The indictment of Venezuela’s embattled ruler, Nicolas Maduro, and 13 top officials, on Thursday, was an entirely justifiable decision, experts say, though some argue it was largely symbolic.
It’s exceedingly rare that the United States justice system indicts the political and military leaders of another country. And there’s a reason for that. Experts say it’s not always a good idea and usually achieves very little in practical terms.
" Maduro and his military cronies need to be held accountable for what they have done. No-one is going to shed any tears,” said Frank Mora, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida International University (FIU).
Despite that, Mora and others question the political motives of the Trump administration in unveiling the indictments this week, noting that while the crimes of “narco-terrorism” that Maduro and his inner circle are accused of are highly serious, there appears to be little chance of getting them before a judge any time soon.
“It’s justifiable by any legal and moral standard. But it’s largely symbolic and at the same time is all about Florida politics,” added Mora, who was the top official for Latin America at the Pentagon under Barack Obama.
Florida is a key swing state in the November elections and home to a large population of Cuban and Venezuelan exiles, who would like nothing more than to see Maduro behind bars.
In the past, the phrase “all options” has been coding for possible military intervention. But after much saber-rattling last year when the U.S. upped its economic sanctions on the Maduro regime, the Trump administration has softened its rhetoric about regime change in recent months.
A year ago, the Trump administration was so confident of Maduro’s swift exit from power, that officials bragged on social media he would easily capitulate in return for "a nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela" to retire to, "the sooner the better."
Most experts say a U.S. invasion of Venezuela was still extremely unlikely, especially in the midst of the coronavirus which has grounded most U.S. troops and redirected others to the medical effort.
Uprising in Venezuela?
Barr appeared to suggest that the indictments could spark a popular uprising against Maduro. “ Hopefully the Venezuelan people will see what’s going on and will eventually regain control of their country,” he said. “My hope is that the Venezuelan people will soon be in a position where they can render these people to us,” he added.
Barr also noted that the U.S. government has offered rewards totaling of $55 million for the capture of Maduro and four others.
“The indictments and substantial reward might better be seen as a way to isolate Maduro further, expose his criminal activities, cause him to question his own safety from those around him, and create additional U.S. leverage for a negotiated exit,” said Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington, D.C..
“The key to all this is at what point does the military feel it’s better off without him than with him. He has been very effective so far, with Cuba’s help, at maintaining the loyalty of the military," said Lawrence Gumbiner, an international consultant in Colombia and a former U.S. diplomat in the region.
Roger Noriega, another former senior State Department official, went much further, saying he hoped the indictments might open the way in Congress for support for covert action to bring down the regime. “ The U.S. should consider maritime operations and a no-fly zone to choke off illicit drug and gold contraband and oil shipments evading U.S. financial sanctions,” he wrote in a blog post for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
The indictments also seemed to kill off any lingering idea of trying to lever Maduro to step down in a negotiated solution.
“No Venezuelan politician — or US or foreign diplomat — can credibly advocate such an accommodation with indicted narcotraffickers,” wrote Noriega.
Notwithstanding the lucrative rewards, a popular uprising seemed a bit far-fetched under the current ‘stay-at-home’ national shutdowns being experienced globally. “ With the virus running around there aren’t any mass gatherings of any kind,” said Richard Gregorie, a former top federal prosecutor in Miami who worked on the Venezuela cases and retired in 2018.
Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaido, who is recognized by the United States and more than 50 other nations and the country’s legitimate president, expressed his hope that the indictments might accelerate Maduro’s downfall.
Without going into any details, he also vowed to keep up the pressure on the regime, while recognizing that the covid-19 outbreak had made things even dicer for the opposition.
"Given this current situation, where a pandemic can put our lives at even greater risk, I reaffirm that we will continue to increase the pressure until we dismantle the Criminal Usurper State and I will do whatever it takes to be free and protect you," he said in a statement address to the Venezuelan people.
Instead, the indictments could be counter-productive and create greater military unity around Maduro.
“ This is only going to entrench the bad guys, get them back in the bunker, rally around the flag and not move an inch,” said Mora.
Maduro continues to enjoy the backing of the upper echelon of the Venezuelan military. The country’s minister of defense, Vladimir Padrino López, was among the people named in Thursday’s indictment.
"Nerves of steel"
The 57-year-old Venezuelan leader wasted no time in blasting the indictments – and the multi-million dollar rewards - in a nationally televised address, saying he wasn’t going anywhere.
"We are here with nerves of steel, calm and sane, and maximum combat morale, and we are succeeding and that is why the empire despairs," he said.
"Like cowboys from the old west, they put a price on the heads of revolutionaries who are ready to fight them in all areas and continue to beat them," I added.
Some experts warned that Maduro would be happy to turn Venezuela’s domestic crisis into a duel with the United States.
“ When the U.S. becomes the bogeyman that’s never good as it can generate more popular resistance. If it’s seen as Maduro vs. Trump that can strengthen him,” said Gumbiner.
Farnsworth, like many, sensed a good deal of frustration in the U.S. decision to move forward with the indictments, given the failure of all other efforts to dislodge Maduro. “Perhaps this latest gambit will not succeed in removing Maduro,” he said.
“But to this point, nothing else has worked, either, and the issues in Venezuela are becoming increasingly desperate for the people themselves,” he added.
But, the International Crisis Group, which advocates for a negotiated exit to the crisis in Venezuela, called it “ the wrong decision at the wrong time.”
Given the current coronavirus outbreak, “to attempt to force regime change just as the full intensity of the health emergency is about to be felt is profoundly misguided,” it said.
“Even if the policy suddenly were to pay off and Maduro’s government to collapse, any incoming administration would face a social, economic and humanitarian calamity,” it added.