VENEZUELA - Maduro on The Offensive

Perhaps sensing that the balance of forces is tilting back in his favour, President Nicolás Maduro has launched a new offensive against the opposition, issuing arrest orders for members of the opposition-controlled National Assembly (AN) who are accused of “terrorism” and of involvement in a “bloody conspiracy”.

It is now almost a year since Juan Guaidó launched an audacious plan to unseat Venezuela’s authoritarian leftist regime, having had himself proclaimed interim president by the AN and then been recognised as the legitimate ruler of Venezuela by around 50 countries, led by the US. Battered by the unremitting economic crisis, by the demobilising effects of mass emigration, by the re-emergence of opposition disunity and even by claims of corruption, Guaidó’s movement has lost momentum in recent months.

  • Arrests

Helpfully preparing the ground for more arrests, Venezuela’s constituent assembly (ANC), the pro-Maduro de facto legislative body, also announced this week that it had lifted the immunity of another four opposition deputies: Carlos Lozano Parra and Luis Stefanelli, both of Voluntad Popular (VP); Jorge Millán, of Primero Justicia (PJ); and Hernán Alemán, of Acción Democrática (AD). They stand accused of rebellion, treason, and conspiracy.

Opinion polls show Guaidó’s approval rating dropping from around 65% earlier this year to below 40% now. Initially caught off guard, the Maduro regime had to cede significant political space, allowing Guaidó to remain in Venezuela and to campaign openly for a change in government. It seems that the regime now feels it can begin the push back.

A supposed “terrorist plot” was announced by Jorge Rodríguez, Maduro’s information minister, on 14 December. He said Voluntad Popular (VP), the opposition party led by Guaidó and Leopoldo López (currently under the protection of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas), had been caught planning a US and Colombia-funded armed incursion into six Venezuelan states, assisted by right-wing Colombian paramilitaries.

Those accused included four VP deputies: Yanet Fermín, Fernando Orozco, Lester Toledo, and Josnar Baduel. In theory the accused enjoy congressional immunity, but that did not prevent an attempt to arrest Fermín and Orozco which was foiled by VP officials.

Guaidó says the charges are completely unfounded and part of the government’s ongoing campaign of harassment against AN deputies (no fewer than 30 have been forced into exile or hiding since 2016). The government may have an immediate objective in mind. On 5 January the AN must either re-elect Guaidó as its president or choose someone else. Since Guaidó’s claim to be the country’s legitimate interim president rests entirely on his elected leadership of the AN, getting someone else elected, or arresting enough deputies to deny the assembly a quorum, would be a propaganda victory for the regime.

Diplomatic crosswinds

Various recent events suggest that changes may be afoot in the diplomatic battle over Venezuela, none of them particularly helpful for Guaidó. In a speech in Cuba during the summit of the leftist integration movement Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Alba) on 14 December, Maduro announced the re-launch of the Petrocaribe programme which offers Venezuelan crude oil on favourable financial terms in return for diplomatic and political support. The re-launch suggests a degree of renewed confidence within the Caracas regime.

Separately, Bloomberg reported that Erik Prince, a founder of US private security firm Blackwater who has close ties to the administration led by President Donald Trump, had held secret talks in Caracas with Maduro’s Vice-President, Delcy Rodríguez. Some interpreted the meeting as a sign that the Trump administration is losing confidence in Guaidó’s ability to topple the Maduro regime and is opting instead for direct negotiations. What might have been discussed was not revealed. However, a separate report by the Washington Post on 17 December has suggested the US government may be considering a possible blockade of Venezuelan oil destined for Cuba.