The political and economic situation in Venezuela took a fateful turn when the 35-year-old head of its National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself to be the lawful new interim president of the country. He and Venezuela’s opposition parties have challenged the legitimacy of the fraudulent re-election last May of President Nicolás Maduro.
President Trump and the US government have taken the lead in getting most of the international community to recognize Guaidó’s new government. Together, they are calling on Maduro, who is still being supported by Cuba and Russia, to relinquish power.
On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it was placing sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela SA). The half million barrels of heavy crude oil which Venezuela ships daily to US refineries on the Gulf Coast is the country’s major source of cash. The sanctions block $7 billion in assets the company owns in the US, and approximately $11 billion of income for Venezuela this year from its oil exports to the US. The sanctions will also give Guaido’s interim government immediate access to at least $500 million in frozen Venezuelan assets in the U.S.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that PDVSA had “long been a vehicle for embezzlement” by senior Venezuelan government officials and politically connected businessmen. In general, all American citizens will be banned from engaging in any business dealings with PDVSA as long as the sanctions are in place.
Interim president Guaidó and the National Assembly estimate that $30 billion has disappeared from oil company accounts in recent years. Before the oil sanctions were announced, Guaidó said that “because of this corruption and bad management of public funds, our first step has been to protect the assets of the country. . .
“They have the bureaucracy of this country kidnapped, they direct this bureaucracy,” he added, referring to Maduro’s regime.
The new sanctions may also pose a threat to PdVSA’s American subsidiary, Citgo Petroleum Corporation. Citgo is currently paying off a $1.4 billion judgement announced by a US court in August to settle a 2008 case against the Venezuelan government. If Citgo can’t make the scheduled payments on time because the sanctions interrupt its cash flow, Venezuela might lose control of the company. Maduro has condemned the oil sanctions as a US plot “to steal the Citgo company from all Venezuelans. No, Donald Trump. No, no, no.”
The US denies the accusation and says the oil sanctions will be lifted as soon as the money from PDVSA’s operations is under the control of Guaidó’s new Venezuelan government. The US has also pledged to give it $20 million in food and medical aid for the Venezuelan people.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the sanctions “do not target the innocent people of Venezuela” and will allow the delivery of humanitarian aid and medical assistance that is “desperately needed after years of economic destruction under Maduro’s rule.”
DEATH SQUADS MURDERING PROTESTERS
In an interview with the Washington Post Monday, Guaido said that his supporters are in sensitive talks with sympathetic senior Venezuelan military leaders and government officials in an effort to force Maduro to step down without further violence. Human rights activists say that more than 35 pro-Guaido protesters have been killed by special police units carrying shotguns and wearing ski masks, and the death toll has risen sharply in recent days. In addition, more than 800 anti-Maduro demonstrators have been thrown into dungeon-style prisons.
“The Maduro government is responding to the popular protests by pumping them with lead,” said Marco Antonio Ponce, head of the Venezuelan Observatory on Social Conflict. “They’re using death squads to kill protesters.”
Ingrid Borjas, a former public defender whose 19-year-old son, Nick, bled to death last week two hours after being shot by National Guard officers at a peaceful street demonstration, said tearfully, “As far as I know, the National Guard is there to protect us. But this was a massacre. These kids don’t even have toy guns. I just want to know who gave the order. I just want justice.”
After the funeral service, Nick’s family and friends waved a Venezuelan flag and sang the national anthem as they placed his coffin in front of a graffiti message that now dons the wall at the main plaza. It reads: “If there’s no justice for the people, let there be no peace for the government.”
The violence began with a small uprising at a National Guard stockade on January 21, and has been heaviest in a series of nighttime clashes between security forces and protesters in poor neighborhoods around Caracas and other cities, which once had been Nicolas Maduro’s political base. Tired of homes without running water, power or working phone lines, residents have been blocking roads with smoldering trash.
On Monday, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton told Venezuelan military and security forces to accept the “peaceful, democratic and constitutional transfer of power” in the country.
Bolton added that, “The United States will hold Venezuelan security forces responsible for the safety of all U.S. diplomatic personnel, the national assembly and President Guaidó. “Any violence against these groups will signify a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response.”
