How an Elaborate Plan to Topple Venezuela’s President Went Wrong
The United States thought all the pieces were in place for Maduro to leave. Then everything came crashing down.
In the effort to topple Nicolás Maduro, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States once told me, the military men propping up Venezuela’s authoritarian president are like chess pieces.
If they defect from the regime, “you lose that chess piece,” Francisco Santos explained. “They work better from the inside.”
As Tuesday, April 30, began, the United States and its allies thought they finally had checkmate, after months of building up the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president and recruiting more than 50 nations to their cause.
By the end of the day, the board had been flipped upside down, pieces were scattered everywhere, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on CNN blaming the kingmakers, Russia and Cuba, for sabotaging the game.
Donald Trump’s administration has at the same time continued issuing warnings to Maduro and his associates, though it’s unclear what effect they will actually have or whether they will save Guaidó. (In the latest sign that major U.S. actions could still be in the offing, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has canceled a trip to Europe in order to coordinate with the National Security Council and State Department on Venezuela.)
Maduro’s airplane was on the tarmac and he was prepared to depart for Cuba on Tuesday morning, but “the Russians indicated he should stay,” the U.S. secretary of state revealed. (The Russians have disputed this account.) The Cubans, he added, are “protecting this thug” and are “at the center of this malfeasance.”
Earlier in the day, National Security Adviser John Bolton had declared that the upheaval in Venezuela was “clearly not a coup.” What has since become clearer is that it amounted to a botched attempt to replace the Maduro government from within.
With the elaborate, out-of-control bid for regime change in Latin America, the U.S.-Russia proxy struggle, and the intrigue involving shadowy Cuban forces, it was as if the world had suddenly been seized by a live experiment in what the Cold War would have been like had it played out on Twitter. (Bolton’s coup comment, after all, came in response to a reporter’s question about whether the Trump administration was providing any support to Maduro’s challengers beyond “tweets of support,” a query Henry Kissinger never fielded back in the day.)
Tuesday started with Guaidó posting a video on Twitter at dawn of him at a military air base—flanked by soldiers and the imprisoned opposition figure Leopoldo López, apparently freed by security forces from house arrest—announcing the “final phase of Operation Freedom” in partnership with Venezuela’s “main military units,” ahead of planned protests on May 1.
This, it turned out, would be the high point of the day for Guaidó’s pro-democracy movement.
Bedlam, not freedom, ensued. Maduro officials accused Guaidó and fringe elements of the military of staging a coup, as opponents and supporters of Maduro clashed violently in the streets.
Within hours, dozens of people had been injured, López and his family had taken refuge in the Spanish embassy, Venezuelan military personnel were seeking asylum at the Brazilian embassy, and Maduro appeared on television to declare victory over the uprising and dismiss Pompeo’s claims about his near-flight from the country as a lie. Donald Trump, who earlier in the day had cheered on the pro-democracy demonstrators on Twitter, returned to the site to threaten a “complete embargo” and “highest-level sanctions” on Cuba if “Cuban Troops and Militia do not immediately CEASE military and other operations” in Venezuela.
As Operation Freedom went sideways, U.S. officials began divulging details of an effort that had gone spectacularly wrong.
After months of hinting coyly that Maduro’s support within the military was more wobbly than it seemed, Bolton named three top Venezuelan officials—Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino; Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno; and the commander of the presidential guard, Iván Rafael Hernández Dala—who he claimed had been engaged in lengthy talks with the Venezuelan opposition and had “all agreed that Maduro had to go,” only to renege this week (at least so far) on their commitments to facilitate a democratic political transition.
In a tweet addressed to the three men, Bolton suggested that the terms of the deal had been to help remove Maduro from power in exchange for amnesty from Guaidó and the lifting of U.S. sanctions against them. (Pompeo even implied that the Trump administration was involved in the negotiations, noting that “senior leaders” in Maduro’s government had “told us” they “were prepared to leave … over the past few weeks.”)
