The Trump administration is looking for ways to financially bolster Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has been recognized by the US as the country’s interim president, with an influx of cash, which could involve freeing up frozen assets or loans.
The initiative is meant to help Guaido pay Venezuelan military and government workers, three US officials have told CNN, part of a broader effort to shatter embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s hold on power, which one senior administration official said is shrinking.
“They are trying to figure out how do you help the interim government be able to provide paychecks, that kind of stuff, so that there is an ability to say, ‘hey we are a functioning government,’” a senior Republican aide on Capitol Hill told CNN, speaking on background to discuss internal administration deliberations. “That would include payments to various people, including those in the military.”
The administration is considering a variety of ways of getting funding and humanitarian aid to the 35-year-old Guaido, the Hill source said.
Delivering the money
The US is unlikely to fly cash directly into Venezuela, sources and experts explained, given Venezuela’s air defense system. The Trump administration could also have money flown into a neighboring country, such as Colombia, and then bring it over the border into Venezuela.
The Treasury Department could ease sanctions on state-owned companies in a targeted way that funnels funds to Guaido, said Michael Dobson, a former Treasury official who also said Americans can donate to the opposition.
The Trump administration has been focused on supporting Guaido financially since they first recognized him as Venezuela’s official leader in January, seeing funding as key to stabilizing the country and securing his leadership. The US-educated president of the National Assembly is now recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s interim president.
Just two days after Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave him the right to wield control over Venezuelan government assets in the US, including property and bank accounts.
Last Month National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow explained efforts are in the works to get Guaido – and the Venezuelan people – the economic backing that would be necessary.
“We have a lot of plans to revitalize the Venezuelan economy and move very rapidly,” Kudlow said. “There’s a financial plan. There’s food planning. Getting cash to the people on the streets. Working with banks in the region to help us.”
Kudlow also said the US would consider using “banks, iPhones, apps and many clever ways to get cash” into Venezuela to support Guaido.
In the months since January, other governments that recognize Guaido, including in Europe and the Caribbean, have frozen Venezuelan state assets, including bank accounts. “It’s happening all over the world,” said Kevin Ivers, a Latin America expert with the DCI Group, adding that Maduro has been scrambling to try to access these assets.
Venezuelan state assets “all over the world are vulnerable,” Ivers said.
One senior administration official said it’s particularly crucial to help Guaido now, as they see Maduro’s inner circle eroding. But the initiative also comes as Guaido told reporters in Caracas on Wednesday that his attempt to force Maduro’s hand was faltering, in part because he hadn’t received enough backing from the military.
Venezuela’s security apparatus has been a crucial source of support for Maduro, who has courted its senior leaders by giving them lucrative concessions including control over the cross-border drug trade. Guaido has repeatedly called on the armed forces to take “the side of the people.”
“We have to acknowledge that yesterday there were not enough, we have to insist that all the armed forces protest together,” Guaido said. “We are not asking for a confrontation. We are not asking for a confrontation among brothers, it’s the opposite. We just want them to be on the side of the people.”
Some of Maduro’s closest allies, including those in the security forces, had been talking to the opposition about ousting the embattled heir to Hugo Chavez and backing Guaido, national security adviser John Bolton and others said on Tuesday.
But that support failed to materialize when Guaido launched what he called the final phase of “Operation Freedom” on April 30.
Some analysts say that could be because Guaido had made his announcement a day earlier than he was expected to. The early move left the top brass at the State Department “really caught off guard and pissed,” a source familiar with State discussions about the situation told CNN.
As of last Friday, US embassy Caracas staff were being told to get ready to return to the Venezuelan capital, possibly within the next two weeks, to “reopen” the embassy, the source said. “It seemed, in anticipation of something happening.”
On Tuesday the head of Venezuela’s secret police broke ranks with Maduro in an open letter, criticizing the “thieves and scoundrels” and the country’s corruption just hours before he was replaced.
But broader military support has failed to materialize.
