According to US officials, members of the Venezuelan president’s inner circle were onboard with talks to see his removal from power. But were they double-crossing Washington? Or was Leopoldo López’s freedom the sticking-point?
Maybe Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner, Leopoldo López, was the thread that unravelled it all.
The overthrow that sputtered began when opposition lawmaker Juan Guaidó tried to spark an uprising in Caracas on Tuesday, standing not only with masked soldiers who had defected but López, his mentor and a cult figure in some circles. That dramatic turn sent a signal that this wasn’t mere posturing. To many watching, it seemed the opposition plan to replace President Nicolás Maduro was finally moving swiftly forward.
But it turns out that López’s first appearance in public in years might actually have had the opposite effect and helped doom a deal two months in the making. It was a surprise to some in the Maduro regime who had, after talks with the opposition, agreed to take part in a handover of power. They consider López an unreliable hothead and that contributed to their decision to pull out, some insiders said, along with the fact that they hadn’t been given any warning about the hastily organised event.
The Donald Trump administration and Guaidó’s team are still trying to figure out what went wrong. Whether López was a killer straw is just one riddle for them. López himself said late Thursday there shouldn’t have been any confusion. He told reporters that before he was freed from house arrest Tuesday, he had been speaking for weeks with “commanders, generals, representatives of different branches of the armed forces and police.”
‘TIP OF THE ICEBERG’
The US is pointing to the breadth of the failed plot as evidence that, no matter how badly it went, Maduro’s days are numbered with the country having plunged into dysfunction and the economy in a shambles. “This was just the tip of the iceberg,” said a senior administration official who asked not to be named. Many close to Maduro were in on the endgame, the official said, and their eagerness to send him packing shows how isolated he is.
Failure, though, exacts a price. The question in Washington and Caracas is how high. One Venezuelan with ties to people in the opposition described them as now “paralysed.”
Any way it’s sliced, the bust of what Guaidó called “Operation Liberty” is a major setback, said Rocio San Miguel, president of the watchdog group Control Ciudadano. “The opposition took a step backward with the military,” which the opposition needs to win over to succeed. “Guaidó appearing with López at a single point in the city with a few dozen soldiers and no major firepower showed their weakness.”
López’s clandestine release from house arrest by the feared Sebin intelligence agency was but one step in a complex transition negotiated with top aides to Maduro, not all of whom were speaking to one another, according to people in Washington and Caracas familiar with the negotiations and who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
And within hours, the deal between the opposition and the Maduro camp was dead. López ultimately sought refuge in the Spanish Ambassador’s Residence in Caracas, emerging briefly Thursday to talk to reporters. US officials expressed fury at the Venezuelans close to Maduro who they believe double-crossed them.
Those singled out by US National Security Adviser John Bolton – the defence minister, the Supreme Court president and the head of the presidential guard – were central players in a large cast discussing how to abandon Maduro and recognise Guaidó as the interim president, according to the people familiar with the negotiations.
López was released because the Sebin intelligence chief, General Manuel Christopher Figuera, was fully on board, the people said. As part of the arrangement, Figuera’s wife flew to safety in the US on Sunday. On Tuesday night, after Figuera released a letter explaining his decision, Maduro replaced him as intelligence chief. Figuera has left Venezuela, according to two opposition officials, though they said they don’t where he has gone.
In trying to explain where things went wrong, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed the Russians who, he said, intervened at the last minute. Maduro had got wind of the deal a day earlier and when Guaidó and López appeared at the base, the besieged president was rushed into a bunker and planned to escape to Cuba, according to two people familiar with the situation. Russia told him to stay put, Pompeo said. Officials in Russia and Cuba have denied it, as has Maduro.
“Many of us thought, as the weeks went by, that it was astonishing Maduro hadn’t discovered it already but that may be because so many on the inside wanted it to succeed,” one person familiar with the matter said. “They believe Maduro began to get an understanding of what was happening on the 29th and they had to move on the 30th or it would all collapse.”
One Venezuelan involved said he blamed López for “unilaterally” insisting on appearing in public on Tuesday morning. He said López pushed for it and Guaidó relented.
Other speculation falls on Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino López who, according to one person close to the situation, was engaged in the negotiations while informing Maduro and his Russian and Cuban allies of the talks. The defence minister was with Maduro when the president gave a speech at the military academy in Caracas Thursday.
The other two key officials – Maikel Moreno, chief justice of the Supreme Court, and Iván Rafael Hernández Dala, head of both the presidential bodyuguard and of military counterintelligence – were ready to make the transition work, that person said. Those two, Figuera and Padrino are among the individuals who have been sanctioned by the US, where their assets have been blocked.
But it may be that many more baulked. There was confusion over who would make the first move, according to a person close to the situation. It could be that there were so many participants that one hand often didn’t know what the other was doing.
The talks began when Venezuelans with links to top officials in the regime and the opposition offered to act as bridges. At least one of those intermediaries is under US sanctions and was seeking leniency, three people familiar with the deal said.
Washington said repeatedly that senior Venezuelan officials willing to shift their allegiance to Guaidó would be removed from various sanctions. The US has led more than 50 countries in recognising Guaidó since January as interim president because Maduro re-election last year was rigged, rendering it invalid. Elliott Abrams, the US State D
epartment’s special envoy for Venezuela, told a Venezuelan television station Wednesday that “a majority of the high command were talking with the Supreme Court and Juan Guaidó about a change in government with the departure of Maduro and with guarantees for the military.”
He said the negotiations had created a 15-point document that included a “dignified exit” for Maduro and recognition by the high court of Guaidó as interim president with elections within a year. It had been widely assumed that Leopoldo López, a former mayor of a wealthy district in Caracas, would be a leading candidate.
On Thursday, a Caracas court issued a warrant for López, revoking his house arrest, according to a statement published online. The court ordered him to spend the remaining eight years of his 13-year sentence in Ramo Verde military prison; he was convicted of charges including arson and instigating violence after spearheading anti-government protests. He spent three years in the prison and said he had no intention of returning.
“I spent two years in complete isolation at Ramo Verde,” he said. “It was not easy. I was tortured. I don’t want to go back to jail, because jail is hell. But I’m not afraid of jail, just like I’m not afraid of Maduro.”
by BY ETHAN BRONNER AND ANDREW ROSATI - BLOOMBERG