AP NEWS

Juan Guaido: Foreign intervention to remove Nicolas Maduro needed

February 27, 2019

CARACAS, Venezuela When supporters of Venezuelan socialist President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday set fire to trucks bringing in humanitarian aid from Colombia, the country’s long-battered opposition braced for a minute for yet another crushing defeat.

Then, interim President Juan Guaido upped the ante.

“Today’s events force me to make a decision,” he said in a statement on Twitter. “To tell the international community ... that we must be open to all options to achieve liberation.”

Mr. Guaido’s bold warning sent shock waves through the opposition here in this tense and embattled capital, an opposition whose leaders had for a decade tirelessly tried to take any talk of “foreign intervention” off the table, fearing it played into the hands of the increasingly authoritarian Mr. Maduro and his anti-American propaganda.

But this time, the dictator’s newly emboldened foes have rallied around Mr. Guaido, recognizing that limiting their options like taking part in fraud-ridden elections and engaging the regime in endless talks may only have given Mr. Maduro “time and oxygen,” as prominent opposition leader Maria Corina Machado put it.

“Needing outside force doesn’t mean this process won’t be led by Venezuelans, just the opposite” Ms. Machado told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview. “But faced with a multinational wave of crime that has invaded the country ... we need the strength and help of the democracies of the West.”

To Ms. Machado, who has made no secret of her presidential aspirations, such foreign intervention could take the form of a U.N. peacekeeping missing, an option she said is backed by Venezuela’s constitution.

“Some say the technical conditions [for that] haven’t been met,” she conceded. “All right, then I ask: Technically, how many dead bodies do we need?”

That sense of urgency is evident on the streets of Caracas, where a crippled economy has literally turned daily life into a fight for survival for millions. Already used to rampant violent crime and dangerous medicine shortages, many Caraquenos now go for days without power and running water.

But that sense of urgency is married to a growing frustration over political stalemate. With Vice President Mike Pence in attendance, the Lima Group of Western Hemispheric nations and Mr. Guaido on Monday issued an 18-point declaration in which again appealing to the Venezuelan military to recognize Mr. Guaido as their commander in chief.

Ahead of a U.N. Security Council session on the Venezuela crisis, U.S. envoy Elliott Abrams revealed that the Trump administration will seek a Security Council vote this week on a resolution calling for the Maduro government to let in humanitarian aid and to hold free elections.

Mr. Abrams told reporters in New York that Mr. Maduro “has destroyed the economy of Venezuela and prevented humanitarian aid from arriving.”

Signs of neglect

Even the socialist propaganda, though ubiquitous, tells a story of decline and neglect: At the international airport, a poster advertises the “Peoples in Resistance” exhibition, a 2015 event. Along the Sabana Grande pedestrian mall, meanwhile, time stopped with the regime’s 2017 Christmas campaign.

Of more recent vintage, meanwhile, are countless anti-Maduro graffiti around the city, many of which make reference to the more than 20 pounds two-thirds of Venezuelans are believed to have lost due to rising food prices and acute shortages last year. “Together, we can overthrow hunger,” one says. “The dictator is quite chubby,” another quips.

Meanwhile, the lives of students at the elite Andres Bello Catholic University, alma mater to Mr. Guaido, Ms. Machado and a generation of top opposition figures, reveal how Venezuela’s meltdown now engulfs even upper-middle-class families in this economy of deep income inequality.

“It already seems normal ... not to eat three meals per day,” said student leader Roberto Rodrigues, 21. “Now, I adjust my life according to the hours they choose to turn the water on or off. If there’s no power or you don’t have internet at home, that’s no surprise anymore.”

Two years ago, Mr. Rodrigues and fellow student Isabela Ravello were part of the massive street protests that claimed more than 160 deaths. But like so many popular outpourings in recent years, the protests ultimately resulted in little change.

“We were leaving our houses every day to put on a helmet and shield to see if you could counter someone carrying a gun,” Ms. Ravello, 21, recalled. “For us, it was a complete disappointment. [But] now in 2019, you see a different spirit.”

