MIAMI — In January of 1990, a once powerful Latin American leader stood before a Miami judge to face charges that he’d taken $4.6 million in bribes in exchange for allowing his nation to become a hub for Colombian cocaine cartels.
The man was Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the one-time military ruler of Panama. And that hearing marked the first time a U.S. court had ever indicted a head of state.
On Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department made history again, charging Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and some of his closest allies with working with Colombian guerrillas to turn his country into a safe haven for narcotics exports.
In Noriega’s case, he only faced justice after the U.S. military invaded Panama in 1989. He would spend the rest of days in prison and die in custody in Panama in 2017.
But bringing Maduro to justice is even less likely, experts said.
The 57-year-old leader still has some popular support and, critically, continues to enjoy the backing of the upper echelon of the Venezuelan military. The country’s minister of defense, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, is among the people named in Thursday’s indictment.
“I do not see a likelihood of any military action similar to the 1989 invasion of Panama that resulted in the capture of Manuel Noriega; there is far less national interest in removing Maduro than there was in deposing Noriega,” Lawrence Gumbiner, an international consultant in Colombia and a former U.S. diplomat, said in a statement. “This is predominantly a chest-pumping exercise by the Trump administration that has more to do with electoral politics in the U.S., particularly in Florida, than it does with generating meaningful change in Venezuela.”
Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington, D.C., was an official in the Panama office at the U.S. State Department in the aftermath of the military operation against Noriega.
He says a repeat of that event seems unlikely, although the Trump administration has never ruled out taking military action against Maduro.
“Just because somebody is under indictment doesn’t mean necessarily the law enforcement goes and picks them up,” he said.
In a sign that Maduro is likely safe at home, the U.S. government is offering a $15 million reward to anyone who provides information about when he leaves the country and assists in his capture.
Maduro didn’t directly address the charges on Thursday, but he’s spent this week warning the nation that Washington and its allies in Colombia were plotting to use Venezuela’s national lockdown in response to the coronavirus to try to launch a coup.
“I am sounding the alarm again,” Maduro wrote on Thursday. “They are conspiring in the USA and Colombia and have given the order to fill Venezuela with violence. As the head of state, I am obliged to defend the peace and stability of the whole nation regardless of the circumstances we face.”
Hours before the indictment was unveiled, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Constituent Assembly who is also named, suggested a new provocation was coming.
“Our internal and external enemies are trying to use the global situation to attack our country,” he wrote. “We’re here waiting for them, on the moral high ground. We will be victorious.”
Late Thursday, Venezuela’s Attorney General’s office said it was opening an investigation into Maduro’s rival, Juan Guaido, and a former general, Cliver Alcala, for plotting a coup. Alcala, who is in exile in Colombia, was also named in Thursday’s indictment.
The crux of the U.S. court case is that Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, ordered his trusted allies in 2005 to take over the nation’s drug trade. According to an unnamed cooperating witness, Chavez also instructed them to cooperate with the hemispheres’ largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
According to the witness, Chavez argued that the oil-rich nation needed to engage in drug trafficking to help the leftist FARC take over Colombia and to hurt the United States.
That allegation haven’t convinced everyone.
“The U.S. government needed to show that this was an open and shut case, and they didn’t,” said Geoff Ramsey, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. “The evidence they point to against Maduro is something which suggests this is more about politics than about drugs.”
While U.S. Attorney General William Barr claimed that Maduro was trying to “flood” the United States with cocaine, the U.S. government’s own data shows Venezuela is not a principal route for U.S.-bound cocaine, Ramsey said.
“Venezuela’s nowhere close to a primary transit country for U.S. bound cocaine,” he said. “If the U.S. government wanted to address the flow of cocaine they’d focus on corruption in places like Honduras and Guatemala, both governments that the administration has coddled in recent years.”
The new allegations come amid a deep power struggle in Venezuela, in which Guaido, the head of the country’s National Assembly, is trying to force Maduro out of office and hold new elections.
While Guaido is considered the country’s legitimate leader by the United States and more than 50 other countries, he holds little real power in the nation.
Washington has been ratcheting up painful economic sanctions on Venezuela and Thursday’s indictment is simply part of that “maximum pressure” campaign, Farnsworth said.
But if Washington’s ultimate goal is to break the political stalemate and encourage a transition, it’s unclear if the new indictment will do it.
“It is hard to say if it makes a negotiated outcome more or less likely,” Farnsworth said. “We had a negotiation with Noriega… so you could make the case that this actually gives us another tool to negotiate from, but, at the end of the day, it took a U.S. military action in Panama to get rid of him.”
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
Ultimately, the threat of arrest could make Maduro dig in his heels further and scare him away from potential negotiations, Farnsworth said.
Gumbiner, who held high-ranking positions at the U.S. embassies in Cuba, Peru and Honduras, said Thursday’s indictment “will do little to change the situation on the ground in Venezuela.”
“It reinforces the well known fact that the Venezuelan government has participated in and sanctioned narcotics trafficking, but that will not create political momentum to threaten Maduro’s hold on power,” he said. “Unless there is a transition of government that allows for the capture and extradition of the indictees, an unlikely possibility in the near future, the chances of these individuals facing justice in the U.S. is slim.”
©2020 Miami Herald
Visit Miami Herald at www.miamiherald.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194):USVENEZUELA-MADURO