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