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While You Weren't Looking

Botched Venezuela Operation Is a Boon for Maduro

A coup attempt by a U.S.-based security contractor looks like a propaganda victory for the Venezuelan president.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a televised announcement in Caracas on March 26.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a televised announcement in Caracas on March 26. JHONN ZERPA/Venezuelan Presidency/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: What to make of a bizarre plot to overthrow the embattled Venezuelan president, Iraq’s parliament anoints a prime minister after months of deadlock, and a regional party makes a possible power grab in Ethiopia.

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U.S. Mercenaries Arrested in Botched Attempt to Overthrow Maduro

Two former U.S. special forces soldiers were among 17 people arrested in Venezuela this week and accused of trying to topple the country’s embattled president, Nicolás Maduro. A Florida-based private security contractor allegedly orchestrated the murky operation and live-tweeted the incursion. “A daring amphibious raid was launched from the border of Colombia deep into the heart of Caracas,” said Jordan Goudreau, the founder of the security contractor Silvercorp, in a video on Sunday.

By the time the video was posted online, eight operatives had been killed after being intercepted by the Venezuelan military. A second boat of would-be invaders was captured on Monday. The plot appears to have been infiltrated by Venezuelan intelligence. It was also picked up the Associated Press, which published a detailed account of Goudreau’s plans three days before the attack. One former U.S. diplomat has described the story as a “Keystone Cops Bay of Pigs.”

If Maduro was looking for a propaganda coup, he could not have scripted one better himself. What’s good for Maduro is bad for opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whose lieutenants were reportedly involved in planning the boondoggle. Guaidó is recognized by nearly 60 countries, including the United States, as the rightful leader of Venezuela.

Florida man. Goudreau, a U.S. special forces veteran, took responsibility for the bungled operation. “The main mission was to liberate Venezuela, to capture Maduro, but the mission in Caracas failed,” he told Bloomberg. Founded in 2018, Silvercorp says on its website that it provides crisis planning and risk management services to governments and companies in over 50 countries. The company has also provided security at rallies for U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump has denied that the U.S. government had played a role in the attempted coup.

The plot thickens. The Venezuelan opposition led by Guaidó has denied any connection to Silvercorp. But the Venezuelan political strategist J.J. Rendón told the Washington Post that he was asked by Guaidó to explore all options to oust Maduro. In October 2019, the Venezuelan opposition signed a $219 million agreement with Silvercorp. Guaidó’s signature appears on the contract, but the opposition disputes its authenticity. “What is more outrageous to me is that Guaidó’s representatives not only signed the contract with Goudreau with his knowledge, but that they met with several private security contractors who wanted as much as $500 million. They shopped around, and Goudreau was the budget option,” said Geoff Ramsey, the assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization.

After the deal was inked, Goudreau started to behave erratically, and members of the opposition began to doubt he had the money or manpower to pull off the operation when he asked for a $1.5 million retainer. Rendón and his colleagues considered the deal to be over, but Goudreau went ahead with it anyway. Asked why he had done it without payment, he said that he was a “freedom fighter.”

What’s next? The bungled operation has enabled Maduro to take aim at his most despised adversaries: the Venezuelan opposition, the United States, and Colombia—where the fighters were reportedly trained. “Obviously the Maduro regime knew about it in advance, but you have to wonder: Were they somehow egging it along?” Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Council of the Americas, told Foreign Policy.

The attack has also raised serious questions for the Guaidó-led opposition, whose credibility has been undermined by the plot. “[Guaidó’s] biggest risk lies in explaining his connections to this contract and laying out a credible plan to actually advance a peaceful democratic transition,” said Ramsey of the Washington Office on Latin America.


What We’re Following

Iraq gets a prime minister. After five months of political deadlock, Iraq’s parliament voted on Wednesday to appoint the former intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the country’s new prime minister. His predecessor, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, stepped down in November amid anti-government protests. Seen as pragmatic and secular, Kadhimi secured the backing of both the United States and Iran. But he has promised to maintain Iraq’s muhasasa system, which divvies up public offices and resources along ethno-sectarian lines—the same arrangement that protesters have blamed for entrenching corruption and sectarian divides.

Kadhimi, who was sworn in on Thursday, has a daunting to-do list ahead of him: dealing with a pandemic, calming simmering tensions between the United States and Iran, and managing a huge loss in government revenues due to the collapse of oil and gas prices.

Nord Stream 2 nears completion. A Russian pipe-laying vessel arrived in the Baltic Sea on Sunday, which Russia says will be used to complete the remaining 100 miles of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline running from Siberia to Germany. Last year, U.S. sanctions took aim at companies laying deep-sea pipelines for Russian energy projects, prompting European vessels to back out of the project. “Whether Moscow is able to pull-off the project on its own using the Akademik Cherskiy remains to be seen,” said Benjamin L. Schmitt, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and former European energy security advisor to the U.S. Department of State, echoing concerns of other experts that the vessel lacks the technical capacities needed.

Supporters of the Nord Stream 2 project argue that it will increase Europe’s energy security, but opponents including the United States fear that it will leave the continent reliant on Russia and deprive Ukraine of gas transit revenues. The sanctions haven’t dented the confidence of Russian officials, who are optimistic that the pipeline could be functional by the end of the year.

Sudan’s man in Washington. Sudan has appointed its first ambassador to the United States in over 20 years, the latest sign of deepening ties between the countries since former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was ousted last year. The Sudanese foreign ministry announced on Monday that it had chosen the seasoned diplomat Nureldin Satti as its envoy. In 1993, the United States added Sudan to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, making it ineligible for debt relief and financing from the International Monetary Fund or World Bank, and getting his country removed from the list is a top priority for the new ambassador. The United States has not yet named its envoy to Sudan.


Keep an Eye On 

Power grabs in Ethiopia. In March, Ethiopia postponed parliamentary and regional elections scheduled for August due to the coronavirus. A new date for the vote hasn’t been set, but the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the northern region of Tigray, announced on Monday that it would hold the vote as scheduled in that region, putting fragmented Ethiopia’s unity to the test. The TPLF had a stranglehold on power in Ethiopia for decades.

When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed entered office in 2018, he sought to dismantle the group’s influence over public life as part of a wider push to do away with ethnically based politics. But the country’s onetime power brokers are unlikely to go quietly. As the group once again throws down the gauntlet, Abiy has warned that “those pushing for unconstitutional ways to grab power… will be punished by law.”

The temperature gauge. In just 50 years, more than 3 billion people could find themselves living in places with inhospitable temperatures caused by climate change, according to a new report published Monday in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “There will be more change in the next 50 years than in the past 6,000 years,” one of the study’s authors told the Guardian. Taking into account population growth and rising greenhouse gas emissions, the authors expect India to be one of the countries hit hardest, and some 1.2 billion people in the country could find themselves living in areas as hot as the Sahara.


That’s it for this week.

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Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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