BEHIND THE SCENES INITIATIVES
Guaido welcomed the U.S. offer of food and medicine, and said the opposition will test the Maduro government’s willingness to let it into the country to ease the crippling shortages.
Maduro has largely blocked such aid in the past, claiming that reports of rapidly spreading hunger and disease in Venezuela is a fiction invented by his enemies.
“Humanitarian aid is the center of our policy, and we are working on the logistics,” Guiado said. “We believe this will be a new dilemma for the regime and the armed forces. They’ll have to decide if they’re on the side of the people and want to heal the country, or if they will ignore it. I believe we’re going to achieve it. They’re going to let it in.”
With regard to the meetings with government officials, civilians and military men, Guiado said, “This is a very delicate subject involving personal security. We are meeting with them but discreetly.”
Guaido said his interim government’s next goal is to take control of Citgo, and influential Venezuelan exiles praised the Trump administration sanctions which could secure Citgo as a major source of revenue for Guaido’s transitional government.
“Nothing will signal Mr. Maduro more pointedly than the loss of control over foreign assets,” said Pedro Burelli, a former member of the board of directors of PdVSA, which owns Citgo. “Other than liquid assets owned by an array of public entities, control of Citgo would be a game changer,” he said
VENEZUELA’S SOCIALIST TRANSFORMATION
Maduro took power following the death of his charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in 2013. He completed Chavez’s transformation of Venezuela from a Western-style democracy into a totalitarian, anti-American socialist state. Thanks to their socialist economic policies and their mismanagement of Venezuela’s vast oil resources, Maduro and Chavez bankrupted their once oil-rich country.
When Venezuelan oil was generating lots of cash, Chavez made himself popular by spending it all on social programs and borrowing more to promote his anti-American ideology through Latin America. But once Chavez was gone and oil prices collapsed, Maduro was left to deal with the inevitable consequences.
A COUNTRY IN MELTDOWN
Venezuela has been reduced to a financial and humanitarian disaster zone. The country’s oil company, the PDVSA, was nationalized by Chavez, along with most other private enterprises. Incompetent and corrupt government loyalists from the military were then installed at every level of Venezuela’s economy.
Ninety percent of the population lives in poverty. When the government ran huge budget deficits to pay for massive welfare programs, hyperinflation made the local currency nearly worthless. The flow of imported goods dried up. Food and medicine became scarce. Severe malnutrition is now commonplace, with children literally starving to death. Crime is rampant, and the murder rate has soared to 15 times the world average. Everyone who can is leaving the country.
The Venezuelan people have grown sick of Maduro’s policies, but he has suppressed mass protests through brutal crackdowns on his political opponents using his Cuban-trained military and the colectivos, paramilitary gangs loyal to Maduro that terrorize the population.
When the opposition brought hundreds of thousands of protestors into the streets to demonstrate in support of the National Assembly during three months in 2017, more than 100 of them were killed, and Maduro went forward with the installation of a rival constituent assembly he controlled.
A DIVIDED OPPOSITION UNIFIES AND STRIKES BACK
The opposition was left divided and weak. Last May, after Maduro staged his own fraudulent re-election which international observers dismissed as a farce, opposition leaders sought to regroup. They saw Maduro’s swearing in ceremony, scheduled for January 10, as an opportunity to garner international support.
“The dire circumstances forced us to unite,” said Juan Pablo Guanipa, an opposition leader from the state of Zulia.
On January 5, Guaidó, a little-known industrial engineer, was elected head of the National Assembly, whose authority is still widely recognized outside Venezuela. Within days, he had lit a spark of hope for the Venezuelan people, and commanded the support of the US, the EU, and free nations throughout the region. He declared Maduro’s re-election to be illegitimate and invoked a rule in the Venezuelan constitution that transfers power to the head of the National Assembly in the absence of a properly-elected president.
A mass public demonstration brought out crowds of the poor who used to support Chavez, waving flags and chanting, “Get out, Maduro!”
On January 23, hundreds of thousands of spectators came to the center of the capital city Caracas to watch Guaidó swear himself in as interim president. The crowd raised their right hands with him as he took the oath of office, and then slowly turned to make their way home.
INSTANT WORLD RECOGNITION
Because of the shockingly miserable conditions in Venezuela, much of the international community, including the US and its European allies, most of Venezuela’s neighbors and world public opinion, coalesced behind the new interim president.
