The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The White House wants Maduro gone. But it may be helping him stay in power.

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In baseball parlance, you could say (and some already have) that Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó may have struck out. His bid to stir a nationwide insurrection against the government of President Nicolás Maduro seemed to fizzle this week, the third time he failed to break Venezuela’s perilous political deadlock.

The first moment came in January, when, as head of the country’s National Assembly, Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s constitutionally legitimate president. Dozens of countries, including the United States, soon recognized his status — but Maduro, with the country’s military at his back, clung to power. Then, in February, Guaidó confronted Venezuelan security forces when he appeared alongside a humanitarian convoy on the Colombian side of the border, hoping a showdown over aid would see patriotic compassion trump loyalty to the regime. But, the convoy stalled amid scenes of violence; only a few Venezuelan soldiers from the lower ranks defected to the opposition.

On Tuesday morning, it seemed Guaidó and his allies were primed for Maduro’s downfall. Through apparent back-channel negotiations, a number of key figures in the regime allegedly had been persuaded to switch sides. Leopoldo López, a charismatic opposition leader and Guaidó's mentor, dramatically escaped house arrest and appeared with his protege. Guaidó said whole sections of the Venezuelan military were with the opposition.

But their proclamations, amplified by officials in the Trump administration who cheered the opposition’s “Operation Freedom,” proved hollow. Maduro seems no closer to leaving office. Bloody clashes between protesters and security forces led to at least four deaths this week, while at least 230 people were injured. Guaidó called on Venezuelans to keep taking to the streets and insisted that a democratic transition was still around the corner. López, now wanted by authorities, found sanctuary in the Spanish Embassy in Caracas.

There are a few ways to interpret the current state of play. On one hand, it underscores the fragility of the Maduro regime, which has not moved to arrest Guaidó despite the opposition leader’s provocative gambit. Maduro finds himself surrounded by top military and civilian officials who he now knows are contemplating a future without him. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security adviser John Bolton, spoke confidently of arrangements in place to allow Maduro to leave the country for exile.

“Everyone around Maduro is trying to figure out where they’re going to be when the music stops — either sitting down beside him, in jail or out of the country, because, yes, the music is going to stop,” a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told my colleagues.

Yet Maduro endures not just despite American pressure, but perhaps also because of it. For years, even as he presided over the economic collapse of his country and the harrowing humanitarian crisis that ensued, Maduro decried the “imperialist” threat from Washington, snarled at its asphyxiating economic sanctions, and rallied supporters around a narrative of resistance to foreign bullying and meddling. Now, top U.S. officials are essentially proving him right: Pompeo, Bolton and others have made no secret of their desire for regime change and appear to be in close collaboration with Maduro’s domestic opponents.

Bolton even publicly identified prominent regime officials who supposedly had been in secret dialogue with the opposition, a move experts warned may have a chilling effect on future prospects for a negotiated transition. “While [Bolton] offered no evidence of this, calling them out as potential U.S. accomplices puts them at risk and likely guarantees that others will refuse to communicate with the United States for fear of being ratted out,” wrote Christopher Sabatini of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Rather than accelerating the endgame with Maduro, there’s a risk that Guaidó's move — and Washington’s vociferous cheerleading — may have reset the clock. “Far more often than not when you’re trying to topple a dictatorship — whether it’s Pinochet’s regime in Chile a generation ago or [Omar] al-Bashir’s in Sudan a month ago — the job is to keep creating and exploiting cracks in the wall,” wrote Tim Padgett, a Miami-based commentator on Latin American affairs. “The job is not to bring the whole damn wall down in one fell, heroic swoop — because every time that fails, as it usually does, it sets you back.”

So now what? Though U.S. officials insist repeatedly that “all options are on the table,” there’s little appetite for a U.S. military intervention among Washington’s allies in the region or within the Pentagon. My colleagues detailed a recent tense meeting between senior U.S. military officers and Bolton aides; the former made “the case against a risky escalation” in Venezuela while the latter sought more clear military options from their colleagues in the Pentagon. The meeting was adjourned abruptly after a senior Pentagon official angrily slammed his hand on the table out of frustration with the White House’s “confrontational style.”

For Bolton, the showdown in Venezuela is an extension of an ideological contest with the leftist government in Cuba and also, by proxy, with Russian influence in the region. U.S. officials accuse Havana and Moscow of propping up the Maduro regime with their own security forces, though the Russians and Cubans have denied extending such direct military aid. According to State Department officials, it was the Kremlin that persuaded Maduro to stay in Caracas this week and hold the line.

No matter their bullish rhetoric, Bolton and other Washington hawks are finding it difficult to get their way. “What the Russians seem to have effectively figured out is how to call our bluff,” Fernando Cutz, a former top National Security Council official under Trump, told Politico. “When they send troops into Georgia, or Ukraine, or Syria, or Venezuela, what are we going to do about it? It complicates our calculus and gives Russia the upper hand.”

For ordinary Venezuelans, the high-stakes geopolitics makes things all the more bleak.

“We know for sure that as the Venezuelan state grows weaker, the scramble for power in Caracas looks more and more like a proxy war between foreign powers,” Venezuelan commentator Francisco Toro wrote in The Washington Post, adding that an opposition takeover could mark the beginning of even more destabilizing chaos, rather than the end.

“Even if the regime were to collapse and the opposition to take over, it would need to contend with a baffling proliferation of armed groups: pro-government paramilitaries, Colombian guerrillas, hugely powerful street gangs, Russian soldiers, Cuban spies, holdout army units. ... And it would need to do so amid a level of economic dislocation that would tax any government’s skill,” he wrote.

Toro warned that “mass disorder and violence” may well become Venezuela’s “new normal."

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