(Republished from The New York Times)
What the Venezuelan opposition boldly proclaimed on Tuesday as a “final phase” in the opposition’s three-month campaign to oust the Venezuelan strongman, Nicolás Maduro, fizzled out by Wednesday, leaving behind murky claims of secret talks gone wrong, defectors who didn’t defect and Russian and Cuban meddling. What comes next was even less clear than before.
Announcing the final push on Tuesday morning, Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader whose claim to the Venezuelan presidency is recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries, seemed certain that this time enough of the military would cross over to assure Mr. Maduro’s ouster. Top members of the Trump administration — Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the national security adviser, John Bolton — promptly gave “Operación Libertad” their enthusiastic support.
Then on Wednesday, with only a handful of National Guard troops on his side, Mr. Guaidó acknowledged that it didn’t happen. Only one top Maduro official, the head of the security services, Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, appeared to have defected to him, and mass demonstrations on Wednesday were forcefully put down by security forces still loyal to Mr. Maduro.
An opposition leader who had been freed from house arrest by Mr. Guaidó’s followers and initially appeared with him in public, Leopoldo López, took refuge in the Spanish Embassy in Caracas with his wife and daughter.
Then the finger-pointing broke out. Mr. Maduro blamed President Trump for what he called an attempted coup d’état. Mr. Trump assailed Cuba, his usual whipping boy for Mr. Maduro’s survival, though the C.I.A. has concluded that Havana’s support is far less consequential than the administration claims. Mr. Pompeo claimed that the Russians had talked Mr. Maduro at the last moment out of boarding a plane and fleeing the country, and hinted at military intervention. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, warned Mr. Pompeo that “the continuation of aggressive steps is fraught with the most serious consequences.”
More dramatically, Mr. Bolton claimed that there had been a secret arrangement for three Venezuelan officials — the defense minister, the chief judge of the Venezuelan Supreme Court and the commander of the presidential guard — to switch to Mr. Guaidó’s side, but that they failed to do so.
The Wall Street Journal additionally reported that according to Elliott Abrams, the administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, secret talks had taken place between the opposition and top government officials about a change in government and that a legal document had been drawn up for the transition.
But whether the purported deal was a trap set by Mr. Maduro to make his opponents look inept, or whether the officials got cold feet, or whether it was an effort by American officials to spread distrust and instability in the beleaguered presidential palace, remained unclear.
In the end, whatever had led Mr. Guaidó and the Trump team to believe that the “final phase” was at hand, and whatever led to its collapse, the fact was that the opposition was left weaker than before in the eyes of its exhausted and impoverished followers.
Mr. Guaidó called next for national strikes, but it was difficult to know how long he could continue to rouse popular protests with promises of imminent change. And as Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis grew more dire, Mr. Maduro was bound to blame it on American sanctions on Venezuelan oil, which came into full effect this week.
None of that bodes well for a quick resolution of the crisis. At some point, Mr. Guaidó may have to consider negotiating directly with Mr. Maduro to find a peaceful exit from a stalemate that is compounding the suffering that Mr. Maduro’s policies, corruption and chronic mismanagement have inflicted on the Venezuelans.
American military intervention, repeatedly cited as a possibility by Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo, remains a terrible idea. However invested the Trump administration is in the ouster of Mr. Maduro, a direct intervention would find little support across a region with bad memories of American meddling, and would brand Mr. Guaidó as an American lackey.
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