Guaidó issued a call for new, fair presidential elections, which was quickly endorsed by the European Union. Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Great Britain gave Maduro eight days to call new elections or see them give Guaidó their official recognition.
His interim presidency had already been recognized by the United States, Canada, Israel, 19 members of the Organization of American States and most Latin American governments, with the exceptions of Mexico, Bolivia and Cuba.
The poor of Caracas who support Guaidó believe that this effort to overthrow Maduro must succeed where previous protests have failed. One of them told a CNN reporter, “We can’t hold it in any more. We are being crushed. We are beggars now, always begging. This isn’t political, it’s survival. People are killing each other for a kilo of rice, or flour, or water.”
But Maduro has defiantly stood his ground. He condemned the “coups” and “gringo interventions” against him. He initially ordered the immediate ouster of all US diplomats from the country, and called on the armed forces to stand with him. Maduro, and Chavez before him, enjoyed extensive support from Cuba and Russia, and recent history led Maduro to believe that the US would not directly intervene.
THE US AND VENEZUELA’S OIL
The US had largely ignored the taunts from Hugo Chavez, and relations between Maduro and the US government did not turn really sour until 2015, when the Obama administration called Venezuela a threat to US national security. After Trump took office, he froze all American assets of Venezuela’s leaders and their companies, and placed sanctions on its gold exports.
But until now, Trump allowed US refineries on the Gulf Coast to continue importing about half a million barrels of Venezuelan crude oil a day. In recent years, US oil fields have increased production to the point that the country is now energy independent, but the heavy Venezuelan crude is still needed by Gulf refiners to balance lighter crude from domestic wells. That is why the Trump administration had been reluctant to place sanctions on Venezuelan oil.
Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said Venezuelan oil currently at US refineries or in transit at sea can be refined, but the payments for it will be put in an escrow account until control of PDVSA is transferred to the interim government, at which point the funds will be released. The same is true for the money generated by Citgo’s three American refineries. In addition to Citgo, Valero and Chevron also import large quantities of Venezuelan crude for their Gulf Coast refineries. They will now have to find replacement sources.
Mnuchin also said he does not expect the cut off in Venezuelan oil to result in an increase in gasoline prices for American drivers, because there is plenty of excess supply available from oil producers in the Middle East.
Due to gross government mismanagement, Venezuela’s daily crude oil production has dropped more than half from 3.1 million barrels in 1998, before Chavez took power, to 1.4 million barrels currently. As a result, Venezuela now has much less oil available to sell to pay its foreign debts.
Venezuela’s other leading oil export customers are China and India. But Venezuela gets no cash for those oil shipments, which are made in exchange for payments towards Venezuela’s massive debt. On the other hand, Venezuela is dependent on the US for supplies of naptha, a liquid hydrocarbon needed to dilute its heavy crude for convenient transport.
MADURO’S GESTURE OF GOOD WILL
While asking US diplomats to leave the country, Maduro said, “We will continue selling the oil [the US] demand[s] and . . .we are planning to boost oil production to sell more oil in the United States. The United States is more than just Donald Trump. Donald Trump will come to pass. … I have broken political and diplomatic relations with the Donald Trump government. I have not cut ties with the US.”
Maduro claims he is open to dialogue with the Trump administration. “I wish [Trump] had the conscience and the courage not to make the same mistakes as Obama and start a new era with Venezuela. . . I am anti-imperialism, but I am an admirer of the US, and I love the United States,” Maduro said.
As sign of good will, Maduro backed away from his initial demand that all US diplomatic personnel leave Venezuela immediately and negotiated an agreement with the US to allow diplomats to stay at their posts for the next 30 days. During that period, they will set up “interest offices” in the embassies of other countries to handle the affairs going forward.
Vice President Mike Pence was the first to publicly declare US support for the new Venezuelan government. In a January 15 call to Guaidó, he offered “resolute support” for Venezuela’s National Assembly as “the only legitimate democratic body in the country.” The US also said that it would turn over to Guaidó’s control Venezuelan state assets in the US that have been frozen by Trump administration sanctions previously imposed on the Maduro government and top leaders.
