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Trump's bet on Guaido is Tested as Maduro remains in Caracas

Bloomberg

Soldiers supporting Venezuelan interim president Juan Guaido

Play video:
Latin American leaders met to condemn Venezuela: Mary Anastasia O'Grady

- Pompeo claims Russia stopped Venezuelan leader from fleeing
- Cubans deny U.S. claims that their military is backing Maduro

By Justin Sink and Glen Carey / Bloomberg

CARACAS
Petroleumworld 05 01 2019

President Donald Trump swiftly ratcheted up pressure on Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday, threatening an embargo against the Venezuelan president's allies in Cuba while Secretary of State Michael Pompeo claimed the embattled leader had planned to flee the country.

The latest broadsides from the White House came after U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido attempted to end Maduro's regime, calling on the military to join a popular uprising. The American moves underscored that the push, described by Guaido as the final chapter in his months-long effort to bring about a new government, represented a high-stakes test of Trump's intervention in the battle for control of the oil-rich country.

Trump has bet heavily on Guaido, shrugging off his isolationist inclinations to rally allies in support of the opposition leader as the country's lawful head of state. But the ambiguous outcome of Tuesday's clashes, which ended with Maduro still in Caracas and a Guaido ally seeking asylum in the Chilean ambassador's residence, threatened to deal a setback not only to the Venezuela opposition but also the credibility of the American campaign.

U.S. Declarations

Trump and top U.S. officials sought to undermine Maduro with a pair of dramatic declarations as Guaido's effort fizzled late in the day. Pompeo took aim at Maduro's credibility and loyalty during an interview with CNN, claiming the Venezuelan leader was prepared to leave the country until the Russian government convinced him to stay.

“The fact that Maduro's plane was parked on the tarmac and he was preparing himself to depart, is a fact,” Pompeo said. “There is no way that Maduro can stay in the country in a nation that he has so decimated.”

Read More: How Has Maduro Survived? With Lots of Help From Cuban Operatives

The interview was broadcast moments after Trump personally threatened “highest-level sanctions” and an embargo on Cuba if it continued military operations in Venezuela. Earlier in the afternoon, Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, said between 20,000 and 25,000 Cuban security forces were in the country.

Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

A man runs from tear gas on the Francisco Fajardo Highway during a military uprising in Caracas on April 30.

“We know the Cuban organized thugs, these motorcycle gangs the Cubans have put together, are out protecting certain buildings, controlled by Maduro, not the military,” Bolton said. “But this really demonstrates the depths to which the regime has sunk that they are using these Cuban thugs to conduct their affairs.”

The Cuban foreign minister denied in a tweet that any of his nation's military forces are in Venezuela. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday that Pompeo's claims weren't true. "Washington tried its best to demoralize the Venezuelan army and now used fakes as a part of an information war," she told CNN.

‘Big Flames'

A failed uprising could more deeply entrench Maduro and extinguish hopes of toppling a government whose rule has resulted in runaway hyperinflation, shortages of basic necessities, including medicine, and a migration crisis. It would also leave vulnerable Guaido loyalists whom the U.S. has pledged to support, and prompt questions about why the administration has opted to forgo military action that Trump has long threatened, albeit obliquely.

“Trump will own this no matter what,” said Paul Sullivan, an international security expert at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies. “It caught to big flames on Trump's watch, and he has been very vocal on this. If Guaido is killed the country will explode into chaos. In any case, Maduro will not go quietly. This could get very bloody and could last a long time. Nothing will be easy or simple in this.”

Bolton acknowledged the stakes.

“If this effort fails, they will sink into a dictatorship from which there are very few possible alternatives,” Bolton told reporters at the White House. “This is a delicate moment.”

Why Venezuela Has Two Presidents, One Thorny Standoff: Quicktake

The White House made a number of other moves to try to rattle Maduro's regime.

Bolton publicly admonished Venezuelan officials – including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno and presidential guard commander Ivan Hernandez Dala – who he said had privately backed a transition in leadership to Guaido. The U.S. offered to remove economic sanctions from regime officials who allowed Guaido to assume power. Both White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Pompeo reiterated the administration's vague threats of a military intervention.

The Federal Aviation Administration banned U.S. airlines and commercial operators from flying below 26,000 feet over Venezuela's airspace due to “increasing political instability and tensions” in the South American country, according to a notice on its website.

Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

Protesters clash with pro-government National Guards near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase on April 30.

Yet Bolton refused to say whether the U.S. would commit to military action if Guaido's personal safety was threatened or if Maduro loyalists escalated their attacks on protesters. Reports of violent clashes – including an instance where a Venezuelan military vehicle appeared to drive into a crowd of demonstrators – were reported across the country on Tuesday.

Guaido's Gambit

Guaido's inability to clearly and quickly win the loyalty of a Venezuelan military that the U.S. has for months urged to abandon Maduro poses further concerns.

“The risk is if Guaido's supporters are disappointed that the regime didn't collapse today, and then they lose patience and frustration mounts,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington.

But Shifter said it will take time to assess the impact of Guaido's effort on Tuesday, which the Maduro regime called an attempted coup. It was never likely that the government could be toppled in one day by a street mobilization, he added.

“If today's development helps intensify pressure for the government to enter into a serious negotiation, that ultimately leads to a democratic transition, it will have to be considered a success,” Shifter said.

Earlier Tuesday, Guaido seemed to gain momentum after troops who had shifted their loyalty released an ally, Leopoldo Lopez, from house arrest. Maduro's employment of “colectivo” pro-grovernment militia and guards that the U.S. charged were Cuban operatives could undermine what popular support he still retains.

Lopez, however, later sought the Chilean ambassador's protection, before leaving the residence and heading to the Spanish embassy.

“From here on out, if Maduro is to rule, it will be by fear and oppression, because he has no credibility remaining,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president at the Council of the Americas.

— With assistance by Alyza Sebenius


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Story by Justin Sink and Glen Carey from Bloomberg.

bloomberg.com/ 05 01 2019

 

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