Washington Wednesday: The Venezuela standoff

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 6th of March, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.

Venezuela has been in an extended state of turmoil. Last year socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro claimed victory in what many considered a sham election.

So in January, the president of Venezuela’s national assembly—Juan Guaidó—invoked a constitutional provision allowing him to become interim president in the event of a fraudulent election.

The United States immediately recognized Guaidó—as did many other Western countries. Last week the United States proposed a United Nations resolution calling for free elections and for the formal recognition of Guaidó as interim president. Russia and China blocked the resolution.

But the United States pressed ahead, immediately announcing new travel restrictions and sanctions for top Venezuelan officials. Here’s special envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams.

ABRAMS: Maduro supporters that abuse or violate human rights, steal from the Venezuelan people, or undermine Venezuela’s democracy are not welcome in the United States. Neither are their family members.

Also last week, Vice President Mike Pence met with interim president Guaidó in Colombia.

AUDIO: [Cameras clicking, a few words in Spanish]

Standing on South American soil, Pence reiterated the U-S position.

PENCE: Nicolás Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power, and Nicolás Maduro must go. [applause]

Meanwhile Juan Guaidó continues to build support at home and abroad. In a major test on Monday, he successfully returned to Venezuela from outside the country without being arrested.

AUDIO: [Cheering, chants]

Here now to discuss the latest developments is Jim Roberts. He’s a research fellow for economic freedom and growth at The Heritage Foundation in Washington. But today he joins us on the phone line from Europe.

Jim, good morning. I hope you can hear me okay.

ROBERTS: Yes, thank you. Thanks for the call. It’s good to be with you.

EICHER: Well, let’s start with interim President Guaidó’s return to Venezuela this week. How significant is it that he was able to get back to Venezuela safely?

ROBERTS: It’s very significant, and it is another indicator that Maduro’s days in power are ticking down. And the Russians are starting to talk about cutting a deal.

So there are very many factors at work here. Fifty countries now — most of the European Union with a few exceptions who are being pressured by Russia — but most of the leading developed countries in the world have recognized Guaido as the president of Venezuela. They are ready now for this criminal regime headed by Nicolás Maduro, which has been operating within a Cuban dictatorship in Venezuela, to exit the stage.

The deals are still on the table for the top generals who are really just capos in the Maduro crime family. But the deals will be cut by the United States, but on a limited-time basis and it’s now or never.

So the defections from the Venezuelan military are significant now. More than 600, last count. And these top generals are under pressure. And if ones who decide to cut deals will then turn on Maduro, that’s going to be the end of the Maduro regime.

EICHER: Well, let’s talk about something else concerning the interim president’s return. Guaidó had called for demonstrations to coincide with his return. Tens of thousands did turn out for him. But I wonder, was it enough to do what he’d hoped?

ROBERTS: I think the fact that he’s back there in country and so far safe is extremely important. There have been hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the streets of major Venezuelan cities for weeks now. There was a little bit of a lag after the big hype about the February 23rd stand off at the bridge with Colombia. But Guaidó went around and lined up support from the leading Latin American countries and has now made it successfully back in.

Ambassador John Bolton tweeted that if anything happened to him, the United States would react very strongly. So this threat of force is still out there. Certainly everyone hopes that force is not needed and that the military, the Venezuelan military will see the writing on the wall and will agree to support Guaidó and force Maduro from power.

EICHER: This is undoubtedly a strange situation — dueling presidents of a country for two months. How long do you think this stand-off, this current state of affairs will continue? And how does it end?

ROBERTS: Well, it’ll continue as long as enough of these thugs who are in the Maduro crime family are willing to murder people and threaten to use force and until such time as enough of the people, the military guys turn and defect and go to Brazil and Colombia and eventually become really kind of a counter force that could go back into Venezuela. But time is not on Maduro’s side, here.

I hope it ends peacefully, with him getting on some Russian aircraft and flying off to Cuba or wherever he goes with his people, but of course his top people are all — including Maduro and his wife — are all known to be narco traffickers, money launderers. They have long criminal histories that are going to follow them wherever they go.

But if we can at least get them out of there without a lot of bloodshed, that’s the desirable ending, obviously, for everyone.

But President Trump now has put his prestige on the line. He is not going to let this end with a stalemate. This is going to be a major policy achievement because once the Cubans lose control in Venezuela and lose the ability to extract billions of dollars of free oil to keep the Castro regime in Cuba propped up, once that’s gone, then the clock starts ticking on the end of the Castro regime in Cuba.

It’ll be one of biggest achievements in foreign policy in the United States, in the western hemisphere for the last 60 years.

EICHER: We have been down the road of regime change in Central and South America—hasn’t always been smooth, shall we say. Do you think the support for Guaido is wise and well-founded? Is he the right guy?

ROBERTS: Well, he’s the guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time. He’s a 35-year-old engineer with not a long history in politics, but he’s known to be honest. He is the legitimate—under the constitution of Venezuela, he is the legitimate president because the international consensus around the world was that Maduro’s reelection last year was totally fraudulent, should not be recognized. The OAS — the Organization of American States — concluded as much also.

So Guaido has got the legitimacy, and that’s a very important factor. There have been kind of been a checkered history of U.S. interventions in this hemisphere and, of course, that is engendered over the years a lot of resentment.

But in this case, this is being played very skillfully by the Trump administration. This will end up somewhere along the lines of the removal of Manuel Noriega from Panama in 1989 by President Bush 41. Something like that will probably play out here. Manuel Noriega was under indictment for narco trafficking at the time he was removed. So I think that this is a very skillfully played hand diplomatically by the United States and it’s going to have a good outcome.

EICHER: Jim Roberts is a research fellow for economic freedom at The Heritage Foundation. Jim, safe travels home and thanks for your time this morning.

ROBERTS: You’re welcome. Thank you.

(AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) Anti-government protesters rally to demand the resignation of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, as one holds a sign that reads in Spanish “No more dictatorship” in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 4, 2019. 

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