Venezuela’s crippling power outage has severely weakened Nicolás Maduro’s hold on office, but there’s no telling how long he can cling to power, Elliott Abrams, Washington’s Special Representative for Venezuela, said Friday.
Speaking to reporters, Abrams said the nationwide blackout that hit the country on March 7 undermined an already unpopular government.
“What’s the impact of this situation on the longevity of the regime? It’s obviously going to shorten the life of the regime,” Abrams told reporters in Washington. “We are not making any predictions and, as we look back, we see that, generally speaking, neither we nor anyone else has been very good at predicting when regimes fall.”
The United States and more than 50 other nations are pressing Maduro to step down and allow his rival, interim President Juan Guaidó, to form a transitional government.
Guaidó, 37, assumed executive functions on Jan. 23, saying he was constitutionally obligated to do so because Maduro had stayed in power through fraudulent elections. While Guaidó, who is also president of the national assembly, has the backing of much of the international community and popular support, he has no real power. Maduro, on the other hand, accuses Guaidó of being a Washington puppet trying to seize the presidency without ever running for office, and he’s been leaning on his security forces and gangs to shutdown protests.
Into this tense political standoff came last week’s massive power failure. Maduro blamed the outage, without providing evidence, on a cyberattack launched from Chicago and Houston and spearheaded by the Pentagon.
On Friday, Abrams said there was growing consensus that incompetence and lack of maintenance were to blame — that the transmission lines from the critical Guri Dam complex likely caught on fire due to a build-up of brush.
“I think it’s fair to say the Maduro regime has been a poor steward of the infrastructure in Venezuela,” Abrams said. “We see that in the electrical infrastructure and we have also seen that in the petroleum infrastructure.”
While power has been restored to much of the capital, there are still areas without electricity more than a week later. The western city of Maracaibo, in particular, has been hit with looting and violence amid the blackouts.
Abrams said Maduro seemed to be focusing his limited resources on restoring power and keeping order in the capital.
“They seem to take the view that what happens outside of Caracas is not a threat to them,” he said. “It’s a political judgment on the part of the regime.”
Venezuela, boasts the world’s largest proven oil reserves, but has seen output fall dramatically in recent years amid mismanagement and corruption. More recently, in January, the U.S. imposed sanctions on the state-run oil company, PDVSA, that will limit its ability to receive payments and import diluents, or thinners, which are critical to processing its heavy crude.
But the dramatic fall in oil output over the years — from some 3.5 million barrels a day in 1998 to just over 1 million barrels per day now — “has nothing to do” with U.S. sanctions, Abrams said.
Washington and Caracas have been bitter rivals for years and hadn’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010. But this week, the last of the U.S. diplomatic staff left the country and the embassy ceased operations. Now, Venezuelans trying to process many types of U.S. visas will have to travel to Bogotá, Colombia, to do so, Abrams said.
The pullout also leaves some 30,000 to 40,000 U.S. citizens in the country without diplomatic representation.
Washington has indicated that it’s willing to keep turning the screws on Venezuela until Maduro steps down. And while Abrams repeated President Trump’s threat that “all options are on the table” when dealing with the South American country, he also underscored that military intervention is a last resort.
“We also believe that the military outcome is not the right outcome for the future of Venezuela or for the people of Venezuela,” he said. “A peaceful democratic transition is the right outcome.”