On Feb. 23, the opposition tried to send a humanitarian aid convoy across the Venezuelan border despite President Nicolás Maduro’s blockade, sparking clashes between protesters and pro-Maduro forces that led to four deaths on the Venezuelan-Brazilian border and hundreds of injuries on the Colombian side.
While a few aid deliveries broke though and some members of the security forces switched sides, the majority did not and Maduro remained defiant, severing relations with Colombia.
All of Venezuela’s borders — with Colombia, Brazil and three Caribbean islands — are now effectively sealed off. It remains to be seen if Interim President Juan Guaidó, whom Maduro called a “puppet of imperialism,” will be allowed back into the country.
“Today’s events force me to make a decision: to pose to the international community in a formal way that we must have all options open to achieve the liberation of this country that is fighting and will continue to fight,” Guaidó tweeted after the chaotic standoff.
Less than two miles east of the shuttered Venezuelan Embassy in Georgetown, Carlos Alfredo Vecchio plots his country’s return to democracy.
Working from a temporary office in a downtown D.C. office building, Vecchio, 49, is now Venezuela’s chargé d’affaires in the United States — at least according to Washington, not Caracas. His mission: nothing less than the immediate dismantling of the mafia state he says his country has become under the increasingly authoritarian presidency of Nicolás Maduro — and a return to normalcy led by Vecchio’s longtime friend and colleague, 35-year-old Interim President Juan Guaidó.
“Our message is clear,” Vecchio told us. “This is about democracy versus dictatorship — the fight between the free world and the Maduro dictatorship, which is totally controlled by the Cuban regime. We are dealing with a criminal state. They’re involved in drug trafficking, money laundering and human rights abuses, and we need to end this now.”
Some 87 percent of its 30 million people now live in poverty. Hyperinflation could hit 10 million percent this year, with prices doubling every 19 days. Everything from medicine to clean water to electricity is in short supply. Venezuela’s homicide rate is now among the world’s highest. State oil monopoly Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), which manages the world’s biggest crude oil reserves — even more than Saudi Arabia — can no longer produce enough gasoline for domestic consumption because its refineries are working at only 20 percent capacity.
More than 3 million desperate Venezuelans have fled, most of them emigrating to Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay, sparking a regional refugee crisis.
Meanwhile, Maduro and his cronies are blocking desperately needed foreign aid from entering Venezuela, creating a standoff with the U.S.-backed opposition at the border that could devolve into violence. Maduro has refused the aid deliveries, which he calls a U.S.-orchestrated ruse, despite the fact that his people have lost an average of 24 pounds in the last 12 months.
Even assuming some aid delivery gets through, the plight of the Venezuelan people is set to worsen in the wake of sanctions that the Trump administration slapped on the country’s oil exports. Trump has also insinuated that the U.S. might intervene militarily to topple Maduro, although talk of regime change has been met with fierce pushback, both at home and abroad.
The administration is clearly hoping to pressure Venezuela’s military to switch sides, but so far, the military brass has largely stood behind its embattled president. That’s because the military, which is deeply intertwined in the country’s business interests, has as much to lose as Maduro does if a new government takes control.
So for now, Maduro, 56, a former bus driver and union leader, still physically occupies the presidency. But that has not deterred a reinvigorated opposition from trying to unseat him.
On Jan. 23, Guaidó invoked a constitutional provision to declare himself president after calling Maduro’s May 2018 re-election victory a sham. He was immediately recognized as the country’s rightful leader by the United States, Canada, more than a dozen European nations, Israel, Australia, Japan and most of Latin America. Russia and China — Venezuela’s key backers — along with Cuba, Iran, Turkey and North Korea continue to support Maduro’s chaotic rule, while Mexico and Uruguay are instead calling for dialogue.
“Latin America has played an important role as never before,” said Vecchio. “All the countries in the Lima Group have been clear in that Maduro is an illegitimate president.”
Vecchio bases Maduro’s illegitimacy on the fact that under Venezuela’s constitution, when there is no elected president — which was the case because Maduro fraudulently won last year’s elections — it falls to the president of the National Assembly to take office in the interim. (The opposition-held National Assembly is the only democratically elected institution in Venezuela today, although Maduro created his own constituent assembly in 2017 to usurp its powers.)
“We are starting from a point where Juan Guaidó is the president, and from there, we start the process of holding free and transparent elections,” Vecchio told Brendan O’Boyle of Americas Quarterly on Feb. 13. “We are not going to participate in a false dialogue…. After each dialogue every year since 2014 there have been more political prisoners and the economic crisis increases. So we are going to push forward our belief that the only thing that is up for negotiation is the date when Maduro leaves and that is it.”
Vecchio: White House Ceremony Imminent
Fluent in English and totally at ease speaking with reporters, Vecchio was born and raised in Caripe, a small town located about eight hours’ drive east of Caracas. He earned his law degree in 1992, the same year Hugo Chávez led an unsuccessful military coup for which he was imprisoned. Vecchio went on to win a Fulbright scholarship that enabled him to study at Georgetown, and later at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he earned a master’s in public administration and eventually returned to Venezuela to teach in public schools and gradually immerse himself in opposition politics.
