Read: Trump’s Venezuela policy: slow suffocation
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.
Read: Trump’s affinity for strongmen has a big exception
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.