Yet Fernando Cutz, a former director for South America on Donald Trump’s National Security Council, sees in Marrero’s arrest not only a warning to the opposition, but also an “experiment” by Maduro to see what kind of response cracking down on lower-level opposition figures elicits at home and abroad—and thus whether the timing is right to take the next step of arresting Guaidó himself, who has already been banned from leaving the country.
The challenge for the United States in responding to Marrero’s detention is that it now has few ways to meaningfully increase the pressure on Maduro. Not retaliating, however, risks emboldening Maduro.
The U.S. could continue imposing sanctions, but their impact takes a while to be felt. For instance, the sanctions against Venezuela’s state oil company, which were announced in January, are only just beginning to bite. U.S. imports of Venezuelan crude plunged from 112,000 barrels per day to zero last week, after a grace period for companies doing business with the country. U.S. officials also say they have persuaded India, the second-largest cash-paying customer of Venezuelan crude, behind the United States, to halt purchases. (Allies such as China and Cuba receive Venezuelan oil as a form of debt repayment and don’t pay for it.)
The Trump administration could impose “secondary sanctions” on companies outside the United States that continue to buy oil from Venezuela despite U.S. sanctions, Cutz told The Atlantic, but those actions would be largely symbolic if American and Indian companies stop doing business with Caracas, leaving Venezuela with no “markets to actually sell the oil to.”
“I’m sure [the administration] can come up with” additional sanctions, Cutz said, citing as an example recent measures against the gold-mining industry, but “I don’t see a whole lot more that will be truly effective and truly revolutionary as far as Venezuela’s economy goes.”
The embargo, he added, has the United States playing a “wait-and-see game” for the next month or two to determine whether depriving the government of oil revenues will collapse Maduro’s “house of cards,” or whether Maduro manages to find other ways—including illegal mining, human trafficking, and the drug trade—to continue buying off his generals and other top officials.
“We’re basically at a point where if you want to escalate this any further, it would most likely require military actions or covert actions,” Cutz said, but the U.S., its allies in the region, and Guaidó’s would-be government have shown little appetite for military intervention despite all the tough talk, particularly from U.S. officials. Guaidó has at times hinted at supporting a foreign military intervention, but has not yet explicitly called for one. The Trump administration’s special representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, stated at a recent briefing that “the military outcome is not the right outcome for the future of Venezuela” and that the U.S.’s policy “is a peaceful transition to democracy,” even as he reiterated the government line that “all options are on the table.”