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U.S. has much at stake if Venezuela’s uprising fails

The Trump administration has much at stake if U.S.-supported opposition leader Juan Guaidó fails to mobilize enough resistance to remove Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro from power.

The removal of Maduro was supposed to be the precursor of a domino effect that would later tumble the dictatorships in Cuba and Nicaragua.

Current and former officials acknowledge that a failed uprising would cripple the opposition and undermine the administration’s top priority in the hemisphere.

“It’s now or never,” a senior administration official said. “Everyone realizes it both on the U.S. side and the Venezuela side. How ugly this gets remains to be seen. But everyone sees this as the final frontier to bring down Maduro.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan were scheduled to meet at the White House on Wednesday to discuss options for Venezuela, Shanahan told the House defense appropriations subcommittee.

“There is not a situation or a scenario that we don’t have a contingency for,” Shanahan said.

Earlier Wednesday Shanahan canceled a trip to Europe in order to be on hand as the U.S. weighed how to respond to the Venezuela crisis.

Dunford said the Pentagon was working to gather additional intelligence on developments on the ground in Venezuela and was ready to do more.

“The president’s made it clear that all options are on the table,” Dunford told Congress at a budget hearing. The military will “support the president should he require more,” he said.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the senior Democrat of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged caution and said events Tuesday suggested the desired outcome might not be achievable in the short term. He warned military intervention could be counterproductive, an opinion shared by regional allies.

“It would be a huge mistake for the Trump administration to miscalculate and undermine this burgeoning democratic movement with a military intervention involving U.S. troops.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said he would not characterize yesterday as a failure for Guaidó’s effort to oust Maduro.

“Maduro is in a lot of trouble,” Rubio said, comparing Venezuela’s generals to a character from “The Godfather” who betrays his family. “He’s in an unsustainable position, he’s got key leaders who are plotting against him sitting right next to him.”

Fernando Cutz, a former acting senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, said there was an expectation among the Venezuelan opposition that the administration would back its rhetoric with action when the time came.

“We’re getting to a moment where we have a reckoning with our reckless rhetoric. What happens now? Do we put our money where our mouth is? Do we actually do something?” Cutz asked. “The problem with strong rhetoric from Washington is it’s easier to do from here, where we don’t have to bear the brunt of consequences. It’s the people of Venezuela who are out in the street every day and have the impact of the humanitarian crisis,” he said.

“We’re partly responsible for the escalation moving as quickly as it has so we also need to be partly responsible for bringing about a peaceful resolution that tries to help the people of Venezuela as best as we can,“ Cutz said.

“The irony is that Trump’s Venezuela strategy is generally sound,” said Benjamin Gedan, who was responsible for Venezuela policy on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “But the White House is a victim of its own impatience, and its decision, perhaps politically motivated, to repeatedly set unrealistic expectations about the timing of Maduro’s ouster.”

For the United States, helping restore democracy in Venezuela would be a major foreign policy victory and represent a setback for Russia, while putting some of the world’s largest oil reserves back in friendly hands, Gedan said. Rebuilding the country would take a large toll on regional allies, but in the long run it would be a boon for U.S. interests in the region.

The U.S. government is taking every precaution. Pompeo called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier Wednesday to increase the pressure. He accused Moscow along with Havana of destabilizing Venezuela and hurting U.S.-Russia relations.

John Feeley, a former ambassador to Panama, said U.S. national security stakes are not as great as some may make them out to be, but it still doesn’t look good for the United States if Guaidó fails.

He said the U.S. government is making all the right moves, including being prepared to deliver humanitarian assistance and pledging high level support. But it is delivering a poor message, such as blaming Cuba and consistently bringing it back to socialism and the so-called “Troika of Tyranny,” which includes Havana and Nicaragua.

“All of that gives greater credence to those who are predisposed to think this is a plan concocted in Washington and not Venezuela, which we know was developed in Venezuela,” said Feeley, who is also a political consultant for Univision.

Despite expectations raised by the administration, Feeley said it will be a long and difficult process. And there are successes that should be noted.

“Keep in mind yesterday, Leopoldo López and Juan Guaidó were circulating freely in the streets and Maduro was holed up in Miraflores,” he said. “Symbolically, that means quite a lot.”

López, a political activist who was seen as Guaidó’s mentor, was released on Tuesday after years of house arrest giving immediate heft to the political moment as the two leaders stood together in front of military troops and called for the uprising.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said he remains “optimistic.”

“Nothing happens unfortunately because you’d like it to happen,” Scott said. “The key is going to be when the military breaks; I think they’ll break, but unfortunately we don’t know when.”

U.S. relations with Venezuela have been rocky for some time. The United States hasn’t had an ambassador in Caracas for a decade. Rapprochement was unlikely long before Guaidó emerged as a figurehead, but a failed uprising could also raise uncomfortable questions about whether the United States should continue to back the opposition leader’s efforts.

“The status quo would be exceedingly awkward in the long term, should we continue to recognize a leader who controls no territory or government organs?” Gedan said. “But now that we have survived our divorce from Venezuela‘s oil industry, it’s possible to envision a drawn-out dispute involving persistent U.S. sanctions and support for opposition activism.”

Staff Writers Tara Copp, Alex Daugherty and Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.