In an interview Wednesday night, US Special Representative to Venezuela Elliott Abrams said that many military officials in Venezuela that the US had been trying to pull away from Maduro had “turned off their cellphones.”
Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said Thursday he had received a “deceitful offer” to abandon Maduro, but didn’t specify where the offer came from.
“They come to me with a deceitful offer … stupid, ridiculous,” Padrino said while speaking at a military rally alongside Maduro. They are “trying to break the military’s honor, which is the most sacred thing a soldier of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces has.”
During the same rally Maduro also addressed the military, saying that “traitors” who are trying to destabilize the situation in the country will be detained.
“The order has been given: detain traitors, reject and detain coup participants,” said Maduro. “That is why I say we have to stop treason, stop coup attempts in their tracks. Face it head on,” he said, calling on the armed forces to remain united.
President Donald Trump said all options remain on the table for Venezuela in an interview with Fox News that taped Thursday afternoon, praising Guaido as a “brave person.”
Pressed on whether he has a red line for intervention, Trump said, “I don’t want to say, but we have lots of options and some of them are very tough options.”
Asked whether there is a tipping point, the President said, “There’s always a tipping point,” adding that he wants to help the people of Venezuela, many of whom he believes are dying of hunger.
US Southern Command, which oversees US military operations in South America, said Wednesday that it is “monitoring the situation in Venezuela” and “remains prepared to support all options when requested by our leadership.”
While the President has more than once raised the prospect of limited military engagement to oust Maduro, Trump has made clear to advisers that he does not want to order a mission that would turn into an extended engagement with unforeseen consequences.
Trump has privately linked the Venezuela situation to domestic US politics, particularly in Florida, and some Trump political advisers see a political upside if Maduro leaves office.
US domestic politics in play
They believe Venezuelan-American voters in Florida might be more inclined to vote for Trump and Republicans if Maduro goes. And Cuban-American voters, who already lean Republican, might be galvanized to support Trump as well.
Trump has given wide leeway to Bolton to manage the Venezuela situation, seeing the veteran operator as the best person to spearhead the administration’s efforts in the country, but is aware that the national security adviser has a more hawkish outlook that he does.
Bolton has sometimes used that hawkish reputation to his advantage, administration sources say. Many Trump advisers, including some former officials, believe that when Bolton appeared on camera carrying a yellow legal pad with a highly visible note that read “5,000 troops to Colombia,” the move was intentional. The White House never fully explained it.
Trump has told friends that if Bolton had his way, he’d already be at war in multiple places. Trump does not want to become bogged down in an extended military engagement, according to people who have discussed the matter with him, even as he’s pushed his team to develop options that would speed Maduro’s ouster.
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told Congress Wednesday that the Defense Department has done “exhaustive planning so there’s not a situation or scenario that we don’t have a contingency for.”
But there have been tensions between the President’s staff and the military, notably last week in an extraordinarily dramatic moment during a National Security Council meeting when General Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bristled at disrespectful treatment from political staff.
Selva, the second highest ranking military adviser to the President, is widely known for his deep knowledge on military and international security issues, his skills in the cockpit as the most senior pilot in the US military and his calm demeanor. Senior officers are among the most highly disciplined and are trained not to lose their cool in front of a group.
A matter of respect
But last week at an NSC staff meeting on options to deal with the crisis in Venezuela, Selva had had enough after being repeatedly interrupted by a staffer and spoken to in what he felt was a disrespectful manner, according to several officials.
The four-star general slammed his hand down on the table in objection, deeply displeased by the way the staffer was treating him and others around the table, according to a senior defense official directly familiar with the encounter and a second defense official.
The issue wasn’t the discussion of options for Venezuela, the sources said. The Pentagon’s role, as always, is to lay out the benefits and risks of military action. “The issue is the behavior of a staffer and (how) he was conducting himself,” the senior defense official said.
The Washington Post was the first to report the incident. According to defense officials the staffer involved was Mauricio Claver-Carone, the NSC western hemisphere director. Shortly after the incident the meeting was adjourned.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette, Barbara Starr, Betsy Klein and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report