Venezuela Update: Uprising Losing Steam?

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The latest news coming out of Caracas does not bode well for Juan Guaido and the opposition. Right now it appears the uprising could be bogged down, perhaps fatally. There are reports that Leopoldo Lopez, a senior opposition leader, has arrived at the Chilean embassy in Caracas with his family and is requesting asylum. This report came on the heels of similar ones indicating ‘senior’ Venezuelan military officers have requested asylum at the Brazilian embassy. A third report, yet to be entirely confirmed, has stated soldiers supporting the opposition have surrendered and claimed they were involved in the uprising only after being deceived by soldiers who had deserted in the past weeks and months. Perhaps the most worrisome report for Guaido and the opposition comes from a well known Venezuelan reporter who claims the launch date was pushed forward amid rumors circulating of Guaido’s imminent arrest. The military support was not as strong as expected, or perhaps the military backed out almost entirely.

In any case, it seems the majority of Venezuelan soldiers have either not yet chosen a side or continue to support Maduro. The coming hours should offer strong indications of the direction the attempted uprising will take, and what the fate of Juan Guaido will be.

Has Juan Guaido Overplayed His Hand?

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Juan Guaido appears to have lost the initiative in his drive to unseat Nicolas Maduro from power. Whether this is a temporary setback or not remains to be seen. However, for the moment Maduro has the upper hand. Emboldened by the arrival of a small number of Russian troops in Venezeula, Maduro has gone on the offensive against Guaido in recent weeks. The self-declared interim president of Venezuela has had his bank accounts frozen, been banned from traveling outside of the country, and been prohibited from running for office. On Tuesday another shot was fired across Guaido’s bow when the Constituents Assembly stripped him of immunity, potentially paving the way for his arrest in the near future.

Guaido is the biggest threat the Maduro regime has had to contend with in its tenure. He has gained a wave of international support, as well as temporarily galvanizing the opposition movement at home. Unfortunately, Guaido seems to have overplayed his hand a bit. Instead of being focused on mobilizing the Venezuelan people, and spearheading the drive to bring about regime change at home, Guaido appears to have been relying on international pressure to bring Maduro down. If this is the case, Guaido has erred. Regime change begins at home, contrary to the lessons that came from Operation Iraqi Freedom. The United States especially would love to see Maduro exit the stage, whether voluntarily or otherwise. But the Trump administration is not about to launch Operation Venezuelan Freedom if Guaido is arrested in the coming days.

From the geopolitical standpoint, the arrival of Russian military personnel in Venezuela cannot be overlooked. Though small in number, a Russian toehold in the Western Hemisphere is producing fits in Washington. Despite the similarities, Venezuela is not Syria. Russia cannot hope to prop up Maduro to the same degree that it did Bashir al-Assad. Nevertheless, Moscow is betting that the presence of its troops will at least force the United States to reconsider any military action against Venezuela should Guaido be detained.

Cuban’s Efforts in Venezuela Attract US Attention

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As Venezuelans endure their nation’s second major power outage in a month, and recently arrived Russian troops go to work on the ground, the United States is beginning to scrutinize Cuba’s role in the Venezuelan crisis. The Trump administration has said publicly that Cuba is the prime reason Nicolas Maduro remains in power. Havana’s support for Maduro and his government has been essential. The close ties between Venezuela and Cuba reach back to the heady days when Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro ruled. These men, and the nations they led, were socialist brothers fighting the influence of the United States across the Caribbean, and South America.

Their successors are trying desperately to keep the tight relationship from unraveling. As Venezuela’s political and financial situations have spiraled out of control, it’s more dependent on Cuba’s aid than ever before. Unfortunately for Cuba, its moves in Venezuela are starting to attract US attention at a point where the stakes are growing high. The US has gathered and unleashed a heavy salvo of diplomatic and economic pressure on Nicolas Maduro’s government to punish, and eventually dismantle it once and for all. The efforts of Cuba, and a handful of nation-states outside of the Western Hemisphere, are working on the opposite hand to keep Venezuela afloat, and diminish the effect US sanctions, and diplomatic pressure are having.

