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Diplomats, Washington skittish on Maduro’s downfall in Venezuela

Abrams says Venezuela democratic transition maintains momentum internationally

Special Representative to Venezuela Elliott Abrams said that Venezuela's democratic transition is not losing momentum internationally, during a press conference on March 29.
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Special Representative to Venezuela Elliott Abrams said that Venezuela's democratic transition is not losing momentum internationally, during a press conference on March 29.

The excitement in some U.S. and foreign diplomatic circles about the rise of Juan Guaidó and an expectation for the fall of Nicolas Maduro has been replaced by frustration over the Venezuelan leader’s staying power and concerns of Russian and Chinese meddling, according to multiple diplomatic sources.

His staying power has led diplomats, foreign leaders and some Washington officials to reassess their timelines and consider that, barring military action, Maduro may be able to follow in the footsteps of other authoritarian leaders who have held onto power despite crushing sanctions.

“Maduro has definitely shown he is more resilient than what people thought. That’s a fact,” said one diplomat from Latin America, who was unauthorized to speak publicly about the regional strategy. “If you think about what the administration said about ‘this is the end, this is the end,’ and yet Maduro is still there.”

Foreign diplomats in Washington say they got caught up in expectations raised by some in the Trump administration that Guaidó would take over the government, and so were disappointed that Maduro’s regime has not yet fallen. Confidence that Maduro’s fall was guaranteed has now turned to more hope that he will - and concern he may not.

“There was this euphoric reaction that we all felt that it was the end of Maduro,” said Fernando Carrera, Guatemala’s foreign minister in 2013 and 2014. “I felt it. I was part of that group. I thought Maduro is gone. But no Guaidó couldn’t make it happen. The Trump administration couldn’t make it happen. And the Chinese and Russians have raised the stakes too high.”

Trump’s special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told McClatchy: “We do not have the ability to predict exactly when regimes like this will fall, but we do have the ability to analyze, and we are confident Maduro’s regime will eventually come to an end. The endgame for him should be to leave Venezuela, and the sooner the better, because his own situation is only going to decline the longer he clings to power and the more misery will be in the country.”

Diplomats from the region say economic pressure, mainly U.S. sanctions, may not be enough to dislodge Maduro, if the Venezuelan people don’t rise up.

Maduro has been able to hang onto territorial control of the South American nation despite recognition by more than 50 nations, including the United States, of Guaidó as interim president, crippling oil sanctions and paralyzing banking restrictions.

The Venezuelan generals who the United States sees as key to controlling the populace have stuck by Maduro despite veiled U.S. threats of taking military action and promises their families would be blocked from entering the United States.

The sanctions must be given time to have an impact, some argue. Venezuela’s oil sector accounts for as much as 70 percent of the Maduro government’s income.

Another diplomat noted that the banking sanctions — imposed last week in retaliation for the arrest of Guaidó’s chief of staff — could also have an almost equally devastating impact on Maduro’s ability to keep his base.

“It will be hard for Maduro to pay his public servants,” said another diplomat from the region, who was unauthorized to speak publicly about the pressure campaign against Maduro. “That will hurt a lot.”

A senior administration official said the United States and regional allies remain committed to seeing Maduro leave and democracy restored.

“The momentum remains firmly on the side of Interim President Juan Guaidó and the National Assembly,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “The overwhelming support by the people of Venezuela and within the region for a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela has only grown stronger.”

The Trump administration continues to ratchet up the pressure. In addition to last week’s banking sanctions, President Donald Trump met Guaidó’s wife, Fabiana Rosales, in the Oval Office where she spoke of children dying from lack of food and medicine and fears for the safety of her husband’s life.

“This is a fight of life and death,” Rosales told Trump. “We know what will triumph in the end is life. I know that you will be part of this process.”

The Trump administration appears engaged at all levels, including at the White House, State Department, USAID and Treasury. National Security Advisor regularly tweets about Venezuela multiple times a day.

