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Big countries often achieve their geopolitical aspirations by troubling others, regardless of any global crisis and/or a national crisis that they themselves might be undergoing. While the entire United States (US) is on a war footing to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the State Department and its affiliates are busy exerting their geopolitical interests to regain the lost supremacy in the Latin American region by fixing its biggest irritant, Venezuela.
On March 26, the US Department of Justice issued a press release declaring charges against the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro Moros and more than a dozen of his top affiliates – that of drug trafficking, ‘narco-terrorism’, corruption and money laundering. The US Attorney General alleged that the Venezuelan President and others partnered with the Colombian terrorist organisation FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and used cocaine as a weapon to destabilise the health and wellbeing of the US. The US State Department announced a reward of USD 15 million for ‘information related to’ Maduro and USD 10 million each for his four close allies.
The US authorities thus, successfully portrayed the Venezuelan political leadership as a national security threat. According to the US data more than 210 tons of cocaine passed through Venezuela in 2018. However, figures also show that “six times as much passed through Guatemala in the same period.” It can be assumed in the light of such weak evidence against Maduro that this quick judicial act is more political than an act to control drug trafficking. 
Venezuelan politics has been in complete chaos after the demise of the populist leader, Hugo Chavez. The opposition parties constantly challenged the authority of the succeeding president, Nicolás Maduro, citing his illegitimate electoral practices. The collapse of oil price has also badly hit the oil-rich country’s economy. The consequent governance failure has resulted in an anarchic situation in Venezuela and an exodus of people to neighbouring countries as refugees. The economic crisis has escalated due to the Russia-Saudi Arabia competition on oil supply; and the coronavirus emergency has added to the country’s woes.
The already strained US-Venezuela relations worsened after the re-election of Nicolás Maduro in May 2018. When Juan Gerardo Guaidó Marquiz, a federal deputy to the National Assembly, declared himself as the acting President of Venezuela on 23 January 2019, the US and other 53 countries recognised Guaidó as the legitimate President of Venezuela. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo justified their stand stating, “The nations of the region, the Lima Group and the OSA are demanding to restore the democracy in Venezuela and the United States is prepared to support the Venezuelan people to stand with the interim government to conduct a free and fair election.” To make matters worse, the US and its allies imposed stringent economic and other sanctions against the Maduro government. 
The ‘President’ Juan Guaidó tried his best since January 2019 to remove the President Maduro with the support of the US and its allies, but he failed to get the support of the military, bureaucracy, and state agencies/enterprises that stood with President Maduro. In the meantime, Maduro continued to rule with the support of countries such as China, Russia, Cuba and Iran among others, who rejected Guaidó’s claim.
In August 2019, President Maduro claimed that in order to improve relations with the US, he had initiated talks with the US authorities through back-channel diplomacy. It was refuted by the then National Security Advisor, John Bolton through a tweet – “The only items discussed by those who are reaching out behind Maduro’s back are his departure and free and fair elections.” The US again imposed sweeping sanctions, including freezing all properties of the Venezuelan government in the US and blocking American firms doing business with them.
The continuation of Maduro in power even in the turbulent and regressive national and international political environment infuriated the US authorities. For the US, it challenges their supremacy in the region. The narcotics allegation regarding the Venezuelan government and the indictment by the US court on the grounds that Venezuela’s actions challenge the national security of the US provides legal sanctity to intervene in Venezuelan politics and to replace Nicolas Maduro from power. The indictment verdict can be regarded as a repeat of a similar action by the US against the Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega in 1988. Using the indictment of drug offence, the US forces then invaded Panama to arrest Noriega.
Many critiques question the timing of the verdict. When the coronavirus pandemic is creating havoc in the US itself, why is the nation trying to impose military might against a poor country that is also hit by COVID-19? Due to the sanctions, the political system is unable to set the governance system in order that has led to numerous Venezuelans fleeing the country as refugees for survival. In this situation, Venezuela is on the verge to becoming a Syria in Latin America and Caribbean region. Maduro approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an emergency aid of USD 5 billion, but citing leadership uncertainty, it was turned down.
Presently, Venezuela is less affected by the coronavirus pandemic; it is not because they are prepared or not vulnerable to the pandemic. A report says only a quarter of doctors in Venezuela has access to the reliable supply of water and 75 percent of the doctors treat without soap, gloves, masks and essential medicines. Above all, in the case of an emergency they have only 75 intensive care beds across the country. The UN General Secretary and the UN Commissioner for Human Rights observed, “The populations in these countries are in no way responsible for the policies being targeted by sanctions.” However, the US authorities continued to insist that the sanctions are not against the people; it is to correct the actions of the wrong government.
The US expects that the indictment charges against the President and the top officials will force a regime change. In a press meet, the US attorney general William Barr said that the indictment decision was well-timed as the health crisis would expose the Maduro government in front of the world and also persuade the suffering Venezuelans to turn against the regime and its leaders.
On the contrary, this move can be viewed as an approach of the US State Department to clamp down on the Maduro administration and form a government that accepts US’ supremacy. For the US, the continuing stalemate even under the stringent economic and political pressure of the US and its allies is a defeat. In order to rebuild the US’ authority in the region, it needs to intervene strategically. Following the indictment, the US initiated diplomatic talks to overcome the stalemate. The solution offered by the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo is that the US would lift the sanctions gradually depending on how Maduro reciprocates. The US expects Maduro to step down, dissolve the governing bodies (including the Constituent Assembly), allow the country to form a five-member transitional government that includes Juan Guaidó, and to hold fresh elections within nine months.
Maduro rejected the offer and vowed to fight both the coronavirus and American pressure. While Maduro searches for alternative sources to gather support, the US has made the sanctions more stringent. From January 2020 onwards, the pandemic-affected China was not in a position to extend support to Venezuela, but the latter has reportedly started talks with the former “over possible financial support to cope with a sharp drop in oil prices and the arrival of the novel coronavirus.” On the other hand, the Trump administration successfully imposed sanctions on Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil major, a key supporter of the Maduro government in economic matters, and forced them to withdraw from Venezuela. Furthermore, President Trump claims to have convinced Putin about the need for a democratic transition in Venezuela to end the ongoing crisis.
There is likely to be more clarity in the coming days about whether the self-proclaimed President Juan Guaidó would succeed in replacing the present regime or the US would send forces to capture Maduro and his associates based on the indictment; whether the history of 1988 will repeat in the case of Venezuela, the Bolivarian Republic, or it will manage to thwart the coronavirus-hit US’ threats. The number of coronavirus positive cases has surpassed 400,000 in the US and more than 16,000 deaths have been recorded in the country (as of 10 April 2020). On the other hand, Venezuela, an ill-equipped country, has witnessed a little over 170 infected cases and 9 deaths (as of 10 April 2020). If the number of deaths increases in the US and if the popularity of the current government decreases drastically, as a diversionary tactic, the authorities may attempt to capture Maduro and his associates who, as asserted by the US, threatened the ‘national security’ of the superpower.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.