U.S. searches for new Venezuela strategy as Maduro government hangs on

Soldiers march during a parade marking Venezuela's Independence Day in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 5, 2016. Venezuela is marking 205 years of independence.
Soldiers march during a parade marking Venezuela's Independence Day in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 5, 2016. Venezuela is marking 205 years of independence. AP

The Obama administration has intensified its push for a recall vote against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro even as the government there has made clear it’s unwilling to allow a vote that could put the opposition in power.

Secretary of State John Kerry has escalated U.S. rhetoric against the Maduro administration in recent weeks during diplomatic visits to Colombia and Argentina. Speaking at the Palacio San Martin in Buenos Aires, home to the Argentine Foreign Ministry, Kerry accused the Venezuelan government of delaying tactics and called for the vote to happen this year – the first time he’d specified a timetable.

“We have deep concerns right now about Venezuela’s unwillingness to engage in a robust, productive way in the dialogue and to heed the needs of the people of Venezuela,” Kerry said earlier this month at a joint news conference with Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra.

The stepped-up rhetoric reflects U.S. acknowledgment that the entrenched Venezuelan leaders are more willing to fight to remain in power than the administration had hoped after the opposition took control of the country’s legislature in voting last year.

An opposition takeover could place many of Venezuela’s leaders at risk of going to prison or being forced into exile.

We lack a lot of the tools that you would like to have in a moment like this.

Senior State Department official

The Obama administration has grown increasingly concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, but it wants not to come across as interventionist by imposing its will. It’s a slippery slope for the administration, which has fought hard to overcome a damaging U.S. reputation of meddling in Latin American affairs during the Cold War.

A senior State Department official said this week that the administration would continue to support dialogue between the Maduro administration and its opposition. But the Maduro government has shown over the last several months that it is “doing everything it can to obstruct” a referendum from happening this year, which would allow citizens to choose whether a new administration should take over.

“At that point, yes, we’re intensifying the attention to what the government is doing,” said the official, who agreed to speak only anonymously, per department policy.

Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is on the verge of economic collapse. Food riots have erupted as desperate Venezuelans ransack grocery stores in search of food. Hundreds have crossed the border into Colombia in search of basic goods. Medical officials have estimated that 80 percent of needed medicine and medical equipment are in short supply and that children have died because of the shortages.

The situation has alarmed the Obama administration, which has been seeking ideas in private and public meetings with former officials, research centers and academics across Washington and Miami.

On Monday, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, convened a meeting of experts in Miami to discuss what might happen in Venezuela.

Russ Dallen, an expert on Venezuela’s debt, said Tidd asked what would happen if Venezuela ran out of money.

Dallen said he equated the situation to what would have happened to Greece if the International Monetary Fund had not come to the rescue when that country could no longer pay its debts. He also compared such an eventuality to Somalia, where authorities and international supporters have struggled to re-establish state structures after decades of civil war.

Everybody anticipates a social breakdown. Nobody is doing anything to prepare for it.

Eric Farnsworth, Council of the Americas

“It means a civil breakdown of a country,” Dallen, a managing partner at Caracas Capital Markets, said in an interview.

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas and a former State Department official, sees conditions in Venezuela worsening and has urged U.S. and hemispheric leaders, including the Organization of American States, to get ready. He has proposed setting up humanitarian aid stations in Colombia where they can be reached by fleeing Venezuelans. They would also be well-positioned to enter the country if Venezuela collapses.

“Everybody anticipates a social breakdown. Nobody is doing anything to prepare for it,” Farnsworth said in an interview. “I do think it’s time for some contingency planning. It’s probably past time. And this is one way, without forcing the issue into Venezuela . . . to have ready reserves available if and when they need to be deployed.”

Polls find that Maduro would likely be trounced in a recall vote. But he has told supporters that if a vote happens, it won’t be until next year.

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council confirmed this month that the opposition coalition had gathered enough signatures on recall petitions to move to the second phase of the process. But the timeline suggested by the Maduro administration means a vote would likely not occur until January or February, at the end of the 90-day period in which the council must call the vote.

The timing is crucial. If the referendum is held by Jan. 10 and Maduro loses, a new election will be called. If it is held later and Maduro loses, his vice president likely takes over and remains in power until the end of Maduro’s term in 2019.

U.S. officials argue that it’s still possible to have the referendum this year.

The senior State Department official said the U.S. didn’t have enough information or access for such a crucial moment. Venezuelan officials have doubled down on self-destructive policies and behaviors, and the U.S. doesn’t have reliable interlocutors in the Maduro government. The official referred to the current dialogue efforts as “an empty room.”

Still, the U.S. will press the idea of talks because “it just has to be the place that people arrive eventually,” the official said. “Because the recall could be the other end game. But it’s a little irrational to assume that the government will hasten its own exit. It’s not really how people act.”