In Venezuela, Time Is Not on Maduro’s Side

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After his militias and national guardsmen attacked aid caravans trying to feed his starving citizens, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro appeared on state television over the weekend dancing the salsa. The dictator’s point was clear: I’m not rattled. I’m not going anywhere.

This is the context for U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s cryptic counterprogramming on Twitter. On Sunday he tweeted before and after photos of the late Moammar Al Qaddafi of Libya. In the first he was smiling in sunglasses; in the second he was bloodied and fleeing a mob. Six hours later, Rubio tweeted a similar side-by-side of the late Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, first giving an angry speech and then facing a firing squad.

The reaction was fierce. Some Twitter users began a campaign to report Rubio’s account for encouraging violence. Other activists began an online petition urging his resignation. Venezuela’s foreign minister told Democracy Now he was appalled.

For the Latin American left, Rubio’s tweets play into America’s Cold War history of supporting strong men and encouraging coups. The most infamous moment came on Sept. 11, 1973, when Chilean military officers — at the urging of the CIA — toppled President Salvador Allende, who was shot during the coup. (It’s disputed whether he took his own life.) The left watches what’s happening now in Venezuela and sees the American gringos up to their old tricks.  

But this analysis crumbles under even the mildest scrutiny. Venezuela in 2019 is nothing like Chile in 1973. Allende won a real election in 1970. Maduro prevailed in a fake one last year. Maduro’s opposition is not a junta of military generals storming the presidential palace. It is the National Assembly, the country’s only institution with any democratic legitimacy. In short: In Chile in 1973, coup plotters sought to nullify an election; in Venezuela today, opposition leaders are seeking a new one.

Most important, at least from the perspective of the U.S., there is no comprehensive military intervention in the offing. It’s true that President Donald Trump has asked his advisers about the feasibility of an intervention. It’s also true that senior administration officials like to say “all options” remain on the table; if Maduro sends his thugs to attack the U.S. embassy, for example, there will be a military response.

But this is more about messaging than military action. When a president wants to start a war, he doesn’t position the U.S. Agency for International Development at the border. He sends in the Marines.

What’s more, Venezuela’s interim president, Juan Guaido, is not asking America to invade Venezuela. So far, U.S. policy has been to persuade its allies to recognize his presidency; to sanction Maduro, his regime and the national oil company; and to urge the military to defect. It’s regime change through private and public diplomacy.

This is the approach emphasized Monday at a meeting of Latin American countries formed to address the crisis caused by Maduro’s misrule. The so-called Lima Group made it clear that it was not endorsing an invasion or military force for now. Instead it announced plans to take Maduro himself to the International Criminal Court.

Skeptics may ask how Guaido will force Maduro to leave without guns or a foreign army. But Guaido’s method of appealing to the conscience of the military and organizing the population has worked before — in Serbia in 2000 and in Egypt in 2010. In both countries, the military stood down in the face of popular defiance.

So far Guaido has had modest success with the military. There has been a steady trickle of defections, according to the opposition and news reports. Over the weekend, a journalist tweeted a photo of a boarding pass to China through Russia for the children of one of Maduro’s top allies, Diosdado Cabello.

The crucial fact to remember here is that time is not on Maduro’s side. As their access to international capital and bank accounts is constricted, Maduro and his henchmen will find it harder to stay in power. Eventually his most important international backers, Russia and China, will want their debts repaid. Maduro has no chance of doing that with international sanctions on the oil industry.

Add to this that many of the Venezuelan military’s top officers have children studying in the U.S. and other countries that are now recognizing Guaido as interim president. And though Guaido has not yet gotten many high-level defections, neither has the military taken decisive action to keep Maduro in power.

This is not to say that Guaido himself does not also face challenges. He has to keep a fractious opposition together and ward off rivals who see him as too young to lead Venezuela’s transition back to democracy. That said, Maduro’s position now is more perilous.

All of which relates back to Rubio’s tweets. The senator was not threatening intervention or a coup. His message is better understood as a warning about what can happen when a tyrant stays too long. Ceausescu and Qaddafi didn’t learn this lesson until it was too late. Maduro and his family are running out of time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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