To get rid of Maduro in Venezuela, US must challenge his enablers
Last week, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump met with leaders of Venezuela’s interim government, along with representatives of the Lima Group, a 14-nation bloc in Latin America dealing with the crisis in Venezuela. The consensus was clear: Venezuela needs new leadership, without embattled President Nicolás Maduro.
In his statement at the meeting, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera underscored that Maduro does not work alone. “We have to realize … that there are [international] allies helping [Maduro in] Venezuela and we are talking about countries like Cuba, China, Russia, Iran and Turkey. I think that the whole Latin American community, and maybe the whole world, should [be] very clear that what they are doing is really affecting the interests of all Latin American countries.”
President Piñera is right. To address Venezuela in isolation is to misread the crisis; the Maduro regime is supported by a multipolar network of external state and non-state actors determined to keep the regime in power.
Maduro’s reign will not end until this network becomes unraveled.
The Center for a Secure Free Society, a Washington-based national security think tank, has coined the acronym “VRIC” for the emerging security and intelligence alliance that is unnatural, unconventional, but increasingly real. The VRIC is reminiscent of the acronym BRIC, coined by British economist Jim O’Neill, which represented the four rising world economies. The VRIC, however, is more sinister, describing the four biggest threats to global security and their increasing reliance on one another: Venezuela (and the broader Bolivarian Alliance), Russia, Iran and China.
Despite crippling sanctions, international pressure for regime change, and more than 4 million Venezuelans having fled their country, Maduro still holds onto power with help from the VRIC alliance.
There’s no bigger indication that the Maduro regime relies on international support for survival than last week when regime leaders went abroad. In the face of increased pressure, Maduro — who bypassed the General Assembly and instead sent Vice President Delcy Rodriguez — spent last week in Moscow. Maduro brought the power behind the throne, Tareck El Aissami, former vice president and current Minister of Industries and National Production, to discuss international engagement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. El Aissami is currently indicted by the Justice Department, sanctioned by the Treasury Department, and on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Most Wanted list.
While Maduro was in Moscow, the president of Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, visited North Korea with a delegation that presented a gift to Kim Jong Un on behalf of Maduro. Venezuela opened its first embassy in Pyongyang in August.
Rarely do Maduro, Cabello, Rodriguez and El Aissami leave Venezuela at the same time. But last week demonstrates that the regime, in its weakened state, increasingly relies on its international allies to come to the rescue. It’s a pattern of behavior evident all year.
After Feb. 23, when Maduro blocked U.S. humanitarian aid from passing through the Colombian-Venezuelan border, he immediately sent Rodriguez to Russia for talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Shortly after, Russia, China and Turkey sent humanitarian aid to Venezuela.
The same thing happened in March. When Venezuela experienced a series of countrywide blackouts, China offered its technical support to help end the blackout and Russia sent a 100-person contingent of military “specialists.”
Then, after the failed Operación Libertad on April 30, aimed at removing Maduro, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza announced that Russia may send more military specialists. And so they did, in June, when a plane full of Russian military technicians landed in Caracas.
The Russia-China tag team has proven effective at neutralizing Interim President Juan Guaidó’s efforts at ending the usurpation of Maduro in Venezuela. This is aided by Iran.
Although less visible in Venezuela, the Islamic Republic lends support to Maduro through back channels and strong diplomatic and military relations. During tense times in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to Caracas in July to show solidarity with Maduro and attend the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement. This came weeks after the top Iranian security official, Ali Shamkhani, met with his Venezuelan counterpart, Gen. Angiollilo Fernández, to discuss security cooperation. Fernández is now in charge of UNEFA, Venezuela’s military academy.
While the VRIC nations openly endorse the failed negotiations between Maduro and his opposition, they also feed the failure by dividing the opposition through information operations and active measures carried out by Cuban counterintelligence.
It is clear that working with Maduro towards a transition is not an option. But simply targeting Maduro and his regime within Venezuela has proved futile. Forcing Maduro to take an “off-ramp” out of Venezuela means countering his external allies propping him up. Any action taken against Maduro must take into account the external state actors providing lifelines to his government.
“Maduro is a part of the problem and will never be part of the solution,” Piñera insisted at the meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly. Maduro is indeed part of the problem, but the other part is his international network. If President Trump and a majority of Latin American leaders desire an end to Maduro’s government in Venezuela, they must challenge his source of support: a state and non-state network of external actors in Latin America.
Christina Armes is a researcher and contributor to the VRIC Monitor at SFS.