President Trump has promised to use the “full weight” of US economic and diplomatic power to help restore Venezuela’s democracy. At the same time, US leaders are creating a broad consensus of South American and other democratic nations in support of Guaidó.
CONFRONTATION AT THE SECURITY COUNCIL
At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council over the situation in Venezuela called by the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the delegates, “No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem.”
Maduro responded by calling Pompeo “a warlord” who speaks with “a lot of despair and hate.” His main international allies and benefactors, Russia, Cuba and China, blocked US-led attempts to get the Security Council to recognize the Guaidó government. Maduro’s other main international supporters include Iran and Turkey, as well as Hezbollah, which is known to partner with corrupt Venezuelan generals to profit from illicit drug and arms deals.
Russia issued a warning to the United States against any military intervention against Maduro, reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s warnings which led up to the Cuban missile crisis in 1963, and almost started a nuclear war.
While a US-Russia military confrontation over Venezuela may seem far-fetched, it should be recalled that in December, Russia sent two TU-160 Blackjack nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela, which were only recalled after a vigorous US protest. Russia has also reportedly sent private military contractors to serve as Maduro’s bodyguards.
RUSSIA PROTECTING ITS INVESTMENT
Russia has invested years of effort and as much as $25 billion dollars to turn Venezuela into one of its closest allies in the Western hemisphere. In exchange for loans and bailouts, Russia now owns significant parts of at least five oil fields in Venezuela, along with 30 years’ worth of future output from two Caribbean natural gas fields. Venezuela has also signed several large contracts to purchase arms from Russia, and the Russian state-owned arms company, Rostec, has begun building a factory in Venezuela to manufacture Kalashnikov assault rifles. All that Russian money and effort may be at risk if Guaidó manages to overthrow Maduro.
Shortly after Guaidó declared himself interim president, Maduro got a phone call from President Vladimir Putin and issued a statement criticizing “destructive outside interference” in Venezuela, presumably by the US, which “grossly tramples fundamental norms of international law.” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called events in Caracas a “quasi-coup.”
Russia has been trying to cultivate its friendship with Maduro, in part to protect its large economic investment in Venezuelan. That effort has been frustrated by the unexpected emergence of interim president Guaido, whom the Russians believe to be a U.S. pawn. Nevertheless, Russia does not seem eager to mount another challenge to the U.S. right now, or to embark on another foreign military adventure, in addition to Syria and Ukraine.
Like Russia, China has also been funding Venezuela for years, mostly by providing loans to keep Venezuela’s failing oil company, PDVSA, in business, and to establish a foothold by making a friend in the region. China has provided $65 billion in loans to Venezuela, but until the country starts paying more of it back, more loans from China are unlikely.
CUBA’S MILITARY OCCUPATION OF VENEZUELA
Cuba is another socialist country with a huge investment in the survival of the current Venezuelan government. The Cuban government of President Miguel Díaz-Canel has offered Maduro its “unwavering solidarity” and called challenge from Guaidó and the National Assembly an “attempt to impose a coup d’état, a puppet government at the service of the United States.”
In 2017 testimony to the United States Senate, Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), asserted that there were about 15,000 Cubans in Venezuela and likened them to “an occupation army.” They consist of spies, intelligence and political advisers, counterintelligence agents, military trainers and a variety of Cuban experts from other fields. Their job is to prop up Maduro by helping to suppress dissent within the armed forces and throughout Venezuelan society, which has become a police state.
The Cubans are richly rewarded for their support. For years, Venezuela supplied heavily subsidized crude oil at a rate of about 100,000 barrels per day. Cuba would refine the surplus it didn’t need for itself and resell it on the international market, providing it with about 20 percent of its GDP, according to the Brookings Institution. In recent years, as Venezuela’s oil output has declined, it has cut back on its exports to Cuba. In compensation for the loss, PDVSA gave up its half interest in a Cuban refinery in 2017.
The original Venezuela-Cuba relationship was driven by the deep friendship between Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. “They were very close, like a father-and-son relationship,” said Richard Feinberg, an expert on the Cuban economy at the University of California, San Diego. But now that others are in charge, the relationship is not as close as it used to be, according to David Smilde, an expert on Venezuela at Tulane University. Cubans are still advising key officials in the Maduro administration, but “the Cubans often complain that Maduro doesn’t listen to them,” Smilde says.
