By Luis Fleischman
U.S.-Venezuela policymakers have been busy. On March 24th, in a rare move against foreign leaders, the Justice Department accused Maduro and 13 members of his entourage of drug trafficking and terrorism and requested Maduro’s capture. A 15-million-dollar reward was offered to anybody who would bring about Maduro’s arrest.
On March 31st, the Trump administration proposed a plan to lift the sanctions on Venezuela if a transitional government is formed, that would include members of the government and the opposition. This proposed five-member transitional government should eventually give way to a transition to a full democracy. The plan requires that neither Maduro nor opposition leader Juan Guaido, be part of this transitional government. Guaido accepted the plan.
Some U.S. officials believe that these new steps may produce a new set of uprisings against the regime, especially given Venezuelan attorney general’s summoning of Juan Guaido for allegedly attempting a coup against Maduro.
Others bet on the idea that Maduro may be betrayed by his entourage given the current coronavirus; plummeting oil prices, dropping to unprecedented levels; the heavy sanctions imposed, and the U.S. Justice Department’s recent decision.
Yet, it is difficult to predict –and less so guarantee– that the Maduro regime will fall as a result of recent U.S. measures. Neither the Justice Department’s decision nor U.S sanctions are immune to manipulation.
That has been made clear by China and Russia. Take Russian oil giant Rosneft’s announcement that it is abandoning Venezuela, apparently as a result of U.S. sanctions and maybe that the DOJ’s recent charges –basically prompting Venezuela into a terrorist state– made them uncomfortable.
However, the reality is that Roseneft sold all its assets in Venezuela to an unnamed company owned by the Russian government. This means that Russia will continue to be involved in the survival of the Venezuelan oil industry and will continue to support Maduro.
This well-planned move by Russia requires immediate action by the United States. The U.S. government must proceed to impose sanctions on this new company or on any company that tries to get involved in the Venezuelan oil industry with the purpose of saving the Maduro regime. This is also why the U.S. should allow American companies currently operating in Venezuela to continue to do so, thereby protecting their assets from a potential Russian takeover if they leave. Their exit would have no impact in ending the Maduro regime and their presence is instrumental for the massive reconstruction efforts needed in Venezuela.
The harsh reality is that Maduro is a stubborn dictator like his mentors from Havana. In my view, he is not likely to abandon the reins of power. So far, popular uprisings, U.S. and international sanctions, coronavirus, and criminalization of the leadership have not brought about the downfall of the regime.
Therefore, it is also important to consider other options.
Roger Noriega, former assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, recommended something I had proposed in the past, which is a naval blockade to intercept drug and gold contraband. I would add perhaps that such naval blockade and no-fly zone is important to prevent Russian and Chinese ships and planes from providing help to the regime.
Another option could be to arm the opposition. In Afghanistan, U.S. help to opposition forces was key to removing the Soviets from the country. Afghanistan may not be perceived as a success story because it ultimately empowered Al Qaeda. However, the Venezuelan opposition is not Al Qaeda, and the strategy in Afghanistan at least managed to remove the Soviets.
We all hope Trump’s new plan works out peacefully. However, we also need to think about what happens if such plan does not work out.
The Justice Department’s decision, declaring Venezuelan leadership narco-terrorists, has acknowledged that the Venezuelan State is an enemy. Therefore, the Trump Administration should think seriously about helping opposition forces topple Maduro’s brutal, corrupt regime without a direct military intervention.
Forcing America’s exit from Venezuela will only strengthen Maduro’s hold and allow totalitarian regimes such as Cuba, Russia and others, to gain a powerful foothold in this struggling nation.
Luis Fleischman is co-founder of the Palm Beach Center for Democracy and Policy Research, and director of the InterAmerican Institute for Democracy. He is also the author of “Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Threat to U.S. Security.”