The United States is increasingly concerned about the potential for an economic and political meltdown in Venezuela as a result of a growing political confrontation at a time of triple-digit inflation, widespread food shortages and deterioration of its oil sector, senior U.S. intelligence officials said on Friday.
In a bleak assessment of Venezuela’s worsening crisis, the senior officials in Washington expressed doubt that unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro would allow a recall referendum this year, despite opposition-led protests demanding a vote to decide whether he stays in office.
Since December, when the opposition won legislative elections by a landslide, the country has been wracked by the confrontation.
On Friday, Maduro decreed a “state of exception and economic emergency” giving him expanded powers to deal with the economic crisis.
He declared a 60-day state of emergency due to what he called plots from within the OPEC country and the U.S. to topple his leftist government.
Maduro did not provide details of the measure.
The two officials predicted that Maduro, who heads Latin America’s most ardently anti-U.S. government and a major U.S. oil supplier, was not likely to be able to complete his term, which is due to end after elections in late 2018.
The analysis, based on intelligence they did not share, points to a period of potentially violent political turmoil that will have consequences for international bondholders, oil markets and Venezuela’s neighbors, especially Colombia.
The officials said the main concern for the Obama administration is that the deep political divisions and mounting economic hardships could trigger mayhem of the sort that Caracas experienced in 1989, when at least 300 people were killed during riots, looting and clashes with police against the backdrop of another collapse in oil prices.
They said one “plausible” scenario would be that Maduro’s own party or powerful political figures would force him out and would not rule out the possibility of a military coup. Still, they said there was no evidence of any active plotting or that he had lost support from the country’s generals.
The officials appeared to acknowledge that Washington has little leverage in how the situation unfolds in Venezuela, where any U.S. role draws government accusations of U.S.-aided conspiracies. Instead, the administration of President Barack Obama wants “regional” efforts to help keep the country from sliding into chaos.
“You can hear the ice cracking. You know there’s a crisis coming,” one U.S. official said. “Our pressure on this isn’t going to resolve this issue.”