POLITICS

Trump’s Failed Policy Set The Stage For The Botched Venezuela Coup Attempt

The U.S. denies links to a disastrous attempt to topple Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. But Trump did call him illegitimate and put a bounty on his head.

It reads like a plot ripped straight from a bad Hollywood script, or an agitprop network television show gone wrong: In the morning hours of Sunday, May 3, a ragtag crew of supposed mercenaries, backed by a small-time security consulting firm in the United States, attempted to raid Venezuela and take down socialist President Nicolás Maduro.

The plan failed miserably, the mercenaries’ first speedboat thwarted immediately by the Venezuelan military and their second by offshore fishermen, in no small part because its backers repeatedly telegraphed their plans to Venezuelan security forces and the world alike. 

“We knew everything,” Maduro said during a state TV appearance in which he declared that eight of the raiders had been killed. At least a dozen more were initially arrested, including two American military veterans who remain in Venezuelan custody.

Ex-Green Beret Jordan Goudreau, who owns the Florida-based security consulting firm Silvercorp USA, took credit for the comically botched operation on Twitter and in interviews with the press, and insisted that despite the incredible and widely mocked failure, he had men in Venezuela and his efforts against Maduro would continue.

President Donald Trump, who has sought to bring down Maduro since the beginning of his presidency, claims he and the United States knew nothing. 

There is no evidence (yet) that the Trump administration endorsed the plot, and even skeptics of its “maximum pressure” campaign to oust Maduro say Goudreau’s attempt was far too shoddy to have U.S. fingerprints on it.

“There is no way that I can see any kind of U.S. involvement,” said Fernando Cutz, who served as a Latin America adviser on the National Security Council under both Obama and Trump, but left the White House in 2018. “There were no logistics, the numbers were a joke, they clearly didn’t have any intel. A group of high schoolers would have done a better job.”

But that doesn’t mean Trump and the United States bear no responsibility for the bizarre and ham-fisted coup attempt. The administration’s strategy helped create the atmosphere in which a rogue mission like Goudreau’s could take place by fostering the belief that such a slapdash attempt to topple Maduro could actually succeed.

I’m surprised Dog The Bounty Hunter hasn’t shown up. Our posture generates this kind of stuff. This level of goofiness. Former senior administration official

Ever since the U.S. recognized Venezuelan assemblyman Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader in January 2019, the Trump administration has taken a simplistic and confused approach to the crisis in Venezuela, with the White House and the State Department often seeming to offer varying messages or plans. Trump and his advisers routinely hinted that they would use military force to remove Maduro if necessary, even though that was widely regarded as an empty threat and implausible option, and the administration argued that a corrupt authoritarian strong enough to ruin Venezuelan democracy and siphon its resources for his own benefit was sitting on a house of cards ready to collapse with the faintest touch. 

Trump fueled hopes among many Venezuelans, especially those living in the U.S., that a savior was coming from the north, only to dash them at the same time with a strategy many observers regard as an effort to win Florida in November by energizing the Cuban and Venezuelan American voters who oppose Maduro and his allies in Cuba’s Communist regime.

“Trump likes to say that all options are on the table, which of course has never been true,” said Mark Feierstein, who advised Obama on Latin America from the NSC. “But I think that the risk of that has been, number one, it’s raised expectations for some people in Venezuela that there’s some sort of external force that’s going to save them. And number two, that they are sort of free to pursue all sorts of crazy, dangerous, counterproductive operations like the one we just saw.”

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Goudreau made many mistakes. One of them was that he took Trump’s claims about Venezuela literally, not seriously ― and with the Department of Justice offering a multimillion-dollar bounty for Maduro’s capture, it was only inevitable that someone would do exactly that.

“When you start identifying the problem in Venezuela as a single individual, when you insist that it’s not a legitimate government at all but just a narco-trafficking cartel, when you put rewards on their heads ― I’m surprised Dog The Bounty Hunter hasn’t shown up,” a former senior Trump administration official said this week. 

“Our posture generates this kind of stuff,” the former official said. “This level of goofiness.”

Since recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader in January 2019, the Trump administration has rested its campaign on a handful of assumed truths: that Maduro is a completely illegitimate leader with little popular support; that the military backing him would flip to support a credible opposition movement; and that pressure from the outside would force his government to fall. 

Since recognizing Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader in January 2019, the Trump administration has res
Since recognizing Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader in January 2019, the Trump administration has rested its campaign on a handful of assumed truths: one being that President Nicolás Maduro, pictured, is a completely illegitimate leader with little popular support.

The reality has proven a bit different. Maduro was stronger than the crises plaguing his country ― an economic collapse has spurred an estimated 4 million Venezuelans to seek refuge abroad ― made him seem. Guaidó had little actual power. And the United States was always unlikely to start a war, or even conduct small-scale military operations, in South America, where even a new crop of right-wing leaders wouldn’t want to deal with the bad politics of backing the U.S. military or the ugly mess a violent overthrow would likely create. 

