For weeks, the Venezuelan opposition had been working on a comprehensive blueprint to finally force President Nicolás Maduro from office. Several of his top military and civilian aides were said to have been persuaded to switch sides, while others would be allowed to leave the country. There was a strong suggestion that Maduro himself might peacefully fly to Havana.
“They produced a pretty full plan,” a U.S. official said of the opposition. Implementation was tentatively set for Wednesday, although no date had been finalized.
On Monday, however, the plan started to fall apart.
Maduro, it seemed, had gotten wind of it, and opposition leader Juan Guaidó responded by rushing ahead. At dawn Tuesday, after alerting the U.S. State Department, Guaidó released a video saying that significant Venezuela military units were with him and that the moment had come to rise up against Maduro.
But after a day of bloody protests, the government remained intact. The Trump administration publicly blamed Russia and Cuba — Maduro’s top backers — for keeping him in place and discouraging expected high-level defections.
On Wednesday, as the United States and Russia traded barbs, the White House held an emergency meeting of top national security aides to mull next steps. “Significant progress on defense matters” was made, a senior administration official said.
Throughout the day, however, there were mixed messages about what role, if any, the U.S. military would play in Washington’s future efforts to resolve the Venezuelan crisis.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that a peaceful resolution was still desired but that “military action is possible. If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do,” he told Fox Business Network.
Asked if the U.S. military would be used to protect Guaidó, White House national security adviser John Bolton told MSNBC that President Trump “has been clear and concise on this point: All options are open. We want a peaceful transfer of power. But we are not going to see Guaidó mistreated by this regime.”
Top Pentagon officials emphasized nonmilitary options and said they had not been given orders to pre-position troops or prepare for conflict. “We’re obviously watching the situation very closely in Venezuela. The president’s made it clear that all options are on the table,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in congressional testimony. “To date, most of our actions have been diplomatic and economic.”
Trump has shown little willingness to plunge into Venezuela, according to current and former aides, although he has already imposed sanctions on Cuba — which the administration has accused of controlling the Venezuelan military — and threatened more. Russia, the White House said in a statement late Wednesday, “must leave” Venezuela “and renounce their support of the Maduro regime.”
The president has occasionally mused to others that Bolton wants to get him into wars. Two advisers who have discussed Venezuela with him said Trump often brings up Florida politics, and his golf club in Doral, when talking about the subject. Both said Trump was unlikely to authorize any sort of long-term military action there.
At the same time, however, aides said he has given Bolton wide purview over Venezuela.
As he has pushed for a more aggressive policy, Bolton has angered some within and outside the White House. Even before Tuesday’s events, his staff clashed with Gen. Paul Selva, Dunford’s vice chairman, during a meeting to address the ongoing Venezuelan crisis, according to several officials with knowledge of the exchange.
The soft-spoken Air Force general was giving an update last week on the Pentagon’s view and making the case against a risky escalation by the United States when Bolton aides, including Mauricio Claver-Carone, Western Hemisphere director at the National Security Council, repeatedly interrupted and asked for military options, according to the officials.
Selva, irritated at the interruptions and confrontational style rather than the substance of any disagreement, slammed his hand down on the table, his ring hitting the wood with a sharp crack. Bolton deputy Charles Kupperman, who was chairing the meeting, adjourned the session earlier than planned, said the officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
A senior administration official said Bolton’s staff was dissatisfied with Selva, who they felt had not presented sufficient military options for Venezuela as expected. Selva, according to people familiar with the interaction, believed the confrontational style of Bolton’s staff was out of line.
In a Wednesday interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Bolton praised a different military leader, Adm. Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command, for showing “the kind of attitude we need.”
Faller, Bolton said, had responded to the Venezuelan threat by preparing his forces and saying that “we’re on the balls of our feet and ready to go.” The comment by the general came in an interview last month with Foreign Policy.
Asked at a Wednesday hearing whether the U.S. military should play any role in the overthrow of the Maduro government, however, Faller emphasized the diplomatic track.
“Our leadership has been clear: This has to be, should be, primarily a democratic transition,” Faller said. “We are in total support of the diplomacy, and we stand ready to support that effort.”
