Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro showed off his military’s firepower Sunday in a demonstration meant to show the world that he will not be removed from office without a fight.
Responding to U.S. and international threats to his rule after what many consider his fraudulent re-election last May, Maduro presided over a display of military hardware at the Fort of Paramacay, about two hours west of the capital, Caracas, where he jogged with soldiers and boarded an amphibious craft.
“Nobody respects the weak, cowards, traitors. In this world, what’s respected is the brave, the courageous, power,” Maduro said, after he received the public backing of top officials in the military and his defense minister Vladimir Padrino.
In an interview with CNN Turk broadcast on Sunday, 56-year-old Maduro also dismissed calls from a group of European countries to hold fresh elections within 8 days, and said his country was “the victim of a U.S. conspiracy.”
Maduro has overseen an era of economic mismanagement that has seen Venezuela experience hyper-inflation as well as chronic food and medicine shortages. He won re-election last May, but it was boycotted by the opposition parties and there were widespread accusations of corruption and vote-rigging.
Hours before Maduro's CNN Turk appearance, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton issued a direct warning to Maduro that “any violence and intimidation” against U.S. diplomatic personnel or Juan Guaidó, the political upstart who declared himself the president of Venezuela last week “would represent a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response.”
While senior officials within the White House say the U.S. is focusing on diplomatic and economic pressure to initiate regime change in the country, the appointment Friday of the neocon Elliot Abrams as special envoy for Venezuela, together with Trump’s repeated assertions that a military intervention is a possibility and Russia’s steps to protect its investment in the country, have increased worries that a potentially explosive situation could get much worse.
“[Bolton and Abrams] are extremely right-wing, imperialistic characters, with absolute disregard for the effect of their policy on people's lives and human rights,” Helen Yaffe, a lecturer in Economic and Social History in the University of Glasgow, said.
Responding to Mike Pompeo’s appointment of Abrams on Friday, Bolton tweeted: “Welcome back to the fight.”
Abrams and Bolton both served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, with the neoconservative Abrams remembered for all the wrong reasons.
He is remembered for trying to whitewash the deaths of thousands of people by a U.S.-funded death squads in El Salvador, when he was assistant secretary of state for human rights.
He also helped organize the funding of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua without Congressional knowledge. He then lied to Congress twice about his role, eventually pleading guilty to both counts only to be pardoned by George H.W. Bush.
“Having to appear alongside Abrams is not helpful for the credibility of Venezuelan opposition leaders or for left leaders like Ecuador's Lenin Moreno, who surprised many with his support of Guaidó,” Tom Long, an assistant professor of politics and international studies at the University of Warwick, told VICE News. “It doesn't make their lives easier in terms of managing the domestic political repercussions. Those domestic politics are already difficult given Trump's unpopularity in most of Latin America.”
“Having to appear alongside Abrams is not helpful for the credibility of Venezuelan opposition leaders.”
Despite his terrible human rights records, Trump had previously considered Abrams as deputy to Pompeo’s predecessor Rex Tillerson, only to veto the decision when he came across a critical article Abrams wrote in 2016 entitled “When You Can’t Stand Your Candidate.”
Trump first voiced his view that a “military option” was on the table to deal with the Venezuelan crisis in August 2017, on the steps of his New Jersey golf club. More recently he has spoken to Sen. Lindsey Graham about the possibility of using military force in the South American country.
“[Trump] said, 'What do you think about using military force?' and I said, 'Well, you need to go slow on that, that could be problematic.' And he said, 'Well, I'm surprised, you want to invade everybody,’” Axios reported Sunday.
But the U.S. has never sent its army into any South American country, and doing so would be a major decision — and it’s unclear if Trump is willing to make that decision.
“We don't know the Trump psychology enough yet to know if he's prepared to initiate a direct military intervention,” Yaffe said.
Adding to the powder keg atmosphere in Venezuela is the fact that China and Russia have come out strongly in support of Maduro’s regime, which is unsurprising given that both countries have invested tens of billions in the country over recent decades.
Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft has particular reason to be worried about a regime change, having invested a total of $8.5 billion in Venezuela and Maduro’s departure would likely see all of that investment disappear.
“Moscow will back Maduro to the end and will expend considerable capital to ensure his regime doesn't fall.”
Russia is also a major supplier of military hardware to Venezuela, and between 2001 and 2013, state company Rosoboronexport loaned Venezuela $11 billion to buy Russian arms.
On Friday, it was reported that Russian mercenaries from Wagner, the private military company allegedly controlled by Putin’s former chef Yevgeny Prigozhin, were sent to Caracas to protest Maduro, signaling that Russia is looking to protect its investments.
“Moscow will back Maduro to the end and will expend considerable capital to ensure his regime doesn't fall. From Putin's perspective, the U.S. is fostering a color revolution — and Putin won't stand for it,” Michael Carpenter, a former foreign policy advisor to Joe Biden, told VICE News. “So, despite how deeply Putin has Trump in his pocket, this is a case where the two powers will inevitably collide.”
Guaidó, a 35-year-old political upstart who was almost unheard-of outside Venezuela until last week, has been groomed for months via secret communications with officials in the U.S., Canada and a group of South American countries, who view him as the person who can unite the disparate opposition groups and oust Maduro.
But despite the huge show of international support for Guaidó, U.S. efforts to unseat Maduro have so far failed.
"[The White House] have kind of stuck their neck out and they really need this to work for them now because otherwise what happens is that Maduro comes out strengthened. I think they can feel it slipping away, and they are trying to recoup the momentum they had towards the end of last week,” Yaffe said.
Cover: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gives a press conference at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, amid a political power struggle between him and an opposition leader who has declared himself interim president. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)