders from no one. …

The government of the United States should take responsibility, before the Venezuelan people and the world, for allowing U.S. institutions and individuals to finance, legitimize and promote the actions of persons and groups who attack Venezuelan society violently, and who look to twist the democratically expressed will of our people to build their sovereign destiny in peace.
—President Maduro, February 16
AP, EFE (CLALS translation)

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela forcefully rejects the statements made today, Wednesday, February 19, by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, insofar as they constitute new and crude interference in the internal affairs of our country, made worse by being based on false information and baseless accusations.

This is an offense to the heroic land of the Aztecs, of Juárez, of Villa, and of Zapata; to the noble and courageous people of Mexico, the sister nation from which President Obama continues attacking a free and sovereign nation of Latin America and the Caribbean because its policies, principles, and decisions are the result the democratic expression of popular will.

The statement that the independent governments and people of the world await is that in which the government of the United States of America explains why it finances, encourages, and defends opposition leaders who promote violence in our country, and clears up what right Deputy Assistant Secretary [of State] Alex Lee has in sending a message from his government that tries to impose conditions on and threaten the Venezuelan state for having taken judicial action against those responsible for the violent acts of recent days.

As a final point, the Venezuelan government reiterates that it will continue monitoring and taking the necessary actions to prevent U.S. agents attempting to cause violence and destabilization, and informs the world of the nature of the interventionist policies of the Obama administration in our country.
—Despacho de la Presidencia, February 20
(CLALS Translation)

I have just read recent statements by John Kerry – arrogant, interventionist and insolent – that confirm the terms of the threat that I denounced. John Kerry is threatening Venezuela with more violence through his statements giving the green light to violent groups to attack our people. Let the brutal and insolent imperialists know that we will continue defeating it with the force of our people, which is the force of Bolívar and Chávez.
—President Maduro, February 21
Tweets, via TeleSur (CLALS translation)

I call for a dialogue with you, President Obama. I call for a dialogue between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government. Accept the challenge. Let’s initiate a high-level dialogue and let’s put the truth out on the table. … I say this, and some will say, ‘Maduro is naïve.’ No, we will always find a new situation through political dialogue – a change in the historic relations between the U.S. elite and Latin America and Venezuela. … I propose therefore a grand dialogue, and that we name ambassadors, since they haven’t been accepted so far, so they can sit down and talk.
—President Maduro, February 21
Various media (CLALS translation)

There’s a global campaign against Venezuela. It’s a campaign to justify an intervention in the domestic affairs of Venezuela. … [There is] a brutal manipulation campaign, [which] has created a perception in the world that Venezuela is on the verge of civil war, that here in Venezuela we have a group of docile students opposing an illegitimate government.
—President Maduro, February 22
CNN

U.S. Government Statements

In general, when it comes to Venezuela, we’ve made clear that we’re open to having a constructive relationship with the Government of Venezuela. Quite frankly, we haven’t seen that – we have not seen that reciprocated, to be clear. So we also, I think, see a lot of conspiracy theories or rumors out there in the press about how the U.S. is interested in influencing the domestic political situation in Venezuela, which is absolutely not true. It’s not up to us to comment on internal Venezuelan politics.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 13

So we are deeply concerned by rising tensions, by the violence surrounding these February 12th protests, and by the issuance of a warrant for the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. We join the Secretary General of the OAS in condemning the violence and calling on authorities to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of peaceful protestors. We also call on the Venezuelan Government to release the 19 detained protestors and urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 14

The United States is deeply concerned by rising tensions and violence surrounding this week’s protests in Venezuela. Our condolences go to the families of those killed as a result of this tragic violence.

We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protestors and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.

We join the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and others in condemning this senseless violence. We call on the Venezuelan government to provide the political space necessary for meaningful dialogue with the Venezuelan people and to release detained protestors. We urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.

Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are universal human rights. They are essential to a functioning democracy, and the Venezuelan government has an obligation to protect these fundamental freedoms and the safety of its citizens.
—Secretary of State Kerry, February 15

The allegations that the United States is helping to organize protestors in Venezuela is baseless and false. We support human rights and fundamental freedoms – including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly – in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world. But as we have long said, Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide. We urge their government to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 17

We have seen many times that the Venezuelan Government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan Government to deal with the grave situation it faces. … With the OAS and our regional partners, we are working to urge calm and encourage a genuine dialogue among all Venezuelans. There is no room for violence by either side.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 18

In Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people. So, along with the Organization of American States, we call on the Venezuelan government to release protestors that it’s detained and engage in real dialogue. And all parties have an obligation to work together to restrain violence and restore calm.
—President Obama, February 19

Venezuela Update: Confusion in Caracas…and Washington

Photo credit: INTERNATIONAL REALTOR / Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: INTERNATIONAL REALTOR | Foter.com | CC-BY

Three weeks after elections to choose Hugo Chávez’s successor, confusion still reigns in both Caracas and Washington.  The Venezuelan opposition has rejected the results of the election, which the electoral tribunal says Chávez’s handpicked man – Nicolás Maduro – won by only 1.8 percent.  Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles originally asked only for a vote recount – considered reasonable by many because of the narrow margin – but his lawyers upped the ante on 2 May when they officially demanded that the vote be invalidated and new elections be held.  Isolated incidents of political violence turned up the heat in Caracas, although the Götterdämmerung scenarios in the streets that some analysts predicted have not yet materialized.

Every major country of the hemisphere has recognized Maduro as President – except the United States.  (Canada wavered at first but seems to have moved on.)  Washington has invested millions of dollars in “democracy promotion” programs over the years and has provided Capriles and the opposition enduring political support in their efforts to beat Chávez at the polls and later to beat Maduro as his hand-picked successor.  Since the April election, the U.S. government has endorsed the opposition’s call for a vote recount.  So has the OAS, which offered experts to assist in the process.  But only Washington has said that while it is “working with” the Maduro Government, it doesn’t recognize its legitimacy.  The State Department spokesman dodged the issue repeatedly last week, and in an interview with Univisión broadcast at the conclusion of his visit to Mexico last Friday, President Obama himself refused to say whether his Administration officially recognized Maduro as President.  He left little doubt as to his real position, however, when he said that basic principles of human rights, democracy, press freedom and freedom of assembly were not observed in Venezuela following the election.

As AULABLOG pointed out on 23 April, the irony of the United States demanding a hand-count of the ballots is not lost on millions of Latin Americans who remember Washington’s performance in the 2000 Bush-Gore vote – and that it was a politically divided Supreme Court that made the final decision.  The tightness of the vote, Venezuelan electoral realities (past and present), and President Maduro’s over-the-top rhetoric – last week he again accused Washington of backing “neo-Nazis” allegedly trying to overthrow his government and accused a filmmaker of being a spy – make it hard for observers to argue that the elections are legitimate.  President Obama’s statements, including his remark that the spying charge was “ridiculous,” have been measured and continue a noteworthy shift since the near-hysteria about Venezuela during the Bush Administration.  But the fact remains that the U.S. Government’s posture on Venezuela – perhaps unique in its bilateral relations with Latin America since the Cold War – has made it once again the outrider and, among people who remember the Bush-Gore decision, the butt of many jokes.  Importantly, Capriles may be reading Washington’s stance as an endorsement of his own increasingly puzzling demands.  As our 23 April post suggested, Capriles ought to see himself as having a historic chance to lead, poised to challenge Chavismo easily at the polls the next time around.  Yet, like Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2006, he may be squandering an opportunity to present himself to the Venezuelan electorate as the responsible grownup in the room.