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(Ross May/Washington Post illustration)

Last week, the Trump administration and several other countries announced their recognition of Venezuela’s opposition leader as the country’s lawful president. The move, according to the White House, is neither a prelude to a coup nor an imposition of Washington’s will on a foreign country. But to Trump’s critics and its opponents, that’s exactly what seems to be happening.

At a heated emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Saturday, U.S. officials traded rhetorical jabs with Venezuela’s top diplomat and Russia’s U.N. envoy. The U.S. views President Nicolás Maduro, who has presided over humanitarian catastrophe and held on to power through highly suspect elections, as illegitimate. Washington argued that the ascent of Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, and the calling of fresh elections would mark a restoration of constitutional order.

“Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his ­mayhem," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during the Security Council session, directing his ire at its permanent members who still back Maduro.

Moscow’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, accused the United States of trying to “engineer a coup.”

“If anything represents a threat to peace and security, it is the shameless and aggressive actions of the United States and their allies to oust a legitimately elected president of Venezuela,” said Nebenzya.

Venezuela’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, said the White House was trying to “trigger a civil war” in his country. American politicians rebuffed these claims.

“This is not a U.S.-sponsored anything,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a vocal critic of Maduro, said on Sunday. “This is the U.S. supporting the people of Venezuela, who want their constitution and democracy followed.”

While Trump administration officials have not ruled out the prospect of military action, they have downplayed its chances. Instead, in a rare move, they have embraced a multilateral, diplomatic approach, working alongside a hemispheric bloc known as the Lima Group to squeeze Maduro.

Yet Trump’s Venezuela strategy appears to be driven by hard-line hawks in his administration; national security adviser John Bolton, for one, seems to see a confrontation with Venezuela (and its close ally, Cuba) as part of the unfinished business of the Cold War.

The White House’s appointment of prominent Washington neoconservative Elliott Abrams as special envoy to Venezuela also raised eyebrows. Abrams, who has loudly challenged Trump’s agenda in recent years, was a vocal cheerleader of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Before that, he was well known for a stint in the Reagan administration during which he tried to whitewash the massacres of civilians carried out by a U.S.-backed junta in El Salvador.

“Putting someone with such a well-known, appalling record in charge of a regime change effort in Latin America confirms critics’ worst suspicions about this intervention in another country’s internal political dispute,” wrote Daniel Larison of the American Conservative. “It is a measure of how completely hard-liners now dominate Trump administration foreign policy that a vocal Trump critic can be brought on to lead a high-profile foreign policy initiative.”

Whatever the case, pressure is mounting on the regime in Caracas. After the United States, Canada and a host of Latin American countries recognized Guaidó, the governments of Germany, Spain and France declared on Saturday that they would follow suit unless Maduro agreed to hold new elections by the following week. Maduro rejected the ultimatum, deepening his isolation.

That same day, Col. Jose Luis Silva, the top Venezuelan military attache posted in the United States, announced his defection to Guaido’s camp — and urged his colleagues in the officer corps to follow suit.

Indeed, Venezuela’s future hinges on whether its influential military stays loyal to Maduro. In an interview with The Post over the weekend, Guaidó said discussions were being held to woo key leaders over to the opposition. “We have been in talks with government officials, civilian and military men,” he said. “This is a very delicate subject involving personal security. We are meeting with them but discreetly.”

But Maduro’s ouster is hardly inevitable. “Unlike North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Maduro is not a one-man cult or clan leader,” wrote my colleagues. “Rather, he rules as the public face of an omnipotent political class accused of immense corruption and narco-trafficking. While presenting themselves as red-clad revolutionaries, they have snatched up million-dollar condos in Miami and sent their children to elite international schools.”

Antonio Ledezma, an exiled Venezuelan opposition leader who spent two years under house arrest, likened the networks of patronage that hold the regime in place to "a mafia in power.”

The military is at the heart of that cronyism. “The military doesn’t only control food distribution but also the process of importing the food,” said Javier Mayorca, a local investigative journalist, offering an example to The Post. “They buy the food from abroad and budget it as much more expensive than it is, earning a lot of money. The government created a structure where conditions [allow] for corruption to be easy for loyalists.”

As the political tension between two parallel governments builds in the capital, so does the risk of broader violence. That may speed more overt maneuvers to remove Maduro — or not.

“A few days into this stage of the crisis, the Trump administration genuinely doesn’t know which side will win,” noted The Post’s Josh Rogin. “The United States wants Maduro to go and would be happy to see him choose exile in a third country. But the Trump team is not committing the United States to enforcing that wish.”

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