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The Trump administration has made no secret of its desire to depose Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro as his country spirals deeper into economic and humanitarian disaster. But earlier in May, a seemingly private operation to invade and kidnap Maduro shocked everyone, it seemed, except Maduro himself. Nick Schifrin reports on the botched attempt and its implications for a country in collapse.
The Trump administration has made no secret of its desire to depose Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, as his country spirals further into economic and humanitarian catastrophe.
But, earlier this month, an operation to invade and kidnap Maduro shocked everyone, it seemed, but Maduro himself.
Nick Schifrin reports on a bizarre botched invasion attempt and the implications for a country in collapse.
The first sign the secret mission wasn't so secret, the Venezuelan military helicopter. As soon as Operation Gideon came ashore, it ran aground, more than a dozen captured, eight killed.
And among the detained?
Two Americans paraded on Venezuela TV.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro showed off their U.S. passports, blamed President Trump, and said the authorities knew about the plot all along.
President Nicolas Maduro (through translator):
They came to Venezuela. We named them. Their little game was revealed.
The mastermind of this misadventure? Jordan Goudreau, whose promotional video shows him as a former Army Green Beret, CEO of a private security firm, and provider of security at a Trump rally.
During the raid, as his men were being captured, he posted a video with his Venezuelan co-conspirator.
At 1700 hours, a daring amphibious raid was launched from the border of Colombia deep into the heart of Caracas.
And in a Skype interview with a Venezuelan news organization, Goudreau bragged about how he'd been training for a year.
Are you familiar with Alexander the Great? The Battle of Gaugamela, completely outnumbered, he struck deep into the heart of the enemy, and that's how he won.
Secretary Mike Pompeo:
There was no U.S. government direct involvement in this operation. If we'd have been involved, it would have gone differently.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied the administration knew, as did Venezuelans interviewed by "PBS NewsHour."
But the Trump administration has waged a diplomatic campaign to oust Maduro, announcing criminal charges and a $15 million reward for his capture in March.
Attorney General William Barr:
Maduro and his other defendants have betrayed the Venezuelan people and corrupted Venezuela's institutions.
And in February 2019 in Miami, President Trump urged Venezuelans to rise up.
President Donald Trump:
Let your people go. Set your country free. Now is the time for all Venezuelan patriots to act together as one united people.
The centerpiece of the administration's campaign is Juan Guaido, whom dozens of countries call Venezuela's rightful president.
As part of Guaido's effort to overthrow Maduro, he turned to Miami-based Venezuelan consultant J.J. Rendon, who's usually focused on politics.
And when you talk about how Juan Guaido wanted you to use all options or explore all options, what does that mean?
He specifically say, all options are all under and over the table. We're exploring — and he's used the word exploring, that is accurate — every option.
We have, according to our Constitution, the mandate, not the right. Every Venezuelan, invested or not in power, have the duty to do whatever in his power to recover a state of freedom and democracy.
Last year, Rendon hired Goudreau and agreed to this 42-page $200 million agreement designed to be paid with Maduro's money.
The plan was to capture, detain, remove Nicolas Maduro with a quick reaction force of Venezuelans. Their operations had to minimize incidental injury to civilians and use force that was necessary and proportional.
It said, "Use of all types of conventional weapons is permitted."
But Rendon said he quickly grew skeptical and cut ties to Goudreau last October, after paying Goudreau's expenses.
We back off. And we didn't like the guy to keep talking to us anymore. There were some red flags, too. I told him, look, if you have some expenses, I will pay myself. And I did. So, we said, OK, you have that; $50,000 is good for you? Fine. Bye.
Guaido denied any personal knowledge of the operation and shifted the blame to Maduro.
Juan Guiado (through translator):
We have nothing to do with any company, for obvious and evident reasons. But we have to make it very clear right now, nothing the usurper can say will change the reality and the situation that our country is going through.
Venezuela is suffering from debilitating inflation, a humanitarian disaster, and worries about a COVID-19 outbreak. Maduro used arrested American Luke Denman…
I was helping Venezuelans take back control.
… and Airan Berry…
What were the objectives of the mission?
I believe it was to get Maduro.
… to shift the focus to condemning the Trump administration.
Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo were directly behind this. It was a contract ordered by the State Department as a covert operation against Venezuela.
Goudreau launched the operation even after Colombia intercepted some of his weapons. He didn't reply to "PBS NewsHour" requests for comment.
The opposition and Trump administration officials believe Maduro might co-opted the operation.
There was a push for some patriots to get slaughtered and killed to stage a theater and victimize himself in the middle of the worst moment of my country. Sorry about that.
On Monday, after 20 years in the Venezuelan opposition, Rendon resigned as an unpaid adviser to Guaido.
Spiritually, let's say, in myself, yes, I will love to go back in time, not talk to him, and not be related to this craziness, and the sacrifice of people like slaughter.
The Trump administration and Guaido are trying to ensure the botched operation doesn't derail their campaign.
And Maduro, whether puppet master of the operation or its target, remains firmly in power.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Ali Rogin is a correspondent for PBS News Weekend and a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
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