The young activists point to Mr. Guaido’s open attempts to win over military and police forces, who have been offered amnesty if they if the join what the opposition leader and self-proclaimed “interim president” calls “the right side of history.”

“Now, we head into the streets with the message, ‘Take my hand and come with me, soldier,’” Ms. Ravello said.

The loyalty of the military, many both here and abroad say, will likely determine who wins Venezuela’s power struggle. Trump administration hopes that a diplomatic and economic blitz would lead military leaders to abandon Mr. Maduro have not played out as expected.

So far, only a few dozen of Venezuela’s 200,000-strong National Bolivarian Armed Forces have heeded Mr. Guaido’s call, and uniformed personnel loyal to Mr. Maduro were key in blocking the entry of humanitarian aid on the Colombian border over the weekend.

Even so, Ms. Ravello views a possible escalation and talk of a “foreign intervention” with apprehension.

“Anything could happen,” she said. “They might oust Maduro without affecting anybody, or there could be a civil war between Venezuelans just because there is a tank of the United States, Brazil or Colombia” in the streets.

Machado’s playbook

In fact, stoking fears of a civil war has long been part of Mr. Maduro’s playbook, Ms. Machado warned, trying to exploit cracks in what she said was a newly unified and energized opposition.

″[It’s] an unpersuasive claim,” she said of the government’s divisive campaigns. ”‘Don’t even think about doing something in Venezuela because there’ll be a civil war.’ Lies, lies.”

Even the frequently induced image of foreign tanks rolling down Caracas boulevards has little to do with what “foreign intervention” would likely look like, Ms. Machado added. In reality, she said, increased financial, economic and judicial pressure could lead Mr. Maduro to leave “for his own good.”

And the United States, too, need not rely solely on altruism to further clamp down on Mr. Maduro, the opposition leader said. With Venezuela-based operations of Colombian guerrillas, the Sinaloa drug cartel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group, Venezuela under Mr. Maduro constitutes a genuine threat to its neighbors and to the United States.

“It’s a matter of national security for Americans, in the United States,” Ms. Machado said. “Venezuela has become the global hub of organized crime ... and the criminal project set up in Venezuela [seeks] to destabilize the region, from Argentina to Canada, and including the United States.”

But foreign military action could get very messy, and Mr. Maduro is not the only hurdle. Even if he wanted a deal, Mr. Maduro must appease what former Venezuelan U.N. Ambassador Milos Alcalay calls a “corrupt military class” benefiting from free-for-all corruption and drug trafficking.

“You can exonerate Maduro, but you can’t exonerate 2,000 generals who haven’t reacted to multiple offers,” said Mr. Alcalay, who in 2004 resigned his post over differences with Hugo Chavez, Mr. Maduro’s populist mentor and predecessor.

And the regime still has a few friends: Mr. Maduro is backed by China and Russia, and retains close ties to Cuba’s communist leadership, who are rumored to employ tens of thousands of agents in Venezuela.

“The Cubans have learned to be extremely efficient and discreet: You don’t see them, but they’re there,” Mr. Alcalay said. “They don’t give instructions, ‘You’ve got to do this,’ but say, ‘Jeez, I’ve heard you’re planning to do this thing; don’t do that.’ There’s a dependence on Cuba and its advice.”

Whoever counseled Mr. Maduro to let the aid for his starving population go up in flames, however, may well have sealed the dictator’s fate, Venezuelans of all stripes noted this week.

The images of the burning supply-laden trucks that popped up on her phone turned “my stomach and my soul,” Ms. Machado said. But like Mr. Guaido, she said she soon realized the defeat was the regime’s, not the opposition’s.

“I’m seeing the faces behind that ... They’re not statistics, they’re faces, people of flesh and bone,” she said. “My final reaction was: ‘It’s over. They did it, and as a result, it’s over. There’s no turning back.’”

All contents © copyright 2019 The Associated Press.All rights reserved.