The first two salvos from the U.S. and Guaidó’s opposition were unsuccessful. A February 2019 effort to provoke a confrontation with Maduro via delivery of a humanitarian aid package across the border with Colombia was a counterproductive propaganda affair. Two months later, Guaidó orchestrated a botched military uprising. Few members of the military flipped; it fizzled within hours. 

The failures helped fuel the belief among Maduro’s most hard-line opponents that the primary reason he remained in power was that the U.S. hadn’t taken the military action it constantly threatened, and a close follower of Trump’s hawkish rhetoric ― say, a Special Forces vet with a security contracting company aching to build an international portfolio ― might have surmised that invading Venezuela was a plausible next step. Instead, Guaidó began negotiations with Maduro, and the U.S. continued to ramp up the economic sanctions that have become the central part of its strategy.

In September, Trump suddenly fired national security adviser John Bolton, a notorious hawk who authored some of the administration’s most aggressive rhetoric toward Maduro. In Washington, most Latin America experts dismissed Bolton’s actions, including his clear display of notes about possible troop deployments during a White House press briefing, as mere posturing. But his firing made it clear even to hard-liners who’d fantasized about an invasion that the United States had no such intentions and was merely rattling sabers. 

“There were a lot of folks in the Venezuelan diaspora who started to really believe that the 101st Airborne was gonna show up in the streets of Caracas,” said Cutz. “As you internalize this thought, and then you realize that the United States wasn’t actually about to invade, people get very disappointed and frustrated. And that’s where you see some people start to take it on themselves.” 

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Guaidó’s opposition movement is a loose coalition of moderates who favor diplomacy, radicals who think that’s a waste of time, and figures in between. And when Guaidó turned back toward negotiations last summer, the most radical members of the opposition began to see him as “a politician who surrendered and didn’t seize his opportunity,” said Temir Porras, a former adviser to Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, who is now a critic of Maduro’s government. 

Stuck in a tenuous position, Guaidó apparently directed the opposition to begin plotting “Plan C” ― an effort to kidnap Maduro and overthrow his government, The Washington Post reported last week.

Meanwhile, Goudreau had taken an interest in the Venezuelan crisis early on. According to a since-deleted Instagram post, Silvercorp USA provided security for a charity concert organized by billionaire Richard Branson that took place in Cucuta, Colombia alongside the supposed humanitarian aid mission the U.S. and Guaidó hoped would help undermine Maduro. 

That May, after Guaidó’s failed military uprising, Goudreau accompanied former Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller to a Florida meeting with members of the opposition. (Apparently unimpressed, Schiller claims to have stopped talking to Goudreau after the meeting.) Later, Goudreau connected with Clíver Alcalá, a hard-line former Venezuelan general who was plotting to overthrow Maduro with the supposed help of 300 Venezuelan military defectors, whom Goudreau offered to train, The Associated Press reported. In August, the former Green Beret pitched an invasion plan to investors in the U.S., the Military Times reported last week.

“Plan C” gave Goudreau a direct opening. In September, he took his idea to JJ Rendón, the Miami-based Venezuelan exile Guaidó put in charge of developing Plan C, the Post said. Goudreau offered to overthrow Maduro for a $212.9 million reward ― less than half of what other suitors demanded. 

It’s unclear how serious “Plan C” ever was. Rendón and Goudreau reached a contractual agreement, but the opposition eventually backed out, fearing the former Green Beret was erratic. Guaidó allegedly had no knowledge of the contract. The opposition provided no financial backing for the eventual operation. 

But that it existed at all is a sign of the desperation that festered inside the opposition as the strategy from the U.S. became increasingly empty and aimless, beyond repeated pleas for more pressure from European and Latin American governments. “Plan C,” too, was essentially an endorsement of the idea that all options were on the table for the opposition, even if they weren’t for the U.S. president.

When the Venezuelan opposition backed out too, the rogues were on their own. Trump and Guaidó, now, had each hinted that a militarized approach would be necessary, and each refused to go that far. Goudreau’s plan relied on many of their initial assumptions: that toppling Maduro was merely a matter of entering Venezuela, flipping disaffected members of the military and state security forces, and providing weary Venezuelans an alternative option. Unlike the two politicians, Goudreau was apparently committed to moving forward with the action. 

He set up camps in Colombia to train Venezuelan military defectors for an eventual operation, and, by playing up his apparent connections to Trump (Silvercorp provided security for a Trump campaign rally in 2018, Bellingcat reported), Goudreau managed to convince the Venezuelans working for him that he had backing from the U.S. government. 

