THE battle for Venezuela is entering a crucial moment, and so are the risks for that nation, for America and beyond.
On Tuesday, Juan Guaidó, widely recognized as Venezuela’s president, launched what he called the “final phase” of a months-long struggle to end the oppressive, chaotic and failed regime of Nicolás Maduro.
“Today, brave soldiers, brave patriots, brave men devoted to the constitution have taken up our call,” Guaidó said in a defiant video message from Carlotta air base, flanked by armed soldiers.
A peaceful regime change is unlikely.
Maduro was anointed president in Havana shortly after his old boss, Hugo Chavez, died there in 2013. He now relies heavily on Cuban oppression experts, which, through allies in the Venezuelan military, have long propped up Maduro. Cuban support intensified in January, when America and 53 other countries squarely stood behind Guaidó’s constitutionallybased claim to the presidency.
And Cuba isn’t alone. Russia, which often warns against anyone interfering in its “near abroad,” has no problem propping up hostile regimes in America’s back yard. “We’ll have military cooperation with whoever we want,” Maduro’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, told UN reporters last week, confirming Moscow’s growing military support for his regime.
Arreaza dismissed as “fake news” my question about renewal of weekly direct flights between Tehran and Caracas. But a Mahan Air flight landed in Caracas last week, and consistent credible reports document tightened Iranian-Venezuelan terrorist ties and cooperation in arms and drug trafficking.
With foreigners solidifying their support for the regime, and as a political stalemate has settled
since January, Guaidó knew time wasn’t on his side. Sources tell me concerns that an emboldened Maduro would soon move to arrest or otherwise stop Guaidó prompted his Tuesday video. So what now? Cuba employs direct command and control over the Venezuelan military, says Stratfor’s Latin America watcher Reggie Thompson, but now units may start to switch sides. And then violence may well worsen as “security forces start to turn against each other,” Thompson warns.
Let’s face it: Venezuela was already an unsustainable mess. The currency is useless, food and medicine are scarce and street violence rampant. A Venezuelan friend says cartels have started distributing US currency, illegal inside the country, to ordinary citizens, so they can buy groceries. “These dollars aren’t given for nothing,” she said, indicating criminal gangs will only grow stronger.
But all that is nothing compared to what’s next. Unless either side can quickly shore up the entire military, street fighting is likely to become bloodier than ever. Heavy tanks and Russian-made air assets will come in.
And even if Maduro goes, chaos is likely to persist as Cubanbacked paramilitary gangs continue their violent activity.
President Trump was Guaidó’s initial and most powerful backer. While the administration maintains a military option, it’s unlikely to send troops to Venezuela.
With 2 million refugees already out of Venezuela and more to come — soon reaching our doorstep — and with fear of spiked oil prices, America has an interest in turning Venezuela around. And for good. Expect more pressure to turn the majority of the army to Guaidó’s side.
The Trump administration, which so far handled the crisis well, is now facing a major new challenge. For the Venezuelan people, meanwhile, it’s a do-or-die moment.