For the third time this year, the big moment in Venezuela has turned into a bust.
Trump administration officials had expected that Wednesday might turn out to be the beginning of the end for President Nicolas Maduro with senior government figures withdrawing support and the opposition launching a mass uprising with military backing.
Or at least that’s what the administration had been led to believe.
But the promised defections didn’t happen, the military uprising never materialized and Maduro still appeared to be firmly in command of the South American nation. Trump officials were back to complaining about the support Venezuela receives from Cuba and Russia while issuing vague warnings of military action.
“Military action is possible,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview on Fox Business Network. “If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do.”
It was another reality check for an administration that has thrown its support behind the opposition with a series of diplomatic and economic measures that, so far at least, have failed to achieve their goal of ousting Maduro.
The U.S. views Maduro’s reelection last year as fraudulent and illegitimate and has recognized Juan Guaido, the opposition head of the National Assembly, as interim president.
Some in the administration thought they would achieve their mission in January, when the U.S. formally recognized Guaido and around 50 other nations followed suit. Others thought it might end in February, when the opposition entered the country with trucks of U.S. aid to help the people of a once prosperous country where many now go without food and medicine amid a deep economic crisis.
This week, administration officials were told the defense minister, the president of the supreme court, the head of the presidential guard and others would formally announce that they supported the Venezuelan constitution, implicitly backing the opposition, said Elliott Abrams, the special U.S. envoy for Venezuela.
He said the U.S. didn’t know exactly when this would happen but figured it would coincide with big opposition rallies planned for Wednesday, May Day.
It was “widely understood,” Abrams told reporters at the State Department, there would be huge May Day marches and Guaido and his supporters hoped they “would lead peacefully to the end of the Maduro regime.”
Instead, U.S. officials were caught off guard early Tuesday with the release of a video featuring Guaido and Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader who suddenly appeared to have been freed from house arrest with the cooperation of soldiers guarding him. They called for a mass uprising with the military, dubbed “Operation Freedom.”
But the security services that have backed Maduro throughout the crisis never switched sides to any notable degree. The defense minister, Vladimir Padrino, reaffirmed his support for the government early in the morning. By the end of the day, Lopez and his family had sought refuge in the Chilean ambassador’s residence and then the Embassy of Spain.
U.S. officials said Maduro would never be able to hang on without the support of Russia and Cuba, which they say has some 20,000 military and intelligence personnel in the country.
Cuba angrily denied the allegations, saying the vast majority of its roughly 20,000 people in Venezuela are providing health care, education and basic infrastructure services. “To the allegations that Cuba has troops in Venezuela, they are totally and absolutely false,” Cuba’s director-general of U.S. affairs, Carlos Fernández de Cossío, told The Associated Press in an interview in Washington. “Cuba does not participate in military operations or security operations in Venezuela of any type.”
On the ground in Venezuela, the situation remained unsettled and unclear on Wednesday.
Harold Trinkunas, a political scientist at Stanford University who is an expert on the Venezuelan military, said the opposition faces a daunting task in converting members of a military whose senior officers are loyal to Maduro or who may fear the legal or other consequences of a change in government.
“It’s too soon to say, but certainly the initial move by the opposition did not seem to materialize the strong military support they would have needed,” Trinkunas said.
David Smilde, a Tulane University professor and expert on Venezuela, said it’s possible that Guaido made his announcement earlier than expected, perhaps spooked by rumors of his imminent arrest.
“The entire episode should lead to a round of reflection within the opposition and their supporters in the U.S. government regarding how to address this crisis,” Smilde said. “It is clear the pressure-collapse scenario they have been working with has run its course.”
With the situation on the ground still uncertain, Trump’s top national security aides, including Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who canceled a trip to Europe to work on Venezuela, huddled at the White House to discuss possible options.
Those options should not include the U.S. military, said Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was briefed by Pompeo and Bolton on the situation.
Engel, who recently visited Venezuelan refugees on the Colombia border and believes Maduro should go, said Congress has too often gone along with military adventures abroad. “I think the days when the United States can intervene and send in the Marines are over and should be over,” he said.q