Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, speaks to supporters during a rally against the government of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and to commemorate May Day in Caracas Venezuela, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks to supporters at a May Day rally in Caracas © Reuters

The stalled effort by supporters of Venezuela’s opposition leader to oust Nicolás Maduro this week raises the question of just how far the Trump administration is willing to go to install Juan Guaidó in the presidential palace.

US President Donald Trump has made removing Mr Maduro from power one of his top foreign policy efforts, but clashes on the streets of the Venezuelan capital of Caracas this week have made clear that regime change will not be straightforward. 

The US administration’s attention to Venezuela intensified three months ago when it joined more than 50 other countries in vociferously supporting Mr Guaidó, recognising him as the country’s interim leader.

With US policy led by hawks such as John Bolton, national security adviser, and Cold War-era figures with a long history in the region — such as Elliott Abrams, Venezuela special envoy, best known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, and Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American Republican senator for Florida, known for his hardline views on Cuba — Washington has steadily ratcheted up sanctions on the country, slashing the value of its oil exports.

On Wednesday morning, Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, said in an interview on Fox Business Network that Mr Trump had been “crystal clear and incredibly consistent” that “military action is possible”. 

“If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do,” said Mr Pompeo. Although he warned that there would be “a response” if Mr Guaidó was imprisoned, he would not indicate exactly what might trigger a US military response. “I don’t talk about red lines,” said Mr Pompeo.

While senior US officials have repeatedly refused to rule out military intervention, they have also been clear advocates for a “peaceful transfer of power” — a line repeated by Mr Bolton outside the White House on Tuesday. 

Although Tuesday’s unrest in Caracas began with a dramatic call on the military by two of the country’s top opposition figures, the uprising Washington hoped would finally topple Mr Maduro soon fizzled out. 

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton talks to reporters at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
John Bolton, US national security adviser, addresses reporters at the White House © Reuters

By mid-afternoon, leading opposition activist Leopoldo López had taken refuge in the Spanish embassy, while Mr Guaidó had been blocked from marching on the presidential palace.

US officials in Washington took to Twitter to reiterate their support for Mr Guaidó and his attempts to install democracy in Venezuela, but Mr Maduro nevertheless claimed victory over the “coup-like skirmish” late on Tuesday.

Carlos Vecchio, Mr Guaidó’s ambassador in Washington, was keen to portray the Maduro regime as weakening. “Senior officials from the inner circle of Maduro were negotiating the exit of Maduro, which tells us he is collapsing and his power is collapsing,” said Mr Vecchio, referring to the defence minister, the head of the Supreme Court and the commander of the presidential guard. US officials said on Tuesday that all three men has been in talks with Mr Guaidó’s opposition party.

“Maduro does not trust anybody now, he cannot sleep well,” added Mr Vecchio, who would not elaborate on what more the US could do to help. “This is a movement led by Venezuelans,” he said. 

Moises Rendon, a fellow at Washington think-tank CSIS, said the US was not in a position to persuade the Venezuelan military to throw its weight behind Mr Guaidó. “I don’t think the Venezuelan military trusts the US government right now,” said Mr Rendon. “We need messaging from credible actors to help the Venezuelan military step up — it can’t be from John Bolton”.

The US has blamed both Cuba and Russia for supporting Mr Maduro, and Mr Trump has already threatened more sanctions if the country does not end its support for Mr Maduro’s regime. 

Analysts say that the US was unlikely to intervene aggressively without the support of the Lima Group of countries, if at all.

Eric Farnsworth, vice-president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society, said the bid to overthrow Mr Maduro was “a Venezuelan initiative”. 

“Yes, the US is supporting, but it is not as if it ever committed to air support,” he said. 

Jason Marczak, Latin America policy expert at the Atlantic Council, said the US had thus far been “measured in its escalation of pressure”. 

“They recognise that democratic change is not going to happen overnight,” he said. 

Mr Marczak said the US administration would be aware that a US intervention may not be supported by all Lima Group countries. “Any ratcheting up of pressure has to be co-ordinated with the Lima Group,” he added. 

A spokesperson for US Southern Command, the branch of the US military overseeing US forces in Latin America, said that while it was “monitoring recent developments” in Venezuela, its mission had not changed. 

The situation in Caracas remained fluid on Wednesday, with Mr Maduro’s fate still uncertain. Although the streets were calmer, both Mr Maduro and Mr Guaidó pledged to continue rousing their supporters as the impasse continued. 

“These events are certainly focusing minds on what to do next should the Maduro regime remain,” said Mr Farnsworth. “Would Washington accept that? The Trump administration is so rhetorically committed to them leaving.”

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