However, Cubans still play a key role in maintaining internal security for the Maduro regime, including domestic surveillance and electronic wiretapping, as well as squelching dissent and shoring up loyalty within the Venezuelan military. During his speech at the Security Council, Secretary of State Pompeo said, “No regime has done more to sustain the nightmarish conditions in Venezuela than the regime in Havana.”
A MAFIA-STYLE GOVERNMENT
After 20 years in power, the corrupt system of control put in place by Chavez and Maduro is so deeply embedded that it may take more than replacing the man at the top to put Venezuela back on track. Much like Vladimir Putin, Maduro rules as the public face of an entire class of political cronies who have taken advantage of their control over the country’s food distribution system, currency exchange rates and armories to vastly enrich themselves through bribery and a variety of other unpoliced criminal enterprises.
“Venezuela’s situation can’t be compared to any dictatorship [in that] Maduro is not a traditional dictator,” said Antonio Ledezma, an exiled Venezuelan opposition leader. “We are fighting against a mafia in power. That’s why we don’t talk about a dialogue. . . In Venezuela we’ve conducted dialogues many times, but mafias can’t be dealt with that way.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a longtime critic of the Venezuelan regime, likes to refer to it as “the Maduro crime family.”
A RESPONSE TO AMERICAN PROGRESSIVES
Ironically, the plight of Venezuela today is demonstrating the disastrous results of applied socialist policies at the same time that they are coming back into vogue in liberal segments of American society. During the Cold War era, the fatal shortcomings of state socialism seemed obvious enough, but 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, those facts have to be explained all over again to refute the claims of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren and their fellow “progressive” Democrat party leaders.
They are trying to convince Americans they can get free medical care, free college educations and guaranteed minimum incomes if they would agree to redistribute the wealth of the most productive among us who are worth more than $50 million or who earn more than $10 million a year.
Nationwide polls show that up to 37 percent of Americans are willing to accept these proposals, but that is because they don’t understand what traditional socialism, which calls for the nationalization of the country’s means of production through state confiscation of private property, really means. They are thinking of the watered-down version known as Democratic socialism found in Western European social welfare states, rather than the pure, totalitarian version envisioned by the “progressive” activists, and which is grimly practiced today by the true socialist governments of Cuba and North Korea, as well as Venezuela.
A COUNTRY STARVING TO DEATH
The failure of the system in Venezuela is well documented. The worker co-ops which Hugo Chavez created to replace private enterprise wound up in the hands of his incompetent and corrupt cronies, undermining the Venezuelan economy. To finance its deficits, the government responded by printing money, quickly leading to hyperinflation, ineffective state price controls and critical shortages of food and medicines,
One result has been mass starvation. Most Venezuelans are severely protein-deprived and joke grimly about being on the “Maduro diet.” In 2017, the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds. That year, in five months of reporting for the New York Times, Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera documented 2,800 cases of severe child malnutrition in hospitals across Venezuela, resulting in 400 deaths.
Surgical patients checking into hospitals are told to bring their own cleaning products and bandages. Supermarkets in the capital city of Caracas lack eggs and bread. A modest basket of bottled water, nuts, cheese, meat and fruit costs the equivalent of $200 in local currency.
Food has become the most precious item in the country. Armed soldiers guard food warehouses against looters, and even upper-class supermarkets now routinely frisk shoppers and search their bags before they are permitted to leave.
If Maduro remains in power, the situation is expected to get even worse. The IMF predicts that inflation in Venezuela will increase by the end of this year to a staggering rate of 10 million percent. Estimates say that as many as 5.5 million people have fled to adjacent South American countries, and another two million (out of a total population of 31 million) are expected to leave this year.
These vividly described horrors endured by the people of Venezuela shows that the “progressive” economic solution of socialism which led to the collapse of the Soviet empire still doesn’t work. As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once explained, socialism always fails because “eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
HUGO CHAVEZ RISES TO POWER
Hugo Chavez began his political career as a lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan army who led a failed coup against the government in 1992. He was captured and jailed for two years. Shortly after being released, he traveled to Cuba, where he pledged his allegiance to the anti-American revolution led by Fidel Castro. After his return to Venezuela, Chavez decided to run for the Venezuelan presidency by toning down his radical political image. He claimed to be “‘neither for savage capitalism, nor socialism, nor Communism,” and promised to seek a “third way” balancing socialism and capitalism.
