Meanwhile, 100 of the 167 assembly members gathered at a newspaper’s office and reelected opposition leader Juan Guaidó. On Tuesday, the opposition majority regained control of the assembly chamber and swore in Mr. Guaidó as president, even as the regime’s nominee fled.
Mr. Maduro’s failed gambit nevertheless sent a dispiriting message to Venezuelans and foreign governments hoping to end the country’s political and economic chaos. They had hoped that the regime could be induced to agree to free and fair elections in 2020, providing a peaceful path to change. Instead, Mr. Maduro’s tactics indicate a hunkering down by the Chavista regime amid a conviction that it has already survived the worst of the popular uprisings, economic meltdown and foreign sanctions it triggered.
A year ago, when the Trump administration joined other governments in recognizing Mr. Guaidó as president and then suspended U.S. purchases of Venezuelan oil, it appeared the regime might soon collapse. But after weathering a failed uprising launched by Mr. Guaidó in April, the regime quieted the streets with brutal repression. It partly stabilized the economy by abandoning price and import controls and allowing the dollar to become a substitute currency. It reaped revenues from drug trafficking and gold mining, including by Colombian guerrilla groups.
Perhaps most important, Mr. Maduro was propped up by Cuba, whose intelligence services helped weed out dissent in the armed forces, and by Russia, which has taken over the commercialization of Venezuelan oil. Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy for Venezuela, said Monday that Russian companies are now handling 70 percent of Venezuela oil: “They market it, they finance it, they hide it, ship-to-ship transfers, changing the name of boats, turning off transponders.”
With Moscow behind him, Mr. Maduro will likely seek to stage new, rigged elections for the National Assembly, using as cover former opposition legislators the regime has bought with reported payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The regime of Vladimir Putin will be rewarded with a new client state in the Western hemisphere, along with nearly exclusive access to some of the world’s largest oil reserves.
This would be a stinging defeat for President Trump, who has made the restoration of democracy in Venezuela one of his signature goals. How to prevent such a defeat? Military action, which Mr. Trump has sometimes hinted at, is not a realistic option. But Mr. Trump could impose a cost on Russia for its meddling, such as by increasing sanctions on the state oil company Rosneft for its Venezuelan oil trafficking. The coming months may tell whether Mr. Trump values regime change in Venezuela more than his affinity for Mr. Putin.