U.S. Reactions to Failure of Juan Guaidò’s Attempt To Take Over Control of Venezuela

Last week saw the failure of an attempt to take over the Venezuelan government by the country’s opposition leader and president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, and U.S. reactions to this development.

Failed Take Over[1]

On Tuesday morning (April 30),  Guaidó, with the support of his mentor (Leopoldo López), the director of the regime’s intelligence agency (Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera Manuel) and some low-ranking soldiers called for other officials and soldiers to join them in attempting to remove President Nicolás Maduro from power. Trump Administration officials—Trump himself plus Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton—publicly announced support for what they called “Operaciōn Libertad.”

By sunset that same day, however, it was clear that Mr. Guaidó had failed to persuade the military to rise up against Mr. Maduro. As a result, Leopoldo Lopez and family sought and obtained refuge in the Spanish Embassy while Figuera had fled the country.  The attempted takeover had failed.

Nevertheless, the following Saturday (May 3), Guaidó tried again to enlist Government officials and soldiers to join his movement. Again it failed.

In addition, by the end of the week, Venezuela’s Attorney General publicly announced that  everyone linked to the recent attempted coup had turned themselves into traitors to be prosecuted in accordance with the country’s constitution and laws. Already 18 arrest warrants have been issued, including one for Leopoldo Lopez in the Spanish Embassy.

Trump Administration’s Public Reactions[2]

Before the attempted takeover Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had focused on Russia’s alleged influence over Maduro and repeated that all options, including U.S. military intervention, were still on the table, while President Trump had issued a tweet attacking Cuba for supporting Maduro and promising new economic sanctions on the island.

Immediately after the events of April 30, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and U.S. Special Envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, publicly accused the Venezuelans minister of defense, Vladimir Padrino López, and two other regime leaders of backing out after having promised to remove Mr. Maduro and support Mr. Guaidó.

On Friday, May 3, President Trump added to this U.S. discombobulation with  a long telephone conversation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on several topics. Afterwards Trump apparently accepted Putin’s assurances that Russia “is not looking at all to get involved [in Venezuela], other than he’d like to see something positive happen.” Trump added, “”And I feel the same way. We want to get some humanitarian aid. Right now people are starving.” (This statement was obviously contradicted by what Secretary Pompeo and Bolton had been saying and by the Kremlin’s subsequent statement that Putin in his telephone conversation had condemned “outside interference in . . . [Venezuela’s] internal affairs” and added that “attempts to change the government in Caracas by force undermine prospects for a political settlement of the crisis.”)

Nevertheless, on Sunday, May 5, Secretary Pompeo appeared on several national television programs to reiterate the old and now discredited Administration talking points about Venezuela, which he reprised with journalists on his flight later on Sunday to Finland for the Arctic Council Ministerial.

On  ABC’s “This Week”, for example, Pompeo rejected the notion that there had been faulty U.S. intelligence over the apparent failure of Juan Guiadó’s call for a removal of Maduro. The Secretary said, Oh, no, not at all. This is the Venezuelan people attempting to re-establish their democracy. The United States has joined with them. We have supported the National Assembly’s choice. Juan Guaido is the interim president of the country. . . . [These] things sometimes have bumpy roads, to be sure, but Maduro can’t feel good. He’s ruling for the moment, but he can’t govern. There is enormous poverty, enormous starvation, sick children that can’t get medicine. . . . This is not someone who can be part of Venezuela’s future, and whether that change takes place today or tomorrow or a week from now, one can’t predict.”

Pompeo continued on ABC, “Our mission is to work with a large coalition, now 50 countries-plus, who are determined to restore democracy and then ultimately a productive economy to Venezuela. What we can do is provide support, get support from the Organization of American States, the Lima Group, the entire region, that understands that restoring democracy for the Venezuelan people is an imperative, and get them all to work together so that we get the outcome we’re looking for.”

In response to the ABC journalist’s direct question of whether “a U.S. military invasion of Venezuela  [was] really an option?’” Pompeo said, “Oh, make no mistake, we have a full range of options that we’re preparing for. That’s part of what we were doing on Friday [May 3] was making sure that when this progresses and a different situation arises that the President has a full-scale set of options: diplomatic options, political options, options with our allies, and then ultimately a set of options that would involve use of U.S. military. We’re preparing those for him so that when the situation arises, we’re not flat-footed.”

Another direct question on the ABC program was posed as to whether the President believes that he can intervene militarily without getting congressional authorization Pompeo responded, “I don’t want to speak to that. The president has his full range of Article 2 authorities, and I’m very confident that any action we took in Venezuela would be lawful.”General Joseph Dunford

Trump Administration’s Internal Reactions[3]

On May 1 the White House held an emergency session of senior national security advisors for discussion about Venezuela. Their discussions apparently included an “intense debate . . . over whether the U.S. military should be used to raise pressure on Maduro, with senior Pentagon officials warning an armed intervention would be counterproductive.” This meeting included Admiral Craig Faller, Commander of the Southern Command, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and other senior officials, including Marine General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats;  National Security Advisor John Bolton and Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

Another meeting occurred on Friday, May 3 with the same people.

The Southern Command reportedly has “given the White House an array of options for potential military action. . . . [including] U.S. naval exercises or deployments of warships outside Venezuelan waters, delivery of humanitarian aid into the country, and more military contacts with neighboring countries to try to enlist their support for joint action.” Admiral Craig Faller, the current head of Southern Command, said the Pentagon was also “carefully looking at plans” to expand an embargo on Cuba, as Trump suggested in a tweet this week, to erode Havana’s support for Maduro’s government.”

