Venezuela: The Risk to the Maduro Regime’s Stability

Venezuela: The Risk to the Maduro Regime’s Stability

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro Moros and several top-level officials in Venezuela were indicted on charges of “narco-terrorism” by U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Thursday the 26th of March, 2020. This indictment follows a months-long escalation of tensions between Caracas and Washington D.C. 

These sweeping indictments allege that Maduro and his cadre of officials are the leaders of a Venezuelan drug cartel, known as Cartel de Los Soles, or the Cartel of the Suns. The indictments indicate that U.S. officials believe that Maduro has been working in conjunction with an offshoot of the paramilitary Feurzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Columbia (FARC) group, “in a corrupt and violent narco-terrorism conspiracy.”

According to U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman, “the scope and magnitude of the drug trafficking alleged were made possible only because Maduro and others corrupted the institutions of Venezuela and provided political and military protection for the rampant narco-terrorism crimes…Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation. Maduro deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon … the conduct described in the indictment wasn’t statecraft or service to the Venezuelan people. As alleged, the defendants betrayed the Venezuelan people and corrupted Venezuelan institutions to line their pockets with drug money.”

The Noriega Criteria

On the morning of December 20th, 1989, President George W. Bush appeared on national television, to inform the American people that Operation Just Cause had been launched. This military operation followed a months-long rise in tensions between Panama and the United States. In May of that year, a highly contested Panamanian parliamentary election was riddled with fraud. Guillermo Endara, an anti-Noriega and U.S. backed opposition candidate, was poised to win against Noriega’s regime by a 3-1 margin. However, the results were vetoed by the regime, and loyal militant groups, known as the Dignity Battalions took to the streets physically attacking Endara and fellow leaders of the opposition. Both U.S. and international observers denounced the elections; they were in the words of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, “robbed.”

Later in October of 1989, a group of Panamanian officers attempted to stage a coup d’etat against the embattled Noriega. Led by Maj. Moises Giroldi, the coup enjoyed some initial success, especially considering that the coup plotters were able to capture Noriega. Nevertheless, a successful counterattack forced the coup plotters to surrender, and Major Giroldi and nine of his co-conspirators were executed after being subjected to torture.

The failed coup attempt, as reported by the New York Times, created somewhat of a sea change within U.S. national security circles. The article quotes one Pentagon official as saying that the failed coup “created a philosophical turnaround,” in that U.S. planners had hoped the internal forces within Panama would be the impetus for regime change, buttressed by American assistance and support. That official is also quoted as stating, “I think it was understood that we were probably going to have to get involved to a greater degree.”

Fast forward a month, and President Bush ordered US forces to invade Panama. The reasons given at that time were fourfold: (1) safeguarding the lives of U.S. citizens, (2) defending democracy and human rights, (3) combatting drug trafficking and (4) protecting the integrity of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, which had maintained the neutrality of the Panama Canal. Less than a week into the invasion, Noriega took refuge at the Holy See embassy in Panama, where U.S. special forces set up a perimeter and using psychological warfare in the form of blaring rock music, forced Noriega out of the embassy and into U.S. custody by January 3, 1990. By April 1992, Noriega had been convicted in the U.S. on eight of the ten charges against him which included money laundering, drug trafficking, and racketeering. After extraditions to France and Panama, Manuel Noriega died in custody on March 7, 2017, at the age of 83.

Noriega Criteria in a Maduro Context

The U.S. Invasion of Panama can offer a forecast into where U.S. intentions are headed. By no means does this mean a full-scale invasion is coming, but it is a startingly similar escalation ladder that Caracas and Washington are climbing.

President Maduro was sworn in for a new term on January 20, 2019, which started a tidal wave of escalations. The National Assembly, led by President Juan Guaido invoked a state of emergency, and Maduro’s term was widely condemned as illegitimate. Guaido, less than a week, later declared himself interim president, and began disputing Maduro’s rule. The U.S. and many other countries now recognise Guaido as the legitimate President of Venezuela.

These efforts culminated in a significant grassroots protest against Maduro’s regime and a failed coup attempt that left dozens of Venezuelan soldiers running to the Brazilian embassy for safety, and the Venezuelan spy-chief involved in the coup, arrested in Spain.

Returning to the Noriega criteria Bush gave as justification, (1) the US argued the narco-trafficking of the Cartel of the Suns (Maduro’s regime) is undermining the health of Americans, (2) the international community has denounced Maduro for his democratic and human rights record, (3) the U.S. believes Maduro and his cadre of officials are heading a narco-trafficking organisation, and (4) the Panama Canal is not in Venezuela.

The Risk to the Maduro

A global catastrophic drop in oil prices will ravage the ruins of the already destroyed Venezuelan economy, and with the looming COVID-19 crisis the situation in Venezuela is pitted to go from dire to worse. U.S. national interests aside, this will precipitate a demand for action from the international community to come to the aid of the Venezuelan people, who for years now have been in the flux of a humanitarian crisis.

President Trump, who has departed from his predecessors’ willingness for regime change military action, is by no means a pacifist, and has shown a willingness to assassinate his enemies abroad and is desperate for a political win during the coronavirus crisis in the run-up to the elections. Additionally, President Trump also labelled Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups and offered to, “go in and clear out” the gangs, signalling that his approach to narco-terrorism is bellicose at best.

It seems the U.S. has offered an olive branch of sorts, presenting a proposal entitled, the “Democratic Transition Framework” for Venezuela, which calls on Maduro to stand aside and allow a transitional government to hold elections in 2020, in exchange for a drastic role back of the sanctions regime. This perhaps could be one of the last purely diplomatic efforts the U.S. is willing to take.

Russia, seen as the bulwark against U.S. involvement just ordered the state-owned oil giant Rosneft, led by CEO Igor Sechin a Putin confidante and hardliner believed by some to be the leader of the siloviki faction of Kremlin officials, to pull out of Venezuela. Russian officials have assured Maduro that this is merely an attempt to avoid U.S. sanctions, but Russia is equally overstretched in the collapse of oil markets.

Maduro’s regime was already in trouble before the COVID-19 pandemic and reinforced by the staggering drop in oil prices, Maduro’s regime is looking down the barrel of an even worse humanitarian crisis. His regime was already at risk. But now that the Noriega criteria have come to fruition, the global community is distracted, and as Russia is unwilling or unable to openly defy U.S. actions, Venezuela has perhaps lost its only lifeline of political and economic support. Maduro finds himself up a certain creek without a paddle, and the risk to his stability just skyrocketed. 

Categories: Insights, Latin America

About Author

Michael Lyons

Originally from Arizona, Michael currently resides in Germany and focuses on European and Middle Eastern International Affairs issues. He received an M.A.I.S. degree from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and a B.A. in Political Science with an emphasis on Foreign Affairs from the University of Arizona's School of Government and Public Policy. He has also studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs (MGIMO) and worked with the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C as well as other U.S. and European Think-tanks.