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What's Next For Venezuela As Political Tensions Continue To Grow


Here is the big question mark hanging over U.S. policy towards Venezuela - is it working? It has been three weeks since opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself the rightful leader of Venezuela. The U.S. is backing him, but President Nicolas Maduro is still president, and for the most part, the military is still backing him. So where do things go from here? Cynthia Arnson is director of the Wilson Center's Latin American Program, and she joins me now to talk more about this. Hi there.

CYNTHIA ARNSON: Hi. Thank you for the invitation.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. So this comes as, today, the Trump administration's envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, was testifying on Capitol Hill. He told lawmakers he's confident Maduro is going to go but that it would take a while. So let me put to you - do you see any sign that Maduro is going to go, that he's losing his grip on power?

ARNSON: The key in all of this is the attitude of the armed forces. And the United States has upped the pressure as much, I think, as it can, short of some form of military action - not only by the declaration of individual sanctions, but that followed by financial sanctions and, most recently, oil sanctions.

KELLY: And to your point that it will be where the military in Venezuela lands, we've seen a few defections, but any sign that that is gathering momentum?

ARNSON: There does not seem to be any sign of momentum, and the key to this is really not the lower ranks or the rank and file but rather the generals. There are probably more generals in the Venezuelan army than in just about any armed forces around the world. And those people who have a great deal to fear and a great deal to lose from a democratic transition have probably not seen guarantees sufficient to make them break with the regime.

KELLY: You raised the prospect of U.S. military action, which the Trump administration says is on the table. They haven't ruled it out. How likely is it, though?

ARNSON: I'm not sure that I see it as very likely. A military operation or military action by the United States would divide it importantly from the Latin American countries, the major democracies of Latin America that have joined with the United States in calling for a change of regime and for free elections in Venezuela. So I think it is extremely risky. I think that there is really no military path to regime change.

KELLY: Well - so back to the central question of whether U.S. strategy towards Venezuela is working. What do you make of Elliott Abrams' assertion that it is, and it just needs time to play out?

ARNSON: I think that the Trump administration believed that things would unfold and unravel much more quickly in Venezuela. That has not taken place. Maduro has appeared to be much more resilient than people initially perhaps had hoped. So the real question is what happens with the increased bite of U.S. oil sanctions and the burgeoning humanitarian crisis? And I think that Venezuela's neighbors should prepare themselves, at least in the short term, for yet more immigration and refugee flows into their countries.

KELLY: So with each passing day that Maduro remains president, does it, in your view, become more and more likely that he will stay president?

ARNSON: Well, I certainly hope that that's not the case. So the question is whether, No. 1, there will be a crack in the armed forces sufficient to cause him to fall or to leave power. And the other is whether there is any shred of credibility left in the idea of negotiations - not directly with Maduro but negotiations over conditions for the holding of elections and whether Maduro would accept that. My guess is that he will not, and that, like Assad in Syria and other people that we've seen around the world, he is determined to cling to power at any cost and regardless of the suffering that he causes his own people.

KELLY: Cynthia Arnson of the Wilson Center, thank you very much.

ARNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.