Steely huntsman at helm of embattled US Embassy in Caracas
By JOSHUA GOODMAN
Friday, February 1
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — In the normally genteel world of high diplomacy, the top U.S. envoy to Venezuela cuts an unusual figure. Born in a small South Carolina town, James Story is an avid hunter and proud collector of memorabilia featuring iconic revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Now the 48-year-old career diplomat at the helm of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas is on the mission of his life: keeping himself and a core group of committed American diplomats safe as the Trump administration ratchets up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro to force him to cede power.
The U.S. has led a chorus of more than 20 nations that have recognized Juan Guaido , the leader of the opposition-led National Assembly, as the rightful leader of Venezuela after he declared himself interim president before a rally of tens of thousands of supporters last week. In response, Maduro broke off diplomatic relations with the U.S., initially giving American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.
The standoff has thrust the Trump administration into a bizarre, diplomatic Twilight Zone. While working hand-in-glove with Guaido to build a parallel government, the U.S. still depends on Maduro’s de-facto authority for the safety of American diplomats and more mundane affairs. The Trump administration’s refusal to obey Maduro’s order has also raised concerns that his government would forcibly expel the remaining diplomats, or cut off electricity to the U.S. Embassy, as one prominent socialist has already threatened.
Managing it all is Story — universally known as Jimmy — who begins each of his 16-hour marathon work days with a motivational message laying out the latest U.S. policy moves to his staff, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss U.S. planning on the Venezuela crisis with the media.
Story declined to comment for this report because he’s not authorized to talk to the press at this politically-sensitive crossroads.
However, many others who have worked with him said his affable demeanor masks a steely toughness ideally suited for the current crisis.
“He can deftly sip cocktails with the diplomats but his heart is still somewhere duck-hunting in an early morning blind,” said John Feeley, the former U.S. ambassador to Panama and Story’s former boss at the State Department.
Already, Story has managed to walk things back from the brink, negotiating immunity and privileges for an additional 30 days for the handful of U.S. diplomats still in Venezuela. Maduro has tried to frame the agreement, which hasn’t been made public, as the first step in exchanging interest sections, much like the U.S. and Cuba did for decades.
Kimberly Breier, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, called Story an outstanding leader who puts people’s safety and welfare first.
“He has managed a challenging situation skillfully and with creativity and perseverance,” Breier said. “His presence on the ground in Caracas, and that of our embassy, is critical to advancing our interests and working with the Venezuelan people for a peaceful return to democracy and an end to this crisis.”
Story was posted to Caracas to serve as the deputy to Chargé d’ Affaires Todd Robinson. But by the time he arrived in July 2018 Robinson had been expelled during a previous diplomatic spat, leaving it to Story to restore some civility to a U.S.-Venezuela relationship that has been rocky ever since the start of the late Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution two decades ago. The two countries haven’t exchanged ambassadors in almost a decade.
By all accounts, his down-home Southern charm has opened doors.
In a rare feat for U.S. diplomats in Venezuela, who are usually ensconced in the hilltop U.S. Embassy compound liaising with opposition politicians, Story has managed to establish a rapport with a number of powerful Venezuelan government officials, all the while gingerly sidestepping the political minefield running through anti-Maduro Miami that has made engagement a risky endeavor for any U.S. official. He also won the respect of his staff by joining the embassy’s softball team within days of arrival.
Chief among his interlocutors is Rafael Lacava, governor of the central state of Carobobo, who presented him with a painting of two joined fists in the colors of the U.S. and Venezuelan flags that now hangs in the entrance to Story’s official residence in Caracas. Other mementos from a long career that took him to Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, as well as several jobs overseeing anti-narcotics policy in the region, include framed doodles by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that he acquired when both were working at the U.N. Security Council.
“Gaining the trust of others is more art than skill,” said Feeley, who is now a political consultant for Spanish-language TV network Univision. “Jimmy understood he had to operate in the reality he had, not the one he wished he had.”
Story even appears to have won the begrudging respect of Maduro.
“How are you Jimmy?,” Maduro said in broken English on state TV Monday night as he welcomed back to Caracas a group of Venezuelan diplomats he had recalled from the U.S. “I Bolivarian President Maduro. I’m still here, in Miraflores Palace, Jimmy.”
Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman
Venezuela opposition leader rejects mediation offers
By SCOTT SMITH
Friday, February 1
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said Friday he has turned down offers from the presidents of Mexico and Uruguay to negotiate with embattled Nicolas Maduro, a day before nationwide street protests called to escalate pressure on the socialist leader to step down.
In a letter to both presidents, Guaido urged them to back Venezuela’s struggle, saying to remain neutral aligns them with Maduro.
