News Analysis: The new U.S. hope for replacing the president of Venezuela: Coronavirus

At a health center in Venezuela: a member of the disinfection squad, left, and a girl being examined.
A member of the disinfection squad sanitizes in a primary health care center in Caracas, Venezuela.
(Carlos Becerra / Getty Images)

If there were anything that could force the Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro and his opposition to work together, it might have been the coronavirus.

With the pandemic closing in on a country woefully ill-prepared to confront it, the president’s opponents had begun to test the waters of negotiating with him, with the hope that cooperation on a plan to fight the virus might lead to wider political agreement or eventually even new elections.

But this past week, the United States torpedoed that possibility by indicting Maduro and 14 of his top associates on drug-trafficking and related charges. With criminal accusations and the equivalent of an arrest warrant hanging over this head, Maduro will likely be less willing than ever to make concessions.


“This [the indictments] closes the door on any kind of negotiation ... now and forever,” said Fernando Cuitz, who worked on Latin American issues for the Trump administration but is now an advisor to the presidential campaign of Joe Biden.

The Trump administration, seeking to oust Maduro for more than a year, wants to rule out any future for Venezuela with him in a governing role. Moreover, U.S. officials say that Maduro, who has grown increasingly authoritarian since taking office in 2013, has never negotiated in good faith and can not be trusted now.

The United States has imposed numerous harsh economic sanctions on Venezuela and thrown support behind opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself president in January 2019, but those efforts have failed to trigger a popular uprising or a military split that might unseat Maduro.

The U.S. indictments come as coronavirus panic is growing in Venezuela. As of Friday, the country had recorded two deaths and 119 infections as of Saturday, but the true count is thought to be much higher.

Here in the capital, streets were nearly deserted. A handful of shoppers wearing masks prowled sparse markets, and gasoline — which the country once exported — was only available for official use, with troops posted at the few functioning gas stations in the capital.


Few countries are as poorly equipped to deal with the pandemic as Venezuela, where years of political and economic turmoil and a U.S. embargo have left the healthcare system in tatters and widespread malnutrition has added to people’s vulnerability to illness.

Many hospitals lack water, soap, surgical supplies and medicines, as well as proper surgical masks. Periodic blackouts have left hospitals and other facilities without electricity. Meanwhile, millions of Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, including many doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

Of 45,000 beds nationwide in 245 hospitals, no more than 20% are functioning, said Pablo Zambrano, general secretary the Federation of Health Workers.

“The health system is very vulnerable, with many problems and errors that have not been corrected,” Zambrano said.

“There’s a lack of supplies, medicines, ambulances, the hospitals don’t have working elevators, and suffer from deteriorated infrastructure and broken equipment,” he said. “We as doctors, paramedics, helpers, do not have the resources needed to confront this crisis and give adequate attention to protect people’s heath.”

Like other Venezuelans, health workers often walk long distances to work because of a lack of gasoline and reduced public transit. Some health professionals have been using homemade masks stitched from cotton clothing and other material.


“But these masks have a usage period of only three days,” Zambrano said. “How can we make more?”

Maduro, who ordered a 30-day stay-at-home order, with shoppers for food and medicines only allowed out in daylight hours, said the country is “prepared” for the crisis — an assertion disputed by the opposition.

“The truth is that the Venezuelan state does not have the capacity to respond to this pandemic,” Guaidó said in Caracas in a video message this month.

Reacting to the indictments, the opposition leader said he hoped the charges would “help free the country from the criminal system that has hijacked our country for so many years.

“Our problem is not just a political problem: We are facing a cartel, the Maduro Cartel,” Guaidó said.

The indictments handed down Thursday charge Maduro with sponsoring a vast criminal enterprise that shipped cocaine to the United States and supplied Colombian rebels — whom Washington has designated as terrorists — with military-grade weapons.


U.S. Atty. Gen. William Barr suggested issuing the charges during a widening pandemic could weaken Maduro and inspire Venezuelans to rise against him.

“It’s good timing, actually,” Barr said. “The people in Venezuela are suffering, and they need an effective government that responds to the people. ... This is the best way to support the Venezuelan people: to rid this country of this corrupt cabal.”

That approach is also clear in the U.S. refusal to bow to pressure from the United Nations and international human rights organizations to relax sanctions on Venezuela to ease delivery of humanitarian aid during the coronavirus crisis.

President Trump has from early in his administration been eager to undermine Maduro as a way to win votes in southern Florida, where many refugees from Venezuela and its close ally Cuba tend to vote for conservative Republicans. He has been frustrated his team has not made more progress in ousting the socialist leader.

“It’s difficult not to see an explicit political motive here [in the indictments]: maximize all possible pressure on the regime when they are hanging by a thread,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.

But will it work?

Michael Shifter, a Latin America expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said he does not believe the conditions for a popular uprising, or a military coup, exist at present.


He pointed out that U.S. governments for decades made a similar calculation with Cuba by enforcing a harsh embargo to isolate the late President Fidel Castro and his brother and successor, Raúl Castro. In half a century, it never succeeded in removing the Castros from power.

And, crucially, Maduro has maintained the loyalty of the Venezuelan military, the country’s major arbiter of power, despite U.S. efforts to encourage a coup and otherwise sow divisions in the high command.

But political analysts said the indictments send a strong signal to the opposition that it should reject the idea that detente over a specific immediate problem such as the pandemic was reason to talk to Maduro.

“There’s a clear message to the opposition,” Shifter, who is in contact with Venezuelan opposition figures, said. “You better not get too close to them. ... The United States is not comfortable” with a possible truce.

Among those indicted are two figures that the administration last year attempted to recruit to challenge Maduro: Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and Supreme Court justice Maikel Moreno.

The then-national security advisor, John Bolton, expected the pair to rebel against Maduro after intense secret talks with American officials. But they did not.


Also named in indictments was retired Gen. Cliver Alcalá Cordones, who had been living in Colombia and had renounced Maduro’s leadership and allied himself with Guaidó. Venezuelan prosecutors accused Alcalá — who reportedly was flown to the United States Friday by U.S. officials — of engaging in a plot to assassinate Maduro.

Staff writers Wilkinson and McDonnell reported from Washington and Mexico City, respectively; and special correspondent Mogollon, from Caracas.