Maduro's Government Would Lose An Election, Ex-State Department Official Says
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The United States is now deep into an effort to change the government of Venezuela. So what do they do now that the early steps did not succeed? The U.S. no longer recognizes President Nicolas Maduro, but he has survived a failed military uprising and many other challenges now as officials have arrested a would-be vice president of the government bidding to replace him. We asked Tom Shannon to look at this problem from the U.S. point of view. Until last year, he was under secretary of state for political affairs. Our first question, what are the vulnerabilities of Maduro's government?
TOM SHANNON: Well, first, they obviously don't enjoy broad support among the population. They do have a core group of support, but if forced to stand in election, they would lose. Which is why they have avoided that, or attempted to manipulate or manufacture the results of elections. Secondly, they are dependent, for their long-term viability, on their relationship with the Venezuelan armed forces, which is what the Trump administration and others have focused on at this point.
INSKEEP: When you talk about the dependence on the armed forces, I'm reminded of that old saying, that one definition of the government is they have a monopoly on the use of force.
INSKEEP: When all else fails, they have that.
INSKEEP: So that is a vulnerability, if the United States and others can cause the military to be pried away from the government somehow.
SHANNON: Exactly. Which they have not been able to do up to this point.
INSKEEP: How do the tools available to the United States compare to the vulnerabilities?
SHANNON: Up to this point, the tools have not been sufficient. Really, beginning on January 23, when Juan Guaido declared the presidency vacant and declared himself the president under the constitution, the hope at the time was that that would be sufficient to flip the military. It did not work. Then the opposition, working with United States and other countries, decided that focusing on humanitarian assistance and creating a confrontation at the border between Colombia and Venezuela over the delivery of humanitarian assistance would create a rebellion within the armed forces. That did not work.
Then the administration decided that sanctioning the state-run oil company, PDVSA, and effectively sending a clear signal to the armed forces that revenues would be cut off and their access to the Venezuelan gravy train would end would convince the military to flip. That did not work.
INSKEEP: There's also been an effort to focus on individual members or former members of the military. Some of them have been sanctioned. And just the other day, Vice President Pence said the U.S. would aim to lift sanctions on an individual former intelligence chief, I believe, who switched sides. Is that working at all?
SHANNON: Well, we'll have to wait and see. The purpose, obviously, is to send a signal that those members of the armed forces that choose to work with the opposition, if they are under sanctions, will have those sanctions lifted. And those who might be facing sanctions would not face them if they chose to work with the opposition. We're going to have to wait and see how that's received.
INSKEEP: How important is the support that this government has received from Cuba, and Russia and maybe other countries, as well?
SHANNON: It's important. On the Cuban side, some of the support has been exaggerated in terms of numbers. But without a doubt, the support they provide in the area of counterintelligence has been critical to...
INSKEEP: They send intelligence agents to help work the streets of Caracas, or wherever.
SHANNON: It's not so much working the streets of Caracas as it is watching institutions like the armed forces and ensuring that the Maduro government has a very clear understanding of where dissent lies within the armed forces and what, if any, major groups are preparing any kind of political action against the government. The Russians have provided significant sales of weapons to the Venezuelan government, along with purchasing large quantities of oil and gas and inserting themselves into Venezuela's oil and gas industry. And then the Chinese, of course, also have deep interests in the oil and gas sector.
INSKEEP: Is there any way to pry those foreign actors away from the Venezuelan government, Maduro's government?
SHANNON: We're going to have to wait and see. I personally believe that calling these governments out, especially the Chinese and the Russians, was not intelligent. The Chinese, in particular, have been looking to play a very low-key role in this political dispute and are more interested in their long-term energy interests. And therefore, it's important for the United States to make very clear to the Chinese that the long-term future of their relationships in South America are going to depend on China's willingness to help Venezuela find political accommodation that gets it through this period of crisis.
INSKEEP: Do you mean to say it would've been more intelligent to quietly approach the Chinese and reassure them that their energy interests will be maintained, no matter who is running Venezuela?
SHANNON: Yes. But also to make clear that countries who have China as a No. 1 trading partner - like Brazil, like Argentina, like Chile, like Peru - want to maintain that relationship, but in order to do so that the Chinese need to understand that by financing the Maduro government, they are actually creating problems inside of South America, especially the outflow of refugees from Venezuela, that are seriously affecting the stability of countries like Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil.
INSKEEP: It's certain that someone listening to us discuss U.S. efforts to overturn the government in Venezuela will be raising the question to themselves, why is that America's business or moral right at all to be doing that?
SHANNON: Historically, we've had a long-term relationship with Venezuela. And until the election of Hugo Chavez and the slow decay of the U.S.-Venezuela relationship, it was one of our most important energy partners. The United States played a very important role in the construction of the Venezuelan economy, and there have been deep ties, demographic ties, between the United States and Venezuela. Venezuela remains an important South American country. It sits on the Caribbean Basin. It extends its influence and power through the Caribbean and into Central America, and it's an important player in South America. An unstable Venezuela creates significant instability in the region.
INSKEEP: And let's stipulate that what's happening in Venezuela is already a humanitarian catastrophe. It's possible to imagine catastrophes even worse - far more people being killed. What risk is there that the United States could be partly responsible for such a disaster if things went that way?
SHANNON: Well, the risk is increasing with the nature of the sanctions that have been imposed. That did not happen. As we get deeper into this crisis, the kinds of sanctions that we have levied will grind what's left of the Venezuelan economy to dust. This will generate greater outflows of people, and the countries of the region know this. This is one of the reasons why, if we're going to hold these sanctions in place, we need to be working with Venezuela's neighbors and the United Nations to ensure that we can address the refugee outflow and ensure that that refugee outflow does not create political instability in the countries to which these Venezuelans are fleeing.
INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks for coming by.
SHANNON: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Tom Shannon, career U.S. diplomat, former under secretary of state for political affairs.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.