With Maduro clinging on in Venezuela, Trump has limited options

 A US official said Washington was looking at new sanctions,

WASHINGTON: A month after Donald Trump declared Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro to be an illegitimate president, the leftist firebrand is still clinging to power and options for the United States look increasingly narrow. 

President Trump, in a rare global crisis in which he has enjoyed strong international backing, on January 23 recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president as Venezuela's economy collapses and millions flee to neighboring countries. 

The Trump administration has recently taken more brazen action. It has blocked the Maduro government's lifeblood by freezing accounts of Citgo, Venezuela's oil company in the United States, and over the weekend backed efforts to force in badly needed aid through Colombia and Brazil, sparking a border melee in which four people were killed and hundreds injured.

 Yet while Maduro is deeply weakened, the military has largely stood by him. And he still enjoys the diplomatic support of China and Russia, with Beijing in particular worried whether an opposition-led Venezuela would repay billions of dollars in loans. 

"We're in a situation where we have effectively used all the levers we have to pressure the Venezuelan regime in terms of not recognizing President Maduro, imposing sanctions on members of the regime and then effectively taking the nuclear option, which was stopping imports -- given that the United States was the largest cash-paying customer for Venezuelan crude," said Mark P. Jones, a Latin America expert at Rice University. 

"That was the last lever we had and if Maduro is able to effectively remain in power for a month or two more, he will likely be able to stay for the foreseeable future," he said. 

Venezuela's long-fractious opposition has rallied around the fresh leadership of 35-year-old Guaido, who met Monday in Colombia with US President Mike Pence. 

 But Jones said Maduro is calculating that the opposition will again fragment if the crisis drags on long enough and that he can eventually find new sources of revenue.

 A US official said Washington was looking at new sanctions, explaining, "We can't have another Cuba." But a full-out blockade of Venezuela, as the United States pursued for decades in Cuba, would likely draw resistance in the region. 

Trump has openly mused of military intervention but has faced vocal pushback from allies including Canada, which took a leading role in recognizing Guaido, as well as Brazil's new right-wing government which has sought close ties with Washington.

 Few observers expect an outright US attack, which would rekindle memories of violent US meddling in Latin America -- and could be an operation more like Iraq than Grenada, considering Venezuela's size and complexity. 

The United States, however, has increased reconnaissance flights off Venezuela, a US official told AFP, while saying that all have been in international air space. 

"The fact that the military option is gaining more steam is indicative of the fact that there are few clear paths to resolve the current crisis," Risa Grais-Targow, the Eurasia Group consultancy's Latin America director, wrote in a risk report. 

"Still, even if the possibility of US military intervention has grown at the margins, it remains unlikely," she wrote, noting Trump himself had non-interventionist instincts and little to gain at home through a risky military deployment. 

For Trump, removing Maduro has offered a politically attractive cause around which to rally the growing Venezuelan American community in the key state of Florida -- and a way to send a message to Maduro ally Cuba. 

 Trump has also vigorously sought to use Venezuela to tarnish domestic foes, trying to link Maduro's socialism to Democrats pushing to reduce US income inequality. 

But one side that may have believed Trump on the military option -- the opposition. Guaido had hoped that Saturday's aid mobilization with the support of the United States and Colombia would deliver the "knockout blow" to Maduro, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

 Instead, Colombia says 300 troops defected from the Venezuelan army. The aid did not get through despite warnings to Venezuela of the Trump administration, which in effect made clear it wants a political, rather than military, solution. 

"Somehow, they did not coordinate properly with the Venezuelan opposition and were caught in their own bluff regarding military action," said David Smilde, a senior fellow specializing in Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank that promotes human rights. 

"The result is a seriously weakened opposition, without a clear direction." Shifter said that Guaido will have to persevere despite the pressure, "which is no easy task." 

"Support for the regime is no doubt eroding, but its collapse may take more time than initially thought."

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