The U.S. military insists that it is not actively preparing for an intervention into Venezuela, but the rhetoric is escalating from Trump Administration officials and politicians who continue to demand that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro step down and allow opposition leader Juan Guaido to form a new government. This has included a number of veiled threats and a bizarre and entirely unfounded allegation that Russia has deployed nuclear weapons to the Latin American country. All of this comes as Guaido's supporters continue to skirmish with security forces loyal to Maduro in Venezuela's capital Caracas for a second straight day.
The latest phase of Venezuela's protracted economic and political crisis began on Apr. 30, 2019, when Guaido announced the beginning of Operacion Libertad, or Operation Liberty, which began with a call for a massive popular uprising against Maduro and an appeal for members of the country's security forces to join the movement. By the end of the day, however, another senior opposition leader, Leopoldo López, had fled with his family to the Chilean Embassy and a number of defecting soldiers had reportedly sought refuge in the Brazilian Embassy. You can read The War Zone's detailed coverage of these events here.
Maduro and Guaido have been in a standoff since January 2019 when the opposition leader declared himself Interim President and promptly received official recognition as Venezuela's legitimate head of state from the United States and dozens of other countries. The Trump Administration has, without caveat, offered its full support to Guaido.
"The president [Trump] has been crystal clear and incredibly consistent," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Fox Business Network on May 1, 2019. "Military action is possible, if that's what's required – that's what the United States will do."
Venezuela was a hot topic for members of Congress at separate hearings with U.S. military officials on Capitol Hill on May 1, 2019, as well. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford fielded questions from the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on defense matters, while U.S. Navy Admiral Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), responded to queries from House Armed Services Committee.
"The president [Trump] has made it clear that all options are on the table," Dunford said. "The situation is a little bit unclear today from our perspective between Maduro and Guaido – Guaido being the legitimate member of the government. We’re doing what we can now to collect intelligence to make sure we have good visibility on what’s happening down in Venezuela and be prepared to support the president should he require more from the U.S. military."
Acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan acknowledged that the U.S. military had been engaged in contingency planning regarding Venezuela, but described this as routine. He also said the United States has been engaged with Venezuela's neighbors Colombia and Brazil, both important U.S. allies in the region, about possible paths forward.
“Our leadership’s been clear, it has to be … a democratic transition,” Faller said in his own hearing. “We are in total support of diplomacy and we stand ready to support that effort.”
Faller otherwise echoed many of the same remarks that Shanahan and Dunford had made, stressing that the U.S. position was to pursue diplomatic options first and foremost. He did note specifically that there had been planning done regarding a potential evacuation operation to extract American nationals from Venezuela, if necessary. In March 2019, the U.S. government did withdraw all of its diplomatic staff from Venezuela, as well as other personnel.
To be sure, the U.S. military does routinely develop contingency plans about how it might respond to crises around the world and updates them in periods of more pronounced upheaval. But the continued declaration that "all options remain on the table" is also common truism from the U.S. government that does not automatically point to any preferred course of action or outcome.
At the same time, there have certainly been comments from U.S. officials and politicians, as well as specific actions, that have all the hallmarks of individuals looking to build a case for an intervention and clear the way for the U.S. military to proceed in prosecuting one. Trump himself has publicly and privately pushed for a military operation to overthrow Maduro on multiple occasions in the past already. You can read more about the military forces the U.S. military has arrayed in the region that it might call upon for such an operation here and here.
On May 1, 2019, a spokesperson for Shanahan announced that the Acting Secretary of Defense would be canceling a visit to Europe in part to more closely coordinate with the National Security Council (NSC) and the State Department regarding the situation in Venezuela. Shanahan would have remained reachable at all times during his trip, suggesting there is a specific desire to have him available to be physically in the room with his NSC and State Department counterparts, as well as U.S. military commanders, if necessary.
Following the eruption of clashes between Guaido's supporters and Maduro loyalists, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had told U.S. commercial carriers to avoid transiting through Venezuelan airspace at altitudes below 26,000 feet and to cease all operations within the country within 48 hours. The altitude prohibition would ensure that the planes remain out of the range of short-range, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.
The Venezuelan military has significant numbers of these weapons and there have been concerns that if the crisis in the country deepens these could find their way onto the black market. There is also a risk that Maduro could order these missiles issued to irregular forces with questionable training and discipline. The general quality of the country's regular military and other security forces is also a matter of debate.
"We’ve got the Cubans there [in Venezuela], the Russians, the Chinese. Many dimensions … this is not a timetable we control," Shanahan had told legislators at the hearing. "To the degree we can respond, alter our tactics and take advantage of the situation, we will."
The Acting Secretary of Defense was referring to the presence of Russian uniformed military personnel in Venezuela, who arrived in late March 2019, ostensibly to help their Venezuela counterparts refurbish and maintain various critical weapon systems, including a small number of S-300VM long-range surface-to-air missile systems. In January 2019, there were reports that Kremlin-linked mercenaries had also touched down in Caracas specifically to guard Maduro himself.