“At this historical moment that our country is going through, to be neutral is to be on the side of the regime that has condemned hundreds of thousands of human beings to misery, hunger and exile — including death,” he said.
Guaido declared himself interim president last week before tens of thousands of cheering supporters and vowed to topple Maduro’s administration, which he labeled a “dictatorship.” His claim to the presidency is backed by the United States and some two dozen other nations.
The opposition’s priority is to end Maduro’s grip on power and usher in a transition by holding democratic elections, Guaido said in the letter to Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez and Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
The United States also rejects offers from Mexico, Uruguay and the Vatican to mediate a dialogue.
President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton tweeted Thursday that Maduro and his top advisers should retire to “a nice beach somewhere far away from Venezuela.” Bolton’s talk turned tougher Friday in an interview with conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt in which he warned that it could be a beach area more like Guantanamo.
A defiant Maduro remains dug in, blaming the White House for openly backing what he calls a coup to remove him from power and exploit his country’s vast oil wealth. He retains support from powerful allies, including Russia and China, but is growing increasingly isolated as more nations back Guaido.
Maduro on Friday continued a show of strength as commander-in-chief that has seen him crisscross Venezuela to oversee military exercises in recent days as he vows to defend his socialist government no matter the cost.
“We’re in a historic battle,” Maduro told several hundred troops standing in formation around armored vehicles. “We’re facing the greatest political, diplomatic and economic aggression that Venezuela has confronted in 200 years.”
The military’s top leadership is backing Maduro, though analysts warn that rank-and-file troops frustrated by their country’s economic and humanitarian crisis may not share that unwavering loyalty.
Venezuela’s opposition has called on supporters to flood the streets again Saturday in nationwide protests against Maduro, the second such mass action this week. Guaido led a peaceful demonstration Wednesday with residents stepping out of their homes and workplaces for two hours. Last week, street protests turned violent in days of unrest that killed nearly three dozen people in clashes with government security forces.
Maduro’s socialist government is asking its supporters to mount their own demonstration, urging them to show their support Saturday on the 20th anniversary of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution launched by the late President Hugo Chavez.
Meanwhile, a prominent opposition lawmaker called on a group of European Union and Latin American countries to support Maduro’s ouster — without negotiations.
An “international contact group” announced Thursday by the E.U.’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, “should help to cease the usurpation of power by Maduro and establish a transitional government until new elections,” said Francisco Sucre, who heads the international committee of the opposition-led National Assembly.
“There is no possible discussion here. Maduro has to leave,” Sucre told The Associated Press in Madrid, where he is wrapping up a three-day European tour to enlist support for Guaido.
The European Parliament has called on the EU’s member states to recognize Guaido as interim president. The socialist government of Spain, which has strong historic, cultural and economic ties to Venezuela, has said it will do so on Monday if Maduro doesn’t call a general election by Sunday.
“Power is evaporating from Maduro’s hands with the passing of the hours,” Sucre said. “We have been contacted by diplomats across Europe who are ready to take a step forward, but they are waiting for the right moment.”
Make Venezuela Great Again? Let the Venezuelans decide how. Five ideas from peace science research.
By Patrick T. Hiller
Have we not learned a thing? As the crisis in Venezuela continues to unfold, we are witnessing yet another blatant US regime-change operation “for the Venezuelan people.”
Of course, it would make sense to dissuade the main operators—Trump, Secretary of State Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Senator Marco Rubio, or the recently appointed Special Envoy to Venezuela Elliot Abrams, who was convicted in 1991 for lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal. Unfortunately, they’ve proven they will not change.
Instead, we should focus on those who can be moved, so that the interventionists lose their stranglehold on U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. citizenry should support a path in Venezuela which is created by the Venezuelan people without U.S. coercion. Supported by peace research, the case for non-intervention becomes clear.
First, we need to explore the interests of the U.S. regime-change operators. For Trump, whose ignorance suggests that he is oblivious to the history of U.S. interventions in Latin America, a diversionary “Wag the dog” war might just be the needed distraction from his disaster presidency. When it comes to oil and US invasions, however, he has made it clear that he believes in naked imperialism, “to the victor belong the spoils.”
For the other operators of the regime-change, the motives are rather clear. The notion that it is for the freedom of the Venezuelan people is laughable. We only have to listen to Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton’s own words: “I think we’re trying to get to the same end result here. Venezuela is one of the three countries what I call the troika of tyranny. It will make a big difference economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela. It would be good for the people in Venezuela, it would be good for the people of the United States.” Mr. Bolton should not get to decide what is good for the Venezuelan people.
