Venezuela: Stepping up regime change bid, US seeks to sabotage presidential vote

The United States is threatening to place sanctions on Henri Falcon, the leading opposition candidate, if he enters the presidential race.

The United States administration has stepped up its efforts at “regime change” in Venezuela in recent weeks.

In the past, US President Donald Trump has mentioned military action as a possible option, but the most recent moves appear more likely to be implemented. Some are already operational.

According to a knowledgeable source, the leading opposition contender for Venezuela’s May presidential election, Henri Falcon, was told by US officials that the Trump administration would consider financial sanctions against him if he entered the presidential race. (The US State Department did not return requests for comment.)

The US has backed the decision of the main opposition coalition — the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) — to boycott the election.

Falcon is a former governor and retired military officer. He is leading in the latest polls. According to the most reliable opposition pollster, he would defeat President Nicolas Maduro of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) by a margin of nearly seven percentage points.

Why would the Trump administration want to prevent an opposition leader who may win from running in this election? There is no way to know for sure, but high-level sources from inside the administration have stated that Florida Senator Marco Rubio is determining US policy towards Venezuela.

Rubio is a hardliner who does not seem interested in an electoral or negotiated solution to Venezuela’s political crisis. On February 9, he appeared to support a military coup when he tweeted: “The world would support the Armed Forces in #Venezuela if they decide to protect the people & restore democracy by removing a dictator.”

Such open support from Washington for a military coup against an elected government — before the coup has occurred — is unusual, to say the least, in the 21st century.

But the Trump team is not just sitting around waiting for it to happen. The Rubio/Trump strategy seems to be to try to worsen the economic situation and increase suffering to the point where either the military, or insurrectionary elements of the opposition, rise up and overthrow the government.

That appears to be the purpose of the financial sanctions Trump ordered last August. These cut Venezuela off from billions of dollars of potential loans, as well as from revenue even from its own oil company in the US, Citgo.

They have worsened shortages of medicine and food, in an economy that is already suffering from inflation of about 3000% annually and a depression that has cost about 38% of GDP.

These sanctions are illegal under the Organization of American States (OAS) charter and under international conventions to which the US is a signatory.

Now US officials are talking about a more ferocious collective punishment: cutting off Venezuela’s oil sales. This has not been done yet because it would hurt US oil refining interests that import Venezuelan oil. But the administration floated the idea of tapping the US strategic petroleum reserves to soften the blow.

All this to overthrow a government that nobody can claim poses any threat to the United States.

No one can pretend that the Trump administration cares about fair elections in Latin America. Honduras’s November 26 election was almost certainly stolen, and even OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, a close Washington ally, called for it to be run again.

But the Trump administration backed the incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez, a politician whose brother and security minister have been linked to drug traffickers. Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former head of the US Southern Command, described him as a “great guy” and a “good friend”.

The Trump administration did not object to the post-election killings of unarmed protesters or other human rights abuses — in fact, the State Department certified the Honduran government as complying with human rights obligations just days after the election.

There are certainly valid complaints about Venezuela’s upcoming election. Some opposition candidates have been excluded, and the government moved the election forward from its initially scheduled time in December to April. The opposition had wanted it moved forward, but this was sooner than they wanted.

Reuters reported on March 1 that an agreement had been reached between Venezuela’s election board and some opposition parties to hold the election in late May.

Negotiations between the government and the opposition over these and other problems broke down last month, although the government did agree to allow election observers from the United Nations.

With regard to the procedural credibility of Venezuela’s elections, in the past two decades there has almost never been any legitimate doubt about the vote count, due to the adoption of a very secure voting system.

The only exceptions were the Constituent Assembly election last July, which the opposition boycotted and where there were some questions about the number of people who voted; and in one of the 23 gubernatorial elections last October 15, where the local vote count was not credible.

We cannot know if other disagreements might have been resolved in the negotiations if the Trump administration had not pushed so hard to prevent elections, and encouraged extra-legal “regime change” as an opposition strategy.

The MUD has decided to boycott the elections, but it is not clear that voters will follow its lead.

The most reliable and recent polls, from Torino Capital and Datanalisis, show that 77.6% of voters intend to vote in the May election, with only 12.3% planning to abstain.

They should have that chance. The Trump administration should not be seeking to take it away from them.

[Reprinted from Venezuela Analysis.]

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