Chavez won the 1998 election, but before implementing his hidden socialist agenda, he sought to give himself the power he would need to do that by rewriting the country’s constitution. He made sure the new constitution would win popular support by including new rights for free, government-provided health care and college educations, and guarantees of “social justice,” which meant giving government the power to impose its will on private citizens.
When the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled against some of his proposals in 2004, he neutralized it by stacking its bench with 12 judges he knew would support his agenda. He also created a parallel legislature controlled by his cronies after the opposition won control of the National Assembly. Once he had gained full control of the courts and legislature, Chavez began to impose his agenda.
Venezuelan expatriate Giannina Raffo told Fox News that Chavez started by staging “constant attacks on private property, the implementation of very harmful economic policies, the criminalization of dissent, [and imposing] censorship.”
After winning re-election in 2006 by running on an openly socialist platform, Chavez nationalized media outlets, oil and power companies, mines, farms, banks, factories, and grocery stores. During the first stage of his reforms, when he still had lots of oil money to spend, Chavez was able to reduce the poverty rate somewhat, and remained popular enough to win re-election as president three times.
CHAVEZ SPREAD THE OIL MONEY AROUND
He spent some of that oil money promoting his anti-American ideology, which was called “Bolivarianism” or “Chavismo” across the region. Chavez turned Venezuela into the center of the international, anti-American leftist movement and helped to create and support a “pink tide” of socialist Latin American regimes in Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Chavez called them examples of the “socialism of the 21st century,” and organized them into regional groups to counter the US-supported OAS. In a brilliant PR move, Chavez also spent some of Venezuela’s oil money on grants to poor working-class families in Europe and the American northeast to help pay for high home heating costs during the coldest winter months.
But as early as 2010, it had become clear that Venezuela was in an economic crisis and that Chavez’s socialist policies were unsustainable.
After crude oil prices collapsed in 2014, Venezuela’s economic situation rapidly deteriorated. Massive food shortages and hyperinflation set in. “Just before coming to the US in January 2016, my family and I used to wait in eight-hour long lines to buy basic goods,” Raffo recalls.
They considered themselves fortunate to be able to leave. “‘Living’ in Venezuela was not living anymore. [My family] spent all their time trying to find food and medicines to survive. The apartment that [my family] left behind, my home for 24 years, is now empty. They are not coming back,” Raffo said.
Her advice for American voters is, “Don’t let someone ruin your next generations with absurd ideas of socialism. Educate and disseminate ideas of freedom as far you can. . . Socialism not only takes away from people the access to basic food and medicines, but also creates an environment in which life is worth nothing.”
THE RISE OF NICOLAS MADURO
Nicolas Maduro began his working life as a bus driver and rose to become a trade union leader before being elected to the National Assembly in 2000. Chavez appointed him to a number of positions within the Venezuelan government before making him Foreign Minister in 2006. He was elected vice president in October, 2012, and won a special election in April 2013, after Chavez’s death from cancer, to succeed him as president with 50.62% of the vote.
Maduro has ruled Venezuela by decree since November 2013. Daily protests against chronic shortages and falling living standards began in 2014, and led to the deaths of 43 protesters at the hands of government agents. As public support for Maduro declined, the opposition parties captured a majority of the National Assembly in 2015, and they have been struggling to wrest power from Maduro ever since.
Maduro is still counting on the support of the Venezuelan military to keep him in office. He is getting it from his Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, who issued a lengthy pledge of loyalty to Maduro on state television last week.
WHAT WILL THE MILITARY DO NOW?
But other leaders of the Venezuelan military may not go along.
Last week, the Venezuelan military attaché at its embassy in Washington, Colonel Jose Luis Silva, refused a direct telephone order to return to Caracas, and then issued his own call to fellow Venezuelan military men to abandon the Maduro government because it has “only mistreated the people. . . The armed forces have a key role in restoring democracy in the country [and to] stop the usurpation of executive power.”
