A few things to know about the political crisis in Venezuela


Venezuela's long-standing political crisis expanded over the past week, as a handful of countries led by the United States recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country's legitimate president.

It's still unclear whether Guaidó will be able to effectively take power from de facto incumbent Nicolás Maduro, but that battle will be fought as much in the streets of Caracas as in American courtrooms and the halls of the United Nations building in New York.

Here's what you need to know about the situation:

The Venezuelan military is the ace in the hole

Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, have relied heavily on the military to take control of existing institutions and supplant civilian authority in existing institutions.

Maduro's extreme reliance on military loyalty was most clearly exemplified in November 2017, when he named Major General Manuel Quevedo, a military officer with no prior oil industry experience, as head of the country's oil sector running the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

Quevedo's stint as an oilman has been disastrous, with oil export revenue in 2018 at its lowest point in recent history despite climbing oil prices.

Still, at $20.9 billion in external revenue in 2018, oil is a major source of hard currency for Maduro's government and it's under military control.

There are also widespread accusations that the Bolivarian National Guard is deeply involved in the drug trade, particularly with control of cocaine smuggling routes to Europe.

Unlike Colombian and Mexican cartels, which operate parallel to the government, Venezuela's so-called Cartel of the Suns — named for the gold stars on Venezuelan generals' uniforms — is alleged to operate within the highest levels of power in Venezuela.

Transnational crime-tracking website InSight Crime has identified a slew of top military and civilian leaders as being connected to the drug trade, including top Maduro allies Diosdado Cabello and Tareck El Aissami as well as Néstor Reverol, the interior minister who has served as head of the National Guard.

Reverol is under indictment in the United States for allegedly using his position as drug czar as far back as 2008 to facilitate the drug trade.

The military's alleged involvement in illegal acts and control over hard currency operations — whether licit or illicit — means the top brass will likely stick with Maduro.

But Guaidó has sought to court the rank and file to his cause.

Guaidó has offered amnesty to members of the military who accept his claim to the presidency and renounce Maduro.

"Today there are 159 active military detained for insubordination, and there have been nearly 3,000 retirements recently," Guaidó said in his appeal to the armed forces this week.

"It's a matter of time before a larger number of them joins us," added Guaidó, according to Uruguayan newspaper El Pais.

But Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said the military will remain loyal to Maduro.

"We will not accept a leader imposed in the shadow of dark interests," said Padrino, according to Colombian outlet Noticias Caracol.

Trump's options limited in region with history of US intervention

Trump administration officials have said that "every option is on the table" concerning Maduro, especially if U.S. diplomats or Guaidó are physically threatened.

But executing a military option would present huge tactical and strategic challenges for the United States.

A broad-spectrum military intervention is unlikely in a country the size of Venezuela, according to Iñigo Guevara, a director at Jane's Aerospace, Defense and Security who's written extensively about Latin American military capabilities.

"It would likely be a special forces-heavy operation intended to isolate and capture Maduro and either arrest him on drug trafficking/money laundering charges in the U.S., or turn him over to Venezuelan authorities," said Guevara.

"Any action would need to be heavily supported politically and even operationally by Colombia and Brazil," he added.

Brazil, the hemisphere's largest country and one of the first nations to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate president, has essentially taken that option off the table.

“Brazil does not participate in intervention. It is not in our foreign policy to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries,” Brazilian Vice President General Hamilton Mourāo said Wednesday.

Latin America is especially sensitive to the idea of U.S. intervention, as American military and intelligence community action has shaped the region's politics from the Mexican-American War in 1846 onwards, often with disastrous results.

A U.S. intervention in Caracas would most closely resemble the 1989 U.S. intervention in Panama to topple then-dictator Manuel Noriega and extradite him to face drug-related charges in Florida.

But that operation relied heavily on lessons learned in the 1983 intervention in Grenada, and it targeted a figure with few allies in the region.

Although Maduro's clout in the region has waned along with his receding ability to share Venezuela's oil reserves, he still has staunch allies in Cuba and Nicaragua, and countries like Mexico, Bolivia, El Salvador and Uruguay have refused to recognize Guaidó's claim.

International support for Guaidó has been mixed

Shortly after his ceremonial oath as interim president, Guaidó received a flurry of international endorsements, solidified by support in the Organization of American States (OAS), the Western Hemisphere's multilateral body.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, a fierce critic of Maduro, suspended Venezuela's expulsion from the body on Wednesday; Venezuela was thrown out last June after 19 member nations voted to censure Maduro's reelection.

But in a vote Thursday, only 16 members — including the United States — voted favorably on an appeal by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for an OAS resolution recognizing Guaidó.

Bolivia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines as well as Suriname expressed their support for Maduro, The Associated Press reported.

Mexico and Uruguay renewed their appeals for a dialogue between the different factions. Both countries have refused to declare Maduro illegitimate.

Guaidó, 35, panned the idea, saying he wouldn't lend himself to "false dialogue."

But Maduro welcomed the Mexican-Uruguayan proposal.

"I am committed to national dialogue. Today, tomorrow and always I will be committed and ready to go where I need to go. I, personally, if I have to go meet personally with this boy, I will go," Maduro told reporters at the presidential palace, according to El Pais.

Guaidó needs to court the European Union and Mexico

Guaidó's claim could be bolstered by recognition from Mexico as well as the European Union, though the latter's member states have competing interests in Venezuela.

"The Europeans are going to be divided," said Michael McCarthy, an expert on Venezuela at American University.

Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands lead the EU's contact group with Venezuela, McCarthy noted, adding they "have a lot at stake with citizens in country."

Maduro, meanwhile, has full support from Russia, China, Turkey, Syria, Iran and North Korea, a group that Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) has called "Thugs R Us."

Russia is especially active in its support of the current president, as it has outstanding loans to Maduro's government, and taking an opposing side to U.S. interests fits within Russian President Vladimir Putin's broader geopolitical goals, according to Christopher Miller, a specialist on Russian foreign policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

"[Putin is] not looking for that much in a tangible sense," said Miller. "His broadest geopolitical goal is to pursue conflict with the West everywhere."

France, Germany and Spain have given Maduro until Feb. 3 to hold new elections, saying if elections are not held they will recognize Guaidó as the country's interim president.

US still has tools to deploy against Maduro

The Trump administration has stopped short of imposing a full oil embargo on Venezuela, instead opting for specific sanctions on individuals and entities tied to the Maduro government, and a broader ban on trade in gold.

But revenue for Venezuela's state-owned oil and natural gas company PDVSA has been hard hit by mismanagement, somewhat diminishing its significance.

"We haven’t even scratched the surface, per se," a senior administration official told reporters on a call this week.

"A whole bunch of new dynamics that come into play, including the fact that now the legitimate decision-makers in regards to economic transactions between Venezuela and the United States is the government of Interim President Juan Guaidó and the National Assembly," added the official.

Transferring control of Venezuelan assets abroad, namely in the United States, could bolster Guaidó's claims, but McCarthy warned any hasty moves could get mired in the courts.

"They've been preparing this dual sovereignty situation — recognizing a government in exile — for a while, so hopefully they have a decent plan ready to go," McCarthy said.

And legislation is moving in Congress to increase humanitarian aid to Venezuela, provide Venezuelans in the United States with immigration protections under the Temporary Protected Status program, and place further restrictions on the sale of police equipment to Maduro's government.

Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) didn't rule out the possibility of a military option, but said the United States should follow the lead of the OAS.

"Let's lock arms with Latin America number one, and number two, let's use diplomacy," she said. "I hope we're just very careful."
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