Today, another story you might have missed: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was indicted on March 26th, along with several other officials within his government, on charges including narco-terrorism, conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States, and the use of deadly weapons in furtherance of narco-terrorist efforts. Venezuela’s Chief Supreme Court Justice, vice president for the economy, and Minister of Defense were among others charged in three separate indictments, the result of an investigation by the DEA and federal prosecutors in South Florida and New York.
US Attorney General William Barr accused Maduro of playing a central role in the Cártel de los Soles (“Cartel of the Suns”), a cocaine-trafficking organization that worked in tandem with Colombian FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas to, in Barr’s words, “flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation.” Alongside Maduro’s indictment, Barr announced a $15 million reward for information leading to Maduro’s capture and prosecution.
Maduro has denied the allegations, tweeting on March 26th, just hours after the indictments were unsealed, that “From the US and Colombia they have conspired and given the order to fill Venezuela with violence.” He declared on social media that he would not be defeated by American encroachment.
Barr’s remarks, as well as the text of the indictments, portrays Maduro’s alleged trafficking operations as tremendous threats to American security. But US data from 2018 shows cocaine imports passing through Venezuela are dwarfed by those from Guatemala and Colombia, countries which find themselves in strong diplomatic relationships with the United States.
Critics of the indictments describe them as poorly substantiated and politically motivated. Geoff Ramsey, head of the Venezuela program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that “the White House believes this is a useful pressure tactic, the latest in the administration’s failed attempts to create fractures within the Maduro regime.” Ramsey opined further that the move is unlikely to pay off, since it further antagonizes Maduro and lessens the likelihood of any negotiations of his departure. Many of Maduro’s government allies, many of whom the State Department hoped would put internal pressure on Maduro, now find themselves under a similar list of charges as Maduro himself--meaning they may find it more expedient to remain loyal as a result of the indictment, not despite it. Other critics note that the Trump administration may be attempting an anti-Maduro overture to garner popularity among the significant Venezualan-Americans population in Florida, a key battleground in the November general election.
But supporters of the indictment consider it a fitting condemnation of Maduro’s long history of troubling governance, which has seen the once-wealthiest Latin American country brought to its economic knees. The Electoral Integrity Project published a scathing report on the 2018 election that Maduro won, labeling it as “fraudulent,” and citing instances in which voters were coerced to choose Maduro in exchange for food and medicine, of which there have been tragic shortages in recent years.
In either case, the indictment of Maduro is an international law anomaly--an unprecedented blow to the “absolute immunity” doctrine, which has customarily prevented states from prosecuting leaders from other countries while they are still in office. In recent times, only Charles Taylor, the President of Liberia, has been indicted while in office--this, however, was done by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international tribunal with the express jurisdiction over war crimes like Taylor’s.
While Maduro still wields power in Venezuela through his control over the military and the operational portions of the state bureaucracy, the US has recognized the President of the National Assembly Juan Guaido as the interim leader of Venezuela since January 2019. This switch in allegiances is the technicality which permits the US to charge Maduro with the aforementioned crimes. Of course, no American court will ever get to rule on whether it has the jurisdiction to try Maduro, because he will likely never arrive in the US to face his charges.
In the meantime, Venezuela is struggling to deal with the growing coronavirus crisis. It isn’t yet that case counts are threatening the country--though they may, soon--but rather that the national quarantine, in place since mid-March, and the downward-spiraling cost of oil have decimated the livelihoods of millions of Venezuelans. Oil shortages, once unheard-of in Venezuela, cause miles-long lines at gas stations in Caracas, the capital. The estimated 50% of the workforce that depends on the informal economy for income looks on as quarantine limits access to sustenance. Perhaps Venezuela’s most urgent crisis lies in the form of hospital equipment and staff: the country of nearly 30 million inhabitants has only 80 intensive care beds. Chronic power shortages at hospitals make routine procedures near-impossible.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, announced on April 1st the doubling of US Navy forces in the Caribbean fleet to combat the “growing threat” of drugs arriving from Venezuela. The move will involve moving American ships closer to the Venezuelan coast. Just one day before the US indictment had been unveiled, Maduro had announced willingness to convene international talks for the sake of a coordinated coronavirus response. The indictment, however, seemed to have annulled that possibility. A source close to the Trump administration told The Guardian that “no negotiation is possible now,” either over COVID-19 or the prospect of free elections in the future. Whether or not one chooses to see the indictments as a foolish diplomatic move, a bold political ploy, or an overdue blow to Maduro’s legitimacy, one thing is clear: Venezuela is regionally isolated in a time of crisis, and tensions with the United States continue to rise.
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