On Wednesday, in an interview with the radio host Hugh Hewitt, Bolton outlined how the plan was supposed to work. The senior officials and Guaidó would sign documents memorializing their agreement. The Venezuelan Supreme Court would declare Maduro’s Constituent Assembly illegitimate and thereby legitimize the Guaidó-led National Assembly. Military leaders like Padrino would then have the political and legal cover to take action against Maduro.
Yet “for reasons that are still not clear, that didn’t go forward yesterday,” Bolton admitted. (Another senior official, the head of Venezuela’s intelligence service, did in fact split with Maduro, according to U.S. officials.)
Speaking with reporters at the White House on Tuesday, Bolton offered one theory for why the plan never came to fruition: The Cuban government had prevailed on the three officials to stick with their boss. Fear of the tens of thousands of Cuban security forces in the country, he argued, is keeping military officials in check.
On television and Twitter on Tuesday, the defense minister repeatedly backed Maduro. But by ratting out Padrino and the other officials, and thus exposing them to Maduro’s retribution, U.S. officials seemed to be deliberately sowing dissension and mistrust in the upper echelons of the Maduro government—as a means of deepening its dysfunction and pressuring top officials to move against Maduro before he moved against them.
As the Republican Senator Marco Rubio, an influential adviser to Trump on Venezuela, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, “high ranking #MaduroRegime officials must now deal with the realization that despite their tweets of support & appearance with #Maduro on TV last night he knows they plotted against him. If Maduro remains in power what do you think their future holds?” Just in case his point was too subtle, Rubio appended an image of a scene from The Godfather in which Michael Corleone lashes into his brother Fredo for betraying him, before ordering his assassination.
Guaidó, for his part, seems undaunted and has called for more May 1 “Labor Day” protests, while Pompeo said on Tuesday that the Trump administration would consider the arrest of the opposition leader a “major escalation.” As for the intervention of other countries on behalf of Maduro, Bolton told Hewitt, “I just don’t believe President Trump is prepared to see foreign governments effectively take over the control of Venezuela, which possesses the largest reserves of petroleum in the world.”
But after playing some of its best chess pieces and coming up empty, the U.S. government is running low on ways to counter such escalations and boot Maduro from Caracas.
Despite administration officials’ ominous mantra that “all options are on the table” in Venezuela, they appear to have little appetite for taking military action, even as Cuba and Russia have shown no similar qualms about inserting their military personnel into the country. Pompeo said on Wednesday that U.S. “military action is possible” if “that's what's required,” but a senior Pentagon official told lawmakers that the military has not been given orders to prepare for war in Venezuela.
The United States has also already deployed its most powerful economic weapon against the Maduro government—a de facto oil embargo—and is now resorting to dribbling out additional sanctions with diminishing returns.
Ahead of more anti-Maduro demonstrations on Wednesday, Bolton tried to put a rosy spin on Tuesday’s tumultuous events. Maduro’s support within the military has cratered and his support among the Venezuelan public is nonexistent, he argued, forcing the Venezuelan president to desperately cling to Cuba, a cadre of corrupt officials, and paramilitary groups known as colectivos.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that if the campaign to dethrone Maduro fails, Venezuela could “sink into a dictatorship from which there are very few possible alternatives.”
The results of that campaign at the moment—something utterly unsettled, halfway between kleptocracy and democracy—were on display in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday at the Venezuelan embassy. Pro-Maduro activists affiliated with Code Pink and other groups, who had occupied the abandoned building and plastered it with messages denouncing American imperialism and regime change, confronted pro-Guaidó protesters across steel barricades and expressionless Secret Service agents. The dueling chants and posters punctuated the confusion of the present moment.
After grabbing a megaphone and denouncing the embassy squatters for siding with Maduro’s repressive rule, Carla Bustillos, a Venezuelan American from Maryland, told me that one stubborn fact was standing in the way of real political change in Venezuela. “You have to understand that the regime holds the arms,” she said, while holding her 1-year-old son, cloaked in Venezuelan-flag clothing, in a baby carrier. “The regime holds the hard power.”