Venezuela moves targeting opposition, Miami exiles draw ire of Biden administration

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The Biden administration is expressing “deep concerns” about nearly three dozen arrest warrants issued by Venezuela leader Nicolás Maduro to detain critics of his regime including journalists, opposition leaders and former members of the military.

The warrants, the State Department said late Tuesday, are contrary to the electoral deal reached last year in Barbados in which the Venezuelan government agreed to open the electoral process to, among other things, allow opponents to run for office including the presidency.

The announcement was made a day after the regime’s attorney general, Tarek William Saab, claimed that Venezuelan officials had thwarted at least four different plots to overthrow Maduro and that at least 32 people had been arrested since last May.

In announcing the alleged plots to overthrow Maduro, Saab accused members of the Venezuelan community in South Florida, claiming they were involved in the conspiracy. The plot, he said, was orchestrated with the collaboration of “members of a Foreign Intelligence Organization.”

“This foreign organization operates and holds clandestine meetings in the city of Bogotá to recruit members of security agencies of the Venezuelan State,” said Saab. “A CIA military base operates in Colombia, which seeks to attack the political and legal system of Venezuela.”

The State Department did not address Saab’s claims directly but strongly denounced the arrests. The agency said the arrests violated the terms agreed on by the regime and the Venezuelan opposition last October in Barbados, which led to Washington lifting some oil sanctions against Caracas.

“Arrests without due process run contrary to the spirit of the October 2023 electoral roadmap agreement signed between the Unitary Platform and representatives of Nicolás Maduro. We call for the end of politically motivated harassment, including attacks upon opposition campaign offices and all efforts to stifle the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people through fear and intimidation,” the State Department said.

“Actions that run counter to the spirit and the letter of the Barbados Agreement will have consequences. We urge Maduro and his representatives to adhere to the electoral roadmap agreement, including by announcing a clear timeline for the 2024 presidential election, and to reinstate all political candidates,” it added.

Eric Farnsworth, head of the Washington office of the Council of the Americas business association and a former State Department official, says he isn’t isn’t surprised by recent events.

“I just don’t see a path to free and fair elections given current and deteriorating conditions and the challenge the U.S. and international community face in prioritizing Venezuela issues in the midst of other global crises,” he said. “The upshot is that without greater leverage to prompt him to do so, Maduro is highly unlikely to hold free and fair elections this year.”

The U.S. government has been waiting for Caracas’ socialist regime to comply with the commitments it made in a series of negotiations held throughout last year with members of the Biden administration. The talks culminated with the signing in Barbados of two separate accords with opposition leaders to hold presidential elections in the second half of this year. Prior to the signing, representatives of the Biden administration and Maduro had held several meetings over the persistent political and economic crisis that has led millions of Venezuelans to seek refuge in neighboring countries and the United States.

As part of its commitments, the regime agreed to lift bans blocking opposition leaders from running for office, implement deep reforms to the often criticized electoral system, allow international observers to monitor the election and free all political prisoners.

In exchange, the Biden administration granted a six-month general license temporarily authorizing U.S. transactions involving the oil and gas sector in Venezuela, and a second general license authorizing the operations of state-run Minerven, a previously sanctioned gold-mining enterprise that had been trading on the black market.

The U.S. also agreed in December to release from custody and return to Venezuela a key ally and trusted confidante of Maduro, Alex Saab, as part of a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Caracas. In carrying out the transactions, U.S. officials emphasized the electoral commitments made in Barbados that involved prisoners’ release.

The prisoner swap, Biden administration officials said, opens the “door for us to continue to engage in dialogue so that when Venezuela holds elections next year, they are competitive and inclusive, and that will allow Venezuelans to really determine the future of the country.”

Critics charge that the Maduro regime is now going backwards, increasing the number of political prisoners and harassing the presidential campaign of opposition leader María Corina Machado, who according to most polls would easily beat Maduro in a free and fair election.

“Maduro has been on this trajectory since Maria Corina won the opposition primaries, pulling every level and string to delegitimize and complicate her candidacy,” Farnsworth said. “The latest steps are no surprise, part of a strategy of purposeful intimidation against her and her associates.”

Among those arrested this week, Machado said, are two of her campaign managers.

“In the last 24 hours, there are already two coordinators, command heads in two states, who have been kidnapped, who went missing under custody of the regime, and three other coordinators who are being persecuted,” she told journalists late Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, a number of her political party offices found hostile graffiti spray painted on the walls reading “Bolivarian Fury.”

“I want to tell the international community that we have to put a stop to it, stop this madness, because that is what the ‘Bolivarian Fury’ means: aggression, disappearances, persecution and, obviously, it reflects the fear of a regime to measure itself,” Machado said

Saab, the attorney general, has accused alleged conspirators of trying to assassinate Maduro.

“With this conspiracy they wanted to attack the lives of President NM (Nicolás Maduro) and the Minister of Defense VPL (Vladimir Padrino López),” he said on X, formerly Twitter. “This operation would be carried out at the ‘La Viñeta’ Presidential Residence and would be carried out by five citizens currently detained and charged.”

Saab said the regime had issued arrest warrants against the so-called plotters, including members of human rights organizations, journalists, exiled Venezuelan soldiers and leaders of the Venezuelan community in Miami.

Among these is human rights activist Tamara Sujú, who has published numerous reports on the systematic use of torture in Venezuela by security agencies. Sujú resides in Spain.

Two other people who are now wanted by the regime’s security agencies include retired Vice Admiral Mario Carratú Molina and retired National Guard Lieutenant José Antonio Colina, both well-known members of the Venezuelan diaspora in Miami.