Evaluation of U.S. Policies Regarding Venezuela[4]

A former senior administration official with deep knowledge of the region described the failed coup as “ the Bay of Pigs II” — a reference to the failed U.S.-backed attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro in 1961.

Several analysts have said that “the Trump administration has misread the dynamics of the Venezuela crisis. They said the White House underestimated Maduro’s resilience and fostered unrealistic expectations about the ease of regime change, partly by trusting apparently duplicitous Venezuelan military officials.” One of them, Michael Shifter, president of the nonpartisan Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank that specializes in Latin America, said, “They have made a series of terrible miscalculations,”

Shifter added,“The Trump administration’s repeated ultimatums, hints of military intervention and threats to blockade Cuba, all of which could backfire by eroding broad international diplomatic support for the anti-Maduro forces, and by goading the Venezuelan armed forces to rally around [Maduro].”

Another expert on Venezuela in the Washington Office on Latin Ameera, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization, David Smilde, said, “This is characteristic of the neoconservatives who are running foreign policy now. They think they can huff and puff and put forth strong rhetoric … and the foe will back down. But time and again, that doesn’t happen. The sociology of authoritarian governments is far more complex.”

A New York Times editorial correctly summed up the current status. U.S. military intervention, “repeatedly cited as a possibility by Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo, remains a terrible idea. However invested the Trump administration is in the ouster of Mr. Maduro, a direct intervention would find little support across a region with bad memories of American meddling, and would brand Mr. Guaidó as an American lackey.”

A different conclusion was reached by a Washington Post editorial. After reciting some of the Maduro regime’s horrible policies and actions, the editorial said, “Therefore, whatever its ultimate outcome or, indeed, its strategic wisdom, Tuesday’s uprising is not a ‘coup attempt,’ as the Maduro regime, echoed by too many people abroad, calls it. Rather, it is the latest in a series of legitimate and, for the most part, nonviolent efforts by Venezuelans, both civilian and military, to throw off an oppressive, toxic regime so that they can freely elect a legitimate government. Supporters of freedom and democracy should stand in solidarity with Mr. Guaidó and the many thousands of Venezuelans now bravely asserting their rights.” However, the editorial concluded, “By working closely with these [six South American nations that are backing Guaidó. . .  , and not by intervening militarily, the Trump administration may increase the chances that Mr. López’s declaration Tuesday — “It’s time to conquer freedom” — proves out.”

Conclusion

These recent events should put the kibosh on the  Southern Command’s “plan” of February 2018 for military invasion of Venezuela, as discussed in a prior post. One can only hope that another result could be the diminution of the influence  or actual ouster, of John Bolton as National Security Advisor.

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[1] Venezuela Crisis: Guaidó Calls for Uprising as Clashes Erupt, N.Y. Times (April 30, 2019); Zuñiga, Faiola & McCoy, Venezuela’s Maduro denies Pompeo’s claim that he sought to escape to Cuba after day of clashes left 1 dead, dozens hurt, Wash. Post (April 30, 2019); Reuters, Trump Threatens ‘Full’ Embargo on Cuba Over Venezuela Security Support, N.Y. Times (April 30, 2019); Rogers, Trump, Seeking to Put Pressure on Maduro, Threatens Full Embargo of Cuba, N.Y. Times (April 30, 2019); Gearon & DeYoung, Trump threatens ‘complete embargo’ and ‘highest-level sanctions’ against Cuba over Venezuela, Wash. Post (April 30, 2019); Shifter & Binetti, Juan Guaidó’s Uprising Failed. What’s Next for Venezuela?, N.Y. Times (May 3, 2019); Fayola, How a plot filled with intrigue and betrayal failed to oust Venezuela’s president, Wash. Post (May 3, 2019); Venezuelan justice will act with weight against coup, says prosecutor, CubaDebate (May 4, 2019).

[2] Landler, Trump Says He Discussed the “Russian Hoax” in a Phone Call with Putin, N.Y. Times (May  3, 2019); Ballhaus & Salama, Trump & Putin Discuss Venezuela, North Korea, Mueller Report, W.S.J. (May 3, 2019); State Dep’t, [Secretary Pompeo] Interview With Jonathan Karl of ABC’s This Week (May 5, 2019); Demirjian & Sonne, Pompeo won’t promise to consult Congress about potential military intervention in Venezuela, Wash. Post (May 5, 2019); State Dep’t, [Secretary Pompeo’s] Interview With Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday (May 5, 2019); State Dep’t, [Secretary Pompeo’s] Interview With Margaret Brennan of CBS Face the Nation (May 5, 2019); State Dep’t, [Secretary Pompeo’s] Remarks to Traveling Press on Plane (May 6, 2019).

[3] Wilkinson & Cloud, White House scrambles on Venezuela after major setback, Los Angeles Times (May 2, 2019); Assoc. Press, Shanahan, Pompeo and Bolton Meet on Venezuela, N.Y. Times (May 3,2019); Specia, Five Things You Need to Know to Understand Venezuela’s Crisis, N.Y. Times (May 3, 2019).

[4] See n. 3 supra; Editorial, A Treacherous Stalemate in Venezuela, N.Y. Times (May 2, 2019); Editorial, Don’t call it a coup. Venezuelans have a right to replace an oppressive, toxic regime, Wash. Post (April 30, 2019).