In 2009, he and two other men — Leopoldo López and Juan Guaidó — jointly founded the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party to oppose Chávez. When the president died in March 2013 at the age of 58 from cancer, his deputy, Maduro took over. In February 2014, López called for protests and the opposition leader was arrested shortly afterward. An arrest warrant was also issued for Vecchio, who fled to the United States and has been working ever since to rid Venezuela of Maduro and his government.
“For many years, I have been working jointly with Guaidó to build a strong political organization in Venezuela. We have also been a key party within the [opposition] coalition [in the National Assembly], so I have a very close relationship with both [Guaidó and López],” Vecchio told us. “Thanks to this relationship, the National Assembly approved the decision of the interim president to appoint me as ambassador to the United States.”
Vecchio hasn’t yet presented his diplomatic credentials to President Trump. Such a White House ceremony could occur “within weeks,” he said. Meanwhile, the State Department has given him a certificate granting him the right to assets and property in U.S. bank accounts of the Venezuelan government.
“This is not a regular situation,” he said, claiming that diplomats loyal to Maduro stripped the Washington embassy of valuables on their way out. “They dismantled everything, but we need to recover all of it legally because I want to have in the official record how we received those assets, to show the Venezuelan people what they did.”
Until that happens, Vecchio’s movement, Visión Democrática, leases office space from the Inter-American Dialogue, a D.C. think tank that occupies most of the eighth floor of a 15th Street office building.
Michael Shifter, president of the Dialogue, has known Vecchio for at least 10 years. He calls Venezuela’s new interim ambassador “extremely impressive and sharp,” and says he’ll play an important role for Guaidó in Washington.
“I have a very high regard for Carlos Vecchio. He’s got the background, skills and temperament for the job,” Shifter told us. “He’s very committed to democratic transition, but he’s level-headed and realistic, and he’s been in this fight for a long time.”
Shifter, whose group hosted Vecchio for a Feb. 4 event, “Venezuela: Between Hope and Uncertainty,” said his friend will do well among both Democrats and Republicans.
“He’s not going to be on one side or the other. He’ll try to build bridges and generate support,” he said. “There is clearly broad, bipartisan support for democratic transition in Venezuela, but this is a very polarized city, with a sort of reflex to be against whatever Trump tries to promote. There’s a lot of mistrust of Trump among Democrats … but Vecchio is the right person to navigate this political environment. He knows he needs the support of the Trump administration, and he also knows that the Democrats control the House and that he really has to get bipartisan support.”
‘Peaceful Transition’ of Power
Vecchio also spoke Jan. 30 at the Atlantic Council, which has been very supportive of efforts to bring democracy to his country.
“He’s off to a very good start,” said Jason Marczak, director of the council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “He doesn’t have a full embassy team like other ambassadors have. But he’s eloquent and articulate, and he’s able to maneuver in different circles. It’s clear just from the limited time he’s been in this role how well he’s able to work on a bipartisan basis among different constituencies.”
Part of Vecchio’s role, said Marczak, will be to educate lawmakers about the damage Chávez and Maduro have inflicted on Venezuela — “folks like Bernie Sanders and others on the Hill who have started becoming critical of U.S. policy there.”
While much of the criticism has come from the Democratic side, Republicans have also been wary of Trump’s willingness to consider a military intervention. Last year, the administration even held secret meetings with “rebellious military officers from Venezuela” who were hoping to depose Maduro, according to a Sept. 8 report in The New York Times.
But on Capitol Hill, there appears to be little appetite for a foreign invasion.
“I do worry about the president’s saber rattling, his hints that U.S. military intervention remains an option,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during a recent hearing on Venezuela. “I want to make clear to our witnesses and to anyone else watching: U.S. military intervention is not an option.”
The choice of Elliott Abrams — a key architect of the U.S. invasion of Iraq — to become the administration’s point man on Venezuela, however, amplified concerns that Washington’s true aim is regime change in Venezuela by force.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) ripped Abrams apart during a testy Feb. 13 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, where the newly minted lawmaker confronted Abrams over his role in the Iran-Contra scandal and his support for right-wing governments in Central America during the 1980s. At one point, she asked Abrams whether he would “support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador or Nicaragua?”
Rep. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wasted no time hitting back at Omar on Twitter, suggesting that “an apologist for the murderous Maduro regime and serial anti-semitic tweeter has no standing to attack anyone on human rights.”
Yet even Rubio, a prominent anti-Cuba hawk, has hedged on the issue of whether the U.S. should invade Venezuela. And despite the heated rhetoric, administration officials may be open to dialogue, according to a Feb. 15 Associated Press report in which Maduro said his foreign minister recently held secret talks in New York with Abrams.
But experts worry that if anything happens to Guaidó, all bets are off. Another concern is that when U.S. sanctions begin to bite and conditions in the country deteriorate, Venezuela could spiral into violence.
