The Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro survived another major confrontation with opposition forces after a tumultuous couple of days on the streets of Caracas this week.
While Maduro appeared to have skillfully outmaneuvered his enemies, foiling a reported plot to get his closest allies to desert him, most independent analysts say it also revealed cracks in his socialist regime, weakened by military defections, economic sanctions and massive corruption.
At the same time, opposition leaders and analysts are reluctantly beginning to realize that the efforts to unseat Maduro, considered a “usurper” by many Venezuelans, and replace him with interim president Juan Guaido, appears destined to be a more uphill struggle than previously recognized. With no resolution of the political stalemate in sight, resolving a deepening humanitarian crisis is now an even more urgent priority, some analysts say, including re-opening a dialogue with the government.
“The initial burst of enthusiasm and the hope for a quick and fairly straightforward transition has seemed to not quite play out the way many had planned and hoped,” said Michael Camilleri, a Venezuela expert with the Inter-American Dialogue, an influential Washington DC think tank. While Venezuela urgently needs a return to democratic rule “that transition for the time being remains out of reach,” he added.
“The clear lesson from the 30 April events is that there can be no ‘winner-take-all’ solution in Venezuela,” according to the International Crisis Group, an independent Brussels-based group that seeks to resolve conflict and monitors Venezuela closely. Tuesday’s uprising showed “the opposition’s inability to dislodge Maduro but also the government’s powerlessness to stifle its political foes,” it added.
In the wake of the latest foiled effort to turn Venezuela’s top military brass against Maduro, frustrated Trump administration officials also revived talk of possible military action to remove him.
After a meeting at the Pentagon to discuss Venezuela, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Univision on Friday that a peaceful resolution of the crisis was still desired but that military action is possible. "We want to be prepared to make sure we are capable of doing whatever it is the president asks... us to execute," he said.
Mystery still surrounds exactly what happened on the morning of April 30. The latest effort to oust Maduro began dramatically on Tuesday when Guaido appeared in an early morning video to announce "the final phase" of ‘Operation Liberty’ had begun, surrounded by the latest group of National Guard officers to desert Maduro.
Guaido was joined by opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, after he was released from house arrest with the support of another group of defectors, this time from the feared SEBIN secret police.
But Guaido’s call for a military uprising, coupled with peaceful, pro-democracy street protests, failed to materialize. The protests were easily crushed by riot police using armored vehicles, tear gas, water-canon and rubber bullets. By the end of the day, Lopez was forced to take refuge in the Spanish embassy and Maduro declared victory in a national TV address surrounded by his loyal military high command.
A defiant Maduro, who had been absent throughout most of Tuesday, blasted Guiadó's move as a U.S.-backed coup attempt. "This cannot go unpunished," he said.
To be sure, Maduro remains in charge, but Tuesday’s dramatic street scenes, appeared to reveal more chinks in his armor, say some analysts. "It does represent a very serious continuation of the beginning of the end for Maduro," said former U.S. ambassador John Feeley, who highlighted a powerfully-worded letter from the SEBIN Director, General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, who is now believed to be in hiding.
In the letter, Cristopher said he had always been loyal to Madro but it was now time to "rebuild the country." He said corruption has become so rampant that "many high-ranking public servants practice it like a sport."
Maduro on red alert
Tuesday’s upheaval was the latest in a series of challenges to Maduro’s rule, and struck at the heart of his power. “The Maduro regime is bleeding from its most vital organ, the military” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor and Venezuela expert at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Since his emergence in January, Guaido has won recognition as interim president from the United States and more than 50 other countries, primarily in Latin America and Europe.
But the Trump administration’s response to Tuesday’s events has baffled many observers. After Tuesday’s mini-rebellion was quelled, senior U.S. officials, including Pompeo, said three top members of the Maduro regime, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, had been in secret talks with the opposition to switch sides and back Guaido. Pompeo said Maduro had even made preparations to fly out of the country. But the talks fell apart after Russia and Cuba convinced Maduro to stay, he added.
Russian plot - fake news?
On Tuesday, Operation Liberty had barely got underway before Padrino appeared on live television, wearing combat fatigues and surrounded by other military officers under a large portrait of Maduro. He said reports of a military uprising were “fake news.”
“If you’re Nicolás Maduro, can you look at your defense minister anymore and trust him?” National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters on Wednesday. “I don’t think so. I think Maduro is now surrounded by scorpions in a bottle, and it’s only a matter of time.”
Padrino and two others - Maikel Moreno, the chief justice of the Supreme Court; and Presidential Guard commander Ivan Hernandez Dala - were said to be ready to sign documents declaring their loyalty to the Venezuelan constitution, under which the opposition-led National Assembly had declared Maduro’s reelection last year invalid and named Guaidó interim president. Members of Guaido’s team confirmed to the Wall St Journal that they had indeed been in talks, but said they were duped by Padrino, who is considered close to Moscow.
Some former U.S. officials were shocked by the decision to out the names of the three Venezuelan officials who participated in the talks, warning that the Trump administration appeared to have burned those officials as potential assets in future schemes, as well as undermining possible future negotiations.
