Trump Weighs More-Muscular Venezuela Moves on Doubts Over Guaido
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump is losing confidence that the Venezuelan opposition leader his administration backed can ever topple Nicolas Maduro’s regime, and the U.S. president’s top aides are now considering new and more aggressive strategies, according to people familiar with the matter.
Vice President Mike Pence led a meeting on Thursday with other senior officials to re-examine the White House’s yearlong push for a democratic transition in the South American nation, four of the people said.
Juan Guaido, the National Assembly leader who declared himself interim president of Venezuela with U.S. backing earlier this year, has so far failed to push out Maduro and American officials are now concerned he may soon lose his official position.
No military option is under consideration, but White House officials have discussed new approaches including an attempt to partner with Russia, a Maduro ally, to ease out the Venezuelan leader, or raising pressure on Cuba, Maduro’s main sponsor.
During Pence’s meeting in the White House Situation Room, officials also briefly discussed but ultimately dismissed the idea of cracking down on India’s imports of Venezuelan oil, an important financial lifeline for Maduro’s regime.
The discussions illustrate Trump’s conundrum in Venezuela, where he began an aggressive campaign to oust Maduro at the end of 2018 under the direction of his then-national security adviser, John Bolton. The president is frustrated that the Venezuelan leader wasn’t uprooted from power as quickly as Trump believed Bolton had advertised, and is also cognizant of the political ramifications, the people said: Venezuelan expatriates are an important constituency in Florida, the state Trump has made central to his re-election campaign.
Bolton left the administration in September after a falling-out with Trump and his replacement, Robert O’Brien, has taken charge of crafting a new Venezuela strategy.
Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special representative for Venezuela, said that Guaido “remains the single most popular official in Venezuela and the United States remains fully supportive of him and of the National Assembly in their effort to restore Venezuela to democracy.”
“If there is more the United States can do to support that goal, we will certainly try to do it, in conjunction with the nearly 60 other countries who recognize Guaido as the legitimate interim president,” he added.
An administration official said the U.S. government is continuing to review the full range of options to advance what it calls a “maximum pressure” campaign against Maduro’s regime, and that the U.S. stands firmly with Guaido.
The official asked not to be identified because the discussions haven’t been public.
But after failing to usurp Maduro in a spring uprising, Guaido is losing political capital. Earlier this week, the Venezuelan legislature launched an investigation into potential influence-peddling among opposition lawmakers, and on Jan. 5, the National Assembly is set to vote on whether Guaido remains its president.
A spokesman for Guaido said the National Assembly leader declined to comment.
While Washington has lines of communication with others in the opposition, Guaido’s defeat would prove embarrassing after the administration rallied more than 60 nations to back the 36-year-old leader’s claim to Venezuela’s presidency.
Regardless of Guaido’s political future, Trump and his advisers have determined that there’s only one credible U.S. approach: more aggressive efforts to pressure Maduro. The White House has rejected suggestions of a power-sharing arrangement between Maduro and Guaido or mediation led by third countries.
A second administration official said that the only solution to the Venezuela crisis is Maduro peacefully leaving power.
It’s not clear how the U.S. could bring more pressure to bear on Venezuela directly, especially without hurting Maduro’s opposition. Top officials in the Maduro regime are already under U.S. sanctions, as is the nation’s oil industry, which accounts for about 99% of Venezuela’s export income.
So the Trump administration has looked instead at raising pressure on countries still doing business with Venezuela -- in particular Cuba, Maduro’s main benefactor and a longstanding U.S. adversary. While former President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Havana, eased U.S. travel restrictions to the country and even made a historic visit to the country himself, Trump has gradually rolled back many of those goodwill gestures and tensions have risen over the U.S. campaign against Maduro.
U.S. officials meanwhile say they remain in contact with some of Maduro’s inner circle in hopes of convincing them to change sides, and that more aggressive sanctions are in the offing. Neither strategy has worked. In late April, a planned military revolt against Maduro backfired, forcing opposition lawmakers into hiding, while the sanctions have been criticized for hurting vulnerable Venezuelans.
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