Caracas (AFP) – The United States ramped up the pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro this week by accusing him of “narco-terrorism” and offering a $15 million bounty for information leading to his capture.
It’s the latest in a succession of measures to try and force Maduro from power in favor of Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido.
But though analysts said the move could pressure the regime, they were also skeptical it will achieve either the desired effect or an end to the South American country’s long-running economic and political crises.
– Fracturing the leadership –
The millions of dollars offered in reward by the US Justice Department are aimed at encouraging divisions amongst the command structures in the Maduro regime, experts say.
“It’s a game of billiards… you put the ball in play, hit it against others and those balls hit others, generating reactions,” said political scientist Luis Salamanca.
He said it “sets a ball in motion in the circles of power” that could create internal divisions.
Trying to sew divisions has been one of Guaido’s main aims since January 2019 when he used his position as National Assembly speaker to declare himself acting president in a direct challenge to Maduro’s authority.
Despite being recognized by more than 50 countries, he’s failed to make any significant headway.
Maduro retains the support of the powerful military — backed by allies China, Russia and Cuba — and control of state resources increasingly under pressure from US sanctions.
“Both the US and Guaido have failed in their efforts to undermine Maduro’s power base,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
“It is impossible at this point to make a serious prediction about whether this time will be different,” although he acknowledged it would “put added pressure and stress on the Maduro government and the army.”
But political scientist Ricardo Sucre believes this pressure is more likely to unite the leadership rather than fragment it.
– Military factor –
Washington’s overtures have mostly been to the Venezuelan military in a bid to sever their ties with Maduro, who repeatedly claims he’s the target of attempted coups.
“They’ve gone from trying to create a crack through threats, to buying a crack … they’re looking to see if someone will sell out Maduro,” said Sucre.
The armed forces remain, outwardly at least, loyal to the leader and once again on Friday reiterated their “unwavering commitment” to Maduro in the face of “extravagant and extremist accusations.”
Maduro has already bought their loyalty, providing the military with ample political and economic power in a country whose economy has crumbled, forcing millions of ordinary Venezuelans to flee.
He has always been able to rely on that military support, including during mass street protests against his rule in 2014 and 2017 when violent crackdowns left around 200 people dead, and an attempted uprising by Guaido in April 2019.
– Negotiations unlikely –
But with the coronavirus pandemic inflicting the latest crisis in a country already suffering from six years of recession and hyper-inflation that has decimated salaries and savings, some in the opposition have muted the possibility of entertaining negotiations with Maduro.
“Maduro’s indictment makes any such negotiation even more unlikely as it materially increases the exit costs for Maduro and other key officials,” said Risa Grais-Targow of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.
Previous attempts to negotiate have already stumbled on an opposition demand flat out rejected by the president — that Maduro resigns so new elections can be held.
– Panama precedent –
Maduro is only the second sitting foreign leader to be indicted by the US, after Manuel Noriega in 1989. Washington invaded the Central American country and captured him.
However, “this level of belligerence is very unlikely in the case of Venezuela,” according to Hakim.
“Most Latin American and European countries would be in opposition, and because Maduro has allies like China and Russia, which Noriega never had.”
There is another major consideration, too: the US presidential election at the end of the year.
“Much of Trump’s Venezuela policy has been guided by his electoral considerations in Florida, a key swing state, where Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American voters are an important constituency,” said Grais-Targow.
Piling on economic pressure during a humanitarian crisis could be seen as “exacerbating the crisis” and “pushing too far can start to shift such support.”