A weird phenomenon recently took hold of Venezuela’s headlines and social media feeds: news on COVID-19 were eclipsed by splashes about narcoterrorism, emergency governments and U.S. Navy ships. Standing next to Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced on April 1st that an anti-drug fleet was being sent towards the Caribbean country’s territorial waters.
The move comes after what’s possibly been the most daunting week of 2020 for Nicolás Maduro’s regime. A stalemate with interim President Juan Guaidó will continue in the short term, while at least two fifths of the population will keep leaving home to put food on the table, breaking the lockdown and boosting the spread of coronavirus amid a preexisting humanitarian emergency.
On March 24, Henrique Capriles - former governor of Miranda and two-time presidential hopeful - urged Maduro and Guaidó to reach an agreement that would enable an injection of foreign funds to mitigate the pandemic and deal with the current crisis. The following day, Andrés Pastrana - former President of Colombia and a tough critic of Chavismo – said on air that president Iván Duque should put politics aside and build bridges with Maduro to save lives.
The narcoterrorism indictments
Yet on March 26, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr disclosed a 28-page indictment against Maduro, Diosdado Cabello (regime’s #2, who presides over the illegitimate Constituent National Assembly), Hugo Carvajal (former intelligence chief, known as el Pollo), and Clíver Alcalá (a former general).
The document details multiple meetings where the accused, along with Hugo Chávez and two famous guerrilla leaders - alias Jesús Santrich and alias Iván Márquez - conspired to traffic cocaine while FARC received weapons and armed security in Venezuelan soil.
This might not sound like news, but the allegations that Chávez, Maduro and Cabello personally directed drug trade operations are very telling to say the least - not just their ministers or their minions in the military, but them.
The U.S. Department of Justice charged 11 other former and current officials and is offering multi-million-dollar bounties for information leading to the arrests of Maduro, Cabello and Tareck El Aissami (an ex Vice President, now National Production Minister). Alcalá and Carvajal defected from chavista ranks in recent years: the former turned himself in to U.S. authorities shortly after Barr’s announcement, while Reuters says that El Pollo is discussing his surrender in Spain (where he has been hiding since November, when a Spanish court approved his extradition to the United States).
The Bolivarian Fury crackdown
Maduro then warned his opponents that he would unleash the Bolivarian Fury (sic) if “we are ever touched by imperialism and the Colombian oligarchy.” Guaidó proposed to form an emergency government on Saturday night, one without Maduro but comprising all political forces necessary to face the crisis. A few hours later, the families of more than 20 opposition politicians woke up to see their homes vandalized with spray paint, displaying threats and slurs in the name of the Bolivarian Fury.
The pandemic has given Maduro an excuse to step up repression, especially in low-income areas.
The regime is set on dismantling Guaidó’s team, as security forces have kidnapped five people from his inner circle since the indictments were unsealed, releasing one - the girlfriend of Guaidó’s assistant.
The pandemic has given Maduro an excuse to step up repression, especially in low-income areas. Recent footage shows police and National Guards humiliating dozens of people that disobeyed lockdown orders to earn a living. The rate of arbitrary detentions has also increased, as 23 citizens have been apprehended since mid-March. FAES terror squads continue to quash dissidents and exert social control and kidnapped a journalist for 13 days after he challenged the ‘official’ number of coronavirus cases.
The U.S.’ good cop/bad cop approach to Venezuela
Guaido’s coalition and the Trump administration argue that the regime must be cornered into a negotiation. They have built a strategy in which the DOJ - along with the U.S. Navy posing a latent threat - plays the bad cop, isolating and offering bounties for the likes of Maduro, Cabello and El Aissami. The good cops - Mike Pompeo and Elliott Abrams - are appealing to other members of Maduro’s inner circle with enough power and influence to kickstart and sustain the transition, offering them a gradual relief from sanctions.
Pompeo’s press conference on March 31 unveiled a step-by-step path to a transitional government and free and fair elections. The State Department’s plan is similar to Guaidó’s pitch to the regime in the 2019 Barbados talks, in which he and Maduro would step aside, and a parliament-approved Council of State would serve as the sole executive.
