Guaido’s ambassador to the United States, Carlos Vecchio, echoed Abrams’ assertions that U.S. support for Guaido remains strong nearly a year into the anti-Maduro campaign. Guaido remains a popular figure across Venezuela despite the fact that he has little access to the media institutions under Maduro’s thumb, Vecchio said.
He and others further pointed to what’s being called “Operation Scorpion” — an effort to bribe, imprison and otherwise cajole National Assembly members not to back Guaido — as a sign of Maduro’s feelings of insecurity. The brute force used to block Guaido from the Assembly on Sunday suggests that Maduro knew the opposition leader had the votes he needed.
“If Guaido was weak, the question would be why Maduro is doing everything to interfere with Guaido’s reelection” as assembly leader, Vecchio said.
Under Maduro, who took power in 2013, Venezuela’s economy has crumbled amid allegations of graft and drug trafficking in the government’s top echelons. A humanitarian crisis — people can barely afford food — has led millions of Venezuelans to flee to nearby countries.
One reason Maduro remains in power is support from Venezuela’s military, whose senior ranks have stuck by him despite entreaties from Maduro opponents.
Abrams acknowledged that past outreach by the U.S. and the opposition to Venezuelan military officers and soldiers “obviously was not sufficient.” The trick is figuring out who will have the most impact in such outreach, he said, pointing to potential liaisons such as retired military officers from Latin American countries.
Another group that the United States wants to peel away from Maduro are the “Chavistas.” These are Venezuelans who support the left-wing, socialist ideology that kept Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, in power for years. Chavez, who died in 2013 while battling cancer, endorsed Maduro as his successor.
Abrams argued that many Chavistas recognize that Maduro’s corruption and economic mismanagement have badly damaged their movement’s reputation. And while Abrams stressed that the United States does not believe a socialist approach will rebuild Venezuela, he added that what matters is to have a legitimate political process.
“Venezuelans need to have the chance to vote,” he said. “If Chavistas win a free election, we will respect the outcome of that election. We’re not trying to destroy their future. We’re trying to create a future for Venezuela.”
While U.S. interests in Venezuela are many — including its oil — Trump administration officials have also said Washington has an interest in ensuring that the Western Hemisphere remains a stronghold for democracy. Trump’s dislike of Maduro strikes an odd note, however, given his affinity for strongmen in other countries, including President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Former U.S. officials who have dealt with Venezuela said it was clear that the Trump administration’s hopes that Maduro would quickly resign have been tempered over the past year, and that it is still trying to properly calibrate its policy toward the Latin American nation.
Trump himself appears less interested in the issue than in early 2019, when on Jan. 23 he dropped his recognition of Maduro as Venezuela’s true leader. Back then, Trump even nodded to the idea of U.S. military action in Venezuela.
As the months have worn on, the U.S. has sent mixed messages about whether it backs the opposition’s attempts to negotiate a political solution with Maduro, former U.S. officials said.
Now, “the trend lines point toward increasing authoritarian consolidation, a stronger Nicolas Maduro and a more fragmented opposition,” said Michael Camilleri, who served in the State Department and the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “Those in the opposition who had deluded themselves into thinking Trump was going to invade and solve all their problems are coming to the realization that’s not going to happen.”