Venezuelan Minister says deployment is attempt to distract from coronavirus
(April 1, 2020) — Saying drug cartels are trying to take advantage of the coronavirus for their own gain, President Trump ordered US Navy ships to the Venezuelan coast for counter-narcotics operations. Officials tied this directly to a recent US indictment of President Maduro.
This is just the latest US military posture adjustment to target Venezuela since President Trump declared Juan Guaido to be the president, and claimed Maduro was ousted. The administration has not ruled out imposing regime change militarily.
This will be one of the biggest US military operations of the sort since 1989, when the US invaded Panama and ousted Gen. Manuel Noriega on drug charges. Attorney General William Barr wrote the legal justification for Noriega invasion, and also wrote the recent justification for a bounty against Maduro.
Venezuela’s Communications Minister dismissed this as a “desperate attempt to distract attention” from the US coronavirus crisis. He also suggested that the US should, if it wants to cut off cocaine trade, worry about neighboring Colombia, a close US ally, instead of Venezuela.
US Puts $15 Million Bounty on Nicolas Maduro
US sanctions are still in effect as Venezuela deals with possible coronavirus outbreak
(March 26, 2020) — In a major escalation of US regime change efforts in Venezuela, the US Department of Justice announced Thursday that it is charging Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and other government officials with “narco-terrorism.” The DOJ placed a $15 million bounty on Maduro’s head, offering that money for any information that leads to his arrest, and the DEA put up a wanted poster on its website.
The allegation from the DOJ is that Maduro and his circle have worked with Colombia’s FARC group to traffic cocaine to the US, or use “cocaine as a weapon against America” as the indictment puts it. What this looks like is just another attempt at regime change in Venezuela while the world is dealing with a global pandemic.
The Trump administration has backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido since he declared himself president back in January 2019. Guaido failed to gain the support of the people or the military of Venezuela, and over a year later, Maduro still holds power in Caracas.
Some analysts fear the indictment could be the pretext for a Panama-style invasion of Venezuela. In 1989, the US invaded Panama to take out former CIA asset Manuel Noriega under the guise of drug trafficking charges.
Since 2017, the US has instilled crippling economic sanctions on Venezuela to pressure the Maduro government. As always, US sanctions are hurting the civilian population more than the government, and with Venezuela now reporting 107 confirmed cases of coronavirus, people fear the sanctions will hamper the country’s response.
In April 2019, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) released a report that concluded those sanctions played a role in 40,000 Venezuelan deaths from 2017-2018. The report explains how the sanctions have caused shortages of medical supplies. Alfred de Zayas, a former UN rapporteur on human rights, believes US sanctions have now played a role in around 100,000 deaths in Venezuela.
Trump: US to Deploy Anti-Drug Navy Ships Near Venezuela
The Associated Press & The New York Times
MIAMI (April 1, 2020) — President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that Navy ships are being moved toward Venezuela as his administration beefs up counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean following a US drug indictment against Nicolás Maduro.
The announcement came at the start of the daily White House press briefing to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, which has left much of the country in lock-down and which the government warns could cause 100,000 to 240,000 deaths.
“The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro and his criminal control over the country, and drug traffickers are seizing on this lawlessness,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said after the president’s announcement.
The deployment is one of the largest US military operations in the region since the 1989 invasion of Panama to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega from power and bring him to the US to face drug charges. It involves assets like Navy warships, AWACS surveillance aircraft and on-ground special forces seldom seen before in the region.
The goal is to nearly double the US counter-narcotics capacity in the Western Hemisphere, with forces operating both in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific. Esper said the mission would be supported by 22 partner nations.
“As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus there is a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain,” said Trump. “We must not let that happen.”
The enhanced mission has been months in the making but has taken on greater urgency following last week’s indictment of Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled socialist leader, and members of his inner circle and military. They are accused of leading a narcoterrorist conspiracy responsible for smuggling up to 250 metric tons of cocaine a year into the US, about half of it by sea.
“If I was just indicted for drug trafficking by the United States, with a $15 million reward for my capture, having the US Navy conducting anti-drug operations off my coast would be something I would worry about,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has been among those calling for a tougher stance against Maduro.
Maduro’s communications minister, Jorge Rodriguez, called the deployment a “desperate attempt to distract attention from the tragic humanitarian crisis” in the US caused by the coronavirus. In an ironic jab, he said that for “the first time” in decades the US is trying to choke off the supply of cocaine, which he noted mostly comes from Colombia, a staunch US ally.
Maduro has blasted the Trump administration’s offer of a $15 million reward for his arrest, calling it the work of a “racist cowboy” aimed at getting US hands on Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, the world’s largest.
Others have faulted a US plan, unveiled Tuesday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to create a five-member council without Maduro or Guaidó to govern the country until elections can be held within a year. While its the first attempt in months by the US to seek a negotiated solution to Venezuela’s stalemate, coming on the heels of the indictments many say it has little hope of succeeding and likely to drive Maduro farther away from the path of dialogue.
The Trump administration has long insisted that all options are on the table for removing Maduro, including military ones. Still, there’s no indication then, or now, that any sort of US invasion is being planned.
Rather, the sending of ships fits into a longstanding call by the US Southern Command for additional assets to combat growing antinarcotics and other security threats in the hemisphere.
It could also be an attempt to send a message of protection for Maduro’s US-backed rival, Juan Guaidó.
Maduro’s chief prosecutor ordered Guaidó to provide testimony Thursday as part of an investigation into an alleged coup attempt. Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s congress who is recognized as his country’s legitimate leader by the US and almost 60 other nations, is unlikely to show up, raising the possibility he could be arrested. The US has long insisted it will not tolerate any harm against Guaido.
In January, another Navy vessel, the USS Detroit, conducted a freedom of navigation operation off the coast of Venezuela in a show of pressure against Maduro.
“That presence sends a big statement about US commitment, it sends a big statement to our friends, it reassures them, and then to our adversaries that those are capable performers,” Adm. Craig Faller, the head of the US military’s Southern Command, said in congressional testimony last month.
The report of the planned deployment comes two days after one of Venezuela’s naval patrol boats sank after colliding with a Portuguese-flagged cruise ship near the Venezuelan-controlled island of La Tortuga. Maduro accused the ship of acting aggressively and said it was possibly carrying “mercenaries” seeking his ouster.
“You have to be very naive to see this as an isolated incident,” Maduro said Tuesday night on state TV.
But Columbia Cruise Services, the operator of the cruise ship, said the patrol boat fired gunshots and than purposely rammed into the liner at speed. There were no passengers on board and none of its 32 crew members were injured, the company said.
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