The Trump administration underestimated the support President Maduro would receive from Russia and Cuba, as well as from the US allies.
The Trump administration's attempt to replace the authoritarian leader of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, came to an obstacle after a meeting with Russian officials in Rome last year, and never recovered.
The US envoy Elliott Abrams arrived at the Westin Excelsior hotel with the hope of persuading Russia to withdraw his support for Mr. Maduro and recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov demanded that the United States withdraw from military threats and lift economic sanctions aimed at forcing Maduro's hand.RELATED
In the months that followed, the United States campaign became a foreign policy debacle, frustrated by family adversaries, Russia and Cuba, as well as by allies, Turkey and India, all countries that in one way or another helped Venezuela to evade U.S. sanctions, according to current and former U.S. officials and Venezuelan opposition activists. The European Union observed from the barrier.
The Trump administration, confident that Maduro would fall, did not foresee Russia leading the way for other countries to outshine sanctions. In turn, the administration's reluctance to impose sanctions on Russian and other companies maintained the flow of oil and gold from Venezuela to buyers.
This month, as a sign of how much the opposition is staggering, Venezuelan security forces blocked Guaidó's entry into the National Assembly building, where he was seeking re-election as leader. Guaidó, in a blue suit, tried and could not climb the iron fence.
Russia now handles more than two thirds of Venezuela's crude oil, current and former administration officials said, including aid to hide export destinations. The lifeguard has helped Maduro stop the free fall of the economy, consolidate its control over power and weaken the opposition.
Vice President Mike Pence, right, met Carlos Vecchio, left, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States for Mr. Guaidó, in June. PHOTO: LYNNE SLADKY / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Almost half of the US $ 1.5 billion in Venezuelan crude oil exported to India in the nine months following the purchase of US sanctions by an Indian joint venture with Russian oil giant Rosneft, according to an analysis of the Wall Street Journal data compiled by the Import Genius commercial database.
The United Arab Emirates has imported about US $ 1 billion in gold from Venezuela since sanctions were imposed at the end of 2018, according to Venezuelan trade records. US intelligence officials say the actual amounts are much higher, according to evidence that Venezuelan gold is leaving the country masked as originating in Colombia, Uganda and elsewhere. Exports land in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other gold trading centers.
The Turkish embassy in Washington denied any trade in oil or gold with Venezuela that violated U.S. sanctions. "The accusations do not reflect the facts, and they are only speculative and rumors," a spokesman said.
The Russian embassy in Washington declined to comment. He was referring to previous statements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that criticized the United States for interfering in the affairs of Venezuela. Officials from India and the UAE did not respond to requests for comment.
Administration officials recognize President Trump's frustration and say the White House continues to press for Maduro's impeachment. Trump, noting the superior US economy and army, suggested in a recent interview with WSJ that the United States had the resources to survive Maduro. "We have many options," said the president.
However, with an election, political trial and attention directed to the Middle East, Venezuela has now taken a back seat, said an administration official.
The stalemate allows Maduro to take a stellar turn like David to the United States Goliath. He makes speeches and apparitions almost every day to show that he is still responsible. He rebuked Abrams and other American officials, saying they tricked Trump that a regime change would be easy.
"They are trying to save their jobs because Trump is furious with the lies that have fed him about Venezuela," Maduro said in a recent speech. "They failed and Venezuela triumphed."
Maduro's control over the presidency has been costly for what was once the most prosperous economy in Latin America. Hyperinflation, high infant mortality rates and a shortage of medical supplies contribute to the humanitarian crisis there. The shortage of food, electricity and water has caused an exodus of 4.5 million people.
Abrams, the US envoy, acknowledged this month that a year's effort by the United States to remove Maduro collided with unexpected obstacles. "We underestimate the importance of Cuban and Russian support for the regime," he said. "Russia's role in the economy, particularly in the oil economy, is getting bigger."
Guaidó, in an interview, played a similar note. "I think we underestimate things," he said. He called on countries to help block Venezuela's gold exports. "We must try to pressure those who support the regime," he said. "Today's sanctions are the only real tool we have."
Guaidó's approval rating had fallen by more than 20 points to 38%, according to Venezuelan pollster Datanlisis. Accusations against opposition members, including the acceptance of bribes from Maduro's cronies, have eroded trust.
Despite the setbacks, administration officials said there are no plans to leave Guaidó. Vice President Mike Pence called senior administration officials last month to a meeting in the White House Situation Room. Later, US officials organized a conference with opposition leaders to try to revitalize them, people familiar with the meeting said.
Guaido supporters see Russia as their main obstacle and they want the United States, Europe and other allies to take a tougher line in the sanctions gaps.
"Russia, in my opinion, has become Maduro's most important partner," said Carlos Vecchio, Venezuelan ambassador to the United States for Mr. Guaidó. "A multilateral approach to sanctions is essential."
The EU has not introduced sanctions or prevented Maduro officials from traveling to the eurozone to raise money and support.
Charles Shapiro, former US ambassador to Venezuela who is now president of the nonpartisan expert group of the Atlanta World Affairs Council, said the Trump administration's situation showed the difficulty of regime change without military force.
"And if you use military force," he said, "there are all kinds of other problems."