“The Venezuelan armed forces are on a roller coaster,” Silva said. “There’s absolute discontent. Soldiers don’t have enough money to feed their families. There’s a higher chance than ever that some will rise up. My fate depends on President Guaidó.”
Ordinary Venezuelan soldiers also share the discontent of the people, and some might not obey from their officers an order to open fire on anti-Maduro protesters. One soldier told CNN that he is paid a dollar and a half on the first of every month. “If I buy a chicken, I have nothing else for the rest of the month,” he said. Meanwhile, “the big fishes, the senior officers, are the ones eating, getting rich, while at the bottom we have it hard. . . I would say about 80 percent of the army is against the government, especially the troops, who are going through a lot more than the officers. You can see in some states, soldiers have starting attending demonstrations.”
Antonio Rivero, a Venezuelan general living in exile in Miami, said he has spoken with high, middle and lower military officials who find fault with Maduro but remain fearful of a full break.
“Many soldiers are desperate,” Rivero said. “The armed forces are broken already.”
SENATOR RUBIO DRIVING WHITE HOUSE POLICY
One of the architects of the Trump administration policy towards Venezuela today is Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). Like other Cuban-American leaders from Florida, Rubio is staunchly anti-Castro and anyone who supports the Cuban regime, including Russia and China, in addition to Maduro’s Venezuelan government. Reportedly, a leader of Maduro’s political party, Diosdado Cabello Rondon, became so annoyed with Rubio’s persistent criticism that he ordered the assassination of the Florida senator. When informed of the threat by US intelligence, Rubio responded by publicly taunting Rondon on Twitter.
Three years ago, Rubio, the son of Cuban refugees, fought a bitter losing battle for the GOP nomination against Trump, but has since mended fences with the White House and today serves as its chief outside advisor and policy architect for Latin American affairs.
“He has been relentless since Trump’s election, working hard to earn the president’s trust in this policy area,” said former Florida GOP Congressman Carlos Curbelo of Rubio’s efforts. “He owns it and it has clearly paid dividends for him, and more importantly for the victims of Maduro’s tyranny.”
Rubio has been assisted by Vice President Pence and National Security Advisor John Bolton, who share his determination to see Maduro ousted, as well as Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Rick Scott. Together, they convinced Trump to immediately recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president.
Rubio has also recruited support for Maduro’s ouster from senior Senate Democrats, including Dick Durbin from Illinois and Robert Menendez from New Jersey. But he has not been successful in convincing prominent Democrat progressives, such as Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who is running for president in 2020, that US involvement is necessary or justified. “Let the Venezuelan people determine their future. We don’t want other countries to choose our leaders, so we have to stop trying to choose theirs,” Gabbard wrote on Twitter.
Rubio had previously called on the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Venezuela’s oil to pressure Maduro to agree to new elections, and he was pleased that the White House acted on his recommendation. Rubio released a statement saying, “The Maduro crime family has used PDVSA to buy and keep the support of many military leaders. The oil belongs to the Venezuelan people, and therefore the money PDVSA earns from its export will now be returned to the people through their legitimate constitutional government.”
SPECULATING ABOUT THE END GAME
In a televised interview last week, Rubio said that Maduro’s ouster is now inevitable. “He’s picked a battle he can’t win. It’s just a matter of time. The only thing we don’t know is how long it will take, and whether it will be peaceful or bloody.”
Rubio explained the four most likely scenarios: Maduro could survive in power; he could be forced out but replaced by another civilian who is just as bad; he could be unseated by a military coup; or a popular revolt like the one Guaidó is leading could force a peaceful change in leadership. Rubio acknowledged that, “the US interest is reflected in only one of those outcomes,” the last one.
Rubio is concerned that Maduro could resort to violence in an effort to hold onto power. He has urged the White House to issue a clear warning to Maduro, as well as his friends in Moscow and Havana, that if he chooses that course of action, “the consequences will be swift and severe.”
The Monroe Doctrine, asserting US military dominance throughout the Western Hemisphere, has served as a cornerstone of foreign policy since it was first announced by President James Monroe in 1823, in response to threats by other powers to take over countries in America’s backyard. It is refreshing to see it being asserted by the United States once again in the name of both national security and the basic human rights of the Venezuelan people.
The Washington Post contributed to this story.