The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Bay of Pigs-style fiasco in Venezuela

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Trump administration officials this week — including President Trump on Tuesday — rejected any link to an apparent failed military operation over the weekend in Venezuela that involved a group of armed defectors and at least two American mercenaries who are now in Venezuelan detention.

President Nicolás Maduro said Monday that his government had stopped a “terrorist” assault on the country, killing eight and capturing more than a dozen of the plotters over two days. Maduro said they sought to incite a rebellion and possibly kill him. Thousands of Venezuelan reservists were deployed to the country’s coasts in a show of force.

For years, the embattled demagogue has warned of foreign plots against his rule, waving at the specter of treacherous coups and imperialist invasions. Such alarmism often served as a smokescreen for his government’s failures and the economic collapse that has taken place under his watch. But this time — as footage circulated by Venezuelan authorities on social media appeared to show a number of apprehended insurrectionists, including two former U.S. Special Operations soldiers — Maduro may have a point.

A key figure behind the plot is Jordan Goudreau, a former U.S. Green Beret who runs Silvercorp USA, a Florida-based private security firm. From Florida, Goudreau announced the incursion alongside a former Venezuelan national guard officer in a video on Sunday and told reporters that the ongoing operation had the support and encouragement of the Venezuelan opposition, including opposition leader Juan Guaidó. (Guaidó’s office has denied any contact with Goudreau or signing any agreement with him, but various people familiar with the situation allege that there were direct contacts between Goudreau and other members of the opposition last year.)

“The main mission was to liberate Venezuela, to capture Maduro, but the mission in Caracas failed,” Goudreau told Bloomberg News. “The secondary mission is to set up insurgency camps against Maduro. They are already in camps, they are recruiting and we are going to start attacking tactical targets.”

That may be a fantasy. In an interview with my colleagues on Monday, Goudreau said the two captured Americans — identified as Airan Berry and Luke Denman — had been in a boat off Venezuela’s Caribbean coast late Sunday, hoping for extraction, before they were seized by Maduro’s forces. Now, he wants U.S. officials to “engage and try to get these guys back,” Goudreau told The Washington Post. “They are Americans. They are ex-Green Berets. Come on.”

“They were playing Rambo,” said Maduro, on whom the United States has placed a $15 million bounty. “They were playing hero.”

Reports of Goudreau’s operation paint a bizarre picture. Initial planning meetings a year ago in Colombia involved what one person described to the Associated Press as a “Star Wars summit of anti-Maduro goofballs,” replete with “military deserters accused of drug trafficking, shady financiers” and former regime officials. The AP identified Goudreau’s principal contact and the main ringleader as Clíver Alcalá, a retired Venezuelan major general who is in detention in the United States on narcotics charges.

Observers weren’t impressed by the handful of clandestine training camps that sprang up in Colombia. “You’re not going to take out Maduro with 300 hungry, untrained men,” Ephraim Mattos, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who trained some of the would-be combatants in first aid, told the AP.

The number of fighters involved in the botched invasion appears to be considerably less than that, and a far less real threat to Maduro’s hold on power than a quashed uprising a year ago that did have Guaidó’s direct involvement.

The current episode smacks of “Keystone Cops” meets “Bay of Pigs,” Brett McGurk, a former Trump and Obama administration diplomat, suggested on Twitter. The latter incident is the failed invasion of Cuba in 1961 by a force of Cuban exiles secretly backed by the United States. Its memory was conspicuously harnessed by Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, who delivered an address to the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association in Florida last year hailing the “twilight hour of socialism” in the hemisphere.

“There’s a kind of tragedy meets farce element to this, in part because so many of the people Trump has surrounded himself with, or at least outsourced his policy to … are Cold Warriors repeating these well-worn scripts,” New York University academic Alejandro Velasco told the American Conservative.

The Bay of Pigs is also an enduring, loaded metaphor for American meddling and overreach abroad. For that reason, analysts doubt the Trump administration played any serious role in encouraging this weekend’s quixotic raid. “There’s not one person at the State Department or the CIA who says let’s repeat the Bay of Pigs,” Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and a former senior U.S. diplomat, told Today’s WorldView.

The incident does expose some of the problems that ail Venezuela’s opposition: Although Guaidó is now a well-known figurehead, recognized by the United States and dozens of other countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, he presides over a decentralized mess of factions inside and outside the country. The opposition finds it both “tough to maintain message discipline,” Farnsworth said, and is “awfully easy for the regime to infiltrate.” In this case, regime officials boasted of knowing about the plot well in advance.

For Maduro, the incident is a welcome distraction. Tanking oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic have put him under even greater pressure, with aid organizations and opposition officials warning of the risk of the country’s already enfeebled health system collapsing under new strains.

It’s a “convenient narrative,” Farnsworth said. “What better way to rally a country that’s flat on its back than to expose an invasion from the empire?”

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