The U.S. public needs to demand from their elected officials—skip the regime-change operators—that our regime cease intervening in Venezuelan affairs. US mainstream media is not helping when they portray Venezuelans as incapable of managing their own affairs. The Venezuelan people certainly understand the failures of Maduro. The country is indeed in a crisis. The people should be the only ones deciding their future and the conditions under which it is built. The U.S. has a long history of involvement in Latin America, resulting in human suffering, instability and violence, including overthrowing democratically elected leaders in Guatemala and Chile and installing military dictators.
To be sure, the solution to the political crisis is not obvious and there is an uncertain path. Human rights violations are real, and violence is taking place on all sides during this crisis. The attempt here is not to predict the future or decide which leader Venezuelans should choose. The attempt is to introduce some elements that are not highlighted enough in the narratives that look at a good vs. bad context, where one must choose a side.
Despite the complexity of the crises, there are some obvious elements. First, there is the immediate danger of a US-led military intervention. Second, there is the risk of a civil war in a highly armed nation. Both of these unacceptable options would be bloody, brutal, and horribly harmful.
Necessary U.S. steps are: The U.S. must stop the sanctions which are hurting the Venezuelan people. The U.S. must not entertain the idea of a military intervention. Congress alone has the legal authority to decide this. Lastly, no matter how often pundits, policy-makers and appointed officials talk about Latin America as “our backyard,” all countries are sovereign and must be treated as such. While many constructive pathways exist, five stand out:
First, Venezuelans get to decide their own future.
Second, dialog and diplomatic processes on a national and regional level should be supported. Credible mediators, perhaps the Lima Group, not “mediators with muscle” (hint: the U.S. should not mediate), can assist the Venezuelans in working toward their desired future.
Third, support for genuine domestic nonviolent protest movements (e.g. the past mainly women-driven protests against food shortages) while maintaining the current ban on arms transfers to Venezuela.
Fourth, support for initiatives that challenge widespread corruption. Corruption, according to research, “undermines conditions that favor peace.” The conditions for peace, according to researchers David Cortright, Conor Seyle and Kristen Wall are economic development, stable governing institutions, and social trust.
Fifth, support for meaningful women participation and gender perspectives. Research is clear that including gender perspectives and women positively affects outcomes in areas such as health, livelihoods, and social welfare, all factors contributing to the current crisis in Venezuela.
Regime-change operators won’t support those pathways. They don’t serve their interests. Most others on the broad social spectrum, however, probably can get behind the more constructive paths and recognize that Venezuelans can indeed create their own future and seek outside support and advice on their own terms. This is what we call constructive conflict transformation. These are what we call viable alternatives to military intervention.
Patrick. T. Hiller, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Conflict Transformation scholar, professor, served on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association (2012-2016), advisor to World Beyond War, member of the Peace and Security Funders Group, and Director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation.
AP Interview: Venezuela’s Guaido vows to defy ban on aid
By MANUEL RUEDA and CLBYBURN SAINT JOHN
Friday, February 1
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said he will defy a government ban on humanitarian aid by sending large convoys of medicine into the country with the help of neighboring nations.
In an interview Thursday, Guaido told The Associated Press that the move will be a “new test” for Venezuela’s military, whose top brass has sided with socialist President Nicolas Maduro since protests against his rule broke out last week.
“In a few weeks they will have to choose if they let much needed aid into the country or if they side with Nicolas Maduro,” said Guaido, who recently offered an amnesty to members of the military in another effort to encourage them to defect from the Maduro administration.
Guaido explained that aid for Venezuela will include life-saving medicines that are scarce in Venezuela and will be transported by vehicles arriving at several border points, after it is shipped into “friendly ports” in neighboring countries.
“We are not just taking aid from the United States,” Guaido said. “But in the next few days we will announce a global coalition to send aid to Venezuela.”
The 35-year-old president of Venezuela’s Congress declared himself to be Venezuela’s legitimate leader last week and set up a transitional government that has been backed by the United States, Canada and most South American countries.
Guaido argues that Maduro was re-elected in a sham election last year, and is invoking two articles of Venezuela’s constitution that he says allow him as the leader of the national assembly to assume the presidency and call elections when the current president is holding power illegitimately.
Maduro has described Guaido’s challenge as a “vile” coup attempt and still has control of most of the Venezuelan government, including its cash cow, the state owned oil company.
Earlier this week, the United States announced sanctions that will bar Venezuelan oil imports and could cost the Maduro administration up to $11 billion over the next year.
Guaido backed the sanctions on Thursday and described them as a means to stop Venezuela’s wealth from being looted by the Maduro government which he described as a corrupt “dictatorship.”
“It’s not just the United States doing this,” Guaido said. “Our parliament and acting presidency asked for the protection of our country’s assets.”
Guaido’s claim to the Venezuelan presidency has been backed by protests in which at least 35 people have been killed and more than 900 have been arrested, according to human rights groups.
