Venezuela is at a crossroads after recent violence and riots, following a video by U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó that called on Venezuelans to back a military uprising against Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro.
According to national security adviser John Bolton, Maduro is in hiding at a Cuban-run military compound, with approximately 20,000 Cuban soldiers and Russian advisers.
Cuba has categorically stated that the 20,000 Cubans aren’t soldiers at all but are, in fact, health care, education, and basic infrastructure workers. This isn’t the first time that Cuba has lied in precisely this same manner.
I recall the U.S. invasion of the small Caribbean Island nation of Grenada during the Reagan administration. At the time, it was estimated that there were 784 Cubans, most of whom were listed as construction workers, a few as military personnel, and the rest as medical staff, teachers, and dependents. In other words, the Cubans who were in Grenada were health care, education, and basic infrastructure workers. That does sound familiar, does it not?
During the actual fighting, the only significant organised military resistance came from these Cubans who were, in fact, well-trained integrated military units. They mounted at least two ambushes of U.S. troops that inflicted casualties, which was conclusive proof of cohesive groups with military training. Worth noting is that U.S. troops discovered a Cuban weapons cache that was described as sufficient to equip six battalions.
Make no mistake, the bulk of the 20,000 Cubans on hand in Venezuela are trained and well-armed military units. No matter how you slice it, that’s quite a few and must be taken into account no matter how things move forward.
Bolton’s comments that Maduro’s inner circle could turn on him is the hoped-for outcome at this point, and there is some reason for optimism. Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, head of Venezuela’s secret police, appeared to defect to Guaidó’s side. This suggests that Guaidó may have been in contact with Figuera all along and has had very good “intelligence” on what was happening around Maduro.
Certainly, it’s a fact that Maduro has lost some level of confidence with the Venezuelan military, or else he wouldn’t be in hiding on a Cuban-run military base. That may very well be enough to convince others in the inner circle that it’s time for a change in leadership.
The pressure appears to have initially worked perfectly, with Maduro poised to jump on an aircraft and flee to Cuba. By all accounts, the Russians talked Maduro into staying, and he has remained behind the Cuban troops ever since.
The Russians have always been willing to ratchet the situation up a notch when acting through surrogates, and this is what they are doing here. The Russian plan is to ride the situation out, which seems so far to be succeeding. In return, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that the use of the U.S. military is possible if there is no peaceful transfer of power.
The critics of the current policy toward Venezuela argue strenuously against U.S. military intervention to free Venezuela, because they believe that the United States would be required to keep a large force there for perhaps as long as a generation.
However, the critics forget that Venezuela has a long democratic tradition that only ended in 1998 with the election of socialist strongman Hugo Chávez. Everyone in their 30s and older remembers how wealthy Venezuela was with a democratic form of government, and they wouldn’t have any problem with dumping socialism for the complete dud that it is.
One final question that has not been asked by anyone so far is why Russia would go to so much trouble and expense. Venezuela and Cuba are both flat-broke and can’t afford to field 20,000 troops, so the financial support is coming from elsewhere. Russia is primarily providing that support, but the country has some economic issues of its own and wouldn’t just throw money away – they must be getting something out of this.
There’s the political regional infrastructure largely built by Venezuela in the form of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, which is sort of a socialist version of the Organisation of American States. However, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is one of the richest men in the world and didn’t get that way by flushing money away, so how is he making money here?
A possible answer might be that he has gone into the narcotics business with Venezuela. I recently talked about Venezuela being deeply involved in the narcotics trade and burning the aircraft used in transportation after a single use to disguise their origin. Is Russia supplying those aircraft, and hiding its hand?
Editor’s note: Brad Johnson is a retired CIA senior operations officer and a former chief of station. He is president of Americans for Intelligence Reform.