On the flip side, if the crisis drags on, the opposition could lose its momentum and peter out. Amid these fears, the interim government has appealed to Socialist Party officials to defect and join a transition government. Vecchio insists his government supports only a “peaceful transition” of power, and most Beltway pundits say they have no reason to suspect otherwise.
“This is one of the few issues where there is general agreement,” said Marczak, noting that U.S. sanctions against the Maduro regime are only effective as long as they’re done in cooperation with Latin American and European allies. “As the situation develops, it’s critical that Venezuela does not become a wedge partisan issue, and that those on the extremes of either party do not dominate the airwaves.”
Putting PDVSA on Path to Recovery
Of paramount importance, Vecchio said, is putting Venezuela’s tattered economy back on the path to recovery. Oil sales, which accounts for 95 of the country’s export revenues, have fallen from an annual high of 3.5 million barrels a day in 1998 to about 1.2 million barrels in 2018 — the lowest level in 28 years.
The country will be squeezed further as U.S. oil sanctions imposed on Jan. 28 by the Trump administration take effect. Any money going to PDVSA will be frozen in U.S. accounts. According to The New York Times, these penalties are likely to block $7 billion in assets and cause $11 billion in export losses over the next year for Venezuela’s government.
These sanctions could theoretically break the cash-starved regime because over 40 percent of Venezuela’s oil exports go to the U.S., and American refiners are among the few customers that pay cash for Venezuela’s oil (whereas shipments to China and Russia go toward repaying Venezuela’s debt).
Maduro has long accused the U.S. of waging an “economic war” that, among other things, choked off foreign investment to his country. But economists say Venezuela’s wounds are self-inflicted.
Chávez used the country’s energy wealth to fund an ambitious socialist revolution — one that collapsed under the weight of tumbling oil prices and interventionist economic policies. Maduro continued many of those ruinous policies — among them, price controls to contain capital flight; printing money to finance a yawning fiscal deficit; replacing the technocrats in charge of PDVSA with loyalists and inexperienced military managers; and raiding PDVSA’s coffers to cover government’s overspending.
Recovery will now be that much harder because of the damage done to the country’s oil monopoly, once considered one of the best-run companies in Latin America.
“They have destroyed PDVSA,” said Vecchio, noting that the conglomerate is now rife with mismanagement and corruption. “We want to open our oil sector to domestic and foreign investment. We will need the private sector; there is no way to do it without them. Otherwise, the oil will stay in the ground, and poverty will remain above ground. We need to create revenues. We must also renegotiate our foreign debt, reopen and restart our economy.”
That means repaying an estimated $65 billion to foreign bondholders, which Vecchio says will only happen with a change of government. The country will also require a Marshall Plan-type recovery package involving the World Bank, the IMF, the Inter-American Development Bank and possibly the Organization of American States.
The Military’s Role
But that change of government can only happen with the support of the armed forces. In late January, Venezuela’s military attaché in Washington, Col. José Luís Silva, defected and declared his support for Guaidó, prompting the Maduro regime to immediately accuse Silva of “treason and cowardice.”
Whether more defections will follow remains to be seen. Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, said this depends, to some degree, on actions taken by Trump, who has so far refused to take military options off the table.
“I don’t see Maduro leaving peacefully,” Farnsworth told the Miami Herald on Feb. 4. “He’s not going to wake up with an epiphany, he’s going to have to be forced out. If it happens, it’s going to be by Venezuelans … members of the security forces or members of his own coalition, if they see him as ineffective.”
But Chávez purged the military shortly after he came to power and shrewdly stacked it with left-wing loyalists. He also rewarded top military officers with plum government posts and control of key industries such as oil, mining and food distribution — lucrative holdings that they would lose if Maduro were ousted.
The military has also been accused of widespread abuses, including arbitrary killings. While Guaidó has pledged amnesty for soldiers if they back his interim government, many are still fearful they could face repercussions under a new administration.
In addition, the Atlantic Council’s Marczak said that thanks to years of Cuban government influence, Venezuela’s military is intentionally segmented into disjointed units not wholly integrated into one central force, in order to prevent uprisings.
“It’s not monolithic,” he said. “There’s a difference between the 200 or so generals getting rich off Maduro’s corruption and all the soldiers struggling to feed their families. My hope is that the offers of humanitarian assistance will entice some soldiers to take a second look at their support of Maduro. President Guaidó needs more power, and that power will eventually come from support from the military.”
Vecchio himself realizes this won’t be easy, but insists he sees light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
“We have people on the streets, we have momentum, and we need to end the dictatorship,” he said. “They can prolong the agony but they won’t be able to stop the change. We need to keep the pressure domestically, in Venezuela, using the National Assembly to facilitate a smooth transition. The majority of soldiers and troops are with us, because they have families, too, and they’re suffering the same thing ordinary people are feeling.”
As for the dictator in Caracas, Vecchio warns that time is clearly running out.
“If Maduro wants to leave the country, we’re open to that discussion,” he said. “But this option to negotiate his exit could close any time, and he knows it.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.