An Unorthodox Attempt at ‘Liberation’
On Sunday 3rd of May, a group of ‘freedom fighters’ breached the Venezuelan shores of Macuto. The ‘force’ consisted of around 30 soldiers, including two American ex-Green Berets, who had been planning this incursion for some time. The key to the international confusion, and incredulous reaction to this ‘coup’, is this fact – that these mercenaries had been plotting an intervention in Venezuela since April 2019. Their leader, Jordan Goudreau, the head of an American private security firm ‘Silvercorp USA,’ had bragged about the attack on his YouTube. On May 1st, the Associated Press released a long investigation exposing their plans. Another alleged leader, a former Venezuelan General named Cliver Alcalá, was arrested just days before the attack. Nonetheless, the would-be liberators went ahead, charging the beaches with two boats (one of which ran out of fuel at sea). Soon after landing, six were killed and most others arrested. 13 participants are now being held in custody, including the two American Soldiers, and are awaiting trial on charges of terrorism.
The plot implicates several important figures in Venezuelan Politics. Goudreau met General Alaclá in early 2019, when they began discussing a plan to overthrow Nicolás Maduro. In September, they met in Miami with another Venezuelan exile Juan José Rendón, a well-known political strategist in Latin America. Rendón had been sent by Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition in Venezuela and the ‘rightful’ leader recognized by the U.S. and around 60 other nations. Although a contract between Silvercorp and Guaidó was apparently signed, Guaidó has since denied all involvement. ‘Training’ for the mission took place in Colombia, whose government has also denied any prior knowledge.
So far, it is unclear how ‘connected’ this plot is to any national government forces. General Alcalá is known as a ‘loose-cannon’ and now awaits charges inside New York federal custody. He was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2011 for allegedly selling surface-to-air missiles to the FARC, a Colombian rebel group, in exchange for cocaine. His current indictment is also for drug-trafficking, on the same charges that Maduro is facing. Exiled to Colombia in 2018, he has not been shy in advocating for military intervention in Venezuela. Goudreau, meanwhile, has denied that either the U.S. or Colombian governments assisted with the attack, a fact re-iterated by the Trump administration. This contention is partly based on the ‘insanity’ of the plan – to overthrow Maduro with only three machine guns, 14 rifles and 21 pistols (the arsenal seized by the Venezuelan authorities). Trump said as much during an interview with Fox News, stating that “if I wanted to go into Venezuela I wouldn’t make a secret about it.”
Venezuela’s Humanitarian Crisis and a History of American Intervention
Prior to COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuela was already experiencing a humanitarian crisis; one in three are not getting enough to eat, according to a World Food Program study. A statement in March by nine UN special rapporteurs described “a systematic and pervasive disregard for human rights displayed by the Venezuelan authorities during their crackdown on protesters, journalists and human rights defenders.” The situation will undoubtedly worsen with coronavirus; health officials have said the country is ill-prepared, with many dying from treatable diseases before it even began. Many of the hospitals lack basic electricity and running water, and the country has just 80 intensive care beds. At the same time, the lockdown imposed in mid-March is starving the livelihoods of millions of citizens (50% of the workforce is informal), many of whom already lived hand to mouth.
The current ‘President’ Nicolas Maduro, has been blamed for the humanitarian peril. First elected in 2010, he has been described as a ‘dictator’, overseeing an economic crisis where inflation peaked at 1,000% (2016). Under his administration, 9,000 people have been killed in extrajudicial killings, and 3 million people, 10% of the overall population, have fled the country. In 2018 he called a presidential election while jailing his opponents, intimidating voters and denying any international observers entrance to the country. This triggered a constitutional crisis, with the National Assembly and other international allies (including most of Latin America) refusing to recognize the result of the rigged election. He has received backing, meanwhile, from nations such as China and Russia. In early 2019, Maduro was inaugurated for his second term, while Juan Guido also declared himself the interim President. This political limbo has persisted.
Despite the dismal state of Venezuela, last week’s failed coup likely offers Maduro a blessing in disguise. He has claimed that the humanitarian crisis is a product of the “economic war” waged by the U.S. and European sanctions, and maintains that Guido’s actions are part of a “well-written script from Washington” to create a puppet state of the United States. This narrative is helped by the long history of American intervention in Latin America. Between the 1960s to 1980s, the CIA was instrumental in the overthrow of socialist leaders all around Latin America. In Guatemala, Chile and Nicaragua, the right-wing leaders supported by the CIA went on to murder thousands of their own citizens.
In Venezuela itself, declassified intelligence documents revealed President Bush’s prior knowledge of the attempted coup on Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor, in 2002. He was deposed for only 48 hours, before overwhelming support and military loyalists helped put him back into power. Hence, whether or not it was officially sanctioned, this plot is seen as yet another incident in a long history of American intervention in Latin America, albeit an unorthodox one. Maduro has been able to discredit Guido, American observers, and all those who protest his brutal rule, in one fell swoop.
According to the New York Times, Venezuelans are split on their opinion of Goudreau: seen as both as a “huckster selling a suicide mission to desperate Venezuelans,” as well as a “hero committed to liberating the nation.” It is certainly unclear how honorable his intentions are: in the alleged contract with Guido, Goudreau’s firm wanted $213 million from Venezuela’s future oil earnings and a $1.5 million retainer. Rendón says their relationship fell as he realized Goudreau did not have the military resources to take on the Venezuelan government, also highlighting to the Guardian his increasingly erratic behaviour. After the AP report revealed the plan, some suggest it only went ahead on the off-chance the mercenaries could capture Maduro himself, and collect the $15 million bounty offered by the U.S. Government. Goudreau claims that as a military veteran and career “freedom fighter,” he wanted to help the Venezuelan people. Yet whatever Goudreau’s intentions, the failed plot will help no one but this story’s principal villain: Nicolas Maduro.
What happens now?
Trump has made clear that America’s policy in Venezuela is regime change. The sanctions currently in place are designed to starve Maduro into submission. However, support from Russia provided the regime with an economic lifeline, allowing its leaders to profit off Venezuela’s plentiful natural resources. However, modest improvements to GDP were sent into a tailspin after oil prices collapsed in April. Nevertheless, U.S. plans for a ‘democratic transition’ are going nowhere; and now, they must negotiate the return of their own citizens, strengthening Maduro’s hand in any deals that are proposed.
To human rights observers, there is little doubt that an ideal result should be regime change, and Maduro ceding his power. However, with so many Venezuelan’s “teetering on the brink of survival,” a UN report on the 6th of May recommended the U.S. lift its sanctions, allowing the much needed life-saving assistance into the impoverished country. It also contends that “human rights should not be put on hold,” calling on the Venezuelan Government to release the journalists, lawyers and even medical workers arbitrarily detained by raising concerns about the conditions in the country. Nevertheless, it is unclear how, if, and when, these recommendations will be taken into account by either U.S. or Venezuelan parties, both deeply skeptical of international organisations. And if these immediate actions do take place, how they could adjust the dismal predicament Venezuelan’s currently face is another challenge entirely.