For Venezuela, a state ravaged by hyperinflation and an authoritarian regime, 2020 could be either a year of unimaginably worse decay or an opportunity to throw off the shackles of President Nicolás Maduro. US President Donald Trump is hedging his bet on the latter after Washington indicted Maduro and his cohorts for narco-terrorism.
Trump Admin’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Campaign
Venezuela is one of only two nations to earn “maximum pressure” from the Trump administration, the other being Iran. The latest action taken by Washington is incredibly rare in American politics. The US Department of Justice referenced the group of Maduro and top Venezuelan officials by its name, Cartel de los Soles, translated “The Cartel of the Suns” in filing the charges.
The government’s indictment of Maduro himself as a foreign head of state is “extremely rare,” as Al Jazeera reported. US Attorney General Bill Barr accused Maduro and his associates of conspiracy, drug trafficking, corruption, and narco-terrorism—the practice of drug traffickers using violence to influence politics.
“While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of their corruption,” Barr said.
Against America, Barr argued the cartel formed a partnership with FARC, a rebel Colombian group, “to flood the United States with cocaine.”
Charges were filed by federal prosecutors in three jurisdictions: the Southern District of New York, Miami, and the District of Columbia.
US Puts Bounty on Maduro
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza responded to the charges by accusing Washington of “using a new form of coup d’état on the basis of vulgar, miserable, and unfounded accusations.”
Maduro also denied the allegations, calling them a sign of “desperation” in Trump’s desire to oust him. A contested election in 2018 led to 50 states, the US included, to recognize Maduro’s opponent, Juan Guaido, as the legitimate president. Since then, both the US and United Nations have charged Maduro with a wide range of human rights abuses. Washington also said the state is working with Hezbollah, as CNN reported.
In addition to the charges, the US State Department also put a price on Maduro’s head by introducing a reward of up to $15 million for information leading to his capture and conviction. It’s not often a head of state earns an official US bounty.
Amid the US charges and bounty, the nation also grapples with Covid-19 in an all-out struggle for survival. The economy was already weak, down by 65% over the past 7 years, TIME reported. A fresh round of US sanctions last year poured salt on the state’s wounds and because its exports are 98% dependent on oil, the downward trend of the global oil market has completely decimated an already struggling economy.
The Worst Time for Venezuela is the Best Time for US Action
All of these events are unfolding at the absolute worst time for Venezuela. It attempted to secure a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, but was turned down due to the potential illegitimacy of Maduro’s office. The military has helped Maduro hold on to power, but how long will they continue to be the dominant force?
Criminal groups and organized crime has grown rapidly as Maduro’s government has given them blanket approval to operate without fear of prosecution. In return, Maduro has tried to buy their support, but do they really serve his best interests? Once they start feeling economic pressure—and to be sure, they can hold out for much longer than legitimate businesses—they will consider alternative solutions. A terrorist group or cartel can’t exactly apply for a bailout from the government, much less one that has no money anyway.
How Long Until the Cartels Turn on Maduro?
How long before one of them decides to turn Maduro over to collect the $15 million bounty, or even more brash, kidnap him and negotiate a larger reward? The US may be counting on it, that amid the coronavirus meeting Venezuela’s healthcare system which is unable to handle it and the economic woes already dominant in the Venezuela, someone close to Maduro might have the incentive to take action.
For its part, the Venezuela’s military is an unlikely player in the grand scheme of things. The only hope to convince it to turn on Maduro is to convince it that they paychecks will stop coming in unless Guaido is inaugurated. Through him, the door might open to international relief, as TIME reported.
Maduro’s request from the IMF may be the first sign for the military that the situation is quickly becoming unsalvagable. Now might be the time to turn up the heat on Maduro, for the Trump administration to make another push to bring him down. To that end, Trump is playing all the cards in America’s arsenal—bounty, sanctions, everything short of a military operation.