Questions raised on US role in Venezuela as President Maduro remains firmly in power

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro at a rally in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 1, 2019.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro at a rally in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 1, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Nobody said regime change was going to be easy.

United States President Donald Trump's top advisers woke up on Tuesday (April 30) believing that a rebellion in the Venezuelan military that day would galvanise a popular uprising and topple a leader they have described as a reviled despot who must be replaced.

But at day's end, President Nicolas Maduro was still in power and Mr Trump's advisers were left to blame Cuba, Russia and three influential Venezuelan officials, who failed to switch sides, for frustrating their plans.

The decision of the Venezuelans to stand with Mr Maduro - either because they were intimidated, got cold feet or never planned to defect - raised questions about whether the US had faulty intelligence about the ability of the opposition to peel away members of his government.

It also raised questions about whether Mr Trump's aides had fallen victim to a misreading of events on the ground, or whether Mr Trump, who officials say has sometimes outrun his aides in an enthusiasm for forcing out Mr Maduro, might lose faith in the effort as it wears on.

Mr Maduro has been weakened at home and discredited abroad, but he remains a stubborn rival unwilling to step aside for the opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognised by the US as the country's de facto leader.

While the administration got off to a sure-footed start on Venezuela, rallying dozens of countries against the Venezuelan president, critics said its response had become haphazard and chaotic as the crisis dragged on.

 
 
 
 

Mr Trump's aides banked on Mr Guaido's call for mass protests and the defection of the Venezuelan officials on Tuesday as a turning point in the three-month campaign to oust Mr Maduro.

Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted their support for "Operacion Libertad," while the national security adviser John Bolton called it a "potentially dispositive moment".

Mr Trump did not mention the operation, but later on Tuesday, he assailed Cuba for its backing of Mr Maduro, threatening to hit it with an embargo and new sanctions.

Current and former officials said he was keenly interested in dislodging the Venezuelan leader, even raising the prospect in private meetings of limited US military involvement to hasten that outcome.

Still, Mr Trump came into office rejecting the interventionist tendencies of his predecessors, and he has said less publicly about Venezuela than his aides, who have turned regime change into a social media crusade.

Mr Bolton has tweeted hundreds of times about the crisis, taped videos for the Venezuelan people and appeared almost daily on cable news shows to discuss it.

To serve as special envoy to Venezuela, Mr Pompeo recruited Mr Elliott Abrams, even though the White House had vetoed him for other jobs because of his criticism of Mr Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Mr Abrams is known for his neoconservative views and experience under president Ronald Reagan, where he was involved in the secret plan to supply weapons to the Contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and in the George W. Bush administration, where he was a proponent of the Iraq War.

While Mr Trump has used charged language with adversaries - especially Iran - he has generally shrunk from trying to force out their leaders in favour of his preferred candidate, believing that it prompts costly and futile military entanglements. He has held talks with Mr Kim Jong Un of North Korea and offered to speak to Iranian leaders.

Mr Bolton and Mr Pompeo, by contrast, have spoken frequently about the need for Mr Maduro to go, and raised hopes that Mr Guaido was on the cusp of driving him out.

"I worry that this kind of semi-regular raising of expectations to very high levels wears - and makes the kind of internal pressure that needs to build harder to happen," said Mr Daniel Restrepo, a former Latin America adviser in the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

As both sides in Venezuela dug in, administration officials pinned the blame on different culprits.

Mr Pompeo called out the Russians, claiming they had talked Mr Maduro out of boarding a plane and fleeing the country on Tuesday morning before the protests started.

Mr Bolton dwelt on the role of the three officials: Defence minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, Mr Maikel Moreno, the chief judge of the Supreme Court; and Mr Rafael Hernandez Dala, the commander of Mr Maduro's presidential guard.

He said they would forfeit their chance to have Treasury Department sanctions against them lifted if they did not honour what he said was their pledge to join Mr Guaido's forces.

State Department officials have said they recognise it may take weeks or even months for Mr Maduro to fall.

The US has not set any deadlines, nor has it moved beyond the President's warning that military force is an option. But the flurry of statements by Mr Trump's top aides suggest the White House is less patient.

Mr Trump is being prodded to take an aggressive position on Venezuela by Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Ousting Mr Maduro would be extremely popular with the Cuban exile community in South Florida, which views the socialist government in Venezuela as a proxy for Cuba.

The National Security Council held a principals' meeting on Wednesday to discuss "what additional steps need to be taken to speed up and secure a peace transition of power", Mr Bolton said. Mr Pompeo called Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to warn Moscow not to interfere in Venezuela.

"Intervention by Russia and Cuba is destabilising for Venezuela and for the US-Russia bilateral relationship," Mr Pompeo told Mr Lavrov, according to the State Department.

The Venezuelan opposition may have been the source for the information that the three senior officials were considering backing Mr Guaido.

But Mr Bolton's diatribe on Tuesday, in which he repeatedly called out the three men by name, was most likely a considered move, according to a former Trump administration official.

Mr Bolton favors a "wink, wink, nod, nod" strategy aimed at weakening Mr Maduro, the former official said, referring to a recent episode in which he scrawled a note about deploying US troops to Colombia on a yellow legal pad where reporters could easily spot it.

The official said he believed it was less likely that Mr Bolton had been taken in by bad intelligence and more likely that he was using that intelligence to run his own counterintelligence operation.

By calling out the Venezuelan officials, Mr Bolton would either push the three men to take action if they were planning to support Mr Guaido or - if they had a change of heart - undermine Mr Maduro's faith in them.

The administration has been generally sceptical of information from the Venezuelan opposition, although Mr Trump does receive some information directly from Mr Rubio or Senator Rick Scott, Florida's other Republican senator.

One area where the White House has been at odds with the CIA is the agency's assessment of Cuban participation and support for the Maduro government.

Mr Bolton and Mr Pompeo have consistently criticised Cuba for its support for the Venezuelan government. But the CIA has concluded that Cuba is far less involved and its support has been far less important than senior officials in the administration believe, according to a former official.

Military options do not appear to have been fleshed out in detail at the White House, and on Wednesday, Pentagon officials played down the prospect of intervention. But the recent events could cause the administration to look at developing potential courses of action.

Nobody emerged stronger from Tuesday's chaotic events, analysts said.

Mr Guaido failed to muster military support for the overthrow of the government, but the military looked like fence-sitters, which weakened Mr Maduro's position. And the US appeared to go all in on a forced transfer of power, only to see it evaporate.

Some analysts said that in their frustration, Mr Pompeo and Mr Bolton revealed potentially sensitive intelligence, burning those channels.

Mr Pompeo's comments about Russian messages to Mr Maduro could force the Venezuelan leader to use a more secure communications channel. And Mr Bolton's conspicuous naming of the three Venezuelans could head off any future discussions with them about switching sides.

"The question is, to what objective?" said Mr Fernando Cutz, a former acting senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration. "There would have been a significant benefit to keep those channels open so we could try again or just to get intelligence out of them."