Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro stood defiant in the face of a US$15-million bounty by the US to face drug trafficking charges, calling Donald Trump a "racist cowboy" and warning that he is ready to fight by whatever means necessary should the US and neighbouring Colombia dare to invade.
Maduro's bellicose remarks Thursday night came hours after the United States announced sweeping indictments against the socialist leader and several members of his inner circle for allegedly converting Venezuela into a criminal enterprise at the service of drug traffickers and terrorist groups.
One indictment by prosecutors in New York accused Maduro and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, head of the rubber-stamp constitutional assembly, of conspiring with Colombian rebels and members of the military "to flood the United States with cocaine" and use the drug trade as a "weapon against America."
Maduro, a former bus driver who fashions himself an everyman icon of the Latin American left, said the charges were politically motivated. He said they ignore US ally Colombia's role as the main source of the world's cocaine and his own role in facilitating peace talks between Colombia's government and that country''s rebels over the past decade.
"Donald Trump, you are a miserable human being," Maduro railed during his televised address. "You manage international relations like a New York mafia extortion artist you once were as a real estate boss."
What was some of Maduro's most venomous rhetoric ever against Trump also came with a threat of military force: "If one day the imperialists and Colombian oligarchy dare to touch even a single hair, they will face the Bolivarian fury of an entire nation that will wipe them all out."
Earlier, Venezuela's chief prosecutor opened an investigation against opposition leader Juan Guaidó for allegedly plotting a coup with retired Army general Cliver Alcalá, who after being named in the US indictments said he had stockpiled assault weapons in Colombia for a cross-border incursion. Without offering evidence, Maduro said the Drug Enforcement Administration was behind a plan by Alcalá to assassinate him and other political leaders.
The indictment of a functioning head of state is highly unusual and is bound to ratchet up tensions with Washington as the spread of the coronavirus threatens to collapse Venezuela's shortage-plagued health system. Maduro has ordered Venezuelans to stay home in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, which officials say has infected 107 people and claimed its first death Thursday.
Criminal acts to advance a drug and weapons conspiracy that dates back to the start of Hugo Chavez's revolution in 1999 occurred as far afield as Syria, Mexico, Honduras and Iran, the indictment alleges. Attorney General William Barr estimated the conspiracy helped smuggle as much as 250 metric tons of cocaine a year out of South America.
"The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality," Barr said in an online news conference from Washington. "While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money, and the proceeds of their corruption. And this has to come to an end."
The coordinated unsealing of indictments against 14 officials and government-connected individuals, along with the announcement of rewards of US$55 million against Maduro and four others, attacked all the key planks of what Barr called the "corrupt Venezuelan regime," including the Maduro-dominated Judiciary and the powerful armed forces.
In Miami, prosecutors charged Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno with laundering in the US at least US$3 million in illegal proceeds from case fixing in Venezuela, including one involving a General Motors factory. Much of the money he spent on private aircraft, luxury watches and shopping at Prada, prosecutors allege.
Maduro's defence minister, General Vladimir Padrino, was charged with conspiracy to smuggle narcotics in a May 2019 indictment unsealed in Washington.
"This announcement is a major blow for Maduro who has been running Venezuela like a mafia state, with rampant corruption and widespread atrocities, and absolute impunity," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch. "With this indictment he may now lose his aura of invincibility, of being completely above the law, which is very welcome news."
But its unclear how it brings Venezuela any closer to ending a 15-month standoff between Maduro, who has the support of Russia and China, and the US-backed Guaidó. It also could fragment the US-led coalition against Maduro if European and Latin American allies think the Trump administration is overreaching. An estimated 5 million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years, fleeing hyperinflation and widespread food and medicine shortages.
"It's an incredibly dangerous gamble to redouble the offensive against Maduro's regime when the priority must be to shore up the country's collapsing health system and prevent an even worse migrant exodus," said Ivan Briscoe, the Latin America director for the Crisis Group. "These US charges could spell doom for any thaw, expose Guaidó to grave risks, and appear high-handedly indifferent to the immediate suffering of Venezuela's people."
Maduro has long accused the US "empire" of looking for any excuse to take control of the world's largest oil reserves, likening its plotting to the 1989 invasion of Panama and the removal of strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega to face drug trafficking charges in Florida.
Barr and Elliott Abrams, the State Department's special envoy on Venezuela, are driving the hawkish US stance toward Maduro, much as they pushed for Noriega's ouster in the late 1980s — Barr as a senior Justice Department official and Abrams as assistant secretary of state for Latin America.
US officials see other parallels as well. Noriega transformed Panama into a playground for violent, international drug cartels, and the Trump administration has accused Maduro and his military henchmen of harbouring drug-traffickers, guerrillas from Colombia and even Hezbollah, a designated terrorist group.
They also have accused government officials together with well-connected businessmen of stealing hundreds of billions of dollars from the state coffers, much of it from state oil giant PDVSA, which has seen its production plunge to a seven-decade low.
Still, charging Maduro was no easy task. Sitting foreign leaders normally enjoy immunity from prosecution under US law and international norms.
But the US is among 60 countries that no longer consider Maduro a head of state even if he does hold de facto power. They instead recognise Guaidó, the head of the congress, as Venezuela's rightful leader following the socialist's re-election in a 2018 race marred by allegations of fraud and an opposition boycott.
The evidence against Maduro was collected over several years by investigators in Miami, New York, Houston and Washington who have brought drug trafficking, foreign bribery and money-laundering charges against several senior Venezuelan officials, members of the military and government-connected businessmen.
To the surprise of many, Maduro has stubbornly clung to power. The Trump administration raised the ante last fall, withdrawing support for a Norway-sponsored mediation effort and extending sanctions so that even foreign companies faced retaliation for extending Maduro a lifeline.
Separately, Barr prioritised investigations into Maduro's inner circle, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal Justice Department deliberations.
The pressure to deliver, the people said, went into overdrive around the time Guaidó visited Washington in February and Trump praised him as his guest at the State of the Union address, calling him "a very brave man, who carries with him the hopes, dreams and aspirations of all Venezuelans."
Frank Mora, a former Pentagon official, said the US is right to condemn Maduro and others for repressing his people, stealing from state coffers and turning Venezuela into a criminal state.
But he worries the indictments play more into the emotion of voters in Florida — a must-win state for Trump where Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans fleeing authoritarian governments have political muscle — than help address the country's grinding crisis.
"We're not going to go in and capture him," said Mora, who now heads the Latin America studies institute at Florida International University. "This isn't about regime change or restoring democracy to Venezuela. It's about electoral politics."
by Joshua Goodman & Scott Smith, Associated Press