Trump envoy to Venezuela: Maduro 'weaker' after attack on opposition lawmakers

Trump envoy to Venezuela: Maduro 'weaker' after attack on opposition lawmakers
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The Trump administration's top envoy to Venezuela said Monday that the country's leaders are in a weaker position after sending troops to prevent the opposition from winning a key parliamentary vote.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Sunday ordered his forces to keep National Assembly President Juan Guaidó out of the parliamentary building, where lawmakers were in session to choose the legislative body's new leader.

"What you saw yesterday was something the regime didn’t want to do," Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration special envoy for Venezuela, told reporters Monday. "They wanted to win the vote in the National Assembly, and they couldn’t do it. With weeks and months of effort, they couldn’t do it, and they were forced to this last desperate resort of using the military."

"I don't think they come out of yesterday stronger. They come out of yesterday weaker," he added.

The United States and more than 50 countries worldwide have recognized Guaidó as Venezuela's acting president for the past year, saying Maduro did not win the presidency in free and fair elections. Guaidó, however, has been unable to take the reins of power from Maduro, who maintains control of most Venezuelan institutions.

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As head of the National Assembly, Guaidó was sworn in as caretaker president by supporters at a public park in January 2019, claiming the presidency and vice presidency were vacant in the wake of electoral fraud.

Guaidó's claim to the presidency is based on his position as the elected head of the National Assembly, a body that was scheduled to choose its leader for 2020 on Sunday.

Maduro's troops prevented Guaidó from entering the Assembly, creating a chaotic scene as they used riot shields to physically block Guaidó, who had climbed over one of the building's wrought iron fences.

Maduro loyalists then elected Juan Parra as Guaidó's successor, but their victory was short-lived, as opposition leaders later reconvened at a newspaper's headquarters and reelected Guaidó with 100 out of 167 votes.

"I think we saw something interesting — saw many interesting things yesterday," said Abrams. "One of them was the regime — which has total control and ability to intimidate, to jail, to exile, bribe — failed. It failed to be able to change the votes of 100 members of the National Assembly who wanted to support Juan Guaidó."

Michael McCarthy, a professor at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs who specializes in U.S.-Latin America relations, said Maduro's decision to use military force at the National Assembly was "clumsy."

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The move may have helped unite Venezuela's famously divided opposition, McCarthy said.

"The fraction of opposition associated with [opposition leader] María Corina Machado even voted with Guaidó yesterday, and that wasn't a given going into Sunday," said McCarthy.

Despite the apparent political victory, divisions within the Guaidó camp threaten the viability of the Trump administration's larger Venezuela strategy, according to Roger Noriega, a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Although Guaidó won the second vote on Sunday, Maduro's strategy hinged on flipping Parra, a former Guaidó ally who is still being touted as National Assembly leader by state media.

"It's going to be more difficult for the international community to pretend that Guaidó is really a viable opposition leader when he can't even hold his inner circle together," said Noriega, who's now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

McCarthy added that he was "surprised" the Trump administration didn't "preemptively sanction Luis Parra."

Noriega argued that sanctions against Parra could have been difficult to impose but suggested the United States should have taken some form of action to protect Guaidó.

"Couldn't they have exercised some leverage on the guy to get him to not commit that kind of treacherous act?" Noriega said. "I have to say, I do think American diplomats should have been smart enough to figure this out."

Maduro's move may add momentum to congressional efforts to isolate Venezuela from allies such as Cuba, Russia, China and Iran.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezMedia's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle Dem senators say Iran threat to embassies not mentioned in intelligence briefing Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers MORE (D-N.J.), a co-author of the Verdad Act, a Senate-passed bill that would strengthen U.S. support for Guaidó, in part by going after Maduro's international allies, called on the Trump administration "to redouble efforts to coordinate a truly international and strategic pressure campaign with our partners in Europe and the region."

“With an increasingly dictatorial regime, now is the time to align international sanctions with current U.S. efforts to help secure a peaceful return to democracy, and ensure free and fair legislative and presidential elections in Venezuela in 2020,” Menéndez said in a statement.

Still, Moscow has voiced support for Parra's election.

“We consider the election of the new leadership of parliament to be the result of a legitimate democratic procedure conducive to the return of the Venezuelan political struggle to the constitutional field,” read a statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry, according to Reuters.

But two of Maduro's closest allies in Latin America — Mexico and Argentina — spoke out against the use of force against lawmakers.

Abrams touted the criticism from the two countries, whose leftist leaders have been reluctant to stand with the United States in condemning Maduro.

"Very interesting when on the same day without hesitation both of them really called what happened yesterday in Caracas unacceptable and rejected it. And I find it quite striking. Maduro must be asking himself, 'Do I have any allies left?'" said Abrams.

Still, it's unlikely that lawmaker support for Guaidó will lead to rapid change in Venezuela, where support from Russia and Cuba has allowed Maduro to keep control over most state institutions, including the military.

"I can see where they would be looking for the silver lining and something positive. I think the whole Guaidó exercise has become a distraction from what really matters," said Noriega.

"The U.S. strategy was based on a poor understanding of both their friends and their foes," he added. "Underestimating Maduro and overestimating Guaidó."