At 5:39 p.m. on Saturday, August 4, two drones exploded while Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was giving a speech in front of national guard troops in Caracas.
The bizarre episode was pitched by the government as an attempt on Maduro’s life and a half dozen “terrorists” and would-be “assassins” were arrested. The visuals of this were widely circulated and a few days later, the New York Times made the following video reconstruction.
That wasn’t the first time explosions rained down from the sky in Venezuela. Back in June of last year, some members of the Venezuelan police went rogue and dropped grenades on the Supreme Court from a helicopter.
“I can say unequivocally there is no U.S. government involvement in this at all,” national security advisor John Bolton, told “Fox News Sunday” in an interview after the drone episode, adding that “it could be a lot of things from a pretext set up by the Maduro regime itself to something else”.
Right. But you can’t blame folks for asking whether the U.S. might have been involved because back in July, reports suggested that at one point in the summer of 2017, Trump essentially asked aides at an Oval Office meeting if he could invade Venezuela.
The original reporting on that was from AP, but multiple outlets confirmed it, with one official who spoke to CNN chalking it up to Trump’s penchant for saying things that are crazy or otherwise don’t make any sense:
The President says and thinks a lot of different things. He just thinks out loud.
Here sure does.
A person who subsequently spoke to Bloomberg said Trump is still considering “military action” as part of an “array of options”, echoing AP’s reporting, and mirroring reports out last year about a possible military “solution” for the crisis in Caracas.
Just so we’re all on the same page here, the idea of the U.S. military actually invading Venezuela is so far-fetched that it boggles the mind. It’s not even entirely clear what the goal would be, other than toppling Maduro and propping up an opposition government in an effort to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and maybe gain some sway over the oil.
As Mark Feierstein, who oversaw Latin America on the National Security Council for President Obama told AP, “the concern is that it raised expectations among Venezuelans, many of whom are waiting for an external actor to save them.”
That’s dangerous for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that it raises the specter of the opposition taking risks they wouldn’t otherwise take on the hope that Trump would be willing to support an armed rebellion.
Well sure enough, the Trump administration has indeed held clandestine meetings with rebel elements within the Venezuelan military and discussed plans to overthrow Maduro. That, according to U.S. officials and a former Venezuelan military commander who was apparently present at the talks, all of whom spoke to the New York Times for a piece published Saturday.
As the Times notes at the outset, this isn’t generally a good idea, given America’s rather dubious track record in Latin America.
According to AP’s reporting on Trump’s penchant for talking about an “military solution” for Venezuela’s worsening economic crisis last year, former national security advisor H.R. McMaster had to literally “pull Trump aside” and explain to him that continually asking Latin American leaders (at dinner, no less) if they are “sure” they don’t want the U.S. to storm into Venezuela, Iraq-style, is dumber than a bag of hammers:
Then in September, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Trump discussed it again, this time at greater length, in a private dinner with leaders from four Latin American allies that included Santos, the same three people said and Politico reported in February.
The U.S. official said Trump was specifically briefed not to raise the issue and told it wouldn’t play well, but the first thing the president said at the dinner was, “My staff told me not to say this.” Trump then went around asking each leader if they were sure they didn’t want a military solution, according to the official, who added that each leader told Trump in clear terms they were sure.
Eventually, McMaster would pull aside the president and walk him through the dangers of an invasion, the official said.
“Establishing a clandestine channel with coup plotters in Venezuela was a big gamble for Washington, given its long history of covert intervention across Latin America”, the Times writes, in the lengthy Saturday piece documenting the discussions between the Trump administration and rogue Venezuelan military factions. “Many in the region still deeply resent the United States for backing previous rebellions, coups and plots in countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil and Chile, and for turning a blind eye to the abuses military regimes committed during the Cold War”, Ernesto Londoño and Nicholas Casey remind you.
Amusingly, one of the coup plotters involved in the talks with the U.S. is himself under U.S. sanctions for, among other things, torture, drug trafficking and commiserating with FARC in Colombia.