Cuba has been present and active the longest. Its influence is felt on many levels of Venezuelan life. Cuban doctors have been working to prop up Venezuela’s failing medical system. Cuban military advisers have been training the Venezuelan military, and in some instances Cuban officers have assumed command responsibilities in some of Venezuela’s most capable combat units. There are reports that Venezuela’s military strategy is shifting towards fighting a ‘prolonged asymmetrical war’ against a US invasion, and this doctrinal change was made by Cuban military advisers.

How the US chooses to combat Cuba’s influence remains to be seen. Despite a brief warming of relations between Havana, and Washington during the later Obama years, relations are icy once again. The Trump administration does not regard Cuba as a potential ally like the Obama administration had. President Trump, and his national security team regard Cuba as an unrepentant agitator, and supporter of left-wing regimes across the hemisphere. If US policies and actions aimed at Maduro end up having a negative effect on Cuba, the Trump administration will not lose any sleep over it. If bringing down Maduro can help destabilize the Cuban government, the United States is all for it.

The difficult part for Washington will be identifying the right opportunity when it comes along.

Venezuela Update: 15 March, 2019

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On Thursday the last remaining US diplomats in Venezuela departed. The US flag was lowered and the embassy locked up. The embassy staff that had remained in Caracas were being removed because they had become a ‘constraint’ on US policy. There was growing concern in Washington that Venezuelan authorities would eventually target a US diplomat for harassment, or arrest. With the embassy cleared out now, it is no longer an issue. The State Department has also issued a travel advisory warning  US citizens not to travel to Venezuela now that the United States cannot offer any consular services for them in the event they need it.

Power has been restored to some parts of Venezuela but it will be a long time before normal service is restored. Large areas of the country remain without power in the aftermath of a devastating nationwide blackout. Although Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro initially blamed the power issues on a US cyberattack, though it is clear now this was not the case. Damage from  a bush fire near the Malena substation in the eastern part of the country is what brought on the power outage. The blackout spurred protests and looting around Venezuela. Over 300 people were detained by authorities.

Does Maduro Have a Plan B?

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Nicolas Maduro is a survivor. Let’s be honest about this and give the Venezuelan leader credit where he deserves it. He has held onto power for years despite massive protests, a wrecked economy, international sanctions, and  worldwide condemnation. Through all of this, Maduro has maintained a vise-like grip on power, in large part because the Venezuelan military has remained in his corner. But the time might be approaching where that support disappears and when that happens, Maduro’s position will become tenuous in the blink of an eye.

The political situation in Venezuela has changed dramatically over the last month. International pressure on Maduro to either resign, or hold new elections is growing by the day. The opposition has united under the leadership of Juan Guaido and is gaining strength and momentum with each passing day. US sanctions have become a financial noose around the Maduro government’s neck, and the Trump administration can tighten the rope even more if it so desires. As conditions stand at the moment, Maduro’s level of power, and influence have nowhere to go except down. His supporters, and allies around the world do not have the economic, and political clout to effectively counter the US-led diplomatic, and economic offensive now underway against Maduro. Russia, arguably Venezuela’s closest ally, is not going to rescue Maduro in the same manner it did Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Reports have surfaced in the US media over the last 24 hours regarding a rumor that some of Maduro’s aides are putting together an escape plan for their embattled leader should it become necessary. If the rumor holds true, it reinforces Maduro’s reputation as a survivor, and also shows that Venezuela’s leader is more of a realist than his Utopia-themed, pipedreamish public speeches let on. One of his political role models is former Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was removed from power and killed by Chile’s military leaders in 1973. Allende was an avowed leftist who attempted to bring socialism to Chile. The experiment was rocky and brought on economic difficulties for Chile’s people. However, it was nothing compared to the humanitarian, and economic nightmare Venezuela is facing right now.

Like Allende, Maduro’s survival is directly linked to keeping the military in his corner. If it becomes clear to him that the relationship is starting to sour, his survival instinct will likely kick in. From there, Maduro could step down and leave the country. Not the most glorious conclusion for the most powerful man in Venezuela. However, it is preferable to being removed from power by his generals, and meeting a fate similar to that of Allende.