Self-declared “Venezuelan Interim President” Juan Guaido has ordered the setting up of a meeting with the United States Armed Forces to discuss cooperation in his efforts to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
During a gathering of supporters in the upper-middle class Caracas district of Las Mercedes on May 11, Guaido announced that he instructed his representative in the US, Carlos Vecchio, to establish a “direct relationship” with the US Southern Command (SouthCom), which controls all US overt and covert military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The initiative by Guaido stokes rising fears that he looks to oust Maduro using a foreign-led intervention. Italian newspaper La Stampa published an interview with Guaido on May 10, in which the opposition leader explained that “If the North Americans proposed a military intervention, I would probably accept it.”
In a letter to SouthCom chief Admiral Craig Faller on May 13, Vecchio requested a meeting to discuss “strategic and operational” cooperation, alongside concerns over what he described as “the [existing] presence of uninvited foreign forces” in Venezuela. No evidence for this claim was provided by Vecchio.
Venezuelan authorities were quick to respond to the opposition’s move, with Vice President Delcy Rodriguez qualifying it as “repulsive” and “doomed to fail”. Recent polls suggest that more than 86% of Venezuelans oppose a foreign-led military incursion into the country.
While SouthCom is yet to confirm a meeting with Guaido’s team, Faller had earlier tweeted that he looked forward to discussing how to “restore [the] constitutional order” in Venezuela and that his forces stand “ready.”
Guaido and US officials have repeatedly stated that all options, including a military intervention, are “on the table.” However, other countries that have voiced support for Guaido have publicly rejected the possibility of intervention, including Chile, Peru, Colombia, Spain and Canada.
The overtures to the US SouthCom come on the heels of a failed military putsch on April 30 and numerous unheeded calls by Guaido for the Venezuelan armed forces to support him.
After swearing himself in as “interim president” on January 23, the National Assembly president received the backing of about 25% of the world’s governments. His unsuccessful efforts to remove the Maduro government, which included a humanitarian aid “showdown” on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, have seen his support dwindle.
More US sanctions
Guaido’s call for cooperation with the US military came as Washington unveiled a new set of sanctions against Venezuela on May 10.
The latest measures added two private oil shipping firms, Monsoon Navigation Corporation and Serenity Maritime Limited based in the Marshall Islands and Liberia respectively, to the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) blacklist. Two Panamanian oil tankers associated with these firms, the Leon Dias Chemical and Ocean Elegance, were also named.
According to the Treasury Department, the firms and tankers have delivered crude oil to Cuba from Venezuela since late 2018. Venezuela delivers around 50,000 barrels of crude a day to Cuba as part of wide ranging cooperation agreements that include the presence of about 20,000 Cuban medical and agricultural technicians in Venezuela.
The sanctions follow similar measures announced in April, while the Venezuelan economy has recently seen restrictions imposed on its banking and mining sectors, as well as a de facto oil embargo.
Similarly, Guaido called on those European countries that recognise him as the “legitimate” president to “amplify” economic sanctions against Caracas this weekend, as well as urging assistance in international courts to oust Maduro.
Sanctions have repeatedly been declared illegal by independent multilateral agencies. Recent comments from the UN Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy argued that the sanctions also violate human rights, while an April report from the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) indicated that US economic sanctions have directly caused more than 40,000 deaths in Venezuela since 2017.
Apart from calling for more sanctions, Guaido also urged European governments to grant “maximum legitimacy” to his appointed representatives. European governments largely continue to have complete or partial diplomatic relations with the ambassadors named by the Maduro administration.
Efforts by Vecchio to take over the vacated Venezuelan embassy building in Washington also continue to be frustrated by a group of US solidarity activists who have been occupying the building, with the permission of the Venezuelan government, since April 12.
Amid discussions of military cooperation, tensions remained high following the incursion of an armed US Coast Guard patrol vessel into Venezuelan waters on May 9.
Action was taken by the Venezuelan Navy and Air Force when the USCG James sailed 13 nautical miles off Venezuela’s northern coast. The vessel changed course away from the coastline following a radio request to do so.
According to SouthCom spokesperson Colonel Amanda Azubuike, the vessel was carrying out “a mission to intercept drugs”.
“I don’t know if other Republics would accept actions like these in their maritime jurisdiction, but we won’t,” Venezuelan defence minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said on May 11, describing the incident as a “provocation”.
“All operations of law enforcement in this place where the US vessel was correspond to Venezuela by international law. This was an armed coast guard patrolling these waters,” he said.
The USCG James was detected in the contiguous zone of Venezuelan waters which covers 12–24 miles from the coastline. In this maritime band and according to international law, the free passage of foreign ships is allowed, but Caracas has full sovereignty in political, migratory, border, sanitary, and fiscal matters, including law enforcement and “intercepting drugs”.
According to the US Navy website, the USCG James (WMSL 754) is one of the most advanced patrol vessels in its fleet, carrying modern surveillance and reconnaissance equipment, as well as being able to serve as a command post for “complex law enforcement and national security missions involving the Coast Guard and numerous partner agencies”.
The border incursion comes as Caracas reopened its borders with Brazil and the Dutch island of Aruba on Friday, in efforts to boost border trade. The borders had been closed for more than three months since Guaido’s failed attempt to force “humanitarian aid” into the country on February 23.
[Reprinted from Venezuela Analysis.]