One of the points we made over the summer while documenting Trump’s fledgling plans for a military incursion in Venezuela was that Maduro would almost certainly seize on it to perpetuate the idea that his country isn’t so much being mismanaged as it is being deliberately undermined by the United States. Needless to say, news that the Trump administration actually met with coup plotters in the military will be propaganda fodder for decades. Here’s the Times:
American officials eventually decided not to help the plotters, and the coup plans stalled. But the Trump administration’s willingness to meet several times with mutinous officers intent on toppling a president in the hemisphere could backfire politically.
Mr. Maduro has long justified his grip on Venezuela by claiming that Washington imperialists are actively trying to depose him, and the secret talks could provide him with ammunition to chip away at the region’s nearly united stance against him.
“This is going to land like a bomb” in the region, said Mari Carmen Aponte, who served as the top diplomat overseeing Latin American affairs in the final months of the Obama administration.
The paper goes on to say that while the Obama administration “rebuffed” Venezuelan military officials looking for support, Trump’s repeated mentions of a “military option” for the country emboldened the rebels anew. Here’s what one Venezuelan official told the Times:
It was the commander in chief saying this now. I’m not going to doubt it when this was the messenger.
Unfortunately for that brave soul, America’s “commander in chief” is every bit as unreliable and incompetent as Maduro.
There are apparently at least three separate factions within the military who are conspiring against Maduro and a representative for one of them walked into a U.S. Embassy in Europe seeking to chat with someone about a coup. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for the moment when that rather strange walk-in showed up at the reception desk.
The U.S. was reluctant at first but eventually agreed to hear what the rebels had to say. The rebels, though, didn’t have much of a plan.
“After the first meeting, which took place in the fall of 2017, [the American diplomat who attended the talks] reported that the Venezuelans didn’t appear to have a detailed plan and had showed up at the encounter hoping the Americans would offer guidance or ideas”, the Times says.
You can hardly blame the Venezuelans for thinking the U.S. was ready to go, given what Trump said publicly on August 11, 2017.
Ultimately the talks broke down after the rebels asked for “encrypted radios” which they claimed were necessary to coordinate a simultaneous capture of Maduro and his top lieutenants. The operation was originally planned for August 2017, then pushed back to March 2018 and finally to the farcical elections in May, but each time, their plans leaked.
“We were frustrated,” the former Venezuelan commander told the Times, adding that “there was a lack of follow-through.”
The commander went on to say that in his mind, all the rebels needed to “change the country’s history” were those damn secure radios. Instead, 150 of this man’s compatriots are now being tortured by the Maduro government – or at least that’s what he believes.
Venezuela is of course on the fast track to failed state status. The bolivar has collapsed and the monthly inflation rate rose to to 223.1% in August from 125% in July. That’s according to an index published by the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Annualized inflation rose to 200,005% from 82,766% in July, according to the same index, and the daily inflation rate is hovering around 4%.
Gross incompetence, rampant corruption and the deleterious effect of sanctions have turned Venezuela into a geopolitical punchline. Last year, for instance, Maduro put OFAC-designated drug trafficker Tareck El Aissami in charge of restructuring the country’s debt. At the time, Reuters wrote that El Aissami “has no known experience in debt negotiations.” I thought that was a bit unfair. After all, it’s probably not realistic to say that someone who moves thousands of kilos of coke has “no known experience in debt negotiations”. In fact, it’s probably not a stretch to say that when it comes to debt “negotiations”, El Aissami has more experience than all of Wall Street combined.
I jest. Or not.
In mid-November, Maduro hosted a summit for the nation’s creditors and in a scene right out of a Chappelle Show sketch, El Aissami brought bondholders to the capital, put out an actual red carpet at the Palacio Blanco, led bemused visitors to a meeting room the entrance to which was adorned with a giant picture of Hugo Chavez and then served everyone actual pancakes.
That’s a true story.
In any event, oil production is collapsing and things are deteriorating literally by the day. According to the IMF’s Alejandro Werner, inflation is set to top 1,000,000% this year.
Late last month, Maduro announced a plan to “stabilize” the situation involving a characteristically absurd move to link a new version of the bolivar to the country’s oil-backed cryptocurrency, “the petro”. That was accompanied by a 95% devaluation and a laughable minimum wage hike.