While the Pentagon has developed military options for Trump, it has urged caution in internal discussions regarding the use of force.
One worry is that any decision to mount a unilateral U.S. military intervention would jeopardize a consensus among regional partners and allies that Guaidó will need if he manages to wrest control from Maduro. Maduro has called Guaidó a U.S. “puppet,” and Venezuelans and other Latin Americans are broadly skeptical of American military intervention.
At the same time, military planners traditionally worry about operations that may be limited in intent but can quickly spiral out of control.
So far, the American military has helped run back-end logistics for aid deliveries to Colombia for the Venezuelan people, and a U.S. Navy hospital ship sailed to neighboring Colombia to aid Venezuelan refugees. The military could step up such operations in a show of support to the Venezuelan people and regional allies.
U.S. diplomacy in Venezuela has wide bipartisan support in Congress, but it is unclear how many would back offensive military action. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has openly called for using the U.S. military, at least to deliver humanitarian aid. The administration, which has characterized the Venezuelan crisis as a national security threat, has also considered invoking the Rio Treaty, a 1947 Cold War pact with Latin American governments that allows for mutual defense.
The lack of a consensus came as the administration found itself caught off guard, and disappointed, by events on the ground.
Officials continued to voice confidence that a turning point in the more than three-month-old standoff had been reached with Guaidó’s declaration early Tuesday that “the end” had arrived. He called for troops to change sides and join massive street protests.
A day later, although the Venezuelan military and Maduro’s government remained largely intact, Bolton said that “any facile conclusion that things are going to return to ‘normal’ is completely wrong. . . . The situation’s not sustainable.”
U.S. officials said the United States did not directly participate in the opposition’s secret negotiations with Maduro officials. “We were aware of the efforts, beginning about two months ago,” a second senior administration official said. “There were times when it seemed serious, and other times not so serious.”
But “the last few weeks, it was clear that . . . they were reaching agreement” with Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, along with the head of the Maduro-appointed Supreme Court and the commander of his presidential guard, to switch sides, this official said.
While not officially recognizing Guaidó, Padrino and the others were said to be ready to sign documents declaring their loyalty to the Venezuelan constitution, under which the opposition-led National Assembly had declared Maduro’s reelection last year invalid and, on Jan. 23, named Guaidó interim president. The United States and more than 50 other countries, primarily in Latin America and Europe, have also recognized him.
In exchange, the Venezuelan officials would keep their jobs and be integrated into the new administration. For those who might want to leave the country, the United States had given indirect assurances they would not be barred from doing so, and might even be allowed access to any assets stashed overseas.
Over the past two weeks, administration officials said, they had received indications that even Maduro himself might be prepared to fly to Cuba.
On Monday, however, the opposition and the administration received word that Maduro was aware of the plan. Early Tuesday, Guaidó appeared at a military base in eastern Caracas, along with a small band of armed men in military uniforms, to announce that “Operation Liberty” had begun.
“People of Venezuela,” he said, “we will go to the street with the armed forces to continue taking the streets until we consolidate the end of [Maduro’s] usurpation, which is already irreversible.”
At about 6 a.m., Bolton called Trump and his own top aides to say the announcement had come.
At midmorning, however, Padrino appeared on live television, wearing combat fatigues and body armor, surrounded by other military officers under a large portrait of Maduro. He declared the uprising an attempted coup and denounced protesters gathered in the streets. Reports of defections and government collapse, he said, were “fake news.”
The administration, seeking to undermine Maduro’s trust in those around him, decided to out Padrino; Maikel Morena, the chief justice of the Supreme Court; and presidential guard commander Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala by name, saying they had agreed to sign documents supporting the constitution.
When Maduro failed to appear throughout the day, Pompeo eventually declared that the Venezuelan leader “had his plane ready” but had been dissuaded from leaving by Russia.
The senior administration official noted that “when times get tough” for Maduro, including a number of failed coup attempts in the past, “he has always had a plane ready.” But, the official said, “the information we had was that he was very seriously contemplating” a departure on Tuesday morning.
“Then the Russians said don’t leave,” said the official, who characterized Russia’s intervention as “advice,” perhaps based on a reading of how the day would unfold.
Anne Gearan and Carol Morello contributed to this report.