On Apr. 30, 2019, Secretary of State Pompeo had gone so far as to claim that the Kremlin had been instrumental in convincing Maduro to remain in the country rather than flee to Cuba during an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. America's top diplomat also listed off a number of senior Venezuelan officials who had been prepared to support Guaido, but then backed out of joining Operation Liberty. This was clearly meant to give weight to the opposition leader's movement, but the lack of actual support seemed to more strongly suggest that the Venezuelan strongman's position was never seriously in doubt. Still, "fire up the plane," Pompeo declared when Blizter prompted him to address Maduro directly.
The U.S. government was highly critical of Russia's apparent increased support for Maduro even before Guaido declared himself Interim President in January 2019. The month before, the Kremlin had sent a pair of Tu-160 strategic bombers and supporting personnel to Venezuela for a series of joint training exercises, drawing the ire of American officials.
There were also unconfirmed reports that the Venezuelan government had offered the Kremlin the right to establish a more permanent bomber base on a small island off the coast. These stories offer the only reasonable explanation for a bizarre claim that Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, made on Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight
“Are you saying the Russians will put nuclear missiles in Venezuela?” Carlson asked at one point. “What I am suggesting is that they are already there,” Diaz-Balart responded.
The Tu-160 bombers are nuclear capable, but there is no evidence whatsoever that Russia had deployed nuclear weapons to Venezuela along with those aircraft. There is similarly nothing to support the claim that the Russians have nuclear-armed missiles of any kind in the Latin American country now. The goal was obviously to evoke memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, despite the current Venezuelan crisis in no way approaching the same level of severity.
There is similarly a growing set of claims regarding the extent of Cuban and Chinese military presence in Venezuela, as well as support from other regimes hostile to the United States, such as Iran, many of which lack hard evidence. For instance, Cuba is a major regional ally of Venezuela and has certainly provided a variety of aid to help prop up Maduro's regime throughout an extended economic crisis that began in 2014. Cuba has also helped train Venezuelan military units in the past and the regime of Cuban President Raul Castro is certainly advising Maduro.
The U.S. government claims there are between 20,000 and 25,000 members of Cuba's security forces in Venezuela, but Havana insists that these are medical personnel. Venezuela's medical infrastructure has certainly suffered in recent years and Cuban support appears to have been essential in preventing its complete collapse. Whether or not Havana has exploited the situation to deploy an armed force to more actively bolster Maduro's regime remains unclear.
China is similarly heavily invested in Maduro's regime, especially with regards to Venezuela's oil sector. Reports in late March that China had sent its own contingent of troops seem to have been entirely fabricated, however. These reports were based on the appearance Chinese Yangtze River Express Airlines Boeing 747 cargo plane at Simon Bolivar International Airport in Caracas. That airplane brought in aid for the Maduro regime.
"There is no other actor in Latin America, with the possible exception of the Cubans, who as much controls the fate of Nicolás Maduro and his henchman as China does," SOUTHCOM's Admiral Faller had said in an interview with Foreign Policy
in April 2019, though this seemed to speak more to the vital economic support that Beijing offers to the Venezuelan regime. "I think the biggest threat to democracy and the way of life around the world is the trend that we see in China."
But as Shanahan noted in his remarks on Capitol Hill, the presence of Russian and potentially other forces also creates added risk for any actual American military operation. A shootout between U.S. troops and foreign forces supporting Maduro could easily escalate the conflict beyond Venezuela's borders. Direct U.S. support could also threaten Guaido's credibility, playing into Maduro's propaganda that his opponents are nothing but American agents.
That being said, SOUTHCOM's Admiral Faller's mention of an evacuation effort to get American citizens out of Venezuela is the kind of thing that could provide a pretext for a larger intervention. In 1989, the United States invaded Panama and overthrew that country's then-dictator Manuel Noriega. The murder of a U.S. service member by Panamian security forces and the assault of a U.S. Navy officer and his wife who witnessed the incident were essential to President George W. Bush's decision to launch the operation.
Still, various key regional allies, including Colombia, as well as a number of members of Congress, including those who adamantly support the Trump Administration, have rebuffed the President's proposals to forcefully overthrow Maduro in the past. Notably, Lindsey Graham, a Republican Senator from South Carolina who was previously a major critic of Trump before becoming a prominent acolyte of the President, advised him to "go slow" on Venezuela earlier this year.
"He said, 'Well, I'm surprised, you want to invade everybody,'" Graham recounted in January 2019. "And I said, 'I don't want to invade everybody, I only want to use the military when our national security interests are threatened.'"
Regardless, the U.S. government continues to declare Guaido the legitimate leader of Venezuela and call for Maduro to step down, continuing with the refrain that "all options are on the table." Late on May 1, 2019, Acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan Tweeted out that "this is an issue of freedom vs. tyranny."
Whether or not the U.S. government will actually move beyond exercise its various economic and diplomatic options, while offering rhetorical and moral support to Guaido, and actually launch a military intervention remains unclear. At the very least, the Trump Administration and its own supporters certainly seem to be laying out at least the foundations of an argument for a more forceful effort to eject Maduro from power.
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