As if things couldn’t get any worse for Nicolas Maduro.
The price of oil, his country’s abundant natural resource, has fallen off a cliff, and there are long lines at gas stations as supplies run low.
The nation’s public health system is battling the coronavirus and last week he was charged with narco-terrorism by U.S. prosecutors. The Trump administration put a $15 million price on his head.
Then, on Thursday, as if Maduro wasn’t already sleeping badly, Trump announced he is sending warships to the Caribbean to stop the illegal drugs leaving Venezuela and lining the pockets of its corrupt regime.
"We must not let the drug cartels exploit the [coronavirus] pandemic to threaten American lives," Trump said.
While there is little or no sympathy for Maduro anywhere in Washington at this stage, the latest announcement has divided observers, with many struck by the sheer audacity of announcing new military maneuvers in international waters in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
Critics viewed the announcement as a crude political effort by Trump to boost to his re-election chances in the key swing state of Florida, home to many Venezuelans and Cubans who consider Maduro a human virus on a par with covid-19.
“It was a political rally to reinforce the image he is trying to project that he’s the tough guy fighting coronavirus, and Venezuelan narco-terrorism,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
“I’m glad that the U.S. is still focused on issues that go beyond covid-19,” added Fernando Cutz, a former official at the National Security Council who worked on Venezuela policy.
But, he questioned how appropriate it was for the president to use the White House podium to announce his latest move to crush Maduro, barely 24 hours after telling the American people in very somber terms that 100,000 lives might be lost before the pandemic is over.
“ It seemed out of place and inappropriate for the time that we are in,” said Cutz, who noted that the U.S. Navy was this week grappling with a covid-19 outbreak on one of its largest aircraft carriers in the Pacific.
“Is now really the time to be deploying new forward assets? Is this really the time to be risking more American lives and spending more money?” he asked in a phone interview
Walk and chew gum
On the other hand, some Venezuela observers say the deployment is a timely reminder to Maduro that the havoc caused by the coronavirus does not mean the U.S. is taking its eye off his criminal misdeeds in Venezuela.
As politicians like to say in Washington, it’s always good to show you can walk and chew gum at the same time.
“There is clearly a strong commitment from the President and the Vice President to deposing the Maduro regime,” Roger Noriega, the former top diplomat for Latin America at the State Department under President George W. Bush, told Univision.
The U.S. deployment comes two days after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered to lift crippling sanctions against Venezuela if Maduro agreed to a power-sharing deal with opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by almost 60 countries as the legitimate president.
Under the plan, Maduro would step down and a transitional council would govern until free and fair elections are held. The U.S. also offered to lift sanctions and unfreeze the assets of Maduro’s backers if they agreed to the plan.
The military maneuvers involve the deployments of additional Navy destroyers, combat ships, aircraft and helicopters, Coast Guard cutters and sophisticated Air Force surveillance aircraft, in a dramatic doubling of U.S. military capabilities in the region.
However, some analysts questioned whether Trump was dressing up the deployment, pointing out that its mission was much larger than targeting Venezuela, and had been in the planning for some time.
Some of the assets are being deployed in the Pacific, off the coast of Colombia, which experts note dwarfs Venezuela in terms of the cocaine trade. “ About 90 percent of cocaine trafficked to the United States makes landfall in Central America or Mexico, then travels overland and crosses the U.S. border,” according to an analysis by the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA), a policy watchdog.
Maduro dismissed the exercises as an unwarranted escalation, saying he would instead by “attending to the pandemic.”
The deployment of such significant military assets not surprisingly was interpreted by some of Maduro’s most passionate enemies as a signal of possible direct U.S. military intervention to remove him.
Most expert dismiss that as politically too risky for the United States, especially in the midst of the largest public health emergency in modern U.S. history.
Many observers have been baffled by some of the latest moves in U.S. policy, especially indicting Maduro last week and then offering him a negotiated exit this week.
But, over the last year or so, the administration has consistently stuck to what it calls a “maximum pressure” campaign of attrition, designed to force Maduro into submission by grinding down his regime through incremental steps.
" We are going to be closing all the doors. This is another door that will be closed,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, the president’s top policy advisor for Latin America in the White House.
U.S. officials say bribery and protection money was one of the ways the Maduro regime has managed to finance itself as its revenue from oil sales has plummeted. “We have many examples of this where, for example, drug flights are stopped in Venezuela if there has been no payoff of regime officials, and they are permitted if a payoff is made,” Elliott Abrams, the U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela told reporters this week. “And we’ve seen a real increase over the last couple of years in the number of these small planes flying north out of Venezuela carrying drugs,” he added.
"We ain't kidding"
Juan Cruz, former National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere, says the deployment isn’t far off a naval blockade and sends the Maduro regime “a throat-punch message.”
It’s also too expensive a move to constitute a bluff. “It is intended to firmly underscore that we ain't kidding,” he said.
The defiance from Maduro is hardly unexpected and may hide heightened fears and tensions within the regime, some say.
"Confederacy of dunces"
“With the military headed down there the ‘chavistas are really concerned’,” said Russell Dalen, a Venezuela analyst who owns Caracas Capital Markets. The top military and political circles around Maduro had to be thinking about their own future, he said, including recovering their frozen assets, and picking up the $15 million reward for turning Maduro in.
To be sure, the doors appear to be closing everywhere for Maduro. This week he appealed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion to help fight the covid-19 outbreak. He was quickly rebuffed, the bank pointing out that it wasn’t clear if he was the legitimate ruler of the country.
The chickens were finally coming home roost for Maduro’s corrupt and incompetent reign, said Dalen. “ They have the largest oil reserves in the world, but they are running out of it. It’s a confederacy of dunces,” he said. “We are getting closer to regime change. We don’t know what straw it is that is going to break this camel’s back, but we can keep adding more straws. That seems to be this administration’s policy,” said Dalen.
In a further embarrassing sign of nerves, a Venezuelan navy ship sank this week after it tried to ram a European cruise ship off its coast.
Venezuela accused the Portuguese-flagged RCGS Resolute of an act of "aggression and piracy", and possibly carrying mercenaries to attack military bases in Venezuela.
The collision left the cruise ship, which has a reinforced hull to take polar expeditions, with only minor damage.
“ They are idiots. They sank their own ship,” said Dalen.
However, many observers still wonder how close the end really is for Maduro.
Even as the lines gas lines were forming in Caracas, Dalen said shipping data showed Venezuela was sending large shipments of petroleum to Cuba, his main left wing ally.
Cuba has provided Maduro with medical brigades as well as its world class spy craft and military intelligence to preserve the loyalty of his own troops.
“ The Cubans are watching for anyone going wobbly,” said Noriega. “It’s like the Terminator saying, ‘come with me if you want to live.’ They are telling Maduro, ‘We have been watching Uncle Sam’s trigger finger for 60 years. He’s not coming. If you hang together you’ll be able to ride this out.”