The already-shoddy plot began to collapse in late March when the Department of Justice indicted Maduro and other top officials on drug trafficking charges and placed a $15 million bounty on his head. Alcalá, the former general working with Goudreau, was among the indicted officials. After broadcasting plans for the coup attempt on social media, he turned himself in to Colombian officials and was deported to the U.S., where he is currently in prison. Then, on May 1, The Associated Press reported that “pretty much everything” with the plot had gone wrong. 

Two days later, Goudreau’s men attempted to enter Venezuela anyway. Disaster ensued.

One of the reasons they think that a maximum pressure campaign is going to work is that they don’t really think things through very carefully, and this sort of underlines that. David Smilde, Venezuela expert at Tulane University

Stuck in Florida, Goudreau did not participate, and did not respond to requests for comment. But he seems to have been fueled by delusions of grandeur and the prospect of a big payday. 

“There’s a bubble in certain parts of South Florida, where some folks are really, really gung-ho on taking down the Cuban regime and taking down the Venezuelan regime by force,” said Cutz, the former NSC official. “You start to have rumors and conspiracy theories that swarm in that bubble. I think that whoever was behind this operation must have been too deep into that bubble.”

It’s easy to laugh at Goudreau for his Rambo-like pursuit of Maduro, but the Trump administration is also deeply ensconced in that bubble. Mauricio Claver-Carone, the White House’s chief Latin America adviser and architect of the “maximum pressure” strategy, is a veteran of the South Florida hard-line community who spent most of his career as a lobbyist against efforts to relax the embargo on Cuba and is considered, even in Washington, one of the hardest of the hard-liners. 

If Trump’s campaign in Venezuela has been based on distorted reality, Goudreau distorted it to its disastrous extreme. 

“One of the reasons they think that a maximum pressure campaign is going to work is that they don’t really think things through very carefully, and this sort of underlines that,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office of Latin America, a think tank. “This sort of neo-conservative perspective that the U.S. has to come in and liberate Venezuela ― it’s always this underestimation of the sociology of dictatorships. It’s underestimation of the complexity on the ground. This harebrained operation took place in that context.” 

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The botched raid has embarrassed the Venezuelan opposition and raised questions about whether Guaidó can survive politically. He was already bordering on irrelevancy, Smilde said; now, Maduro has hyped the opposition’s links to Goudreau, and Silvercorp USA’s tenuous ties to the Trump administration, to accuse the U.S., Colombia and the opposition of plotting a coup.

There is broad agreement in Washington that the failed raid highlights serious deficiencies in the United States’ strategy, which has continued to vary by the day and the department, as diplomatic efforts butt heads with more aggressive tactics.

It provided “a moment of recognition that the Guaidó gambit, and the whole strategy of trying to collapse Maduro by identifying his successor and then trying to knock the pegs out from under him one at a time, hasn’t worked,” the former senior Trump official said.

Roger Noriega, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a former Latin America adviser to George W. Bush, agrees that the United States’ strategy needs to change. But Noriega, who favors a hard-line approach that would include a “surgical” use of force, saw Goudreau’s overthrow attempt as an indication that efforts to find a diplomatic solution through the opposition had failed. 

“This episode ... is just another example of how fouled up the policy is,” Noriega said. “It’s a very tough leadership line, but it’s an incredibly inept ground game. [Trump]’s not the problem. The hard-liners are not the problem. It’s the ground game with these career diplomats. … How is it that this [Goudreau] was all going on, and these pros at the State Department know nothing about it? It is a scandal. It is the most ridiculous foreign policy thing in Latin America that I’ve seen in 30 years.”

No one seems satisfied with what might come next, either. Maduro is still facing massive challenges, including global drops in oil prices that are further devastating Venezuela’s economy and a coronavirus outbreak that could further destabilize his country. But negotiations will be hard to restart with an emboldened leader who feels his fears of a U.S.-led invasion have been validated, especially as he continues to target critics and opponents

“The political side of the opposition will pay the price for this,” said Porras, the former Chávez adviser who is now a visiting professor at Sciences Po university in Paris. “This will be an excuse for the government to escalate. My fear is that when people are basically pushing the main political actors to resume talks and solve this thing once and for all, these types of radical actions and idiotic initiatives take us further away from a political resolution.”

Hard-liners like Noriega, meanwhile, have argued the amateur operation bolsters their view that only military force will bring down Maduro.

But Noriega also conceded that it’s unlikely to happen. 

“In that case, we should stop pretending and start looking for other ways to mitigate that toxic regime, and do something about the humanitarian crisis that might arise,” he said. 

Venezuela’s situation seems destined to worsen now. But Trump’s continued bandying about what a U.S. invasion would have accomplished suggests neither his policy nor his rhetoric will change ― especially not six months from the election that has defined his entire approach, said Alexander Main, a Venezuela analyst at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a progressive think tank that supports negotiations led by Norway or other international mediators.

“There is little likelihood that they will change their policy before the November election,” Main said, “given that the policy is rooted in Trump’s Florida strategy.”

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