For Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, it’s the propaganda gift that keeps on giving, buoying a leader long in Washington’s crosshairs.
For Juan Guaidó, it’s just the latest misstep, reviving questions about the competence of the Trump administration’s man in Caracas.
Last week’s botched amphibious assault on the Venezuelan coast quickly became a Maduro rallying cry, a Bay of Pigs in miniature, complete with a pair of captured U.S. gunmen — Iraq war veterans who were soon on state TV admitting their roles in a B-movie plot to kidnap Maduro and fly him to the United States.
Venezuelan forces easily foiled the three-boat fleet of sea invaders, most of them Venezuelan defectors, being ferried to a busy port zone and a remote stretch of beach on the country’s Caribbean coast, at the northern tip of South America. Eight intruders were killed and some three dozen captured, the government said, with the two ex-U.S. Army soldiers among the prisoners.
“Who were they fighting for? For Donald Trump, it’s that simple, let no one doubt it,” declared Maduro, who denounced the “Rambo” operation as he brandished the U.S. passports of the two captives.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo denied any “direct” U.S. involvement and declined to provide details on who financed the operation.
”As for who bankrolled it, we’re not prepared to share any more information about what we know took place,” Pompeo told reporters. “We’ll unpack that at an appropriate time.”
President Trump sought to dismiss the affair as a freelance amateur hour.
“I saw the pictures on a beach,” Trump told Fox News. “It wasn’t led by Gen. George Washington, obviously.”
Meantime, Guaidó — whose self-declared interim presidency has been rocked by a series of stumbles over the last 16 months — was hard-pressed to explain away his signature on a jaw-dropping $210-million contract with Silvercorp USA, the Florida security firm that acknowledged it was behind the raid.
The funds were to be backed by “Venezuelan barrels of oil” extracted once Maduro was out and replaced by Guaidó.
Juan José Rendón, a key Guaidó associate who also signed the contract, depicted it as a tentative accord ditched soon after it was signed last Oct. 16. The contract “was part of a preliminary agreement that never became effective,” Rendón told CNN Español.
Rendón, however, did acknowledge paying $50,000 to Silvercorp for expenses.
The damage-control spin didn’t diminish the unsightly optics for the camp of Guaidó, whose leadership is recognized by Washington and more than 50 allied capitals. A mercenary attack is an unfortunate look in a region with profound historic antipathy to outside meddling.
Late Friday, Guaidó filmed a video message distancing himself from the operation. “We don’t need foreign mercenaries,” Guaidó fumed, capping an especially rough week at the office.
Guaidó’s frequent forecasts of imminent revolt against the “usurper” Maduro — whose 2018 reelection he denounces as illegitimate — have all proved illusory.
“The opposition has reached the end of its errors,” said Jesus Seguías, an independent political analyst in Caracas. “They no longer have the margin of error to keep on exercising policy as they have been doing.”
Guaidó and his U.S. sponsors have consistently failed to flip the Venezuelan military high command, the nation’s key power brokers, despite repeated assertions from Guaidó and the Trump administration that the top brass was poised to turn on Maduro.
In the aftermath of the failed attack, military leaders rallied around Maduro, accompanying him at the presidential palace to view scripted taped interviews with the captured U.S. gunmen. News outlets and social media accounts displayed images of Venezuelan troops and allied militiamen hunting down “terrorist mercenaries,” as patriotic music blared.
“These events clearly have a negative effect on Guaidó and his efforts to portray himself as a competent and legitimate government [leader],” David Smilde of Tulane University told VPItv, an online Venezuelan television channel. “It helps Maduro, at least in the short term,” added Smilde, who is a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy group.
The debacle also threatened new rifts in the long-fragmented Venezuelan opposition, which united in January 2019 to endorse Guaidó’s presidential self-declaration.
Primero Justicia, a major opposition group, called for an investigation and demanded that Guaidó sack anyone involved. The plot “ends up frustrating our people and destroying the confidence among those of us who fight for political change,” Primero Justicia said in a statement
The opposition group voiced alarm that Guaidó’s team — showered with tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid — had evolved into a “bureaucratic caste” and was losing sight of the goal of political transformation.
The episode was especially troubling, Seguías added, because it demonstrated that Guaidó and his handlers still contemplated a military solution to the years-long political and economic turmoil buffeting a country that was once among Latin America’s richest.
