Venezuela: Game Plan With No Endgame
The Trump administration’s latest one-two policy punch designed to undermine the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is a game plan that lacks a viable endgame. By unsealing criminal indictments against Maduro and senior members of his government, US Attorney General William Barr put a marker down that the Venezuelan leadership was unfit to rule. Less than a week later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US would lift crippling sanctions on Venezuela within a year in exchange for the withdrawal of all Cuban and Russian military forces and the departure of Maduro prior to new elections. By discrediting the Venezuelan government and providing a pathway to depose Maduro, the US seeks to hasten regime change. But these new policies are little more than a repackaging of previous failed initiatives. The US is fully capable of stirring the pot, but incapable of closing the deal. Venezuela looks destined for continued chaos and suffering, with little hope of reviving its decimated oil industry.
The indictments unveiled by the US Justice Department detailed a wide-range of allegations that linked Maduro, Supreme Court Justice Maikel Moreno, Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino Lopez, and scores of other named officials to an organization known as the Cartel of the Suns, which is alleged to be responsible for trafficking drugs from South America into the US for more than two decades. By indicting Moreno and Lopez, the Trump administration appears to be closing the door on any hope that these two would desert Maduro’s cause and help orchestrate his removal from power.
This marks a departure from past US policy, which sought to get Maduro officials to defect to the cause of Juan Guaido, the speaker of the National Assembly, who has laid claim to the presidency, citing election irregularities. In April 2019, Guaido launched an abortive coup supported by the US, which worked closely with the Guaido-led opposition to win over key allies from inside the Maduro government, including Lopez, Moreno, and presidential guard commander and head of military intelligence Gen. Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala. All three denied any complicity in the coup and remain in their positions to this day.
Taking a page from previous coup attempts — such as the failed June 1996 effort to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein — the US has focused on trying to pressure high-ranking officers from within Venezuela’s elite security forces to turn on Maduro. In February 2019, the US Treasury Department placed Gens. Hernandez Dala and Rafael Enrique Bastardo Mendoza, the Commander of Venezuela’s police special forces, under financial sanctions. This was followed by outreach on the part of the US intelligence services promising to remove the sanctions if the generals would align themselves with Guaido. The US continued its pressure campaign when, in August 2019, both Hernandez Dala and Bastardo Mendoza were designated as “Gross Violators of Human Rights” for their respective roles in suppressing the failed April coup attempt.
Since August 2019, US efforts against Maduro have focused on building an international base of support for Guaido, while squeezing Venezuela with stringent sanctions targeting its oil industry and financial services. The implicit message to the generals targeted by US sanctions was that these actions would be reversed if the generals simply used their power and influence to remove Maduro and install Guaido. Maduro, however, has proven to be extremely resistant to schemes to break up his government from within. The attraction for the generals to remain loyal to Maduro was more powerful than the incentives being offered to betray him.
This resilience of the Maduro government has led to a major rethink by the Trump administration on the future utility of Juan Guaido as a political alternative to Maduro. While the charismatic opposition leader has attracted a significant international following and has been recognized by the US and the EU as the legitimate ruler of Venezuela, Guaido does not have enough support inside Venezuela. His lack of a viable domestic constituency is the greatest impediment to any pressure campaign to compel members of Maduro’s regime to change sides.
US officials have acknowledged that the plan of outreach to Venezuelan military officers and soldiers has failed. The recent indictment of Maduro and the other Venezuelan officials on narcotics charges reflects this reality. By breathing life into long-heard allegations regarding the existence of the Cartel of the Suns, or Cartel de los Soles, which gets its name from the golden star insignias worn by generals in the Venezuelan National Guard, the US has taken an irreversible step that signals no future for Maduro and other named officials. Simply put, the US never walks away from a narcotics indictment, as can be seen from the cases of former Panamanian President Manuel Noriega and drug cartel leaders Pablo Escobar and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The indictments mean that the US expects Maduro and these men to either be killed in a coup, overthrown through US military action, and/or arrested and imprisoned in the US. There are no alternatives.
It is of note that neither Hernandez Dala nor Bastardo Mendoza were named in the narcotics trafficking indictment. This would seem to be a deliberate action by the US, seeking to close down the future viability of Maduro while leaving open the possibility of a new life in a post-Maduro world. The key to the viability of this effort, however, is to provide the generals with someone, or something, other than Juan Guaido around which to rally.
In announcing the new US policy toward Venezuela, Secretary of State Pompeo noted that while the US continues to recognize Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader, the new strategy calls for both Guaido and Maduro to step aside in favor of a special Council of State to be named by the National Assembly. This Council of State would then govern until elections could be held, some six to 12 months down the road. Guaido would then be eligible to run in that election.
If a Council of State were formed, it would automatically trigger the suspension of all US sanctions targeting the Venezuelan oil sector, opening a lifeline to the economy. The sanctions would be ended altogether if presidential elections were held that were deemed free and fair by international observers, and the new Venezuelan government ordered out all foreign security forces, including those from Cuba and Russia.
The emphasis on the lifting of sanctions, especially those targeting Venezuela’s oil industry, appears intended to create a break between the Venezuelan government and the so-called “Chavistas” — supporters of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013. They are also the constituency that the US hopes will prove attractive to generals such as Hernandez Dala and Bastardo Mendoza, prompting them to throw their weight behind the new Council of State.
No Viable Endgame
Pompeo’s plan appears to provide a way for Venezuela to right its shattered economy and re-enter the community of nations. But two realities exist that condemn this plan to failure before it even begins. First, the US has signaled that it doubts the viability of Guaido as a real force in Venezuelan politics. If the powerful elite surrounding Maduro are unwilling to defect to Guaido’s cause, there is also little chance the people will follow him. But if there is no effective opposition, then with what precisely is the US proposing to replace Maduro?
That brings up the second point: the Chavistas. The US contention that a split is possible between the Chavistas and Maduro is misplaced. The Chavistas serve as the loyal foundation of Maduro’s grassroots support. It is unrealistic to imagine this changing. The unwavering support for Maduro among the Chavistas has given him the resiliency to withstand the trauma of economic sanctions. Like Hussein before him, Maduro has succeeded in transferring the blame for the economic ruin brought on his country to those who have imposed the sanctions, which in both cases was the US.
The Trump administration has dug itself into a policy hole with Venezuela. Although it claims that it does not want to use military force to remove Maduro from power, by indicting Maduro and his inner circle of narcotics trafficking charges the Trump administration has severely limited its options going forward, especially if Maduro, as seems likely, continues to hold onto power. Guaido and the opposition he led have lost their chance, and the alternative base of power, the Chavistas, remain in political lockstep with the Maduro government. Like Iraq under Hussein, the international community will lose its appetite for sanctioning Venezuela. Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has increased calls for these sanctions to be lifted. This situation will ultimately leave the US with two untenable options: either capitulation, allowing Maduro to remain in power, or escalation, using military force to remove him.