Guaido said that he is still sees transparent elections as the best way out of Venezuela’s spiraling political crisis, but realizes that Maduro will not easily grant them unless he is pressured to do so by economic sanctions, street protests and Venezuela’s military.
“We have to erode the pillars that support this dictatorship,” he said.
But he added that the opposition will have to continue to apply pressure mechanisms until Maduro’s “usurpation of power has ceased.”
Odds of military coup in Venezuela rise every day Maduro stays in office
January 31, 2019
Author: Clayton Besaw, Political Science Researcher, University of Central Florida
Disclosure statement: Clayton Besaw is a research associate with the One Earth Future Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes peace and security in post-conflict countries.
It would be reasonable to expect the worst for Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled president.
Two weeks after Maduro’s re-inauguration, opposition leader Juan Gauidó has declared himself the country’s rightful president. The power struggle follows a failed military mutiny against Maduro, whose easy re-election in May 2018 during an economic, political and humanitarian crisis has lead many to say Venezuela is a dictatorship.
Analysts worldwide are already debating whether a coup against Maduro – with or without U.S. backing – would be good or bad for Venezuelan democracy.
As a political risk analyst, it is my job to predict when leaders will be overthrown. Surprisingly, the coup forecaster I use, CoupCast, shows Maduro hanging on – at least for now.
Why won’t Maduro be overthrown soon?
Using historic data on the conditions behind every coup and coup attempt since 1950, CoupCast has identified six factors that can suggest a leader is at imminent risk of overthrow.
Tenure of current leader – Longer reign equals higher coup risk.
How long regime has been in power – Young regimes are at most risk of a coup.
Time since last coup attempt – The longer a country goes without a coup, the less its risk of a leader being overthrown.
Incumbent electoral defeat – Recent electoral defeats increase risk. So do long periods of incumbent victories.
Relative precipitation – Extreme drought and excessive rainfall both raise coup risk because they can disrupt agricultural and market dynamics.
Gross domestic product (GDP) per person – This measure of wealth distribution can provide clues into whether a leader can buy off potential rivals within the military.
Beyond Venezuela’s economic crisis, the Maduro regime does not stand out on any CoupCast factors.
Venezuela’s GDP per person is relatively high compared to other countries that have seen coups. Rulers, Elections, and Irregular Governance Dataset (REIGN)
Maduro has been in office since 2013 – not long enough to be high-risk. Likelihood of a coup begins to rise after 15 years, on average.
The current Socialist Party regime, which began with Hugo Chávez in 1999, has also matured enough to avoid the initial period of vulnerability that young regimes face.
The last coup attempt in Venezuela was a failed plot against Chávez in 2002, a healthy 17-year buffer. The average lapse between coups is five years.
Venezuela’s Socialist regime has not lost a presidential election since Chávez first won, in 1998, which also bodes well for Maduro.
Finally, in 2019, Venezuela is not expected to have droughts, floods or other weather that is out of the norm.
Taken together, these factors do not suggest an imminent coup against Maduro.
Rising coup risk
However, Venezuela’s risk of coup increases the longer Maduro stays in power, as CoupCast’s trove of historic data shows.
Maduro’s biggest vulnerability is the prospect of further economic decline. Venezuela’s oil-fueled government is going bankrupt due to declining petroleum production, U.S. and EU sanctions and seized assets. Eventually, Maduro’s strategy of paying the military brass for its loyalty will be unsustainable.
Maduro’s position becomes especially precarious over time if he continues to stand for election. Authoritarians who hold elections are at higher risk of being deposed – especially if they lose and stick around anyway. Venezuela’s coup risk increases the longer Maduro continues to “win” elections as well.
However, even the most powerful forecasting models cannot account for everything.
Venezuela’s deep economic crisis, for example, is somewhat misleading. Citizens are hurting badly, but the Maduro government still has enough funds to offer military leaders governmental appointments and economic kickbacks. That make a serious plot against him less likely.
Russia, China, and Turkey have also expressed support for the regime – potentially even military backing – likely depressing coup risk further.
Guaidó’s challenge really hurts Maduro
The recent power struggle most similar to what’s happening in Venezuela occurred in Zimbabwe in 2008.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai claimed to be the legitimate winner of a flawed election against long-time President Robert Mugabe. Mugabe retaliated with a campaign of violence and intimidation to secure his victory in a dubious runoff.
Tsvangirai’s power struggle didn’t unseat Mugabe, but it likely hurt his legitimacy internally. Mugabe was overthrown in a military coup in November 2017.
In my assessment, Guaidó’s challenge won’t result in Maduro’s immediate exit – but it will further weaken his base of support, both among the Venezuelan people and within the government.
The longer Maduro stays in power, the more likely he is to be removed by force.