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.
One year ago the largest Nicaraguan protests in a generation began. Hundreds of thousands of students, workers, priests, and farmers came out demanding economic and social reform, as well as the resignations of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo. There was fervent hope across Central America that the protests would be the start of Nicaragua’s shift towards democracy. Sadly, this was not to be. In similar fashion to what Nicolas Maduro has done in Venezuela, Ortega responded by tightening his grip on power.
The wave of protests in April, 2018 caught Ortega and his regime entirely off guard. For a short period of time it appeared possible that the regime might fall, but Ortega slammed it shut with an unrelenting, and brutal crackdown. Since last April 500 protesters are known to have been killed, and over 1,200 have been imprisoned, or have disappeared. Over 50,000 Nicaraguans have left the country in the past year. A good number of them are attempting to seek asylum in the United States, exacerbating the growing crisis on the US southern border.
Although the crisis in Venezuela is consuming the lion’s share of international attention for the moment, many nations are aware of what’s going on in Nicaragua. Washington is becoming more interested in large part because of the connection Ortega’s government has with Cuba, and because of the consequences Ortega’s suppression is having for the situation on the US southern border. The Trump administration has levied economic sanctions against Managua, as part of a larger package also aimed at Cuba and Venezuela. Nicaraguan business leaders are being targeted and the hope is that the pressure will erode the support that Nicaragua’s business community has given to Ortega’s government.
Like Venezuela, the situation in Nicaragua is stalemated at the moment. If the current round of sanctions fails to have the desired effect, the US will likely add more. Unfortunately, if Venezuela is any measuring stick, it will be a long time before they have a negative effect on Daniel Ortega’s regime. If ever.
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.
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.
According to multiple reports, two Russian cargo aircraft have landed at Maiquetia Airport in Venezuela earlier in the weekend and disembarked 100 troops, along with senior military official General Vasily Tonkoshkurov. A limited amount of equipment was offloaded as well. At least one of the aircraft has departed the country already.
This move comes as the United States has raised pressure on Nicolas Maduro and Venezuela’s government in recent weeks. Economic sanctions unleashed by the Trump administration continue to bite the Venezuelan economy and will only get worse as time goes on. In late April a US ban on crude imports from Venezuela will go into effect. This could very well be a death blow to the Maduro government’s finances.
The arrival of Russian troops in Venezuela is a direct jab at the United States. Even though 100 troops hardly constitutes an invasion, the United States will have to respond to their presence in some way. Given that the Trump administration has repeatedly said all options remain “on the table” for dealing with Venezuela, the prospect of US military action against Maduro’s government is low for the time being. Still, the presence of Russian troops in Venezuela will alarm the US military.
This is how Russia’s intervention in Syria began. A small number of troops arriving in country, followed by a gradual, but increasing flow of additional aircraft, men, and material. A large Russian military presence in the Western Hemisphere will not be tolerated by the United States. I’ll discuss this more in the coming days. Apologies for keeping this short and not posting since Wednesday. March Madness is underway and I’ve been watching every game. Four days of round-the-clock basketball. 😊