“What is happening in Venezuela is a man-made crisis due to the actions of Maduro – and his band of thieves. The United States and responsible international partners stand ready to help the Venezuelan people rebuild and prosper,” Bolton wrote Friday.

Abrams, said he does not see the issue of a democratic transition in Venezuela losing momentum internationally and that numerous foreign ambassadors want to come and talk to the administration about the crisis.

“I see no diminution of interest. I certainly see no diminution of interest in the administration, that is a concern of the president, the vice president, the national security advisor. Certainly Secretary Pompeo spends a good deal of time on this,” he told reporters.

José Cárdenas, who served on the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials, said every bureau and every office at State is being called on, including Western Hemisphere Affairs, the Economic Bureau, Legal Bureau, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, which is organizing walk-outs by U.S. officials during international events involving a Maduro official.

“There is a lot of pressure coming from the White House to be creative, deliver ideas,” Cárdenas said. “‘What else can we do? Who is playing a particularly unhelpful role? Give me businesses. Give me justifications for new sanctions.’ The bureaucracy is being pressured to produce all ideas.”

Last week, Trump announced during a meeting with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro that the United States hadn’t issued its toughest sanctions yet. A few days later, the administration announced tough new banking sections that Bolton argued would essentially cut the Maduro government off from the international financial sector.

Abrams told McClatchy: “we are shutting down Maduro’s access to his illicit wealth and working to ensure his cronies can no longer steal assets from the Venezuelan people. But many of these actions come with a 90, or even a 180-day grace period, so the full force of these actions have yet to actually be felt. “

People familiar with U.S. strategy say the United States has taken its strongest measures.

On Wednesday, during his meeting with Rosales, Trump appeared to acknowledge the limitations, barring military actions, when asked how the United States could increase pressure after the latest banking sanctions.

“They have no money,” he said. “They have no oil. They have no nothing. They have plenty of pressure right now. So we’ll see. They have no electricity. And other than military, you can’t get any more pressure than they have.”

If economic sanctions are not enough and the military option is off the table, diplomats worry the mass fleeing of people diminishes potential for a large popular uprising. Many of those who remain are struggling to survive.

A majority of Venezuelans now live in poverty. More than 3 million Venezuelans have fled their homes in search of food, medicine and work. The country’s gross domestic product has shrunk almost in half from where it was five years ago. Inflation reached 1 million percent last year.

History shows that sanctions alone are not necessarily the most effective way to force regime change, said Robert S. Litwak, a former director for nonproliferation for the National Security Council, who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

“If one looks at the record, one can’t find a case were economic sanctions on their own produced a change of regime,” Litwak said. “Look, Cuba has been sanctioned for 60 years. We’ve had the most rigorous sanctions. People are driving cars from the 1950s and they’ve circumvented sanctions. But it hasn’t collapsed the regime.”

Litwak notes the United States heavily sanctioned Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Iran, but in none was able to achieve the maximalist goal of regime change.

Those realities have sunk in as Maduro has remained standing after absorbing four devastating blows: Guaidó recognized by the United States as interim president, oil sanctions, Guaidó’s promise that hundreds of tons of aid stuck on the border would be delivered and strangling banking restrictions.

“I talked recently, a week or so ago, to four or five Latin American advisors, and they’re all very pessimistic,” said Michael Shifter, who as president of the Inter-American Dialogue has deep ties with many leaders across Latin America. “It got me depressed. And I’m not exactly Mr. Optimism.”

John Feeley, who served as ambassador of Panama, urged international partners to keep up the pressure. “This is a 20-year disaster in the making and while expectations may have been outpaced, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, ‘let’s not go wobbly,’” he said.

Feeley said it was wrong to think that Maduro was going to go away quickly.

“I know for a fact that the people who work on this daily at State anyway didn’t think he was going to go away easy,” Feeley said. “I think you might have had a little bit of unrealistic expectations coming out of the White House and the fact that he’s there means that he’s there, but look at other transitions from dictators. They rarely happen overnight.”

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.
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