“They keep on believing in the armed path to solve the Venezuelan crisis,” Seguías said of the Guaidó camp. “Yet the United States has said on various occasions that an armed solution is not possible.”
Washington officially backs a negotiated solution in Venezuela, though Trump has stressed that all options remain open.
“If I wanted to go into Venezuela, I wouldn’t make a secret about it,” Trump told Fox News after the failed assault. “It would be called an army. It would be called an invasion.”
How a group of gunmen in three boats planned to take the country’s main international airport, advance into heavily guarded Caracas, force their way into Miraflores palace and snatch Maduro and top aides was unclear. The two U.S. captives said the total force involved about 50 to 60 men, including the maritime crews and anticipated infiltrators on the ground.
Apparently, the attackers expected their assault would spark a popular uprising.
“My hope is that these guys will galvanize thousands of Venezuelans to fight for their freedom,” Jordan Goudreau, Silvercorp USA’s founder and a former U.S. special forces soldier, told Florida-based Venezuelan journalist Patricia Poleo in a video interview as the invasion unfolded. “The point is to get in and show it can be done.”
Goudreau, 43, was not on the ground for the mission. His current whereabouts are not publicly known.
The plan, the captured Americans said on Venezuelan television, was for the U.S. raiders to telephone Goudreau once they had secured Maduro, who has a $15-million U.S. reward on his head for drug-trafficking charges. Goudreau was then to summon aircraft to extract Maduro. It was unclear who was expected to provide air transport.
Goudreau, a decorated veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, was probably in over his head in the intrigue-heavy sphere of Venezuelan opposition politics, which he apparently first experienced as a security advisor at a pro-Guaidó concert along the Colombian border in February 2019.
As his on-the-ground partner in Colombia, Goudreau chose a former Venezuelan general, Cliver Alcalá. The ex-general had been under U.S. Treasury Department sanctions since 2011 for having pioneered “an arms-for-drugs route” with Colombian rebels. Alcalá moved to Colombia two years ago after breaking ranks with Maduro’s government, which calls him a drug kingpin.
The Goudreau-Alcalá partnership ended abruptly in late March when U.S. authorities indicted Alcalá on drug-trafficking charges, part of the same sweeping “narco-terrorism” prosecution that accused Maduro and top aides of flooding the United States with cocaine — charges denied by Maduro. Washington also posted a $10-million reward for information leading to Alcalá’s capture.
From his home in Barranquilla, Colombia, Alcalá, formerly a shadowy background figure, gave a radio interview boasting of his role in training Venezuelan insurgents along with unnamed U.S. “associates,” and of a “contract” with Guaidó. The ex-general declared he was leading “a military operation against the dictatorship of Maduro.”
Alcalá was soon whisked off on a Drug Enforcement Administration jet that had been granted special permission to land in Colombia amid the coronavirus lockdown and take him into U.S. custody.
“When [Alcalá] was arrested, that was mind-blowing to a lot of people,” Goudreau said in the video interview. “He was the biggest enemy of the Maduro regime.”
The mission, dubbed “Operation Gideon,” never really had a chance since Venezuelan intelligence had thoroughly infiltrated the months-long underground training campaign in Colombia that preceded last week’s maritime strike.
Weeks earlier, Diosdado Cabello, the No. 2 man in Maduro’s socialist party, was already featuring on his weekly television program photos of “the gringo mercenary” Goudreau, along with images from the webpage of Goudreau’s company, Silvercorp USA.
The Maduro loyalist also displayed photos of safe houses in the Colombian city of Riohacha where Venezuelan defectors and their U.S. advisors were staying. He even described the contract signed by Guaidó.
“We’ve been investigating them for six months,” Cabello boasted of the plotters. “We have recordings, photos.”
For reasons that remain perplexing, Goudreau nonetheless green-lighted the attack to “liberate” Venezuela. Those captured, including Goudreau’s two ex-Army buddies, will face terrorism charges under Venezuelan law, Maduro vowed.
Gloating in triumph, the Venezuelan leader was especially thankful to the remote fishing and coconut-palm hamlet of Chuao, where locals intercepted the two haggard Americans and other would-be liberators on the beach as their boat ran out of gas. By Goudreau’s account, all were desperately seasick.
“Captured by the people’s power of the fishermen!” Maduro proclaimed last Monday. “My applause to the patriotic fishermen!”
Staff writer McDonnell reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Mogollon from Caracas. Staff Writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and special correspondent Chris Kraul in Bogotá, Colombia, contributed to this report.