(Bloomberg Opinion) — Things were bleak for Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro even before the U.S. indicted him and 14 associates on drug trafficking charges. Now his regime may have reached a tipping point.
Some context: The global price of oil, Venezuela’s chief export, has plummeted in the last month because of the Saudi-Russian price war. The country’s already dilapidated public-health system is bracing for the ravages of the coronavirus. And any hope that half-hearted gestures toward negotiating with the opposition would relieve international pressure were dashed last month when the U.S. imposed new sanctions on the one Russian oil company willing to bring the country’s oil to market.
Now the U.S. Justice Department has indicted Maduro and 14 of his henchmen for corruption, drug trafficking and narco-terrorism. In and of itself, the indictment will not have much effect. Maduro is a head of state and the Justice Department cannot deliver him to a courtroom. The last Latin American strongman indicted on drug charges, Panama’s Manuel Noriega, was ousted by the U.S. military in 1989 and brought to a U.S. courtroom. For the moment, that scenario seems highly unlikely.
Rather, the indictments have a different purpose: They send a strong signal to Maduro’s military and members of his regime that he will not be able to ride out the current U.S. campaign against him.
That campaign began in January 2019 when the U.S. publicly recognized Juan Guaido, the president of Venezuela’s national assembly, as the interim president, following Maduro’s victory in an illegitimate election in 2018. Since then, more than 50 other countries have followed suit.
The diplomatic campaign and oil sanctions have not forced Maduro’s exit. But the relative unity of Venezuela’s opposition behind Guaido has held. The result has been a stalemate.
The unsealed indictments from the Justice Department remove Maduro’s best hope for survival — cutting a deal with the U.S. Last year that was still a possibility. A failed effort by Guaido to organize his ouster in April frustrated President Donald Trump. Many analysts believed six months ago that Trump had grown tired of his Venezuela policy. A quick reversal was possible.
It didn’t happen. Now it will be near impossible for Trump to work out a deal with Maduro. He is a wanted man. The indictment will hang over Maduro if Trump is voted out of office in November.
In addition to the indictment, the U.S. is also offering a $15 million reward for information leading to Maduro’s arrest and conviction. This should increase America’s chances of getting cooperation from people around him — “particularly those who were not named in the indictment or their allies,” says Juan Cruz, who served as the director for Western Hemisphere affairs on the National Security Council under Trump.
Those financial incentives are particularly strong at the moment because Venezuela is not selling most of its sanctioned oil. In October, the Miami Herald reported that Maduro’s regime had started to give away its crude oil to Cuba because it had no more storage capacity. Venezuela is now selling oil below the already depressed market price. That means Maduro has far less money to pay off his supporters.
What can Venezuela do to unlock international aid and lift oil sanctions? The answer is simple: Maduro must leave office, paving the way for a new election. He has made it clear he is not interested in that bargain. Maybe his generals can now convince him he has no choice.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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