Venezuela Weekly: US Pushes for Transition without Maduro

Calls for a political agreement (see last week’s VW) were effectively marginalized by the U.S. government’s efforts, over the past week, to up the stakes for the government of Nicolás Maduro. On Thursday the US Justice Department announced indictments of Maduro and 14 current and former Venezuelan officials, including Diosdado Cabello (president of the National Constituent Assembly), Maikel Moreno (president of the Supreme Justice Tribunal) and General Vladimir Padrino López (Minister of Defense) “narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking and other criminal charges.” The Justice Department announced rewards of $55 million for information leading to the arrests of these officials.

Perhaps the most sensational aspect of the indictments is that one of them  names Nicolás Maduro as the leader of a drug trafficking organization called the “Cartel of the Suns.” Journalists specializing organized crime have have for years called into question the existence of such an organization.

  • Back in 2015 when it was Diosdado Cabello who was said to be the head of this cartel, Javier Mayorca, who has carefully researched the issue, said “I doubt the existence of a Cartel of the Suns.” The term, he suggested, has become “a sort of urban legend developing in Venezuela, which, over time, has been used to describe varying actors.” Insight Crime has flatly suggested “The drug trafficking structures in the Venezuelan state are not a cartel, they are a series of often competing networks buried deep within the Chavista regime, with ties going back almost two decades.“ So while there is little doubt drug trafficking runs through the Maduro regime, the metaphor “Cartel de los Soles” probably overestimates its coherence and its articulation with Maduro himself.

Analysts and organizations were critical of US indictments.

  • In a Washington Post op-ed Geoff Ramsey said the indictments would harm possible negotiations for free elections, as Maduro and his inner circle would have even fewer incentives to leave power.
  • David told The Guardian “these indictments seriously increase the exit costs for Maduro, Cabello and Moreno. It is hard to imagine Maduro being willing to do anything other than hunker down knowing he has a price on his head.” (Listen to podcast of radio interview here.)
  • The International Crisis Group classified the indictments as “a misguided bid to topple Maduro” that will likely fail. The organization advocated for a political negotiation and a humanitarian truce between the opposition and the government of Maduro.

Maduro responded to the indictment by describing Trump as a “racist cowboy” who manages international affairs as “a New York Mafia extortion artist.”

U.S. releases “Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela”

On Tuesday, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented a transition plan for Venezuela. The primary elements are:

  • Recognition of the National Assembly
  • Release of political prisoners.
  • Departure of foreign security forces
  • A new National Electoral Council
  • The creation of a Council of State with four members elected by the National Assembly and a fifth as Secretary General, elected by them. This Council of State would exercise presidential powers through majority vote.
  • Neither Maduro nor Guaidó would be part of the Council of State.
  • Relief for officials sanctioned for exercising political power.
  • Elections within 6-12 months.

This is essentially the same proposal that was being discussed last summer as part of the Norwegian-mediated negotiations, with one big difference. Coming less than a week after indicting the heads of every major branch of the Maduro government, it would seem the Trump Administration is trying to hard-wire who they think should not be part of a transition. This was a main point of contention during last summer’s negotiations with the U.S. reluctant to endorse any transition plan that allowed Maduro to preside over new elections.

People in or close to the US government suggest that Panama’s Manuel Noriega was willing to negotiate, even though indicted on drug charges. But alas those negotiations were unsuccessful for two reasons. First, it is exceedingly hard to convince someone you have indicted to trust your good intentions, and Noriega hedged. Second, the political costs of “negotiating with a drug trafficker” are high. They were too high for Vice President George W.H. Bush, who as also a presidential candidate, as they were for Republicans in the Congress and the U.S. pulled out (see coverage from May 26, 1988). Political costs would be even higher now.

The Maduro government quickly rejected the US plan saying the Bolivarian government will never accept tutelage from any foreign government. A few hours later, Maduro activated the consultative Council of State (as the Venezuelan Constitution defines it). But rather than the Guaidó-led opposition he included formerly opposition deputy Luis Parra who has claimed to be president of the National Assembly since January.

Repercussions for Guaidó

  • One person named in the indictment, ex-general Cliver Alcalá, immediately spoke out in self-defense and suggested in radio interviews in Colombia that he had purchased weapons to overthrow Maduro in agreement with Guaido and some US special agents. Subsequently, Alcalá surrendered to DEA agents in Colombia, where he used to live, and they transferred him to New York. Juan Guaidó denied having signed a contract with Alcalá to obtain weapons that would be used in a military operation against Maduro. However, Venezuela’s attorney general opened an investigation against Juan Guaidó for allegedly plotting a coup against Maduro. The attorney general summoned Guaidó to question him about the apparent coup plot.

Coronavirus

  • With U.S. actions dominating the news cycle, Juan Guaidó’s plan for addressing coronavirus has been largely ignored. Guaidó said that, to confront the pandemic, the country needs a National Emergency Government (NEG). The latter could include members of Maduro’s party PSUV, but not Maduro and others from his inner circle. The NEG would execute the “José María Vargas Plan” which includes measures to attend to the emergency, and also to ask for international financial and humanitarian help.
  • The Maduro government announced that it has received significant humanitarian aid from China to help combat the coronavirus.
  • Local media report that in some areas of Caracas it is the para-state armed groups and other political organizations allied to the government of Maduro that are implementing the coronavirus lockdown.
  • Reuters reports that coronavirus is offering an opportunity for Maduro to crackdown on opponents.

Sanctions

  • Russian oil giant Rosneft announced that it is ceasing operations and selling it assets in Venezuela. However, rather than pulling back from Venezuela, this appears to be Vladimir Putin doubling down on support for Maduro, as the Russian government set up a new oil company named Roszarubezhneft, which purchased all assets and contracts.

Migration

  • Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Brazil will extend its border closure with Venezuela for health reasons.
  • Migrant and humanitarian organizations in Colombia have denounced the eviction of dozens of Venezuelan migrants.
  • The eviction of Venezuelan migrants from their accommodations are a serious problem in Peru, with representatives of Guaidó trying to find a solution.
  • The measures against the coronavirus in host countries has as a result to close many of the organizations that Venezuelan migrants rely on.
  • A recent survey of Venezuelan migrants in Peru found that 33% lost their job because of coronavirus while 72% said that they do not have money for their next purchases. 90% live day-by-day.
  • There are increasing voices suggesting that while Guaidó cannot address needs in Venezuela at the scale necessary, he could effectively address the plight of Venezuelan migrants.

Economy

  • Venezuela is now experiencing an acute gasoline crisis which is putting in jeopardy both agricultural production and food delivery.
  • The price of the Venezuelan oil has collapsed to an average of $ 15.93 per barrel in the last week. Reports mention that some of the Venezuelan oil was sold for just 5 dollars per barrel, far below the production cost.