Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro's hold on power just got more costly, and harder

An indictment and other tough U.S. steps should further isolate Maduro and ultimately force him from power.
Image: Nicolas Maduro
Nicolás Maduro speaks during a press conference at Miraflores Palace on Feb. 14 in Caracas, Venezuela.Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file
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By Jason Marczak and Diego Area

The coronavirus isn’t stopping the United States from continuing its maximum pressure campaign on Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela. On Thursday, the Department of Justice indicted Maduro and many of his cronies on a range of charges, all but guaranteeing they will not be part of any potential democratic transition in Venezuela down the line.

The U.S. then doubled down Tuesday by announcing a “Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela”— proposing a five-member council to run the country until elections are held — in an attempt to further create confusion and internal dissent within the regime by showing a possible exit from punishing sanctions.

The indictment for crimes ranging from drug trafficking to corruption to narcoterrorism puts the spotlight on the horrendous acts Maduro and his associates have allegedly perpetrated.

Maduro has long used oppressive tactics to silence his critics and put the opposition in jail, culminating in him manipulating the vote in May 2018 to fraudulently claim victory for a second term in office. Upon assuming this next term, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó invoked the country’s constitution to be sworn in as interim president in January 2019 and has been recognized by more than 50 countries, including the U.S. But still Maduro clings to power.

From the early stages of Venezuela’s leadership crisis, it has been clear that Maduro leads an illegitimate and criminal regime — the question has never been whether he has to go, but how. Until now, the U.S. had opted to use targeted economic and individual sanctions against him, his supporters in the Venezuelan military and his international backers, as well as other diplomatic tools, indicating a preference to push for a peaceful political settlement.

But Thursday’s legal action, combined with the fresh announcement of a new path to lifting sanctions, signals that the U.S. is attempting new tactics. These will hopefully further isolate Maduro both in Venezuela and internationally, and ultimately force him from power.

The Justice Department indictment for crimes ranging from drug trafficking to corruption to narcoterrorism puts the spotlight on the horrendous acts Maduro and his associates have allegedly perpetrated as catastrophic economic mismanagement, collapsing oil prices and sanctions have caused the regime to scramble to maintain the support of its international backers and ramp up illegal activities to keep afloat.

But it also has practical consequences, and, although the context is different, is a reminder of the indictment of Panama’s Manuel Noriega in 1988 that ended in his removal from power.

The indictment is a sharper escalation than previous U.S. measures because the evidence against the Maduro regime has now become part of the public record, and the indictment opens the door to further legal action on other illicit activities — such as illegal gold mining operations and arms smuggling— that could involve other countries and lead to the implementation of an Interpol capture order.

In addition to giving the U.S. additional leverage over Maduro, the indictment also acts as an incentive for the 14 individuals charged along with him — and others close to him — to cooperate with U.S. authorities.

There are already signs this new approach may pay some dividends. The day after the indictment, one of the accused, retired Gen. Cliver Alcalá, surrendered to the neighboring Colombian authorities; he will now be brought to the United States. It is expected that Alcalá will cooperate with U.S. authorities and provide relevant information on the operations of the Cartel de los Soles, a criminal enterprise made up of high-ranking Venezuelan officials and allegedly led by Maduro himself.

But because Thursday’s multicount indictment leaves Maduro more exposed and isolated, it also means he is likely to lash out aggressively in the short term. He will likely try to balance his vulnerability by showing strength and intensifying political persecution against members of Guaidó’s interim presidency and civil society actors working to promote democracy and undermine the Maduro regime.

Because Thursday’s multicount indictment leaves Maduro more exposed and isolated, it also means he is likely to lash out aggressively in the short term.

Indeed, the day after the U.S. indictments, the Venezuelan Public Ministry opened a criminal investigation against Guaidó and other members of the interim government for allegedly planning a coup d'etat against Maduro. On Tuesday, Maduro’s attorney general followed up by having prosecutors summon Guaidó.

The U.S., alongside European and Latin American governments supporting a return to democracy in Venezuela, must be vigilant about any escalation of persecution by Maduro. The U.S. has publicly stated that Guaidó’s security is a red line and would likely respond to actions against him with harsher steps in concert with key regional allies.

The regional ally whose partnership is most essential is Colombia, and Washington must back up the new legal action with more support to Bogota. Colombia is a major player in the international push to remove Maduro, and it’s in that government’s interest to provide critical intelligence and support to the U.S. to realize a democratic transition. But Colombia also has huge liabilities and needs U.S. resources and capacity-building, especially with technology along the Venezuela border.

Colombia has received over 1.7 million of the migrants and refugees fleeing Venezuela in the face of the deteriorating economic and security conditions. This unstable environment is exacerbated by the presence in the borderland areas of extralegal groups who engage in illegal activities, such as a dissident branch of former rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which continues to work with Maduro allies even though the rest of the organization has signed a peace deal with the Colombian government.

When he announced the indictments Thursday, Attorney General William Barr expressed his hope that “the Venezuelan people will see what’s going on and will eventually regain control of their country.” The indictments have set that process in motion — either through a political settlement, where the leverage of criminal charges acts to force Maduro’s resignation, or through a violent end to the crisis.

While the ultimate aim of removing Maduro is essential to Venezuela’s long-term future as a democracy, further violence could be devastating to Venezuela’s already vulnerable population. One in 3 Venezuelans is struggling with hunger, with 59 percent of households unable to afford food, while nearly 1 million children have been left behind as desperate parents have fled the country to seek work.

The ultimate focus must be on alleviating the suffering of the Venezuelan people, and though it will not be eased by these recent actions alone, the only way forward is to address the root causes of the crisis, starting with Maduro.