The United States warned officials in Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and India about violations of sanctions in private meetings, US officials said, but did not move to the blacklists of companies or individuals suspected of infringing the sanctions.
Policy options have divided the administration. Some officials believe that the sanctions against the Russian oil company Rosneft and other companies that do business with intermediaries could close the gaps that have allowed Maduro to survive.
Others say they could undermine US interests in other places, including Iran. India agreed to stop importing Iranian crude as part of Washington's pressure campaign against Tehran, but continues to import Venezuelan oil. India pays deliveries of gasoline, a trade that, according to the nation, does not violate US sanctions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has not ruled out negotiations with Maduro.
"We will continue to modify our policy to achieve the right strategy, but we have not seen evidence that Maduro is remotely interested in having free and fair elections," Pompeo said recently about direct talks. "As for our strategy, the direction we will take, I am sure it will change over time."
Guaidó, 36, was virtually unknown in Trump's circles before coming to Washington with a delegation in December 2018. Administration officials and opposition leaders made a plan to put Guaidó in charge, and Pence He received a central role.
Administration officials attacked Venezuela, in part to punish Cuba and gain the support of Cuban-Americans, a powerful Republican voting bloc in Florida. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, from Florida, and Mauricio Claver Carone, head of the National Security Council for Latin American affairs, had roles in forging Venezuela's politics.
Cuba provides Maduro with intelligence and security services, helping to minimize defections in its government, US officials said.
When Guaidó declared himself interim president in an oath of office ceremony that was widely observed a year ago, the United States quickly recognized him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. It was followed by Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Peru and other South American countries. They supported Guaidó claiming that Maduro's election for a second six-year term was a farce.
Two days after the Guaidó oath, Abrams was designated as the main envoy to Venezuela. They gave him a job: eliminate Nicolás Maduro.
Abrams rocked some in the State Department, partly because of his participation in the Iran-Contra affair, a covert operation in the mid-1980s to sell weapons to Iran and use the proceeds to arm rebels in Nicaragua.
Trump met with Fabiana Rosales, Juan Guaidó's wife, at the White House in March. PHOTO: WIN MCNAMEE / GETTY IMAGES
Some State Department personnel feared that any harsh intervention by the United States derailed the popular support of Guaidó, while political appointments questioned Abrams' support for Trump.
In March, Abrams met with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister in Rome. After Russia refused to support Guaido, the US envoy promised more sanctions and possible military actions. After this article was published, Abrams said: "I and everyone else in the United States party had very little expectation of what might come from the meeting."
The understanding that regime change would not be easy came in April. The opposition planned for the higher court of Venezuela to recognize the National Assembly, headed by Guaidó, as the legitimate representative of the Venezuelan people. That would give the country's armed forces legal bases to abandon Maduro.
Guaido supporters expected senior Maduro officials to announce that they were changing sides. The plan failed and the frustrations of the White House broke out.
In May, secret talks negotiated by Norway in Barbados between Maduro and the opposition began, calling for fair elections. In August, Maduro left the talks.
In retrospect, the US campaign It originated with unrealistic expectations, current and former US officials said. And activists of the Venezuelan opposition.
"It was strongly believed, and the president was informed that all that had to be done was to recognize Guaidó, and Maduro would fall," said Fernando Cutz, a former White House National Security Council official during the Trump administrations and Obama who was involved in US-Venezuelan politics.
The administration's call for the Venezuelan army to leave and support Guaidó was an illusion, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a group of nonpartisan experts: "The last thing the military will do is follow the orders of a foreign power , especially the United States "
Trump complained to attendees and allies that he was led to believe that Maduro would be quickly removed, people familiar with the matter said.
The president directed much of his anger at national security adviser John Bolton, those people said, adding that those frustrations contributed to the expulsion of Bolton in September.
With the help of Russia, Venezuelan oil production could return to one million barrels per day from a minimum of 650,000 to 700,000 barrels, Rapidan Energy Group, a geopolitical risk consulting firm, said in December. Rosneft is helping Petróleos de Venezuela SA, the state-owned oil company, to pay back maintenance and the hiring of foreign experts, according to the group.
Russia has provided Venezuela with more than US $ 300 million in currency in the last 18 months, dollars and euros that have become scarcer under sanctions, according to WSJ's analysis with Import Genius data.
Abrams said he still believed the sanctions would work. "The situation of the regime is unsustainable and many people in the regime know it clearly," he said. "They would not continue sending their money, their wives, their children and their lovers outside the country if they thought it was stabilizing."
Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said this month's confrontation in the National Assembly underscored the weakened state of the opposition.
"At the same time," he said, "the [Maduro] government has no real options to end the economic, humanitarian and legitimacy crises it faces."
The problem arose at a Trump re-election event this month in Florida, a battlefield state with the largest population of Venezuelans in the United States. Some of Trump's supporters in Florida have expressed frustration because Maduro remained in power.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, speaking informally with a small group at the event, said the administration expected the leadership change to happen faster, and that some officials sought more aggressive efforts, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
A Ross spokesman declined to comment on the meeting, but said the administration is studying all options. "The United States is 100% behind Guaidó," Ross said Thursday in a television interview.
By José de Córdoba, Alex Leary, Kejal Vyas and Vivian Salama
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