The difference is that the U.S. is now offering a gradual relief from sanctions as the following steps take place: Maikel Moreno’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice must restore the National Assembly’s powers; the Constituent National Assembly must be dissolved; all political prisoners must be released; all foreign security personnel must abandon the country (unless the National Assembly says otherwise); and lawmakers must elect a new judiciary and electoral power. Another difference is that Pompeo’s framework mentions that Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, the military high command and state governors would remain in power during a transitional period. Apart from that and the gradual sanctions relief, the proposal doesn’t seem to offer enough incentives for them to give in.
With the aim of fracturing Maduro’s coalition, the proposal seems to target those in Maduro’s inner circle that are not indicted or that the U.S. still sees as a potential interlocutor. This might be the case for Moreno and Padrino, who were respectively charged with money laundering and narcotrafficking. There’s no bounty for either despite them being as corrupt, and various media outlets reported that they plotted to oust Maduro in 2019 before backing down.
Potential pitfalls and solutions
The narco-terrorism indictments further confirm that Venezuela became a mafia state under Chávez and Maduro, and U.S. institutions can hardly be criticized after years of investigation
Chavismo as a political movement is fragmented and currently weak in terms of support, but its anti-imperialist identity remains a unifier.
The question is whether the political strategy behind the indictments can achieve the general objective: a democratic transition. There’s no guarantee that the U.S.’s attempt to corner Maduro into a negotiation will work - it’s a risky step that could entrench him even more.
Another issue is that Guaidó and the National Assembly are showing very little autonomy from the latter’s discourse and actions. Considering Chavismo’s and the Armed Forces’ nationalistic ideology, this doesn’t help to crack their loyalty to Maduro. Chavismo as a political movement is fragmented and currently weak in terms of support, but its anti-imperialist identity remains a unifier.
In January 2019, Trump famously declared that “all options are on the table” as a way to insinuate some kind of military intervention, and it didn’t work. On previous occasions we have seen how the Venezuelan pro-democracy movement stagnates and demobilizes when these kinds of expectations (external to our locus of control) are not fulfilled. A series of empty threats will only unify Maduro’s coalition and hinder an actual path to a transition. .
The strategy behind the U.S. Navy’s deployment could backfire if the plan is not handled with coherence. A military intervention does not seem completely out of question, but it’s a perilous scenario that even if successful in the short term, will be problematic for democracy in the medium and long run. We cannot be naive, we know that Trump’s administration has electoral reasons to make these moves. It's easy to doubt whether the good cop/bad cop approach is actually a strategy, some kind of compromise within the U.S. administration and its allies, or mere improvisation.
Pompeo’s offer should be taken as subject to debate and change, paving the way for new and swift negotiations that materialize in a political solution. In order for further versions of the proposal to be legitimate, they need to be created multilaterally. Support from international actors like the European Union (which is mentioned in the State Department’s brief) and the United Nations will be crucial in adding credibility. Russia and China’s take might be decisive - their leverage might finally push Maduro to step aside. Any future approach must also take the domestic effects of COVID-19 into account.
COVID-19's credible threat
In the coming months, the pandemic’s impact will drive politics, rather than the opposite way around. An increasing number of civil society, humanitarian and human rights organizations believe that the pandemic needs to be the priority. Their argument is widely undisputed: those suffering from the complex humanitarian emergency cannot withstand days, let alone weeks of mandatory quarantine.
Venezuela’s health system is already collapsed, and COVID-19 brings the prospect of mayhem.
In order to tackle this crisis, they want the main political actors - the de facto government and the National Assembly - to find common ground. Maduro didn't refrain from killing and committing human rights violations when previous talks were ongoing, and has used these to gain time and fool opponents.
But Venezuela’s health system is already collapsed, and COVID-19 brings the prospect of mayhem. Will the pandemic force Maduro to give in this time? Is the U.S.’ good cop/bad cop approach an incentive to cooperate or an excuse to grip power? Time will tell, but toying with the idea of a military intervention sounds like an empty threat - especially while Trump has to address the pandemic at home.
Venezuela is headed towards disaster. A comprehensive agreement is unlikely to be struck before thousands succumb to coronavirus and the lack of medicines, water and electricity in our hospitals. Maduro’s apparatus will do its best to hide and distort data, and malnutrition will worsen in the midst of nationwide fuel scarcity.
The list of woes appears to be endless, and all magical solutions are virtually ruled out, but the situation demands the international community to remain involved: vigilant of Maduro’s treatment of the pandemic, supportive of humanitarian actors tackling the pandemic on the ground, and assisting local efforts to break the political deadlock.