Brian Latell, the CIA's former analyst on Cuba for many years, speculated that the talks might have been a crafty ‘deception operation’, orchestrated by Cuban military intelligence officers who are part of with Maduro’s inner circle, designed to smoke out threats within the military's top ranks and to gather intelligence about the other side.
"The Cubans are very good at it," he said. "They are probably trying to find out who are the opposition people who are talking to Guaido's team and perhaps discover if the US has CIA agents working deep cover in Venezuela,” he added.
Even more peculiar is that U.S. officials say they were not directly involved in the discussions which took place with members of Guaido's team. By talking so openly about the conversations, the Trump administration opened itself up to criticism that it is manipulating Guaido's operations, a perception many analysts say is unhelpful to the opposition cause. “The way they talk about this is wrong and counter-productive,” said Feeley, who is a Univision analyst.
Pompeo told Univision that Maduro "has an exit plan" and that "he has parked his money offshore." He added that the conspiracy with senior officials of Maduro was ongoing. "The long knives are out inside of Venezuela," he said. "Other senior leaders ... are talking to us about leaving (the regime)... they understand it's a dead end, it's for the losers."
He said that the end of Maduro was only a matter of time. "I'm very confident we'll get there. I couldn't tell you which day, but we will."
Moscow’s alleged role in the April 30 events also appears to have suddenly turned Venezuela into a serious battleground for geopolitical influence between the United States and Russia. Devastated by years of political strife, the oil-rich country remains a valuable economic prize, as well as an ideological testing ground for the survival of western-style democracy in the U.S. backyard.
In a phone call, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned told Pompeo on Wednesday not to “interfere” in Venezuela. Any further “aggressive steps” by the United States in Venezuela would be fraught with the gravest consequences, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said. Russian officials also denied any role in Tuesday events or the secret talks.
Groups such as the International Crisis Group and the Inter-American Dialogue say April 30 also demonstrated that urgent needs for negotiations to avoid more repression and bloodshed. In a recent report titled ‘Venezuela: Transition Interrupted,’ the Inter-American Dialogue examined several possible future scenarios and ways the international community should try to help return democracy to Venezuela.
A ‘clean’ democratic transition was still possible, the report said, but only if the Venezuelan armed forces are pressured into switching their allegiance to Guaidó, thereby opening the way for free and fair democratic elections. A second scenario, which some analysts now say is already a reality, involves an extended standoff which sees Maduro clinging to power and riding out international sanctions with the support of the military, private armed ‘colectivos,’ and international allies including Cuba, Russia and China.
A third scenario could see an internal coup by the military to remove Maduro, potentially bringing more stability but also raising the possibly of greater repression if elections are not held quickly. The report downplayed the likelihood of a foreign military intervention to a lesser category of ‘outlier’ scenarios.
In an interview with Univision, the authors of the report said it was now time to reconsider dialogue with the Maduro regime to negotiate the urgently needed food and medicines to alleviate an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis, as well as a political solution. “We are in a political standoff. Everything has been tried and it hasn’t worked,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has reached such a catastrophic level with malnutrition and lack of basic medicines that the international community needs to reset its priorities, according to Tamara Taraciuk, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, who was part of a panel discussion to present the Inter-American Dialogue report at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami. “This is a devastating situation that cannot wait until the political standoff finishes,” she said.
Human Rights Watch and researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have urged UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to formally declare a humanitarian emergency in Venezuela that requires a full-scale international response.
The failure of efforts to break the loyalty of the Venezuelan military, as well as the daily grind of constant power and water outages have sapped morale in Venezuela, said Raul Stolk, with the Caracas Chronicles blog. “We are realizing that the … transition that we thought was going to happen in a couple of weeks was fantasy. Right now we are more on real ground,” he said.
David and Goliath
With Maduro in control of all national media, and with the ability to limit access to social media and some mobile communications, it remains a David and Goliath struggle for Maduro’s opponents.
On Wednesday, Maduro’s used his advantage of access to state resources to bus in thousands of government workers from across the country for a May Day rally. Dressed in the socialist party's red colors, Maduro’s supporters lack the fervor inspired by his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and many are required to attend such events in order to keep their jobs.
Undeterred, Guaido, urged his supporters on Wednesday not to be discouraged. “ If the regime thought we had reached maximum pressure, they cannot even imagine,” Guaido told thousands of cheering supporters in eastern Caracas. “We have to remain in the streets,” he added. He said he may call for a series of work stoppages leading up to an eventual general strike to pressure Maduro.
Meanwhile, the death toll continued to mount. At least four protesters were killed in the two days of protests this week and dozens injured, according to human rights groups, citing hospital officials. That brought the death toll in protests this year to 59, they said, and 271 since Maduro came to power.
As a result, Camilleri said domestic pressure on the regime was important to maintain the spirit and unity of the opposition, as well as keeping up the pressure on Maduro.
“We have seen unfortunately, time and time against that Maduro maintains an ability to exercise lethal force,” he said. “It will take courage … because bullets may fly. That’s a brutal reality we have to face up to.”