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US official describes Venezuela’s Maduro as paranoid, weak, isolated

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a rally marking Anti-imperialism Day by the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 10, 2019. (Valery Sharifulin/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)

Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro has lost trust in his inner circle, can’t venture out into public and is sleeping in a bunker as he clings to power in the shattered country, said Mauricio Claver-Carone, the senior director of the White House National Security Council.

Speaking at the Concordia conference in Colombia’s capital Tuesday, Claver-Carone, one of the Trump administration’s key national security advisers, pushed back against the idea that a brief military uprising on April 30 in Caracas had been a failure, instead arguing that it had unveiled how many of Maduro’s closest allies were plotting against him.

“One of the positive elements (we saw) is that there were many people involved,” he said. “And the amplitude of (the conspiracy) is much larger than has been reported.”

“I can count the people who support Maduro on one hand,” he said. “If pro-Maduro sentiment existed, he wouldn’t have to be surrounded by Cubans and Russians.”

On April 30 Juan Guaidó — the man whom Washington and more than 50 other nations recognize as the country’s legitimate leader — called for a military uprising that fizzled. In the following days, U.S. officials claimed that Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno and the head of the presidential guard had agreed to help oust Maduro.

In the end, however, all three men failed to act, and it has been unclear if they abandoned the plot or never intended to follow through.

Claver-Carone said that the “ambitions” of some of the conspirators had led them “to become greedy” and doomed the plot. The Washington Post reported this week, citing anonymous sources, that Moreno might have poisoned the scheme by wanting to install himself as interim president.

Maduro has responded to the threat by targeting opposition congressmen. Last week officials jailed Edgar Zambrano, the vice president of the National Assembly and one of Guaidó’s closest advisers, for his role in the uprising.

Treason charges have been filed against seven other deputies, and there have been requests to strip an additional four of their parliamentary immunity — a precursor to an arrest warrant. On Tuesday, Carlos Vecchio, Guaidó’s ambassador to the United States, said that a quarter of all opposition legislators in Venezuela are now in jail, in hiding or in exile.

Speaking at a separate panel at the Concordia conference, Vecchio said the attacks on the National Assembly, considered the last bastion of opposition control, have been constant.

“Now they want to eliminate the deputies one by one,” he said.

On Tuesday, Maduro’s security forces had surrounded congress, alleging there had been a bomb threat, but many took the move as another attempt at intimidation.

Claver-Carone said the crackdown could backfire for Maduro. In particular, he mentioned that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres had warned the regime that the arrests would undermine efforts at finding a peaceful and negotiated solution to the crisis.

“The few avenues that Nicolás Maduro had left open … are being closed,” Claver-Carone said. “If they were almost isolated before, with these measures they’re going to end up completely isolated.”

The discussion comes as there are growing demands from some inside Venezuela for a military intervention. Vecchio has asked for a meeting with U.S. Southern Command to discuss military options but said he didn’t know when that meeting would take place and would not discuss what options might be on the table.

Claver-Carone also refused to speculate about what a military option might look like or the “red lines” Maduro would have to cross to spark an armed response. He said one of the Trump administration’s most effective tools is the “element of surprise.”

Maduro claims he’s the victim of a coup plot being backed by the United States, Colombia and others. He maintains he won presidential election last year (decried as fraudulent by many) and has the right to rule through 2025.

Claver-Carone said the U.S. has “an ample toolbox” of options to use in Venezuela, but for the moment the administration seems reliant on escalating financial and economic sanctions.

He said the sanctions, international repudiation and Guaidó’s actions had left Maduro cornered and unable to govern. He described the 57-year-old leader as paranoid and isolated, sleeping in a fortified bunker and rarely venturing out in public.

“His only plan right now,” he said, “is how to try to stay in power one more day.”


© 2019 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.