Sanctions, Rock Concerts and Still Maduro May Not Go So Soon

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Donald Trump is ramping up pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and pledging to eradicate socialism from the Americas -- but, behind the scenes, even staunch allies have their doubts.

Trump’s speech in Miami on Monday was the latest push by the U.S. and several allies who recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president. The response to Trump’s statements was that Maduro and his generals dug in deeper and are showing no intention of giving up.

Crucial struggles for power lie ahead in coming days, with Guaido pledging to open the country to humanitarian aid on Feb. 23 and Maduro and Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson hosting rival benefit concerts. Meanwhile, the EU is dispatching a team to push for new elections. Yet there is a growing sense that Maduro is holding on to power longer than expected and that measures to oust him could even backfire.

"It’s obvious if he resists the pressure, he looks stronger," Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said in an interview in Madrid. "That’s a reality the U.S. surely wasn’t counting on."

Sanctions, Rock Concerts and Still Maduro May Not Go So Soon

Stalled Momentum?

Maduro has faced a steady drumbeat of countries rallying behind Guaido as interim president -- at first the U.S. and the so-called Lima Group of nations including Brazil, Canada, Argentina and several Latin American nations. The EU parliament and Japan have since followed. “Our country announces that we clearly support interim president Guaido,” Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Tuesday.

Trump has demanded that Venezuela’s military let aid through and warned that “all options are open” to his administration. “They are risking their lives and Venezuela’s future for a man controlled by the Cuban government,” Trump said of the Venezuelan military, urging them to abandon Maduro and take Guaido’s offer of amnesty.

But time is dragging on and patience is running out. A U.K. government official said it feels like momentum has stalled. In private, some Brazilian officials are beginning to wonder whether the whole U.S.-led strategy is beginning to fail, according to a diplomat dealing with the Venezuelan situation.

Sanctions, Rock Concerts and Still Maduro May Not Go So Soon

“Guaido doesn’t control anything in Venezuela other than his office," said Mauricio Santoro, professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro State University. "The capacity for him to implement any public policy is very limited."

‘Frustrated’ By Stalemate

"We absolutely are frustrated. The Maduro regime is illegitimate,” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, told reporters on Feb. 16, two days after speaking with Guaido. "This is a process led by the people of Venezuela. Our job as the international community is to support them, and that is very much what we’re doing." She has downplayed the need to consider any military intervention.

Even among Maduro’s critics, cracks remain. EU member nations are united in condemning Maduro but divided in what to do about it. Italy’s populist government is sticking to a domestic compromise it painfully hammered out -- calling for new elections but stopping short of recognizing Guaido as interim president, according to an Italian official who asked not to be named.

Isadora Zubillaga, a Guaido adviser for Europe, believes the EU may impose sanctions on Maduro’s regime and stressed unity in the bloc, despite the handful of nations who still don’t recognize Guaido as interim president.

But while the EU has threatened sanctions, the potential scope is unclear. Any sanctions would have to be imposed by all EU members, the Italian official said, adding that to his knowledge this option has not been discussed in Brussels so far. And without widespread international support, any new U.S. intervention could look more like forced regime change than supporting a rightful leader.

Others are saying it’s still too early to say if the global push against Maduro has stalled. A Canadian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said nations are keeping up pressure while looking for ways to support the opposition on the ground.

In Brazil, Vice President Hamilton Mourao said it was a matter of time before the Maduro regime crumbled like a house of cards. Pressure would force Maduro to step away peacefully and voluntarily, he said.

Sanctions, Rock Concerts and Still Maduro May Not Go So Soon

The International Monetary Fund is discreetly preparing to help the country if Guaido is installed as president, one official familiar with the situation said on condition of anonymity. That would be the beginning of a massive humanitarian aid and stabilization effort in a country where inflation is skyrocketing and the economy is in collapse, the official said.

China, Russia

International support for Maduro is small but crucial. After importing around $900 million worth of gold from Venezuela last year, Turkey hit the brake on trade of the precious metal amid warnings from Washington.

The fate of Maduro hinges largely on two heavyweights that continue to back him: Russia and China. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that major differences remain with Washington regarding Venezuela.

China has distanced itself from the power-struggle, saying it’s up to the people of Venezuela to settle it. “China-Venezuela relations are normal state-to-state relations,” Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Feb. 14.

"Money from the Chinese and Russians allowed the Maduro regime to survive," said Rio de Janeiro’s Santoro. "How much longer we don’t know. Perhaps until China and Russia are ready to leave as well."

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